Public support for wharfies

by Daphna Whitmore

The auditorium of the Trades Hall in Auckland was full with activists and unionists tonight. We were there to hear about the current Ports of Auckland waterfront dispute from the Maritime Union (MUNZ).

Garry Parsloe, MUNZ’s National President, is a seafarer. They have a strong union tradition. They are, in fact, 100 percent union. As Garry put it: “You can’t get up a gang plank of a ship without being in the union. The employer recognises the union as the source of labour”.

Union membership among wharfies is also high. On the Auckland waterfront there are 600 workers, all bar 17 are in the union. Until recently there were only three non-union workers but the company got to a few more recently with promises of permanent positions and a 10 percent pay rise if they’d leave the union.

The dispute began a few years back when the management started contracting out shuttle jobs. The union fought it and the management backed off. But it wasn’t over; Tony Gibson, the Port’s CEO, and his board have an agenda to smash the union and casualise the port operations. Read the background in the MUNZ fact sheet here.

There’s a madness about Gibson’s and the Board’s plans. They are demanding 12% returns on investments – sheer fantasy land stuff – and so too is their dream of a highly-efficient wharf staffed with casual labour.

The wharf is right now one of the most efficient in the region, shifting a container off a ship and onto the wharf in 1 minute 40 seconds. So impressive was the productivity last year the bosses paid bonuses and put on celebrations for all the workers. Now they are shrieking: ‘greedy wharfies, evil wharfies’. Russell Mayne, the union’s Assistant General Secretary, told the meeting: “It’s like it’s a crime to have a decent job these days”. These skilled workers are being paid $27 an hour, a rather modest sum when measured against the CEO’s $750,000 salary.

Much has been made of the Maersk shipping line moving to the Tauranga port, but this had been planned for months, and isn’t about the dispute said Garry Parsloe, it’s just management spin. Maersk has gone to Tauranga to deal with cargo from nearby Waikato. As for all the talk about Fonterra moving to Tauranga, that port cannot handle all of that cargo and more ships are now moving from Tauranga to Auckland’s port.

Wharf work is dangerous, and you have to have skilled workers driving the gear. On the Auckland wharf there are about 150 full-timers, some 50 or so part-timers who are guaranteed 24 hours a week, and 100 casuals. So the company clearly already has enough casuals to have loads of flexibility.

Russell Mayne pointed out that you could easily run the port without that many casuals, and not lose any profit, but the schedulers keep the casuals “lean and hungry by not giving them enough shifts”. Some have been casuals working 4-5 shifts a week for 17 years. (MUNZ have fought for years to get casuals made permanent.) The Tauranga Port runs on a casual workforce and has had three deaths in the past three years in contrast to Auckland which hasn’t had any deaths in that period.

MUNZ are members of the International Transport Federation (ITF), which has around 700 affiliated unions from 150 countries. Garry Parsloe is an ITF convenor and says there is solid support from the Federation and it can be called upon. The ITF resolved after the Liverpool dockers lost a battle against casualisation in 1998 never to let that happen again. They say they’ll rally to the watersiders in New Zealand.

Garry Parsloe explained: If a scab handles a ship, that ship it will be “blacked” and sent back to the port of origin. Shipowners understand this well. During a recent strike, shipowners said the scabs weren’t to touch the ship; another ship didn’t even call into the port when the strike was on. One ship that came into port had a sign hanging over the side saying “Piss off scabs”.

Some at tonight’s  meeting were disappointed that the Labour Party has sat on the fence through this dispute. It should come as no surprise. As Matt McCarten from Unite union quipped “they are neither for nor against”, a reference to Labour’s betrayal of the watersiders in the 1951 lockout. (See The Truth About Labourand the interview with Jock Barnes, part one and part two.)

Green MP Denise Roche said the Greens support the MUNZ workers for economic, environmental and social reasons. They are fighting privatisation “and the Greens want to increase coastal shipping and keep it regulated” she said, citing the Rena disaster.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, President of Actors Equity, got up to thank the wharfies. She said that in 2010 when the actors had their dispute (with Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers) the MUNZ members came along and gave support and provided security at a meeting. She was happy to be able to publicly thank them for their support. She said she’d never forget one MUNZ member getting up and saying “actors are workers too!”

MUNZ want the public to know what this dispute is about. The CTU are helping to publicise the issue and will deliver leaflets to every house in Auckland.

No one doubts the importance of this fight. As Garry Parsloe put it: casualisation is like a cancer that spreads.


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