From Toll to the Dole
"Take it or leave it" was the choice given to the cooks and stewards of the Cook Strait ferry Arahura. The new transnational owners of the ferries, Toll Holdings, told the crew to accept a big cut to pay and conditions or be made redundant. The live-on-board positions were to be disestablished, with those made redundant forced into reapplying for their jobs in competition with other Toll employees and external recruits.
According to Maritime Union Wellington seafarers secretary, Mike Williams, Tolls ultimatum breached the Employment Relations Act because the crews contract was yet to expire. "Ive never seen the crew so upset . Nothing like this has happened in 15 years . its the company taking action against the crew without discussing it first" (1). Their employment contract had four months to run.
Courtesy of the crew, the stern railing of the ferry carried the warning, "From Toll to the Dole". Despite seafarers having a reputation for making sturdy knots, one of the ropes attaching the banner came loose, so the banner could only be seen when the wind was blowing the right way. But a loose knot turned out to be a cunning media strategy, as the Dominion Post printed a photo and an explanation of their plight (2).
At present the stewards on the Arahura work on a roster of seven days on and seven days off. While they are working their seven-day shift they live on board the ship. Toll attempted to impose a new roster of six days on and three off, and told the union that, employees were to report for work each day in Wellington instead of being able to live on the ship. While more stewards would be required to fill the new roster, Toll announced that the pay of the stewards would be cut by around $6,000 per annum. Stewards currently earn between $40,000 and $50,000 depending on seniority (1). The effective pay cut under the changes would be even larger, given that staff would be now have to live permanently in Wellington, one of NZ most expensive cities. The dispute does not affect the Aratere and the Lynx because they already have walk on-walk off contracts. Williams said the union was happy to discuss a new roster, but only within the context of contract negotiations.
The timing of Tolls ultimatum was particularly irresponsible, as any strike action was likely to disrupt the Queens Birthday holiday (June) plans of a number of travellers. Had the public come aware of Tolls dreadful mistreatment of its staff, a strike may have gained considerable public sympathy.
Toll upped the ante further by applying to the Employment Court for an order to prevent the crew from taking industrial action over Queens Birthday Weekend. A strike was only averted by the actions of the Maritime Union, who met with affected staff and reached agreement with Toll executives to sit down with a mediator. (3). But while discussions in mediation continued, Toll made an application to the Employment Court to argue for its right to restructure the wages and conditions of the Arahura crew.
Toll Attacks Auckland Rail Workers
In the same week Auckland rail workers faced an attempt by Toll to weaken the Multi- Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) that covers a large chunk of their workforce. Following the decision of the Auckland Regional Council to award the suburban rail operation to Connex, 116 Tranz Rail staff were to transfer over to Connex, which would become their new employer. Given that these workers were already covered by a multi-employer agreement, the most logical step was to make Connex an employer party to the agreement. Connex agreed. But Toll challenged the right of Connex to become a party to the agreement and the right of workers to remain on their present collective contract. Meanwhile Toll pushed ahead with plans to amalgamate with Tranz Scenic (the company which operates passenger services, Australian-owned until recently) by July 4th, in an attempt to turn the MECA into a single employer collective agreement. On June 4th Toll attempted to bully workers off the contract by sending them letters of termination, to be followed by separate letters from Connex offering employment. In July 2004,Toll won an Employment Court ruling that it was not obliged, under the original deal, to offer another MECA once it took over. The Court reserved its decision on whether the 102 letters of termination were valid.
Tolls actions brought condemnation from Ross Wilson, President of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). "The decision to challenge the right of Auckland rail workers to remain under their existing collective agreement demonstrates a complete disregard for their rights and integrity of the agreement which Toll Holdings took over from Tranz Rail. Wading in with unilateral roster changes on the ferry and attacking the biggest multi-employer collective agreement in New Zealand all in one week is either a deliberate move to provoke industrial disputes or a heavy handed Aussie approach to industrial relations" (4).
Wayne Butson, General Secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union said: "I am sick to the back teeth with the absolute arrogance of Toll NZ . We are confronting an attitude and a mindset and a philosophy that we have not seen since the dark days of the Employment Contracts Act" (New Zealand Herald, 18/6/04, "Toll acting the bully says union").
Wilson characterised Tolls behaviour as "unwelcome bully boy tactics", and to his credit related the issues directly to foreign control. "They are picking on a loyal workforce which has already been through a rough time with other foreign owners" (4).