There’s a nasty dispute brewing at Open Country Cheese involving a six week lockout threat, some highly aggressive anti-union PR, calls for the Government to gut labour laws and major links between the company and senior National Party figures. It’s early days yet, but this could be a big one.
Open Country Cheese was founded by former National Party deputy leader Wyatt Creech and the Dairy Investment Fund, which other Nats have interests in, including John Key with a not insubstantial stake of 1.46 million shares. It’s also linked to Kaimai, another company National MPs own shares in.
The major players though, are the infamous Talleys, who are possibly the worst employers in New Zealand. As The Standard has documented, they’re the ones of Hollow Men fame who offered Don Brash $1 million in 2005 through a phoney front group to ‘avoid any declarations of political party funding’, then lent him their helicopter for the campaign. They ran a high profile campaign with National’s Anne Tolley to try and avoid a $1 million contractual obligation to the taxpayer over their ACC bills, and secretly funded Tim Shadbolt’s anti-EFA campaign.
Last year they were fined $110,000 and forced to pay $33,000 reparations for recklessly subjecting eleven workers at their Blenheim plant to carbon monoxide poisoning. And before that they were subject to, and eventually lost, a landmark sexual discrimination case over their refusal to let a woman work as a fish-filleter because she wasn’t a man. Andrew Talley decribed this ruling as ‘pathetic’ and a ‘joke’ and suggested women were better suited to being pole dancers.
Now they’ve got their hands in the dairy industry they’re trying to casualise this workforce by setting up a sham employment agency, turning their workers into low-wage temps and trying to bust the Dairy Workers Union by issuing a six week lockout notice. Anyone who leaves the union will be allowed to return to work.
The company has hired a highly priced PR firm, Lindenberg & Partners of Remuera, to spread misinformation, paint the union (which hasn’t had a strike in 20 years) as militant wreckers and demand the removal of the right to strike in the dairy industry.
To get a taste of their tactics, the company’s PR firm last week issued a press release falsely accusing the union of colluding with Fonterra to try and destroy the company, which they quickly withdrew claiming it was issued in error. They’ve also accused the union of taking ‘wildcat’ strike action despite the fact the union gave two weeks’ notice of their intention to strike.
The company has also claimed workers are demanding a 46% pay rise, which they then revised to 26%, then 15% and are now just hurling insults. The truth is there is no wage claim on the table. This is about workers standing up to an attempt to casualise their work and reduce their job security by standing together through their union.
That’s the core of this dispute, which I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the near future. If it gets to a six week lockout this could be bigger than the Progressive dispute. Given the company’s strong links with the National Party and the Prime Minister’s significant shareholding I’d like to think common sense will prevail before it gets to that stage.
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Fun fact: By a quirk of law, cheese is considered an essential industry (Muldoon wrote the list) which is why the Dairy Workers Union and Open Country Cheese had to give the long period of two weeks notice of their respective intentions to strike and lock out.