In what has been described as New Zealand's most high-profile and bitter industrial dispute since the early 1990s, waterside workers went back to work, after a four-week strike. Auckland's port company agreed to end its lockout of 235 workers on March 30, and pay workers a week's wages for being illegally locked out.
The New Zealand Herald reported that Maritime Union president Garry Parsloe told a huge workers' meeting: “You'll all go back to your jobs and until you go back you'll all get paid.
“Everything we have done has fallen into place, thanks to your solidarity.”
The backdown came after employment court judge Barry Travis ordered an injunction temporarily halting Ports of Auckland’s contracting process.
Yet the dispute has only reached the end of its first round. TV3 said the workers were back to where they started before the contract negotiations broke down and the first strike was called on September 30.
Ports chairman Richard Pearson said the company's process of restructuring, union redundancies and contracting was “bulletproof”, but had stepped back from their “take no prisoners” approach. Pearson became more involved in the dispute as CEO Tony Gibson became an increasingly discredited spokesperson.
Gibson claimed the backdown was in response to pressure from clients further down the supply chain, who were hurting from the dispute. He did not mention the company's impact on locked out workers, who held out with no pay to win the dispute. At every stage in the struggle Gibson has made unbelievable and partisan statements that were largely ignored or treated with scepticism by the media.
He said Ports of Auckland was still looking to make the port “modern and efficient” and the process of contracting out jobs has been “put on hold”. The Maritime Union of New Zealand has a firm stance against contracting out the workforce, but Gibson has said: “This cannot continue. Work practices at the Container Port must be customer focused, flexible and modern.”
But in a clear public exposure of the cracks forming in the management, Ports of Auckland board member Robert Campbell resigned from the board just before the dispute ended. Campbell was once an economist for the Federation of Labour and organised against the neoliberal policies of the previous Labour government.
He soon after became one of the most successful and respected venture capitalists in the country, sitting on many company boards, gaining a reputation for canniness and acumen.
After his resignation, he said: “My position as a board member is untenable given the strong difference of view that I have with Ports of Auckland's position and strategy.”
It is unclear what this means for the waterfront struggle, but the question has to asked: “What is going to change at the negotiating table this time round?”
Casualisation and contracting are not new or modern forms of employer control of the workplace.
At the turn of the 20th century, workers on the Auckland waterfront would have to wait for up to two hours to know whether they had work. If not they would head home with empty pockets and return the next day to wait again.
Any attempt to build a union was difficult. Militant workers were unlikely to gain regular work. Luck didn’t run the wharves, the employers and their lackeys did. The struggle to build the waterfront union around the country, arm-in-arm with attempts to build unions in the mining, labouring and other industries, was built on sweat, suffering and, in the case of Fred Evans in Waihi in 1912, blood.
Since the bosses' victories in the 1980s, in a general offensive against workers' conditions and unions, the union movement in New Zealand has been in retreat.
But unions such as Unite have begun organising the “unorganisable” in the retail sector. And the recent efforts of the meatworkers in the CMP/ANZCO lockout offensive, aged-care workers refusing to accept a below-inflation pay offer and the wharfies forcing the port authority back to the table has worried various sectors of industry.
Conor O’Brien said in the National Business Review that the port's backdown “has all the hallmarks of a turning tide in generally peaceful labour relations as unions signal their determination to return to worker domination of essential industries”. This refers to the first generalised stirrings of resistance against the unending march of casualisation and attacks on conditions that have been in process since the 1980s.
Donations and solidarity were a hallmark of this struggle. The Maritime Union of Australia donated $100,000 to the fighting fund. MUA secretary Paddy Crumlin, in his role as president of the International Transport Federation, came out vocally in support of the union and the workers at the announcement of the return to work.
This attack was stopped, but it has not ended. More international solidarity is needed and there are important lessons to be learnt from this struggle.