By Allan Barber
If ever there was a wasted journey, it’s the one AFFCO meat workers have made to Nelson with the sole objective of asking the Talleys to listen to their tales of woe arising from the lock out and regular strikes which have seen several hundred workers out of work for nearly two months.
It’s hard not to sympathise with them, because of the debilitating effects of being out of work on the workers and their families, but who on earth made them think it was worth trying to beard the Talleys in their den in Nelson or Motueka?
The union representative who was with them said they didn’t expect any of the Talleys to come and meet them, but they wanted to make a point, presumably hoping to appeal to their sense of pity.
But this isn’t a dispute that will be resolved by the employer’s sympathy for the plight of workers who are out of work, but by constructive negotiation between the parties.
This is where it gets difficult, because there doesn’t appear to be any constructive desire by the Meat Workers Union or its members to try to understand what AFFCO or its owners actually want.
The union contents itself with repeating platitudes about hard nosed, union bashing employers not being willing to make any concessions which would enable its members to get back to work.
In the meantime families suffer, union members increasingly resign from the union and sign individual agreements, and the season continues without the locked out or striking workers. But it will all be over by the end of June because there won’t be any more meaningful plant throughput that can’t be handled quite easily by non union workers.
AFFCO, and make no mistake AFFCO is the employer, not the Talley family members, wants to achieve a clear, modern and flexible collective agreement which reflects today’s meat industry. The days of thirty or forty years ago when the Meat Workers Union representatives cut their teeth in the industry are long gone. Sheep numbers have more than halved, prime cattle volumes are down and the biggest single species is boner cows destined for the US grinding trade.
Plants are no longer massive single shift freezing works processing carcases for the UK market, but sophisticated food processing units operating double shifts with boning and cutting operations, producing a wide variety of products, many of them chilled, for massively diversified markets in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East. The industrial relations environment of the 1980s is no longer remotely appropriate to the requirements of today’s meat industry.
AFFCO has made it clear it wants its labour agreements to make it possible to run its plants without unnecessary obstruction from an outmoded collective agreement. The company says it is miles apart from the union and can’t see any resolution to the current dispute any time soon. For that to happen the union will have to start listening to what the company wishes to achieve instead of encouraging its members to join a hikoi to meet AFFCO’s owners which was doomed to fail.
When AFFCO offered to lift the lock out to enable 300 workers to return to work, the Meat Workers Union rejected this, saying that all it was seeking was a return to work for all locked out employees, taking seniority into account. But seniority is one of the key issues for AFFCO which wants to be able to allocate tasks and new training opportunities to those workers it regards as most suitable, not be constrained by the seniority straitjacket.
AFFCO has a number of things it wants to negotiate, but the key points are the freedom to introduce and implement new technology, the ability to fix tallies and manning levels that are appropriate to the technology employed and individual species and products, the allocation of people to tasks and training, introduction of a meaningful drug testing regime and a workable disputes resolution procedure.
Without knowing details of the negotiations or the mediation, it seems clear that the union is not prepared to negotiate constructively on these issues because they represent a threat to the traditional areas of union power.
The problem is that if the union refuses to negotiate on these matters, more and more members will resign and move onto individual employment agreements.
In the meantime those that are left will continue to be locked out and eventually there won’t be any work for them to return to. It will either be a 21st century example of a Pyrrhic victory or quite simply a massive defeat.
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.