By Allan Barber
The weekend’s announcement by AFFCO of a lockout at five of its North Island meat plants comes hard on the heels of the three week strike by the Ports of Auckland stevedores, following several months of increasingly acrimonious negotiations.
Unless it gets agreement to its proposal, AFFCO intends to lock out 758 of its meat workers covered under the Core Collective Agreement which expired last September and which the company has been trying to renegotiate unsuccessfully with the Meat Workers Union for some months now.
At the heart of the issue is AFFCO’s determination to assert its operational authority over the management of its plants, while the Union is equally determined to maintain manning and production speeds in addition to entitlements such as work force seniority.
In a press release issued today AFFCO states that it has “critical commercial reasons to resist the Meat Workers Union leadership’s bid to reassert operational authority at its plants.”
Three major issues are listed as:
(i) The company’s right to determine with flexibility the setting of manning and process line speeds.
(ii) The company’s right to set final determination in operational parameters for processing lines when new technology is introduced.
(iii) Dispute resolution procedures as covered in the existing Collective Agreement not being adhered to by the Union and the company’s claim to adhere to a proper dispute resolution process.
The company also wants to assert its right to introduce scientifically reliable random drug testing procedures and to decide on training for new and existing employees.
As with the Ports of Auckland dispute, it isn’t about the money, but about operational flexibility.
AFFCO has been having a festering dispute with the Union at its East Coast plant at Wairoa about manning levels and processing speeds for at least a year now and this disagreement was always likely to spread to other plants. But it should be noted that the workforce numbers faced with the lockout comprise only about half AFFCO’s meat workers with the majority of the others employed on individual agreements.
Clearly the company has long had an ambition to get out of the straitjacket imposed by a Core Collective across its whole plant network.
Back in the 90s when AFFCO nearly went into receivership, it set up its Feilding based beef plant, Manawatu Beef Packers, as a predominantly non-union plant with workers employed on IEAs. It also tried to achieve individual site agreements with its other plants which would have allowed it to compete on more equal terms with its single plant competitors, not to mention Lowe Walker which had revolutionised processing methods with newer technology and higher productivity.
At the time it needed Union support to maintain throughput and cut processing costs and for a time, under the provisions of the Employment Contracts Act, there was industrial peace and improved productivity.
But nothing ever stands still and in recent years, under Talley’s Group ownership and control, AFFCO has invested heavily in plant rebuilds, incorporating new technology and operating methods. This has ensured AFFCO’s ability to compete with its major competitors, but single plants processing only one species inevitably find it easier to negotiate industrial agreements than a multi plant operation.
Talley’s Group has a reputation for being a single-minded tough employer and, with plenty of experience running profitable businesses in other product areas (vegetables, fishing, dairy, ice cream), it is not about to let its progress be hindered by what it knows to be outdated workplace practices and agreements.
The Meat Workers Union hierarchy is made up of essentially the same people who were there in the 1980s and 1990s who have largely stuck to the old model which employers find obstructs their quest for modernisation of work practices.
Allan Barber is a commentator on agribusiness, especially the meat industry, and lives in the Matakana Wine Country where he run a boutique B&B with his wife. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog at http://allan.barber.wordpress.com.