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   Vol.65/No.7            February 19, 2001 
 
 
Pickets on the waterfront oppose union-busting drive in New Zealand
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BY ANNALUCIA VERMUNT  
NELSON, New Zealand--Up to 250 waterfront workers and supporters picketed here January 2325 when the ship Eastern Forest berthed at the Port of Nelson to take on a load of logs. This was the largest action to date in a three-month fight by members of the Waterfront Workers Union to defend union jobs and conditions on the wharves.

Workers from several other South Island ports joined the picket line, as well as six members of the Maritime Union of Australia and a representative of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union of Australia.

The timber company Carter Holt Harvey (CHH) has contracted an antiunion outfit, Mainland Stevedoring, to load its logs at South Island ports. It claims the stevedoring company uses "innovative techniques" that are "more efficient."

Mainland has flown staff in from Tauranga, in the North Island, to load the ships. These workers are not members of the Waterfront Workers Union. Recently Mainland formed its own company union, the Amalgamated Stevedores Union, in an attempt to paint the dispute as an "inter-union conflict."

Workers interviewed on the picket line here January 24 explained the threat to jobs and conditions of work these moves represent. Mainland uses three or four fewer people to load a ship and does not use a "hatchman" to coordinate work on the vessel and ensure workers are safe. Logs are one of the most dangerous cargoes to load, they explained. Carter Holt's use of Mainland also means a loss of existing work and the increasing conversion of jobs on the wharves from permanent to casual.

Charles, a casual laborer with the local Stevedoring Services (Nelson), said he had been working six days a month, "but this will affect me an average of two days a month, so that is a big cut. I've been casual for 11 years and still haven't been offered permanent part-time work," he said. "The waterfront has changed heaps in the last 11 years. We never used to work 24 hours, now we do and we get nothing extra for it."

Another worker, Phil Cornwall, told the January 27 New Zealand Herald, "If CHH get what they want, and that seems to be total casualisation, they put pressure on our company. What they are doing is driving down our wages and conditions. They could dump me easily and it wouldn't cost them a thing."

Many of the ports involved are in depressed provincial areas. Ray Fife, secretary of the Waterfront Workers Union in Bluff, located on the southern tip of the South Island, told the Southland Times, "The commercial reality is by getting Mainland, there could be no permanent [waterside] jobs in Bluff."

In Nelson, up to 50 police escorted the nonunion workers through the picket line at each shift change. Using a "flying wedge," they surrounded the truck carrying the Mainland staff, pushing protesting waterfront workers aside. At one point police attempted to provoke protesters by sending a "wedge" right into the picket to arrest a man they claimed had assaulted a cop. Even though the union has maintained an approach of organizing peaceful and disciplined protests, police arrested four pickets over three days. Cops have also sought to slander the union pickets as being violent, claiming drunkenness on the picket line. Workers on the picket line said no one involved in pickets over January 2325 had been drinking.

As the dispute has become an increasingly important issue in politics here, the New Zealand government has sought to push the parties into mediation. Margaret Wilson, the minister of labour, told National Radio, "You balance that right that people have, who are trying to protect their jobs--and their communities are supporting them as I understand it--with the employer's right to be able to use whatever stevedore they like at a price they think is suitable. There are two equal competing rights here."

The Press, the largest South Island daily newspaper, pointed out in a January 26 editorial that this "is the first major industrial conflict since the new Employment Relations Act" was passed last year. The Press welcomed reports that "the dispute is heading towards mediation."

A January 27 editorial in the Auckland-based New Zealand Herald, on the other hand, dismissed the usefulness of mediation in the dispute. Instead it urged the government "to stand up and provide leadership" on the side of the antiunion forces.

The Waterfront Workers Union has agreed to enter mediation with Mainland Stevedoring and CHH, but the union's national secretary said the union would continue protests during the talks. About 80 members of the Waterfront Workers and supporters joined a picket at Bluff January 29, where the ship the Century Forest arrived to be loaded with logs for Carter Holt Harvey.

Annalucia Vermunt is a member of the Meat Workers Union in Christchurch.  
 
 
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