Leaflet reprinted in Class Struggle 50 May-June 2003
On the 28th of May 2003, it was announced in a joint press release by the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union and Carter Holt Harvey that the 3–month long strike at Kinleith pulp and paper mill, was over.
The settlement that was eventually reached by both parties, resulted from a period that saw the exhausting of 4 mediators and threats of legal action by CHH against the EPMU and individual workers.
When EPMU National Secretary Andrew Little stated in the press release that the health and safety issues at the heart of the unions concerns had been clarified to the unions satisfaction and that ratification by workers spelled the return to work, the question on the lips of workers was, “How many concessions had been made by the union in regards to the conditions that existed in the previous collective agreement that expired 2 years earlier?”
In order to answer the question, it is necessary to consider the comment made by Kinleith Chief Executive and CHH “hatchet man” Brice Landman after the settlement when he said that Kinleith had the chance to move forward again on a “sustainable basis”. First of all, the sustainability that Landman is referring to is a function of the necessary labour required at minimum cost to maximize profits sufficient enough to head off the effects of trading in a depressed market. In other words – the control of labour. This is an argument well understood by union negotiators conditioned with an “economism” mindset. The problem for workers is that it lays the way open for compromises and concessions that always favour the bosses.
The two key areas that were won by the company and prime reasons for CHH’s move against the union where the all-up “salarisation” of pay structures and the final say in the promotion and appointments of senior staff. Calling them concessions would be an understatement.
The “red herring” of the company wanting production workers to replace the full time professional fire service amounted to CHH using an unrealistic proposition to apply leverage in a trade-off against the union so that eventually the
salary and promotion issues could be brought in. The cost of maintaining the Fire service amounts to less than the salary of CHH half owners International Paper CEO John Dillon’s US$8.96million, the result of a 62% pay rise last year even though IP lost a net sum of US$880 million.
Adding yet more “red herrings”, legal action against the EPMU and senior Kinleith delegate James “Whisky” Hastie, were instigated by CHH for supposed damages from earlier strikes. The attempt to extend the lawsuit against a further 6 workers was described as “tactical industrial strategy” by EPMU lawyer Dr Rodney Harrison. Whichever way one looks at the strategy used by CHH, it clearly had the effect of pressuring the union to accept the new conditions of employment.
A further example of tactical manipulation against the union was CHH’s refusal to settle the long drawn out negotiations over 2 years for a new collective agreement, because it wanted to exhaust all of the union’s resources to the point that workers would settle individually on the company’s terms. When laid-off maintenance workers were rehired by ABB Contractors, it was on an individual basis, though some remained members of the EPMU, a right protected under law.
Voices from the Rank and File
CHH’s serious lack of “Good Faith” reminiscent of the bad old days under the ECA seems to have done it no harm at all. Political non interference especially by local MP and Minister of Defense Mark Burton who was more sympathetic to the company; highlighted an expression by Bill (not his real name), one of the striking workers, when he said that the Labour Party was no longer a workers Party. It had caused him and others to question the role of the EPMU as an affiliate of the Labour Party. He went on to say that he could not understand why the dispute had dragged on for as long as it did and why some workers were saying that they could smell a rat, but could not put a finger on it.
Bob (not his real name) a veteran of 33 years at the mill, said none of the bosses who run Kinleith actually live in Tokoroa.
“Landman and the rest of them come from Taupo, Rotorua and Cambridge; they don’t belong to the local community or live in the immediate environs. It’s them and us as far as I’m concerned. Bugger the lot of them I say!”
Rex (again not his real name) one of the site delegates and almost 30 years at the mill had this to say.
“The level of support that we have been getting from locals, and workers from other unions and work sites has been great. A couple of tonnes of spuds were sent from some watersiders over in Tauranga who ended up dumping their company union for a proper one. We received plenty of food stuffs from all over to be distributed among all the affected workers and their families not to mention the wild pork and meat hunted locally by some of the boys when they’re not on protest camp duty. The really amazing thing though, has been the nearly $10,000 that we have been receiving from supporters each week during the strike. What you get to appreciate during a “blue” (strike/dispute) such as ours, is the amount of solidarity within the rank and file and its importance. No doubt being rural and isolated helps to amplify the effect of that support. But it shows that real strength for all workers can only come when we are all united. Some of the blokes who remember the bitter split after “91”when the bulk of Kinleith joined the “Engineers” (EPMU), some of us were a little embarrassed when a “Woodies” (NDU) delegation came over from Tasman Pulp and Paper to show solidarity with us. If the shoe was on the other foot, we would go and support them in similar circumstances.”
Joe (not his real name) now retired having spent most of his working life at the mill as a “Pulpy” and not an “Engineer”, reflects on the real characters of the union movement who were the towers of strength.
“Quite simply they were the core of the Rank and File. They never occupied positions of official office, more a limitation of their lack of education, I reckon. But given the right political direction some of them could have become revolutionaries. I remember wanting to belt the crap out of union sell-out bureaucrat Ray Hamilton years ago and feeling the anger that was there and its still there. Characters like Hamilton are still with us today running unions like they were their personal little empires.”
Where to now?
When union-busting American forestry company International Paper bought into CHH more than a decade ago, it did so quite conscious of the fact that the ECA of the day provided the right environment for it to exploit the fast growing forests to supply the rapidly rising demand in Asia. Through its practice in the US and Mexico of forcing the closure of mills to counter unions and militant workers, it thought that applying the same methods in NZ would effect similar results if it thought that its interests were being threatened.
We have seen in the last 10 years the slashing of Kinleith’s work force from nearly 2000 down to 270, pulp and paper production at record levels - way in excess of 500,000 tonnes, the longer hours and accompanying stress for the workers. The rate of worker exploitation has increased 8 fold with the acquisition of machinery bought as part of a $900 million up-grade over the last 13 years. The profit returns on investment last year amounted to $137 million or less than 7% of the injected capital which was more reflective of the depressed international commodity prices at the time.
IP/ CHH finds itself in the undreamed of position (from a capitalist point of view) of existing at a time when the lone super-power in the world, the US, has the means to force economic conditions on workers (militarily if necessary), favourable to grossly exploitative Tran-National Corporations. The US conquest of Iraq is the best illustration of what can be expected where it is dictating the terms to bring its workers under its thumb.