Ports Of Auckland Dispute

Itís About Job Security And Public Ownership

- Joe Fleetwood

Joe Fleetwood is General Secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ).

The Ports of Auckland dispute of 2011/12 has been the highest profile New Zealand industrial dispute for many years. Maritime workers have always occupied a strategic place in the economy. The Ports of Auckland is the biggest import port in New Zealand and any disruption to its operations creates a high level of interest. The history of the dispute is convoluted, and this is not the place to cover all the ins and outs (background information to the dispute is available on the campaign website www.saveourport.com). The wider issues driving the dispute – casualisation and contracting out, the privatisation agenda around New Zealand ports, and the international aspect of GNT (global network terminals) – are the focus here.

Ports of Auckland Declared A Port Of Convenience

The Maritime Union represents approximately 300 waterfront workers and related staff at Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL). There are also a number of private stevedoring companies that operate in the port with MUNZ coverage, which were not involved in the dispute. POAL operate the container terminal and obviously is the largest employer at the port (unlike other ports, MUNZ is the only waterfront union with substantial membership in Auckland. Other ports also have fellow NZ Council of Trade Unions-affiliated Rail and Maritime Transport Union represented, as well as yellow or company unions, and non-unionised workplaces).

Following the breakdown of negotiations for a collective agreement in 2011 between POAL management and MUNZ, POAL advanced a plan to contract out their stevedoring labour force. This would have resulted in the current unionised labour force being made redundant (the collective agreement had expired on 30 September 2011). Further strike action and lockouts by management followed. The dispute was presented in a high profile public campaign by POAL management as a case of the “restrictive” practices of a unionised workforce running down a port. They entitled their campaign under the heading “The Need for Change.”

However the workers didn’t see things this way. Through the “Save Our Port” campaign, MUNZ campaigned for secure jobs and public ownership of the port. MUNZ gained the support of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), as well as many overseas maritime and transport unions, and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the global union body to which MUNZ is affiliated. The ITF declared Ports of Auckland a “port of convenience” – a port or terminal where health and safety standards or working conditions are below what’s considered acceptable by ITF and its affiliated unions – and rolled out a global campaign to support Ports of Auckland workers. This campaign is related to the ITF campaign around global network terminals (GNT) – the big four transnational operators who control over 50% of the world’s ports. Casualisation and privatisation are two key issues in this campaign around the world. While POAL is owned by the people of Auckland, the management’s agenda conformed to this global pattern.

Contracting Out And Casualisation

The contracting out exercise at POAL was an example of the ongoing attack on job security that has occurred in recent years throughout capitalist economies. Helen Kelly, the President of the CTU described the dispute as “an issue for all of New Zealand”. “Casualisation is not good for workers or their families.  This is a growing story of working in New Zealand – even when workers already offer a lot of flexibility, they are expected to give more, and often to give up any hope of a structured and healthy life”.

The employment agreement at the port already provided the flexibility POAL needs, without compromising safety or job security. The port of Auckland is a 24/7 operation that needs a wide range of skills as well as employment flexibility. The current employment agreement provides this without compromising safety or job security. It enables POAL to employ:

• 53% permanent full time workers entitled to 40 hours of work, day or night,

• 27% permanent workers only guaranteed 24 hours work per week,

• 20% casual workers guaranteed no work at all, giving POAL huge flexibility.

The agreement is designed to provide a mix of stable, reliable work, yet still meet the needs of a port where shipping can be unpredictable. POAL management initially demanded workers sign up to an agreement that took away any guaranteed weekly hours. When this didn’t work they moved towards complete outsourcing of labour.

Productivity And Returns To Owner

POAL management seemed determined to make it appear in public their port was a financial basket case, due to its workforce. It’s not. POAL is a successful, productive and profitable modern port. It returns Auckland ratepayers 6% after tax and 9% before tax (see below). In September 2011, Ports of Auckland management congratulated their workforce for achieving record hourly container moves and put on a barbecue. The POAL Annual Report notes that the container and bulk cargo volumes were up in the 2010/11 year despite the economic situation.

All time best crane rates that were achieved at the same time. POAL’s own publicity in the last couple of years talks of record highs of container volumes and how workforce productivity has steadily improved. A Ministry of Transport report says New Zealand ports including Auckland move containers at a rate as good as and sometimes better than Australian and other international ports.

The Privatisation Agenda

The issue of central interest to many CAFCA members will be the privatisation agenda. POAL is owned by the people of Auckland. The creation of the Auckland Supercity resulted in POAL being set up as a company owned by Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL). The Supercity legislation removed the requirement for Aucklanders to agree to any privatisation by referendum. There has been a sustained campaign by private interests to privatise Ports of Auckland.

It’s no secret that sections of the business community have been itching to get ports, which largely remain owned by local government in New Zealand, sold off. Because their ownership is vested in local communities, rather than the State, ports have gone under the radar somewhat in the current asset sales debate. The Government’s Productivity Commission has published a report that calls for ports to be privatised. The actions of port management in attempting to contract out labour at the port is a first step in privatisation and if it had been successful, would have led down the track of losing control of the port from public hands (the Productivity Commission and its report on New Zealand freight transport has been well documented and analysed by Watchdog in recent issues – see references at the end of this article).

Members of CAFCA will recall the 2006 Keep Our Port Public campaign based in Christchurch, where CAFCA worked together with a number of organisations including the Maritime Union against the proposed privatisation of the Lyttelton Port Company. The GNT (global network terminal) operator Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) was the interested party that the Christchurch City Council tried to bring on board at that time.  Fortunately the plan didn’t work out and the Port of Lyttelton remains in public hands (albeit with the minority shareholding of Port of Otago that stymied the sellout to HPH).

In the small world of corporate management, it should come as no surprise that Richard Pearson, the highly visible Chair of the Board of Ports of Auckland, previously had a global career with HPH before returning to New Zealand and taking up with POAL. Nor should it surprise that Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Officer Tony Gibson worked for several years as the Managing Director of Maersk New Zealand, the local arm of the global shipping giant that holds enormous power over ports due to its dominant market position.

Latest Developments

Following hearings at the Employment Court on 30 March 2012, Ports of Auckland withdrew its lockout notice and stopped its plan to dismiss its workforce and contract out the jobs.  On 5 April, workers returned to their jobs at Ports of Auckland Limited. Negotiations are ongoing at the time of writing through a formal facilitation process, convened by the Employment Relations Authority.



Watchdog 129 (April 2012) “All At Sea: Productivity Commission's Draft Report Into International Freight Transport Services” by Bill Rosenberg http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/29/09.htm

Watchdog 128 (December 2011) “The Productivity Commission Is The Latest Name For Rogernomics: The Taliban Of NZ Capitalism” by Jeremy Agar http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/28/04.htm

Watchdog 123 (May 2010) “Beyond The Sea – New Zealand’s Ports At Risk?” by Victor Billot


Watchdog 112 (August 2006) “Lyttelton Port Company Sale Dead In The Water: We've Won The Battle But Not Yet The War” by Murray Horton http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/12/01.htm

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) Port of Convenience Webpage http://www.itfglobal.org/dockers/POC.cfm

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) Global Network Terminals Webpage http://www.itfglobal.org/dockers/gnt.cfm


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