Thursday 13 December 2007

No more cuts – nationalise Air NZ!

The two main unions representing Air NZ ground staff produced
joint campaign material in 2006, but a joint fight never materialised.

By Grant Brookes

"I call them absolute dogs", said Jill Ovens.
The voice of the Northern Region secretary of the Service & Food Workers Union (SFWU) was brimming with anger as she told Workers Charter about the vicious campaign by Air NZ bosses to slash pay and conditions for ground staff.
At the end of November, after Air NZ issued lockout notices to 137 check-in staff and baggage handlers, the union reluctantly signed a deal accepting "flexible" rosters and cuts in overtime rates, shift allowances and meal allowances.
These workers, who weren't highly paid in the first place, will now lose up to $20,000 a year each.
The deal follows a similar agreement made earlier this year for ground crew belonging to the Engineers Union (EPMU). It also comes on top of cuts, and 300 job losses, in the airline's heavy engineering division in 2006.


The Labour government owns 83 percent of Air NZ. Party members at Labour's 2006 conference supported a union call for the Labour government to buy back the remaining shares and stop the cuts.
But this year Helen Clark has stood back as Air NZ bosses bribed, bullied and even broke the law to ram through their cuts and undermine union power. Her government hid behind laws saying managers must maximise returns for the minority private shareholders who own the other 17 percent.
Air NZ bosses said the cuts for ground staff were needed to avoid a crisis of profitability. Yet their profit for the year to June, which largely excludes any savings from the changes, was the biggest in a decade – $214 million.
The top "dog", Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe, pays himself a million dollars a year. For their silence, the government's share of that profit was $144 million.
The cuts came after Air NZ threatened late last year to contract out 1,800 ground handling jobs to a multinational consortium.


EPMU leaders recommended in March that their members accept the cuts to stop the outsourcing. The union's national secretary, Andrew Little, likened this to "swallowing a dead rat".
Having signed the deal, they then belatedly asked for a parliamentary inquiry into Air NZ's "sharp practice".
The EPMU's concessions haven't saved them from further attacks. Air NZ is now suing that union for disclosing company information to the inquiry.
SFWU members on the other hand, supported by their union leaders, voted to fight the cuts.
But in April, Air NZ went behind the back of the SFWU and wrote directly to each union member. The letter said they'd get a lump sum payment of $1,000 to $3,000 if they left that union, and suggested they could join the EPMU instead.
It also warned people they wouldn't get promotions if they stayed in the union and could have their rosters changed. Then the company rang each SFWU member at home, to reinforce the message.
In a ruling in October, Authority member Alastair Dumbleton found Air NZ guilty of "attempting to interfere in relations between a union and its members by encouraging resignation from membership", a "serious failure to comply with the requirements of good faith".
The company is now liable for a fine of up to $2.7 million, although just how much the company will have to pay, and whether any of it will go to the union as compensation, are yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, the damage has been done. In March, the SFWU had 269 members at Air NZ. But the months of bullying and bribery took their toll. By November, only 46 of those members were left - just 12 in full-time positions.
The SFWU recruited around 80 new members, but these were all part-timers on the "flexible" conditions of the "in-house solution" now covering by far the majority of front-line staff.


"Air NZ has completely gutted the full-time workforce", says Jill Ovens. "They've employed young people to replace them.
"Many of these new employees have joined the SFWU. But Air NZ put them on rosters with no guaranteed hours.
"Air NZ managers told part-time check-in staff they would be rostered for just 20 hours a week, because they belong to the SFWU.
"They denied them overtime on the basis of union affiliation, which is also illegal. Then, the final cut, they threatened them all with a lockout.
"They're lovely", says Jill of these new, young union members, "and they're really staunch, but they just can't do it.
"I sent them a message. I quoted Kenny Rogers, in that song 'The Gambler': 'You've got to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em'."
Meanwhile the 2007 Labour Party conference, held in November, voted overwhelmingly for a formal resolution to renationalise Air NZ.
This would remove the fig leaf of private shareholder rights, and make it easier to force the government to stop further Air NZ cuts in future.
In theory, the policy should now go into Labour's manifesto. But unions will need to lead a big grassroots campaign if re-nationalisation is to happen.
Left to themselves, Labour governments have a long track record of ignoring votes at Labour Party conferences if they go against business wishes.
"The future for the union", says Jill, "is the young people being recruited in South Auckland.
"It's a bit like General MacArthur in the Philippines: 'We'll be back'."

Don't let it happen to anyone else

The bitter setbacks for ground staff at Air NZ must not be in vain. 300 jobs have been lost, the remaining workers have had pay cuts of up to $20,000 a year and permanent jobs have been replaced by casual positions with no guaranteed hours.
Tragically, it was avoidable. Unions can prevent it happening elsewhere if they stay united and staunchly independent of the Labour government.
The setbacks also show why unions must push to repeal the harsh anti-strike laws in Labour's Employment Relations Act.
Two main unions represented Air NZ ground staff – the Engineers Union (EPMU) and the Service & Food Workers Union (SFWU).
News of the planned cuts broke late last year, just before the Labour Party's annual conference.
"I said it from the outset", said SFWU Northern Region secretary Jill Ovens, "the only way we were going to stop this was if unions stood together".
The SFWU and EPMU did talk about a joint public campaign to put pressure on the government to stop the outsourcing.
"We had to take the campaign to the streets, to pressure the government", said Jill. "But the EPMU weren't prepared to do that."
An opinion piece on the Air NZ dispute in the April issue of Workers Charter has sadly proved correct. Our headline read, "when unions feud, the employer wins".
The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) is now sponsoring mediation between the two unions to heal the rift.
Meanwhile, the CTU's biennial conference in October also launched a new political strategy, including calls for changes to the Employment Relations Act (ERA) to improve workers' rights. This must be broadened to include restoring workers' freedom to strike.
Under the ERA, all strikes are illegal unless they're over the terms of a collective agreement, after it's expired, or over an urgent health and safety risk.
A secret memo to the Air NZ board explained how managers wanted to use Labour's anti-strike laws to make the cuts. It said, "The intent is to deliver the bulk of the programme under the protection of employees being under contract and therefore unable to strike".
Citing this memo, both Jill Ovens and EPMU national secretary Andrew Little have publicly called for changes to the ERA giving workers the right to strike before the expiry of their collective. That demand has to be taken up by the whole union movement.

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