Christchurch workers hung out to dry

What a shameful spectacle it was. The leadership of the EPMU (Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union) setting up a group of union members to be vilified – to be called irresponsible, selfish and self-centred simply because those members wanted to maintain their wages and conditions of employment.

This was the situation when the union announced last Monday that the vote to reduce wages and conditions of Air New Zealand aircraft maintenance engineers, in return for the jobs staying in New Zealand, was lost and that the group responsible for the lost vote was a small group of workers in Christchurch.

This group was now to be held responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs because of their selfish intransigence. Or so we were led to believe by the union. We were told these Christchurch workers were not directly affected in the threatened redundancies so they had made a selfish decision to retain their well-paid jobs while others lost theirs.  

The union was wrong. The real problem was that the EPMU leadership wanted to protect its own cosy relationship with the Labour government ahead of the wages and conditions of union members.

The story goes back to the 1980’s when the 4th Labour government sold Air New Zealand as part of a raft of fire-sale privatisations of our community assets. The freewheeling corporates who bought the airline then flew it into the ground. Instead of concentrating on providing high quality air services for New Zealanders at home and travelling abroad they left their knitting and, in greedy fashion, tried expanding into Australia by buying Ansett. The result was a disaster with Ansett finally being sold and hundreds of millions lost from the New Zealand economy.

Air New Zealand never recovered from this disaster and eventually Helen Clark’s 5th Labour government bailed the airline out, becoming the majority shareholder in the process. 

Shortly after the election last year Air New Zealand announced hundreds of redundancies. They wanted to get their aircraft maintenance done overseas because labour costs are lower. It’s worth noting that the $48 million the airline aims to save over 5 years through outsourcing maintenance work pales into insignificance when compared to the hundreds of millions it lost through the Ansett debacle.

The government said immediately it wouldn’t use its majority shareholding to pressure the Air New Zealand directors to change their decision and ensure the jobs stayed in New Zealand. When it came to the interests of Air New Zealand investors and shareholders the government rushed in to help with more than $800 million but when it came to 500 workers’ jobs the government couldn’t sidestep fast enough.

Despite huge community support for the engineers the EPMU refused to campaign for the government to change its position.   A march organised by the Auckland airport workers to gather wider public support was scuttled by the union and the “negotiations” with Air New Zealand began. 

At all stages the union has put more pressure on its own members to give up pay and conditions than it has put on the government to change its policy.   Just one of the ironies is that if this were a national government led by Don Brash the union would be piling on the pressure with stopwork meetings and marches demanding the majority shareholder intervene to protect the pay and working conditions of its members.  

The negotiations with Air New Zealand were a race to the bottom with the EPMU leading the charge. The final grubby scene was played out last Monday.

The EPMU says the government could not be moved. Rubbish. This Labour government is famous for its backdowns – particularly when it comes to pressure from business. Remember the so-called “fart” tax, the extra money for private childcare centres during the election campaign and the now abandoned carbon tax?

The point is that the EPMU would have had to publicly campaign against Labour government policy and this was a bottom line it was not prepared to cross. Instead it hung Christchurch union members out to dry.

Last Monday was a low point in union affairs which rivals the infamous decision of the union movement’s leadership in 1990 to abandon any serious effort to oppose the employment contracts plans of the National Government.

The precedent now set for other workers is extremely worrying. The repercussions for families in our already low wage economy are serious.

It’s small wonder that Christchurch workers reversed their earlier decision in the face of huge pressure but whatever happens from here on the lingering odour will be from a word once sparsely used in union circles. Sellout.