by Philip Ferguson
Among the workers who will be turning out in Auckland on Saturday to support the Ports of Auckland wharfies will be many firefighters. And not just from Auckland – firefighters from as far afield as Christchurch will be taking part in the protest rally. Mike McEnany, the president of the Auckland branch of the Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU), points out that “The actions of the port company in this particular dispute virtually mirror those of the NZ Fire Service who in a similar vain, with the backing of the National Government in 1996, tried to sack all firefighters in an attempt to force them on an individual contract. We’re seriously concerned that the Fire Service at the moment is positioning itself to attempt the same sort of despicable stunt with firefighters – no doubt with the backing of the current National government.”
The NZPFU has been taking industrial action for several months now in pursuit of a new contract with decent pay rises and without attempts to enforce so-called flexible rostering which is essentially a way to get out of paying overtime rates – even though overtime is essential to top up pay for many firefighters whose basic rate is not much above the minimum wage. (For an account of the firefighters’ current battle read here). Union national secretary Derek Best points out that the new rostering proposed by the Fire Service bosses would mean that firefighters would be expected to be available pretty much on-call, thereby disrupting their and their families’ lives.
Recently the union stepped up its industrial action by removing the exemption from the ban on the use of computer keyboards or computer mouse, for those responsible for rostering while that member is carrying out rostering responsibilities. The union has also had to deal with the fact that some Executive Officers, who are members of the Executive Officers Society have been undertaking work banned as a result of NZPFU industrial action. Because of the nature of their work, firefighters feel they can’t just walk off the job, so their industrial action is limited to boycotting certain types of work and it’s essential that other people in the Fire Service don’t take on that work.
Derek Best has also noted that it might be time for workers to organise wider protests about what is happening. “We all seem to be pretty much in the same boat one way or the other,” he says and, while there are differences between current disputes like the firefighters, Ports of Auckland, Oceania and others, “there are enough similarities to join forces.”
This suggestion certainly needs to be taken up. If we keep fighting individual defensive battles, we’re not going to get anywhere. The time for workers to take the offensive is long overdue.