Local resident Edna Welthorpe reviews the ructions breaking out at Lyttelton over the hike in Port Company CEO Peter Davie’s pay, three workplace deaths at the port in the past year, and the company’s attempt to hold down workers’ wages

Peter Davie

Port Company boss Peter Davie: presiding over three workplace deaths in 12 months no obstacle to big salary increase and bonus

According to veteran journalist Gordon Campbell, the news on Wednesday that Lyttelton Port CEO Peter Davie was awarded an 18% pay increase, taking his overall ‘package’ to $1.2m, reached the status of a ‘scandal’ less than 48 hours after it was announced.  The Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) is currently battling to get the company to agree to a CPI-plus rise for its 200 members.

There was certainly a fair bit of media coverage,  particularly on Radio New Zealand, where Kathryn Ryan ran the story as an introduction to her Nine to Noon slot and Jim Mora mentioned it in the context of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level and Picketty’s Capital on The Panel during the afternoon. The latter was notable for Rosemary McLeod saying that the RMTU, who appeared to have started the media snowball rolling,  “seemed to be one of the few unions that are left” – I don’t think the pun was intended. TV3 interviewed the local union branch president Andy Kelly, who struck just the right tone between righteous anger and quiet working class authenticity. Even the notoriously conservative Christchurch Press, which normally presents this sort of thing as a natural phenomenon, like the sun rising in the east, seemed to exhibit some qualms.

Former London Investment Banker Raj Manji, now a Christchurch City Councillor, was interviewed along with the RMTU Organiser John Kerr by Katherine Ryan. Any British listeners would doubtless have been chortling at the stereotypical accents on display, Manji’s plummy enunciation making him sound like a Guards Officer, while Kerr’s flat Mancunian vowels sounded like those of a corporal from a rather unfashionable regiment. And therein  is the rub – what made this story unusual was the fact it seemed to resonate with commentators from varying social and political backgrounds. Even the Labour Party climbed aboard the bandwagon.

Jim Mora commented that this sort of thing had been going on for a while – CEOs being paid scandalously high salaries – and asked  rather plaintively whether the ‘revolt’ had begun?

Of course it hasn’t, but there must be a few well-heeled bosses thinking that Lyttelton Port cocked this one up. Two facts will have caused the boss class concern; three deaths on the Lyttelton waterfront in the last twelve months, and the union has just started pay talks.

For the New Zealand middle classes wharfies are the barbarians at the gates; bourgeois mythology casts them as militant and lazy philistines who have their hands on the throat of commerce and by virtue of this they earn more than primary school teachers and nurses – ‘deserving’ workers in feminised professions that are difficult to demonise.

The fact is that wharfies in New Zealand are not particularly militant – unless you count actually being in a union as being militant. Given that only one in five workers in this country are unionised that may be the sad truth these days, and the irony is of course that nurses and primary school teachers are as unionised as wharfies. It’s just that the former tend not to have flat Northern English vowels and wear blue overalls when they front up to the TV cameras.

The dreadful health and safety record at Lyttelton Port seems to have cracked the stereotypes wide open however; the public have seen a different side to the wharfies – fathers, brothers, husbands and volunteers in their communities. It’s going to be just that bit harder to demonise them as greedy philistines if pay talks get tricky. Add to the mix that at long last the union seems to getting more effective at getting its message out to the public and things could get interesting to say the least.

What’s brewing on the waterfront in Lyttelton is a potent mix of righteous anger and quiet determination, coupled with a set of circumstances that makes conflict seem almost inevitable – a government bent on further pegging back workers’ rights; a city council under pressure to sell off assets to fix its financial problems; a management that has raised workers’ wage expectations by delivering this substantial increase to Davie ; and a public that has a growing sympathy for the men who do dangerous work in all weathers around the clock to keep the waterfront working.

It could be a long hot summer in Lyttelton.  Here’s hoping!

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