Since 19th October meat workers at the Canterbury Meat Processors Rangitikei lamb-processing plant have been locked out by the company in a bid to force them to accept new rates of pay and changes to shift organisation, changes that amount to a massive 20% pay cut.
Workers, already working minimal hours due to the off season, were forced to take annual leave in the week prior to the lockout. As annual leave is paid at an average of the previous 4 weeks’ earnings this put the workers in a very precarious financial situation. During this week the company contacted workers individually trying to get them to sign the new individual contracts and leave the union. This is the kind of “bargaining” that the National government’s changes to employment law in their last term is promoting. The company succeeded in getting over 100 workers to sign and return to work, many of them migrants who feared for their job security and immigration status. 111 workers stood strong in the face of the company’s intimidatory tactics and have remained locked out since.
The workers are members of the New Zealand Meat Workers and Related Trades Union. The union has been negotiating to renew the collective agreement at the plant since April. Since the lockout began the union has maintained a permanent picket line. The CTU has taken over the running of the solidarity campaign which has seen over $100,000 in donations so far from NZ and international unions and street collections up and down the country. Delegations of workers from other NZMWU branches and other unions have visited the picket line at the plant which is situated on State Highway 1, between Bulls and Marton, in the Manawatu. On 17th November over 50 NZMWU members from branches across the country converged on the plant as well as members of many other unions, joining the locked out workers in a 200-strong mass picket. Rather than let the scabs confront the picket the bosses closed the plant down for the day, a major victory for the locked out workers.
CMP is a subsidiary company of ANZCO Foods, New Zealand’s 5th largest exporter with annual revenue of $1.25 billion and 3000 employees. ANZCO is the major supplier of burger patties to McDonalds in New Zealand. The CTU campaign is now focussed on putting pressure on ANZCO’s major customers in an effort to get them to bring ANZCO back to the negotiating table. On 3rd December informational pickets were held outside McDonalds stores nationwide to raise funds and awareness of the lockout. ANZCO is also a major supplier of chilled lamb to Waitrose, an upmarket British supermarket chain that markets itself around a commitment to high ethical standards in its supply chain. One of the locked out workers, Amanda Chase, travelled to Britain to address the Unite union conference to secure their support for a campaign to put pressure on Waitrose. Amanda returned to NZ with a commitment from Unite to picket Waitrose if they fail to address the dispute at CMP and a substantial donation to the lockout fund. Waitrose have since made an appeal to ANZCO to return to meaningful negotiation.
The prospect of other workers striking, or taking some other form of industrial action, in solidarity with the locked out CMP workers is minimal as the Employment Relations Act makes all forms of secondary action unlawful. So far, not many groups of workers have been willing to challenge this legal ban on effective solidarity action. This lack of industrial power is being compensated for by running the kind of media-driven corporate campaign that we currently see the CTU engaged in. While a corporate campaign may be able to gain some traction it relies on the ability to influence a media environment that is hostile to working class interests.
The current strength of workers’ organisation in the meat industry is a far cry from the militancy displayed by meat workers from the 1960s to the 1980s. Historically meat workers have been at the forefront of class conscious industrial unionism in NZ, alongside the watersiders and miners. In 1972 meat workers accounted for 56.1% of the total working days lost to the capitalist class through strikes despite only making up 2.6% of the total workforce. The meat workers militancy continued into the 1980s but the tables were starting to turn in favour of the employers. In 1986 there was a major national strike in the industry, the longest strike in 30 years, which lasted 8 weeks in Auckland and 6 weeks through the rest of the country. The strike was called in response to employers attempts to introduce shift work into the national award. Along with the move to shift work, introduction of new technology into the plants became a major issue spurring industrial conflict in the eighties. The election of the fourth Labour government in 1984 brought about a major change to industrial relations in NZ, with the government stepping back from its previous interventionist role and hastening the dismantling of the system of national awards. Many of the big urban freezing works, plants that had large, well-organised workforces with a tradition of militancy, were closed down during this period. In 1981, AFFCO’s Southdown works off the Great South Road in Auckland was closed, followed by the Gear Meat Company in Petone and W & R Fletcher’s Patea works in 1982. Shortland (Auckland), Islington (Christchurch), Burnside (Dunedin) and Waingawa (Masterton) all followed.
The Meat Industry Association’s lead industrial relations executive, Ann Knowles, was directly involved in drawing up the National Party’s new IR legislation which became the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. As is well known the ECA decimated union organisation; union membership fell by 50% in the 1990s, the private sector being worst hit. Union organisation in the North Island meat industry was broken by the employers’ strategy of closing down the large well-organised urban plants and setting up new, smaller, ‘greenfields’ plants in rural areas where a new and largely inexperienced workforce was recruited. Workers were hired on individual contracts, completely sidelining the union. This situation didn’t change until the advent of the fifth Labour government’s Employment Relations Act 2000, which has rehabilitated unions and collective bargaining to some extent. Union organisation in the South Island fared much better. The South Island was subject to much less restructuring and rationalisation than the North Island and retained most of its membership in relatively large plants. The South Island union managed to retain around 90% density during the ECA era. The current union was formed out of an amalgamation in 2005 of the North Island’s Meat Union Aotearoa and the much stronger South Island-based New Zealand Meatworkers’ Union.
Since the ECA was passed there has been a massive decline in industrial action in New Zealand. To date, there has been very little significant change in the levels of strike action after the passing of the Employment Relations Act, although there has been a revival of collective bargaining in some industries.. The current National government has passed several amendments to the ERA, weakening the unions’ ability to successfully negotiate collective agreements. More changes are planned in their second term which will undermine the power of the unions still further. The brutal lockout at ANZCO’s CMP Rangitikei plant should be seen in this context as the start of a new employers’ offensive to further attack the working class in this country. We will see more of the same if ANZCO is allowed to succeed. Workers need to rediscover effective ways to struggle if we are to start to turn the tide. The widest possible solidarity is necessary for us to stand a fighting chance. An injury to one is an injury to all!
This article was written before a settlement was reached in the dispute between the ANZCO-owned subsidiary company, Canterbury Meat Processors, and members of the NZ Meat Workers Union employed at CMP’s Rangitikei plant. The lockout ended just before Christmas 2011 with a deal that, while fending off most of CMP’s demands for concessions, still remains a setback for the workers at the plant. All non-cost conditions that the company demanded be removed were put back in the agreement but workers had to agree to accept cuts to their hourly rates. Over $150,000 was donated to support the locked out workers but no industrial action was taken by any other groups of workers, including those employed by the same company working in different plants on different collective agreements. The ability of companies to divide their workforces in ways like this is crucial to their strategy of keeping wages low. Overcoming these divisions within the working class is likewise a crucial task. Workers must link up and broaden struggle across arbitrary union divisions. The law against solidarity action must be challenged practically by workers taking control of their own struggles.