Guest Post: Fair pay agreements: the first step back to a future of union control?

A guest post by David Garrett:

For anyone under 50 it is difficult to imagine the degree to which unions controlled the country during the 1970’s. Tell anyone in their thirties that almost without fail, every school and Christmas holidays one transport union or another paralyzed the country with strikes, and they think that at best you are grossly exaggerating matters, and at worst, simply making stuff up. I recently had cause to review a case which brought it all back to me.

 Cook Island Shipping v. Colson Builders [1975] I NZLR 422 involved the shipment of pre-fabricated building trusses from Whangarei to the Cook Islands for the construction of a new airport hangar. This was to be the first voyage of the Lorena, a Norwegian ship brought to New Zealand by a Norwegian crew, including a male cook and the wife of the Chief Engineer. That’s where the trouble started.

In 1971 the Cooks & Stewards Union were one of the most powerful unions in the country. Every holiday, almost without fail, they shut down the Cook Strait ferries, effectively cutting the country in half. They would go on strike for any pretext. If they weren’t striking, it was the seamen, or the union representing the officers. Without members of all unions working, the ships could not sail. But back to the Lorena.

After arriving in Auckland, the vessel was to proceed to Whangarei to load the building materials referred to above. As was the custom of the time, the Cooks & Stewards Union demanded that the Norwegian cook immediately be replaced by a member of their union. That in itself can hardly be objectionable; how they went about trying to replace the cook is almost unbelievable in 2021.

The Cooks & Stewards first tried to stop the ship sailing with the assistance of the Seamen’s Union, but relations between the two unions at that time were not good (unions often fought among themselves in the 70’s). So the Lorena arrived at Whangarei with the Norwegian cook and stewardess on board. The Cooks & Stewards were not prepared to let the matter rest, and I now quote verbatim from the judgment:

“…there arrived at the wharf two motorcars carrying a total of eight delegates from the Cooks & Stewards Union. They were in a belligerent mood. They were also in an advanced state of intoxication. Their first move to achieving settlement of the dispute [the judge must have had his tongue in cheek writing that] was to challenge Mr Harry Julian [the ship’s owner] to personal combat”

So, a bunch of pissed up union thugs arrive and immediately challenge the owner of the ship to a scrap. As the Judge wryly observed:

“Mr Julian was a veteran of industrial confrontation…he diplomatically avoided that initial phase of negotiations (sic.), and managed to persuade the delegates to discuss the matter more in harmony with the concept of industrial conciliation.”

The issue was somewhat complicated by the fact that the Norwegian stewardess was married to the Chief Engineer, and shared his cabin. While the Norwegian cook could be replaced by a New Zealander, the replacement of the stewardess would have required immediate rearrangement of the sleeping quarters, and the provision of a separate cabin for the New Zealand steward. The report again wryly notes that “Mr Julian agreed to pay some hundreds of dollars to the union representing the pay of a New Zealand steward for a month as an interim solution”. But that was not the end of the matter; again quoting from the judgment:

“In order to protect their interim position the Cooks & Stewards attempted to form a picket line on the wharf but this decision happened to coincide with the afternoon tea break of the watersiders, and no effective picket line could be formed.”

To those of us familiar with the milieu of the times one can deduce from reading between the lines that the watersiders weren’t on good terms with the Cooks & Stewards either, and the fomer  told the latter to fuck off when they tried to form a picket line on “their” wharf.

This case tells us a great deal of what industrial relations looked like when the unions had the kind of power they would just love to have again. It tells us that it was unremarkable for two carloads of pissed up union thugs to arrive and immediately threaten the ship’s owner with a scrap. It tells us that relations between unions were somewhat like alliances in the Balkan wars of more than a century ago; extremely fluid and often highly confrontational.

To those who think the above kind of bullshit was a relic of the 70’s I can assure you it was not. During a lull in oil drilling in early 1983, I took a job on the construction of the methanol plant in Taranaki. I became a delegate for the Engineers Union as it then was. It was only that which saved a demarcation dispute when I unthinkingly moved a strop out of the way – that was “rigger’s work”, and had it been anyone other than a union delegate doing it, a stoppage would probably have occurred. Because of the ever changing relations between unions, “demarcation” disputes happened all the time, frequently resulting in a stoppage of work.

So back to the present. Labour intends to introduce what they are calling “fair pay agreements” which are little more than the old National Awards in drag. If they come to pass, as they probably will, they will immediately result in more union power than has been seen since the Employment Contracts Act was introduced in 1991. You can be sure that flinty eyed ideologues such as Andrew Little are positively salivating at the thought of the “brothers” – or I suppose in these quite different times the brothers and sisters – having the power to blackmail a ship owner (that month’s pay Mr Julian paid as a bribe was probably the equivalent of $10-12,000 or so today) in order to enable him, the ship owner, to meet his contractual obligations.

I believe I have said here before that unions most definitely have their place. As a onetime delegate for both the Labourers Union and the Engineers at different times ten years apart, I have seen both the best and the worst of unionism. If we end up with them having the kind of power they had in 1975 we will be in a very sorry place.

Comments (92)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment

%d bloggers like this: