Irrationality dominates Port Board crusade

It’s not often one sees an employer acting with such commercial irrationality as the Ports of Auckland.
Most employers are conservative with the earnings they make from their workers and company managers strive to return the biggest dividends possible to their shareholders. They keep the business working at maximum production for the maximum time possible to achieve this while paying their workers the minimum they think they can get away with.
Nothing surprising there.
But the Auckland Port Board is different. These employers are acting with rare economic rashness in their crusade to smash the union and strip the workers of employment conditions hard won over several generations.
I can understand them wanting to crush the union. It’s in their DNA and it’s the stuff of wet dreams for most big employers.
But economic lunacy is rarely on display as it is here.
Not only has the board poured bucketloads of ratepayer money into this attack on its unionized workforce but it has slowed the port to a snail’s pace for several months with its refusal to settle a reasonable collective agreement with the union. What’s more it plans to continue in the same vein for at least the next six weeks by locking out the unionized workforce. Then even if the port company wins in the Employment Court and sacks all union members it would be many more weeks after that before it could employ and train contracted staff.
The dispute has already cost at least $21 million directly as well as adding significant additional costs to importers, manufacturers and consumers. The port board’s bizarre tactics will now certainly have a negative impact on New Zealand’s GDP. And this is if they win in court. If they lose and then continue their anti-union crusade then the economic disaster will spread to the whole economy. If won’t be just a shortage of marmite…
So why would an employer do this and how could they get away with it?
Because unlike the port workers these corporate ruffians have nothing to lose personally, have the government’s backing, the New Zealand Herald behind them and a shield provided by Auckland City Mayor Len Brown.
The irony is that this Rodney Hide appointed board would not embark such a Quixotic escapade if the Port were owned by private sector shareholders. In that case the directors would see their personal economic benefit in keeping the port working continuously at maximum capacity. They would aim to negotiate improved flexibility with the union but not at the price of jeopardizing operations for months on end. By maintaining operations they would stand to gain personal financial benefit through the likes of share options and various kinds of handouts that these members of the one percent see as their entitlement.
But at the port these board members don’t get the same benefits because there are no shares or share options and bonuses will be more carefully (we’d like to hope) monitored through public ownership.
With none of these greed-based incentives the Rodney Hide’s appointed board are left to indulge their union-crushing fantasies with massive public resources and no personal risk.
It is this scenario which explains their obdurate, irrational thuggery towards their unionized workers. The directors will not suffer if the port loses money. Why should they worry if the port delivers a much smaller return to Auckland City?
Meanwhile there will be plenty of back-slapping emails between company boardrooms urging these corporate hooligans on.
But all is not well for the board. They have run a 1980’s style anti-union campaign but this is 2012 and the public aren’t buying their line that the workers are lazy, overpaid, bullies.
So where is the accountability for this out-of-control board?
It should come from Mayor Len Brown but he is weak and vacillating with feet of clay. Easy meat for the corporate bullies. It must therefore come from the people of Auckland acting in large numbers in support of the workforce.
And once this battle is won then the board directors Richard Pearson, Graeme Scott, Andrew Bonner, Rob Campbell, Liz Coutts and Wayne Walden must be forced from their positions – along with CEO Tony Gibson.
One way or another they have to go.

Jury brings some sanity to police Urewera charges

Remember the dramatic events of October 15th 2007?

Remember the co-ordinated dawn raids up and down the country; the smashing of windows and doors; the parents and kids forced to kneel at gunpoint; the lockdown of Ruatoki; the police “ninja’s” at the roadblock on the Tuhoe confiscation line; the 17 arrested activists being paraded before the courts?

Remember the dramatic police media conference at lunchtime that day when they revealed with breathless excitement they had arrested home-grown terrorists and foiled terrorist plans?
Remember all that?

In the Auckland High Court yesterday afternoon it all boiled down to a handful of convictions of four people for technical breaches of the Arms Act. That was it. So after many millions spent during 18 months of surveillance, more millions spent on the prosecution and following 30,000 pages of evidence the police bagged a small number of minor convictions on what one of the defence lawyers described as “holding changes”.

On the more serious charge of being a member of an organised criminal group the jury could not reach even a 10 to one majority verdict (there were 11 jurors).

The firearms convictions were to be expected. The law is worded such that one must have a “lawful purpose” to even hold a gun. The onus is therefore on the person to show they have such a purpose but with the decision of each defendant not to give evidence themselves they gave these convictions to the police. Even so almost half those charges were tossed out in any case.

In the normal course of police work such technical breaches of the Arms Act would have resulted in a police warning – certainly never a high court trial. The most the police could claim from this trial would be half a wooden spoon.

The public have accepted from very early on that this police operation was at best a substantial overreaction to the Urewera training camps. In fact from the very first day the police case began to unravel because only a couple of pig-hunting rifles were found during the initial raids. Just think how the police would have proudly paraded for the TV cameras any arsenal of guns or Molotov cocktails if these had been found. But they found none. They didn’t exist except in the fevered imaginations of over-resourced police tasked with finding terrorists.

A few weeks later the police failed to get approval from the Solicitor General to lay charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. The evidence didn’t justify such charges. Then most of the evidence the police had collected was found to have been illegally gathered anyway and rendered inadmissible in court on the arms charges. Most of the prosecutions had to be abandoned so with the whole case under threat the police introduced a new charge against five defendants – being a member of an organised criminal group – and then successfully argued at the Supreme Court that because this was such a serious charge it justified allowing them to use their illegally obtained evidence on the arms charges as well.

So it’s ironic that the convictions on the arms charges resulted from illegally obtained evidence while the jury did not convict on the more serious charge which was used to justify the police introducing their illegal evidence in the first place.

Having so comprehensively failed at each key point in the case the police nevertheless stooped, in a particularly nasty and vindictive move at the end of the trial, to oppose bail for the four defendants. Another fail.

For the past four years this case has been not about terrorism or keeping the public safe but about how the police can salvage something from the wreckage of their blind misjudgement. If they do decide to prosecute again on the main charge then it will be to continue to try and save some face from this so public debacle.

The best advice is the oldest advice – when you’re in a hole – stop digging.

It’s important to remember that we have before parliament right now another piece of legislation to extend the powers of police and state agencies to search and spy on New Zealanders. Make no mistake – political activists will be the target as they were in this case.

The best outcome of this shambles would be a sceptical, critical public which refuses to give up important freedoms to a state which has the capacity to abuse them so appallingly.

The government should abandon its Search and Surveillance Bill.

The missing word is…

The most astonishing aspect of David Shearer’s first major speech since winning the leadership of the Labour Party last year was what was NOT in it.

I’m not talking about policy detail. It’s easy to agree with most observers that it’s too soon for such announcements from a leader who wants to “rebuild” the party and win the 2014 election.

So no, the missing word was not policy but INEQUALITY.

This is the elephant which occupies New Zealand’s living room. It’s the beast which stalks our streets from Otara to Remuera and every point between.
It’s the single most important political issue facing the country but Shearer gave not a nod to its existence. Labour and National have been studiously avoiding the elephant for decades. They pretend it’s not there and walk miles in any direction to avoid confronting it.

Inequality is now so obscene that the richest 1% own more than three times as much as the poorest half of the country. And it’s rapidly getting worse. The richest 150 New Zealanders (Prime Minister John Key included) last year increased their collective wealth by $7 billion – and most of that was untaxed. The rest of us pay tax on every dollar we earn and every dollar we spend through income tax and GST but in this country where hundreds of thousands of children live in poverty, the more you earn the less tax you pay. GST is particularly iniquitous with low-income New Zealanders spending 14% of their incomes on GST while the rich spend just 5%. Continue reading

Workers pay the price for contracting

It doesn’t take much to understand why the port workers are so opposed to their work being contracted out.
It’s not just that these workers will be forced out of their jobs and made redundant but that we can see the huge social damage from contracting out which has occurred across the New Zealand economy.
Big employers like contracting because they claim it leads to greater efficiency and higher productivity. They say contractors can ensure the job is done at the lowest cost and is the model we should follow wherever possible.
However what they don’t say is that the gains are made simply by undermining the employment conditions of workers.
Under contracting the jobs become lower paid with unstable, unsocial work patterns. Job security disappears as permanent jobs are replaced by casual employment with workers employed on permanent part-time contracts without guaranteed hours of work. Continue reading