Ports of Auckland has lifted its lockout notice, allowing stevedores back to work to alleviate the city’s “severely affected” supply chain after revealing a rift over strategy in its boardroom had resulted in the resignation of director Rob Campbell.
Chief executive Tony Gibson, who has copped some criticism over his strategy to contract out wharf workers, got the backing of the board for what appears to be a fresh approach, involving returning the unionised workforce to the port as quickly as possible and placing the outsourcing objective “on hold”.
Chairman Richard Pearson, who unions have accused of being “out of control” in the long-running saga, said the board was “fully supportive” of the approach announced today, just under two hours after a statement confirming Campbell’s departure.
Maritime Union members will return to work no later than Good Friday, April 6, and continue to be paid in the interim. The port is also going back into talks with the union to try to get the “changes we need through a new collective”.
The port appears to have bowed to pressure from its owners also, saying in today’s statement that is “has listened to the wishes of the court, as well as the views of the mayor and all other stakeholders”.
Gibson said the company “was going back to the bargaining table with a fresh determination to talk to MUNZ and get the collective the port needs to operate efficiently”.
But Gibson signalled the move was only a temporary reprieve for workers because the port is still determined to overhaul “historic work practices and restrictions” that have undermined Ports of Auckland’s competitiveness.
The contracting proposal “is still there, but for now it is on hold”, he said.
Pearson accepted Campbell’s resignation, saying the decision came from “differences in views on board strategies”.
The board declined further comment and Campbell didn’t immediately return calls.
The port’s shareholder Auckland Council Investments Limited (ACIL) will appoint Campbell’s replacement. Mayor Len Brown wrote to ACIL yesterday setting out the Auckland Council’s expectations of the port owner in the dispute.
Today’s change of tack by the port company comes a day after Employment Court Judge Barry Travis granted an injunction to prevent the port pursuing its desire to contract out the workforce, saying “the overall justice of the case required the defendant (Ports of Auckland) be prevented from exercising its dismissal proposals until its right to be able to do so, in light of the statutory requirements, is dealt with by the substantive hearing”.
That hearing is now set down for May 16, with Auckland Chambers of Commerce head Michael Barnett calling for efforts to bring the date forward because of the escalating cost of the dispute for Auckland businesses.
“With settlement now unlikely until at least late May, the dispute is no longer just about the Port and the Maritime Union. It is becoming an issue affecting the health of many thousands of businesses directly and of the New Zealand economy as a whole,” he said, citing price increases announced this week by affected port customers.
“Between now and mid-May there is a likelihood of further cost and price increases associated with the dispute that will run into many millions of dollars.”
Maritime Union workers had been due to return to work last week after the port’s legal strategy collapsed in the Employment Court, but the port issued a lockout notice immediately afterwards and reasserted its intention to seek competitive stevedoring services.