By Ian Powell
WELLINGTON — The major industrial dispute is under way between the recently privatised New Zealand Rail company and the ferry crews it employs. NZ Rail operates the ferries that ship passengers, vehicles and freight between New Zealand's North and South islands. The ferry crews are covered by three unions — of ferry masters, seafarers (including cooks and stewards) and marine engineers.
NZ Rail, previously a state-owned public utility, was sold by the Bolger National Party government to Wisconsin Central, a United States company, in 1993.
The dispute began when NZ Rail announced proposals to reduce ferry workers' wages by doubling the hours they worked and laying off 246 workers. This was to be achieved by reducing leave and conditions, disestablishing jobs to create phoney redundancies and offering to re-employ some workers on individual contracts.
For a limited period the ferry workers were protected by their collective employment contracts. These expired on April 30, and since that time the dispute has escalated.
NZ Rail demonstrated its antagonism towards the ferry workers by organising a massive public relations blitz in which it exaggerated and misrepresented their employment conditions.
The dispute took a nasty turn when the company announced that it was going to lock out the ferry workers from May 23. In addition, it planned to employ scab labour to run the ferries, recruited from among New Zealand's unemployed and from overseas.
The workers responded by announcing industrial action from the same date. The unions then also sought an injunction from the Employment Court prohibiting the lockout on the grounds of technical deficiencies in the lockout notices. To the surprise of some commentators, this application was successful, the court ordering that the notices be withdrawn.
The decision caught NZ Rail by surprise. It had begun the dispute clearly looking for a total victory. But, although supported by the government, it was rocked by a combination of strong opposition from the ferry workers, support for them from the rest of the labour movement, support from the Alliance led by Jim Anderton, currently the country's most popular politician, and the successful legal action. The Labour Party has given more muted support to the ferry workers but has been compromised by the fact that NZ Rail's advocate is Richard Prebble, a Labour MP until the 1993 general election.
The dispute has now gone back to the negotiating table; in response to the withdrawal of lockout notices, the unions withdrew their strike action. Nevertheless, the dispute could flare up in a major way at any time. NZ Rail is expected to reissue lockout notices and declare some workers redundant.
The dispute has become the most significant industrial struggle since the passing of the anti-union Employment Contracts Act in 1991.