Guest post: Ports of Auckland dispute

A guest post by Rob Carr

Why are the port workers striking?

The Maritime Union has been in discussions around raising pay and conditions since August. Unions negotiate pay and condition rises regularly otherwise pay would effectively reduce with inflation. The desire for better pay is not what the strike revolves around and the union employees rejected a 10% pay increase which the port company was offering to get change it wanted through.

The Port of Auckland wants to have the employees on a rotating roster. In addition they want to be able to contract out the work they do. Essentially this means they want the freedom to take away hours from the workers or their jobs at any time.

What the workers are striking about is the fact they do not want to lose their jobs.

All for the national interest

Fran O’Sullivan in her Herald piece about the port workers echoed comments others had made about it being in the national interest that the port workers lose so the country can benefit:

Nor has the union been paying attention to the Productivity Commission which estimates exporters and importers spend upwards of $5 billion a year on freight and has forecasted annual trade could be boosted by $1.25 billion if transport costs were shaved by 10 per cent. There is a national interest issue at stake here.

The idea that this is about the national interest or that the union hasn’t been paying attention to the productivity commission is farcical. The only argument being made is actually that they want to cut costs in order to increase profits. There is nothing new or special about the Port of Auckland and their desire to cut costs.

The changing union employees for contractors will not cut 10% off the countries transport costs. It is highly unlikely it would do so in just that port. The figures here are saying a 10% cut in cost will lead to a 25% growth in trade which is certainly a considerable profit but it doesn’t explain why the cut has to be made to these port workers job or why it needs to be done in this way. The transport costs could be cut in numerous ways and the fact that one measure can achieve a cost saving does not justify doing it where it has a disproportionate effect on peoples lives.

There are many cuts you can make to businesses to increase profits. When this comes at the expense of their employees however this is a bad thing. The national interest argument is the same one John Key made in the leaders debates during the election where if one group of people is paid less everyone else can have cheaper muffins. It doesn’t make it fair or a good idea and this is seen easily if you were to project the effect over an entire country where the result would be 80% of people being worse off.

Do they need Labour’s help?

There are several people calling on the Labour Party to make more comment around the port workers strike and come out strongly for them or against them. If you ignore national interest the arguments boil down to Labour should ignore them because they earn $90,000 a year and Labour should support them because Labour supports employees. The reality is the divisions in society are not so simple as the level of income a person earns. The division around who needs Labour is whether someone has a scalable or non-scalable profession.

A scalable profession is one where luck, quality and bargaining power determines your income. This is speculators, sports stars, bankers, CEOs, authors, business owners etc. Their income can become massive quickly due to 1-2 events, there is no effective cap on their level of income. Scalable professions are a product of capitalism and depend on its randomness to survive. Labour Governments can be devastating for those in scalable professions aside from the sports star/author ones as regulation supresses the boom bust cycle potentially destroying their careers.

A non-scalable profession is one where quantity of work determines your income. This is cleaners, teachers, doctors, lawyers etc. These people benefit from left wing government right up to near the top of the category (around $200,000 income currently). They benefit especially from capitalism being regulated as this creates a stable economic environment in which they can consistently continue to earn their income. Boom and bust destroys these people’s lives as they need to work every day to afford to live.

Port workers are a non-scalable profession and generally left wing. At $90,000 they would be pretty well paid for a non-scalable profession. However the base rate of salary for a stevedore is actually 50-60,000 as it is a 26 hour week and the $90,000 figure used by the port company is what they would get if they were to work 17 hours overtime every week so unless there is a truly massive amount of overtime worked it seems their salary is not so high afterall. The issue here is also not pay but stability of work the thing people in non-scalable professions need left wing parties like Labour to ensure for them.

The Labour Party should support them in attempts to defend their quality of life. However given the level of media attention already given to these strikes public support from Labour is not needed. Their endorsement won’t change the outcome of negotiations and Labour should save its press releases for when strikes are getting ignored like the Open Country lockouts were.

1 thought on “Guest post: Ports of Auckland dispute”

  1. Labour certainly does need to make a position statement on this. The sort of horseshit ideology driving the casualisation of labour needs to be dismantled aggressively. The left lacks articulateness and stringency in this case and in general. We should be doing what we can to shame the right wing commentariat by pointing out the weaknesses in their economic and moral reasoning.

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