Faced with rising food, fuel and housing costs, workers say they need to earn more, and increasingly they are prepared to go on strike to get it, writes Rebecca Macfie

Workers at Winstone Aggregates’ Flat Top quarry arrived on site at the normal start time of 6am last Friday. But instead of climbing into their excavators and loaders and firing up the weighbridge for their standard 11-hour day, they took a vote and walked off the job for 48 hours.

There are only nine workers at the Kaukapakapa site. All are members of First Union and covered by the site’s collective employment agreement. None have ever been on strike before.

“It is quite stressful,” said one of the workers, who asked not to be named. “We didn’t want to go on strike. We have been in negotiations for months now. We thought we’d come to some sort of agreement with the company that we felt was reasonable and they felt was reasonable. But it’s just dragging on and on…We’ve just had enough and we decided we’ve got to do something.”

It was 9am on Friday when Newsroom spoke to him. He and the others had left the site at 7am and gone to a café down the road to wait. They didn’t want to leave the vicinity, because they expected the company to phone them to re-open negotiations and reach a deal that would enable them to get back to work at the busy site.

They sat in the café for four hours, and no-one from the Fletcher Building-owned company called.

“These workers have got good relationships with the manager there, so this was really foreign for them,” says First Union organiser Justin Wallace, who calculates that each worker generates around $321,000 a year for Winstones, around five times more than the average quarry worker’s wage. They work 52 hours a week on average, and are not paid overtime rates except for Saturday work.

The workers’ pay demands are modest, and significantly lower than the current 5.9% CPI inflation. One of the proposals they put to the company was for a two-year pay deal with a 2.5 percent increase in the first year, 3 percent in the second year, and time-and-a-half after 45 hours a week.

The company agreed with the base pay increases, but said it would only pay overtime after 48 hours.

It was that refusal to meet their overtime request – for the sake of a three-hour difference – that tipped Friday’s strike vote. “Workers are realising that the ‘nicely-nicely’ approach isn’t working,” says Wallace. “It’s almost as if companies have a hang-over attitude that ‘you’re lucky to have a job’.”

Fletchers declined to make anyone available for an interview about the strike, instead emailing a statement saying it was “committed to continuing to talk to our people and the union at Flat Top Quarry” and “focused on achieving a positive and timely resolution and to continuing to negotiate in good faith”.

By Monday, the dispute was still unresolved, the workers were back on their machines, and the union had suggested to Winstones that they seek a resolution through mediation.

The Flat Top quarry workers are just one group at one site, but labour leaders say they are reflective of rising frustration after years of minimal pay rises, and a new willingness among workers to strike.

First Union assistant national secretary Louisa Jones says she is noticing a marked shift in mood at worksites she visits. “More and more, I’m finding that people are really feeling the impacts of the cost of living increases. There are huge issues with housing affordability and food affordability … People really want to see much more ambitious wage increases than usual.”

Despite record low unemployment and critical labour shortages in some sectors, there have not been significant pay rises across the board. The labour cost index has crept up slowly, but at 2.6 percent in the year to December it is still less than half the rate of inflation. Moreover, 38 percent of wage and salary earners received no pay rise in the past year, and only 20 percent got an increase of more than 5 percent, which would have kept them within cooee of the rising cost of living.

“We are not really in a cool situation now,” one worker told Newsroom. “All the expenses are going up.” Last Tuesday he walked off the job for the first time in his life, alongside his workmates at the Brambles-owned Chep pallet site at Penrose. “We are all willing to go on strike again,” he said.

The Chep workers are asking for a starting rate of $22.75, the current living wage. Mark Muller, First Union’s assistant secretary for transport, logistics and manufacturing, says there’s a need for a “correction” in wages because workers have been paid below the cost of living for too long. As an essential part of the supply chain, the Chep employees worked through all the Covid lockdowns, and Muller says they have been working almost every weekend.

The union has suggested to the company that the parties enter mediation, but it has a mandate for another strike if there is no resolution.

Lack of profitability is not, on the face of things, an obstacle to higher wages. The Chep plant is part of an Australian operation spanning 50 countries; Brambles New Zealand Ltd’s 2021 financial statements show revenue last year was $88 million, and earnings before interest and tax $17 million.

Similarly, workers at Countdown’s Auckland distribution centres found late last year they couldn’t get a modest deal out of the highly profitable supermarket company without having to withdraw their labour.

They wanted a 4.9 percent pay rise to match what was then the official inflation rate. Countdown – owned by Woolworths, whose New Zealand operations made $361 million before interest and tax last year – said it would pay only 3 percent.

It took a three-day strike by 700 workers at the two Auckland distribution centres before the company would yield to a settlement involving a 5 percent increase this year, followed by 3.9 percent for a nine-month term next year.

Other parts of the private sector are also seeing outbreaks of discontent, in the form of overtime bans, refusals to carry out certain duties, and strikes as short as one hour, such as at Auckland’s Tip Top bread factory last year.

A picket at the Sky City casino in Hamilton. Photo: Supplied

Sky City hospitality workers in Hamilton have gone on strike three times in recent weeks, for around five hours each time; they plan another short strike and rally this Saturday. Their representative, Unite Union’s Joe Carolan, says they want a lift in the starting wage to $23, an increase of about 14 percent. And while there’s much talk of “the Great Resignation”, Carolan says the Sky City workers want to improve their conditions rather than quitting and seeking better pay elsewhere.

At Allied Concrete’s Avondale plant, eight workers voted on Monday morning to reject their employer’s 5 percent pay offer; a similar vote is expected Tuesday among workers at Allied’s Penrose plant. There has been no vote to strike, but the workers have made their mood clear by asking their union to increase their original pay demand.

In Northland, horticulture workers at Seeka told First Union’s Louisa Jones in meetings last week they “are prepared to make a really ambitious claim” in this year’s bargaining. Last year they achieved a shift from minimum wage rates to the living wage – an increase of around 13 percent – but Jones says they have told her: “ ‘That’s just not enough anymore’. Everywhere we go, people are just saying, ‘we need to earn more money’.”

More industrial action is also looming in the state sector, which has already seen strikes by teachers, nurses and doctors in the past three years. On Thursday, the ballot closes for strike action by 10,000 district health board workers who carry out critical tasks such as sterilising surgical equipment, contact tracing, laboratory testing, occupational health and social work. All up, 70 professional groups are covered by the allied, public health, scientific and technical collective employment agreement, which has been in dispute since October 2020. Negotiations formally broke down earlier this month.

Public Service Association organiser Will Matthews says the workers involved have no history of industrial action, but they have “reached boiling point, and Covid-19 is a huge part of that. These are workers who have been absolutely essential to the health sector response, coming to work every day, and they have just had this pay offer that a lot of people on our bargaining team describe as insulting.”

Steve, a sterile services technician, told Newsroom he has never been on strike before, but he believes it’s necessary and is certain the vote will go through. He says his department is massively understaffed, the work involves long hours in PPE, shift work and on-call. It’s skilled work that’s critical to hospitals’ ability to function, yet he has to work a second job to get by. He says there has been no pay rise since 2019.

“The feeling out there is very strong. Speaking to delegates around the country, people say they are sick of the underfunding, and being undervalued…If we don’t take a stand now we never will.”

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