NZ pulp and paper workers fight back
By Ian Powell
WELLINGTON — Although there have been pockets of determined resistance since the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in May 1991, in general workers have been on the back foot, suffering significant pay cuts and erosion of employment rights and conditions.
In the absence of negotiating rights, workers were left with only the right to strike under very restricted legal circumstances. At a time of high unemployment and the capacity to use strike breakers, many workers are reluctant to use this right.
However, pulp and paper workers have taken the initiative and have been prepared to stand up to their employer in what is becoming a central working-class struggle.
The bitter dispute is with the Carter Holt Harvey corporate group, which dominates the pulp and paper industry in New Zealand. More recently the company has had a new shareholder, a US multinational called International Paper, with a history of union-busting. The US chief executive of International Paper has been seconded to Carter Holt Harvey.
Workers in the four sites (Te Papa, Kinleith, Whakatane and Mataura) have been trying to negotiate a collective employment contract for almost a year. The employer unilaterally broke off negotiations on June 8, leaving the workers with no option, unless they were to concede completely, but to go on strike.
In addition to attempts to cut conditions, a major issue is the determination of the company to demand four separate site contracts, instead of one common contract, in order to weaken the workers' ability to defend their wages, jobs and conditions.
Since the breakdown of negotiations the employer has attempted to sign up workers individually, bypassing their negotiators even though these workers had authorised their union to bargain collectively for them. The company has also attempted to enforce 250 redundancies with no rights of negotiation over who, when, or where. It has attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring in non-union labour to do striking workers' jobs.
Although the workers live in small towns with high rates of unemployment, they are determined to hold together in order to force the company back into negotiations. The unity of the pulp and paper workers, with the support of many others, has so far prevented the company from using strike breakers despite attempts to do so.
The Council of Trade Unions, which has sometimes been criticised for not acting positively and quickly enough in such disputes, is organising a solidarity and fundraising campaign throughout the 5D>