A New PR Union at the Port

So Ports of Auckland can sign collective agreements after all. It just did so with a new “union” called PortPro, which apparently has 33 members. (Auckland Now!, on the Stuff site,  has better coverage than the Herald, so far. Though this earlier report, from September, is interesting in raising good questions about who’s behind the “union”.)

NBR actually has some (more would be good) reporting on something I was wondering about, writing: “Ports of Auckland could find itself in breach of its good faith obligations to the Maritime Union by signing a collective agreement with a rival new union, an employment lawyer says.”

Setting up “company” or “yellow” unions is, of course, a tried and trusted tactic in busting unions, which it’s clear POAL is engaged in. The Port of Tauranga has several of these unions, which I briefly described a few months ago in a Werewolf piece on the so-called Port of Tauranga model. These “unions” offer the bosses a lot of advantages. First there’s the obvious one of weakening the union that the employer is intent on busting by siphoning off members who can later work as scabs; second, by making agreements that are better and cheaper for the employer; third, as academic James Reveley has pointed out, they’re great for PR. And this point is actually the most important, and the one MUNZ will need to work hardest to counter.

Reveley, for example, wrote about a 2001 dispute at South Island ports that was portrayed in the mainstream media as being a demarcation dispute between two unions. He quoted NBR, which described it as “about an entrenched union trying to muscle aside another union and hold back progress on New Zealand wharves”. One of them was the Amalgamated Stevedore’s Union, which isn’t CTU affiliated and whose membership rules specifically refer to employees of the labour hire firm New Zealand Associates Limited — that is, a company specific union.

But whatever the facts of the matter, both will be called unions by the employer, by the “union” and by the mainstream media, end of story. That’s not the place to engage this fight.

You can see the all-important PR advantage at work already, with POAL lavishing heapings of praise on the new “union”, and right-wing, anti-union commentators and bloggers reinforcing the union vs. union narrative. They are also already presaging freedom of speech issues, whereby the new kid on the block will be bullied by the nasty old CTU-affiliated union.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the new “union”, and at how these things have played out in the past. In Tauranga, the two unaffiliated (aka company) “unions” are the Surfside Employees Association (SEA) and the above-mentioned Amalgamated Stevedores Union (ASU). Surfside’s rules, for example, say “membership of the Association shall be open to any person who is employed or engaged to be employed as a stevedore by the firm Independent Stevedoring Ltd (ISL) and as the Committee shall from time to time decide”. But it’s actually hard to find out much about these unions, and that’s something the real unions can highlight.

I read up on the new PortPro “union’s” membership rules, which are publicly available via the Societies and Trusts Web site. Just go to the search engine and type in PortPro. (Everyone engaged in this fight should read those incorporation documents from top to bottom.) The membership clauses don’t mention the ports at all, although PortPro’s “Objects”  state it is “an apolitical organisation established to further the interests of employees of Ports of Auckland Limited.”

These are PortPro’s membership rules:

5.1 The members of PortPro shall be the signatories to these Rules together with those other eligible employees who apply and are accepted for membership by the Executive.

5.2 All applications for membership shall be made to the Executive in writing signed by the applicant and shall be in such form and contain such information as the Executive may from time to time prescribe. Subject to Rule 5.3 an eligible employee shall be deemed to be a member of PortPro from the date the employee’s application is received by the Executive.

5.3 The Executive can refuse, or accept subject to special conditions relating to the payment of fees, any application which it believes on reasonable grounds is made only to access an employment contract/agreement settlement.

NOTE: This rule is aimed at employees who have previously joined PortPro shortly before a collective agreement settlement and who have shortly thereafter ceased to be a member.

That last one, plus the note, is interesting! They must have had a few workers wanting to sign on and sign off again.

I’m not a lawyer and not wildly familiar with Incorporated Societies, but there’s no mention of wharves or the waterfront – maybe you don’t even need to work at the port or in the industry to be a member. MUNZ surely knows who these 33 members being touted in the media are and whether or not they are port workers – if not, they could look into what’s going on by checking the 15 whose names and addresses are listed on the incorporation papers online. It’s public information.

There society’s goals are definitely worth reading in detail. This one, for example, is interesting:

4.1.2: To facilitate access to other employment-related services such as representation in personal grievance proceedings, without necessarily providing or funding these services.

OK, so you’re going to offer the kinds of services real unions provide, but “without necessarily providing” them.

And here’s one the company will like:

4.1.5: To work constructively with the management of Ports of Auckland to the advantage of both parties.

It would also be worth asking the new union for a list of its executive officers, info about its fees, membership application forms for more info on what membership does entail, what services it will provide etc.

One more thing: the PortPro society was actually being set up as long ago as May (you can see a 24 May 2012 date stamp on the rules), not a month ago, as the Auckland Now! article states. Its application for incorporation was received in June and it is dated on the site as being incorporated in July. Fifteen individuals are listed as the inaugural members, as noted above, including Grant Lane, who is the chairman. The new “union” will have its AGM every July.

If MUNZ wants to make sure PortPro doesn’t turn into a giant PR victory for POAL, it would definitely be worth its while to find out a bit more about this “union”. There are lots of things Incorporated Societies have to do and have to make public. I’m sure MUNZ has the expertise to look into what those things are and start working on making sure the new “union” is providing all the info it needs to supply. If the anti-union people start making noise about freedom of speech etc. etc. maybe MUNZ could counter with some calls for more transparency from the new union.

And maybe some of the Save Our Port people might like to apply to join PortPro. I doubt they’ll be let in, but the exercise might be an interesting one, especially the rejection letters.

PortPro could be a nice opportunity for some fun and creative thinking.

Oh, and by the way, last time I looked, no one had snapped up PortPro.org.nz etc. domain  names.

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