We support the Maritime Union: on the Ports of Auckland strikes.

Strike action continues at the Ports of Auckland, after moves by the Board of the Ports of Auckland to axe jobs, outsource work to contractors and turn permanent staff into casual staff. These strikes, organised by the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) are the first on the docks in four years and the largest closure since the 1951 waterfront lockout. MUNZ members are fighting for conditions essential to healthy lives – regular hours and secure work – and their fight is one all workers have an interest in supporting.

Many similarities can be found between this an earlier waterfront struggles, even in the political tactics used by the government to deregulate, privatise and cutback.

A Struggle against Casualisation

The existing collective agreement, which expired in September was designed to secure a certain percentage of permanent workers and to keep casual employments at 25% of workforce. At the basic pay rate of $27 an hour, a permanent stevedore works 260 8 hour shifts a year for $57,000. Overtime is common because the Port doesn’t employ enough permanent staff, and workers have to be available around the clock, on public holidays, and weekends. In theory, a stevedore could earn the mythic $90,000 that the Port talks about, but it would only be by working 64 hours a week, every week. Work on the wharf often involves unsocial hours, time away from family and friends, and difficult labour – the lies of the Port, repeated all too often in the media, are a side show. The wharfies fight is the fight of every worker who wants to resist casualisation.

Forget the myths. Far from being unskilled, easy work with plenty of breaks, port work is still dangerous. Three workers were killed at Tauranga, the so-called model port, last year. It is also highly skilled work, with many wharfies having multiple qualifications.

Ports of Auckland is actually highly profitable; last year the workers at the port increased productivity by 4.1%. So the current dispute is about management demanding the right to exploit them even more! The board members of the Ports of Auckland are trying to drive the union from the port by removing the restrictions on the employment of casual workers, guaranteed shifts or hours, giving workers no choice at all about days off, and they are reducing break times to minimum requirements. The port is offering a 10% wage hourly pay increase, but the offer is also to give contracts out to at least 3 private contractors, and, in this deal, no-one will receive an increase in pay due to the reduced hours. This is a blatant attack on the union in order to move it toward the “more efficient Tauranga model.” The workers are demanding their current work rights and a 2.5% pay increase.

Tauranga: a model of ‘efficient’ divide-and-rule

The Port of Tauranga is privately owned. In around 1989 after a bitter prolonged industrial dispute, the Port was successful is dividing up its workforce into competing contractors. The Port itself owns a stevedoring company, it employs some of its owns stevedores and it has four private companies also available to carry out the stevedoring work. The workers at the Port of Tauranga know that they are in competition with each other. Those prepared to take less pay, to cut corners, to be more “flexible” (that is, turn up as and when required with no guarantee of work) get the work. Two of the companies even formed their own unions to ensure MUNZ were kept out. Workers join the inhouse union rather than joining MUNZ or the RMTU, for fear of adverse employment consequences. This is a mirror of the 1951 waterfront lockout even down to the tactics used by business to force a wedge into the workforce. This all arises because each of the six main ports are in competition with each other. They are able to force down the rate per container while the infrastructure is being subsidised by tax and rate payers, or competitive contracting.

The natural result of workers being divided in the workforce is lower wages, little security of employment and the high accident record. This result is praised in academic and industry journals: it is what the bosses mean when they talk about ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity.’

A Wider Bosses’ Offensive

Exports are essential for an island-based capitalism like New Zealand’s, and the smooth (and profitable) flow of commodities from the farm to the market is an obsession of our rulers. When Canterbury Meat Processing locked out its workers for 65 days to extort a 20% wage cut out of them, the media and the business ‘community’ didn’t say a word in protest. These cuts to workers’ rights and pay in these sectors serve a purpose. The government is trying to increase the rates of profit for the export industry. This, combined with proposed massive expansion in dairy farming, make clear the National government’s economic plan.

Ports Of Auckland released a statement stating that strike action, planned for the 31st of January is “highly irresponsible” and says it strengthens their resolve to sack unionised workers. But MUNZ have indicated that they will not be intimidated, and more strike action is planned. If wharfies can win against plans for further casualisation, this could give confidence to workers in other industries – like fast foods – where casualisation and the roster system weakens union strength.

MUNZ are standing up for their rights. It’s up to the rest of us to stand with them.

Lessons from 1951

The 1951 waterfront lockout was one of the greatest confrontations in NZ working-class history. This brief overview shows its parallels with the struggle today.

New Zealand, like most islands, is geared towards an export economy. What is produced here is shipped overseas. New Zealand capitalism developed around primary produce – farming, forestry, meat and wool – and was dependent on the export of wool, meat and dairy products in exchange the import of fertilisers, machinery and manufactured goods.

The New Zealand Government and exporters were so keen to avoid disruption to trade, that the prices set by international shipping firms – often at astonishing rates by the cartels – were accepted fairly passively. Accordingly shipping company profits were consistently high, though of course the shipping companies refused to open their books to show their true costs when negotiating freight charges. Among the costs was the wharf infrastructure in New Zealand, which the British shipping lines were largely responsible for financing. But because the freight charges were based on cost-plus (where the longer it took to unload a ship the more the shipping companies charged), shipping companies had no incentive to improve efficiency by investing in wharf facilities. The wharves, then, have always been workplace where speed was central to the bosses’ profits, and where everything was subordinated to getting goods out to international markets. Health and safety on the wharves was appalling. Exactly how bad it was is difficult to say, because no accident statistics were compiled for the wharves until 1937.

Conditions in the ships holds were particularly hazardous. Men were injured and killed when goods fell out of the slings that were used to hoist goods out of the holds. And there was little protection from the toxic dust of products such as lime and the fertilisers guano and basic slag (a by-product of steel-making, high in phosphates), all of which the wharfies were expected to shovel by hand in the holds.  Work in meat-freezer holds could lead to kidney failure.  Wharfies were not issued with protective clothing to work in the freezers, apart from sacking to wrap around their feet, mainly to protect the carcasses they were standing on, and a brief experiment with jerseys.

Such was the importance of the wharves for the New Zealand economy the government tolerated health and safety standards that fell well short of those applied to factories. In addition to the heavy work and dangerous conditions, until 1937 there was no job security. Men were expected to present themselves for work each morning with no guarantee of employment for a working day which could vary from two hours to twelve or more. Consequently, trade union militants were easy to victimise.  And men often had to bribe the foremen to secure employment.

Whatever the victimisation, though, workplace conditions led to resistance, and wharfies realised it was up to themselves to fight to improve their working terms and conditions.  Because of the casual nature of the work, worker resistance usually took the form of informal on-the-job tactics rather all-out strikes.  The wharfies carried the memory of the all-out strike of 1913, which had been defeated due to the use of scab labour.

By 1951 some important gains had been made through industrial action around health and safety and, fearing public sympathy for the wharfies, the shipping companies picked a dispute over wages for their showdown. They wanted to deal with the increasing disruptions to work on the waterside, by making a showdown with the union with the help of the National Party government. The dispute ended up lasting 151 days.

While most workers had recently got a 15% pay rise awarded by government arbitration, this did not cover the wharves.  The shipping companies offered the wharfies 9%.  Given that the main problem for the wharfies was no longer so much a shortage of work as too much work, with working weeks routinely being doubled with overtime to make ends meet, the 9% offer was deliberately provocative. Working such long hours (often 15-hour days) and given this paltry offer, the wharfies refused to work overtime in protest and the employers locked them out. With their continuing super-profitability, the shipping companies could easily have paid the wharfies the 15%.

Instead, as the shipping companies had hoped, the timing of the dispute at the peak of the economically important export season led the government to pose the dispute as an issue of the authority of the state.  From that point onwards, the shipping companies became almost invisible in the public eye, even when they slapped a 50% surcharge on the freight rates to compensate for earnings lost as a result of the dispute, giving them higher than average profits for the year 1951.

The government stepped in with a heavy boot. The national government, led by Sidney Holland introduced emergency regulations and brought in the navy and army to work the wharves. Holland condemned the action as “industrial anarchy” and declared a state of emergency. These draconian laws imposed rigid censorship, gave police sweeping powers of search and arrest and made it an offense to assist strikers – even giving food to the wives and children of striking workers was outlawed.

Strikers’ families had to survive with no income, and it was illegal for anyone to help them. The regulations applied to children too. In Wellington’s Clifton Terrace Primary School, strikers’ children were separated from other pupils during playtime in case they illegally shared their lunches.

These oppressive measures were a part of a concerted international anti-union offensive on the part of the capitalist state. The emergency regulations were just some of the worst of the anti-union laws that were being enacted in several countries at around the same time, including the Taft-Hartley law in the States and the Crimes Act in Australia.

The Labour Party stayed mostly silent for the dispute, and when finally after a month of silence Walter Nash, the Labour leader, was banned under the emergency regulations from speaking at a public meeting in Auckland on April 25th, 1951. Two other Labour MPs were banned from speaking at meetings of their constituents.

But after 151 days, the national strike committee voted to return to work. The lockout was heavily undermined by scab labour and the split of Federation of Labour due to the strike-breaking activities of the federation’s executive, who deregistered the Waterside Workers Union and seized the union’s funds. As a result of this loss against the government the Waterside Workers Union had to be dissolved into separate unions for each port.

This historical snippet of our labour history almost parallels the present day in a number of ways and is key to learning what the difficulties are in this labour struggle. In the present day, the Port of Auckland has created this crisis for itself by attempting to cut the workers’ conditions and pay. The Labour party and David Shearer have been missing in action. The Maritime Union’s traditions of militancy and solidarity make it a target for National and the bosses.