Affco tried to gag union badmouthing Talleys as condition of meat contract talks

 Affco Holdings demanded that the Meatworkers Union cease badmouthing members of the Talley family

Affco Holdings, the meat company owned by Talley's Group, demanded that the Meatworkers Union cease badmouthing members of the Talley family as a precondition of resuming contract negotiations at its Land Meats subsidiary, an Employment Relations Authority ruling says.

The determination, dated September 22, says Land Meat (LMNZ) breached its duty of good faith to the union and imposed a fine of $15,000 and ordered the company to use its best endeavours to begin the process of bargaining in an effective and efficient manner. It is the latest in a long-running battle between the union and meat companies controlled by Talley's Group over collective contracts.

The dispute dates back to the Land Meat NZ Limited Slaughter Collective Employment Contract 2013-2014 which expired on July 1, 2014, and the union lodged proceedings with the ERA in November 2015. The parties were unable to resolve their differences in mediation. The determination accepts that John Woodhead, the union's Whanganui branch secretary, made multiple attempts to get negotiations started, including "a dozen" calls to the manager to LMNZ's Whanganui plant manager John Fitness, and meetings arranged with Affco director Dane Gerrard, who then failed to turn up.

The company had sent a bargaining process agreement (BPA) to the union in June last year but the union didn't accept its conditions. Then in August 2015, counsel for LMNZ Graham Malone wrote to Woodhead saying the union had acted in bad faith against Affco and its subsidiaries in the previous 18 months including comments from Graham Cooke, national secretary of the NZ Meat Workers and Related Trades Union, that conditions at Affco plants were "third world."

Mr Woodhead took this to be an attempt "to draw in the applicant's Wanganui branch into the other disputes between the applicant and Affco Group," the determination says. The demand that the union cease making derogatory media releases, including on social media, were raised again by Mr Gerard in a reworked BPA sent to the union in May this year.

In his brief of evidence, Cooke alleged the company's "anti-union strategy" was due to Talley's Group joint managing director and shareholder Michael Talley. He had either personally or through the companies he controlled "systematically and knowingly ignored and violated employment law" and the Talley's regarded penalties imposed "simply as part of the cost of implementing this strategy of de-unionising their workplace" and "a general business expense," Mr Cooke claimed.

"They continually and routinely breach employment law in complete disregard to the court's rulings, and constantly devise new ways to circumvent very simple and basic employment rights," Mr Cooke said in his brief of evidence.

Appearing before the ERA, Gerard referred to media reports citing the union making "malicious" and "derogatory" statements about Affco, Talleys and the Talley family.

QC Peter Churchman, for the union, said the company displayed "calculated, cynical behaviour which demonstrates contempt for the law" while Mr Malone for the company argued it had used "best endeavours" to resume negotiations and saying the union's Woodhead had only made two enquiries about bargaining during the period in question.

However, ERA member Trish MacKinnon said she preferred Mr Woodhead's evidence of numerous attempts to contact the company including about a dozen calls.

She noted "an inexplicably lengthy period of non-responsiveness" by LMNZ and wasn't satisfied the company used its best endeavours to enter into a BPA.

"It is well known that LMNZ's parent company and the union have other proceedings before the authority as well as the Employment Court and the Court of Appeal," Ms MacKinnon says in the determination. " However, these are not valid reasons for these proceedings to be used as an excuse to avoid bargaining for a new LMNZ collective agreement."

She called the company's insistence that the union refrain from derogatory media releases "a significant and unreasonable stumbling block."

"LMNZ's failure to engage in any meaningful way with the union over a BPA after the union had initiated bargaining was a deliberate, serious and sustained breach of good faith over a period of several months," she said. "I find the imposition of a penalty is justified." She declined a union request that it receive part of the fine to cover its costs.


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