Unionism is all about the realisation that an individual worker is always replaceable and, so, at the mercy of the bosses but, united, workers can exercise market power to get a fair deal. This has always been most evident in dangerous, physical industries – where you depend on the person beside you for your life.
The wharfs are one of the homes of unionism for this reason. And wharfie unions, due to the nature of their work, have always been particularly internationalist, seeing an natural alliance with their counterparts in other countries, and because every shipment has to go from somewhere to somewhere else, wharfies have the ability to make things difficult for other ports to support their comrades across the sea. Indeed, New Zealand’s first general strike (1890) was over the right of wharfies to form unions in Australia.
So, the Ports of Auckland management should have known they were biting off more than they could chew when they decided to sack 330 workers for the crime of not wanting to take a $20,000 a year pay cut.
The 5 million strong International Transport Workers’ Federation, which has 400,000 dock worker members in over 200 major ports, has warned POA that it is on the verge of declaring it a ‘port of convenience’. This is akin to the flag of convenience concept – POA would be seen as a renegade attempting to undermine the standards that protect wharfies worldwide. In response, wharfies in other ports would take a range of legal actions to frustrate POA and cost it money – cargo bound for and coming from POA would take longer to clear other ports because it would be given a low priority and wharfies would work to rule when handling it.
In an industry where cargo handling times are the main concern of port customers (port charges in New Zealand are already very low, it’s time that matters more and POA’s proposals do nothing to speed up cargo handling time), what customer is going to send their cargo through POA knowing that doing so will cause it to be delayed whenever it enters another port?
The last time a New Zealand port was declared a port of convenience (Napier in 2007) the port management got smart quick and dropped their attack on the wharfies’ conditions.
Tony Gibson with his $750,000 salary and his senior managers on half a million each may have thought they had it easy beating up on some $27 an hour workers so that they could increase profits by cutting wages but they failed to calculate that those 330 workers are backed by 400,000 brothers and sisters around the world.