As the AFFCO lockout drags on, Allan Barber takes a closer look at the motivations of both parties

As the AFFCO lockout drags on, Allan Barber takes a closer look at the motivations of both parties
Dave Eastlake, General Secretary, NZMU - "the never ending struggle with employers"

By Allan Barber

The dispute between AFFCO and its unionised workforce doesn’t look like ending any time soon, a fact admitted on the radio on Tuesday morning by Dave Eastlake, Meat Workers Union General Secretary.

Livestock throughput is well off its peak and lagging behind last year because of the generally damp summer which has produced plentiful feed for the time of year, as autumn approaches.

There is unlikely to be much, if any, peak lamb kill, due both to reduced sheep numbers and an excess of North island capacity which is able to clean up any increase in kill numbers pretty quickly.

The South Island may be a different matter because of the summer drought conditions in the far south and an earlier onset of colder weather, but AFFCO’s main plant outside Bluff is under a different ownership structure and consequently undisturbed by the dispute.

At the moment AFFCO’s six North Island plants are all affected by the company’s lock out which covers about a third of its workforce and a series of one day strikes by other union members that are not locked out.

The latest development was the lock out of a further 213 workers at the Rangiuru plant, bringing the total number up to just under 1,000. The number of strikers varies according to different reports with the union claiming substantially more than the company’s figure.

So far the combination of lock out and strikes has not prevented AFFCO from processing all the livestock it has planned, servicing all its suppliers and customers without difficulty.

This has been made possible by the increasing number of non-union workers the company employs on an Individual Employment Agreement (IEA), which requires the employee to resign from the union at the time of signing.

When not on strike the balance of the unionised workforce which has not been locked out continues to turn up for their designated shift, enabling the company to continue with processing, currently running at a minimum of half its capacity, depending on the plant concerned.

It seems likely the closer the season moves towards a peak kill, the keener the Meat Workers Union will be to galvanise its members into more strike action, but that will be another month away. By that time the locked out workers will have been out of work for five to six weeks. The trickle of affected workers looking to sign an IEA may well have turned into a more substantial stream which will of course enable AFFCO to handle bigger volumes of livestock.

Dave Eastlake said there isn’t much reason for the lock out and all the union wants is to reach an agreement that would get its members back to work.

Unfortunately AFFCO’s management has said it is too busy to have any further discussions with the union at this time. AFFCO has made it clear it is prepared to tough this dispute out in the interests of achieving productivity improvements it says are impossible under the core collective agreement which expired on 31 December.

So there is clearly a gulf between what the company is prepared to accept as employment contract terms and what the union is willing to concede. Otherwise the whole dispute could have been avoided and a new core collective agreement would have been in place well before it came to this.

Presumably the IEAs signed by non-union members will provide the flexibility AFFCO is looking for with respect to processing speeds, manning levels and the seniority provision (doing away with the principle of ‘first in last out). So despite Eastlake’s stated belief that there isn’t much of an obstacle to agreeing a new core collective, it is clear AFFCO has some non-negotiable terms and conditions.

The union has a choice – either it can persist with its defiant stance in the hope the company will buckle, or it will have to get more realistic about its demands.

Either way, I suspect the union will be weakened by loss of membership, as union members realise strikes don’t put food on the table.

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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 allan@barberstrategic.co.nz or through his blog at http://allan.barber.wordpress.com

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