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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Reply to James (2)*

(*See comment to previous post)
You are, I think, being somewhat disingenuous with your criticism of Jill Ovens and her leadership of the SFWU members in the Air NZ outsourcing dispute. Rather than acting "immaturely and irresponsibly", Jill Ovens showed remarkable courage and strength of purpose in resisting strong pressure to concede to the EPMU/Air NZ-negotiated solution. Her determination reflected that of the members who stood with her.
The SFWU members involved voted five times to reject any attempts to destroy their existing CEA. They opposed accepting cuts in wages and conditions. They also strongly opposed the attempt to separate them from their fellow Air NZ workers who are parties to their collective. They were entitled to expect their CEA to be honoured and to maintain the position that they would renegotiate it when they had the right to take industrial action. This was a perfectly rational and responsible stand to make as workers and trade unionists.
The EPMU is to be congratulated for its democratic processes but democracy, as you well know, is constrained by the choices put before the electorate. The EPMU position was that the choice was between ‘outsourcing’ and ‘an in-house solution’. This thrust the EPMU members into a catch-22 situation where they were damned to accept cuts no matter which choice they made. It was a bit like giving a condemned person the choice of which form of execution they wanted. The dispute was allowed to be framed in the employer's terms. The SFWU chose to fight the dispute under their own terms, as was their right.
This fight included two highly successful mass-mailing campaigns to the Board of Air NZ. One was a postcard campaign. Thousands of signatures were collected from members of the public at places like markets. I helped to collect these and there was huge support for the workers and opposition to outsourcing. The other campaign was an email one organised through the international Labour Start website. This campaign had the biggest response ever recorded by Labour Start.
The SFWU position was simply "no concessions". The only way to stop cuts is to first of all reject the employer's right to make them. Workers of today do not have the right to give-back the hard won gains of workers of the past. Their duty to the class is to fight to retain and improve those past conquests. If this is your frame of reference then you will come up with the course of action that was decided upon by the SFWU members and Jill Ovens as their (elected) regional secretary.
As to some of your other analysis; it is an open question as to whether the Government’s position would have remained fixed. Governments have been known to change their minds under public pressure. A campaign by two of the country’s most powerful private-sector unions, supported by trade-union-backed Labour MPs, could have tested the Clark administration’s resolve. The public could expect a publicly-owned entity like Air NZ to listen to and act upon public concerns.
The argument that the Government cannot legally interfere in the running of state-owned enterprises and companies does not hold water. This is a matter of political will. Government’s can change laws or apply political pressure to appointed boards; it happens all the time. The neo-liberal legislation and assumptions from the 1980s that still underpin social and economic life in New Zealand should be challenged when they conflict with the public interest and the interests of workers.
The point about being in a "far worse" situation under the Swissport deal is also a moot one. The savings and conditions proposed by Swissport look remarkably similar to the in-house deal eventually struck. Before the SFWU pulled out of the process, experts from both unions examined the Swissport proposals as part of the process of developing an "in-house solution". Swissport’s $20 million-per-year claimed savings were shown to be only about $12 million worth: the same amount of saving being made by the EPMU/Air NZ-agreed deal. So workers would not have been "in a far worse position". In fact the Swissport outsourcing would have resulted in all the workers receiving a full redundancy pay-out, whether they were staying or transferring over. Only workers who leave the job in the face of a cut in basic pay rates will now get redundancy. The $3000 sweetener goes nowhere near making up for the lost wages or the forgone redundancy payout.
Similarly, you say that the workers are now not subject to a "retendering process" and are therefore are in a better position to claw the cuts back in the future. Two things: First, the threat of "retendering" in the form of outsourcing has not been permanently removed. It could be argued, as Jill Ovens has in fact done, that it will now be more attractive for the outsourcing to proceed in the future because the transition costs have largely been eliminated by the cuts already made in this current deal. Second, the workers’ position is not stronger but weaker, because, for one thing, they are separated off in a separate CEA from their fellow Air NZ workers who were previously under the same CEA.
The best way to claw back cuts is to not concede them in the first place. The SFWU have not conceded their wages and conditions, they have not been separated off into a different CEA; that is why the SFWU can rightly claim a victory. Of course there is still a fight on to maintain wages and conditions, but not conceding them in the first instance was a pre-condition to engaging in that fight. The SFWU is at least on the front foot, unlike the EPMU members who have a hard slog just to get back to where they were before.

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