The Right is up to its old tricks over the Ports of Auckland. It’s the usual pattern: make up some bullshit about how the workers are spoiled and unreasonable, cry that the sky will fall if the company doesn’t get its way, and (this is the long-game) suggest privatisation as the solution. What you haven’t heard is the cause of the ‘crisis’: the Port’s attempt to cut the workers’ conditions and pay.
Under the existing collective, which expired in September, port workers are employed either are permanents – who are entitled to at least 40 hours’ work a week and can specify one day preferred off but must be available 24/7 – P24s – who are permanent employees guaranteed only 3 8-hour shifts a week – and casuals – who can be called in any time but only if permanent workers aren’t available, who aren’t allowed to drive cranes, and get at least an 8-hour shift if they are called in. To protect the livelihoods of the permanent staff, the collective limits the percentage of P24s to 27.5% of the workforce and casuals to 25%.
At the basic pay rate of $27 an hour, a permanent stevedore works 260 8 hour shifts a year for $57,000. Overtime is common because the Port doesn’t want to employ enough permanents for its needs, and workers have to be available around the clock, on public holidays, and weekends. In theory, a stevedore could earn the mythic $90,000 that the Port talks about, but it would only be by working 64 hours a week, every week.
Far from being unskilled, easy work with plenty of breaks, as the Right has portrayed it, port work is dangerous (Tauranga, the ‘model’ port had 3 deaths in the last year) and high skill, with many of the workers having multiple qualifications. There are safety rules that mean staff have paid breaks from their work, but this means better safety and more productivity in the end.
The system works. Ports of Auckland is highly profitable (and, more importantly, provides a well-functioning piece of infrastructure to the economy). Workers boosted productivity by 4.1% last year. The CEO rewarded staff with a barbeque and bonuses.
What the Port wants to do is reduce its wage bill by reducing the amount of time that workers spend on paid breaks. How does it want to go about that?
The carrot the Port is offering is a 10% wage hourly pay increase but this would be more than wiped out for most workers due to their reduced hours. Accidents and injuries would likely increase due to staff being tired, under-skilled, and under more pressure to perform.
So what do the big bad stevedores want instead?
For this, they are being painted as devils by the Right.
Let’s get serious here. The workers have struck for a total of 5 days. Their strike action is for a small, inflation-matching wage increase and to keep their current conditions. When CMP locked out workers for 65 days to try to extort a 20% wage cut out of them, the business community didn’t say a word in protest but workers strike for 5 days to protect what they already have and it’s the end of the world.
So, what’s the long game here? Why is a profitable, publicly-owned company picking a fight with workers who are increasing their productivity rapidly. Well, part of it is that there is major over capitalisation in New Zealand ports. Because there’s been no national coordination of port investment and many ports are privatised, ports have tried to out-compete each other in attracting larger ships. But there’s only so many ships coming to New Zealand. It’s a negative-sum game for New Zealand – no extra ships, more capital invested. So, having sunk all this money on capital, ports are now competing against each other for a limited pool of ships and the way to get them is to offer lower costs, at the expense of workers’ pay.
The other factor is privatisation. I’m not sure how actively involved in this angle the Port’s management is but they have been leaking to Whaleoil and CitiRats, who are now moving on to proposing a ‘lasting solution’ to the manufactured ‘crisis’ – partial privatisation. Len Brown – who has cravenly caved to the Right’s line and attacked the stevedores – won’t have a bar of that, fortunately, unless CitiRats can succeed in their efforts to drive is administration into deeper deficit. This is the long-term objective of the crisis that has been cooked up by the Right and the Port management: strip a skilled and professional workforce of their job security and safety conditions to cut wage costs, privatise the company, and let the profits flow to the elite.
It’s the same old game played by the same old elites who aren’t interested in ‘growing the pie’ but merely grabbing more of it for themselves. If they win in Port’s of Auckland, it could be your workplace next.