Affco workers vote to strike as meat company first to apply under new bargaining laws

About 1000 meatworkers at eight Affco plants in the North Island have voted to strike for two days next week as the Talley's-owned company became the first under the government's new employment law to apply for an end to bargaining.

The government's amendments to the Employment Relations Act, introduced in March this year, let firms opt out of multi-employer agreements and removed the duty under good faith bargaining for both sides to reach agreement. Affco general manager Rowan Hogg said it had applied to the Employment Relations Authority for an end to the 18 months of bargaining on the collective agreement with the NZ Meat Workers Union after "reaching the stage where there is such a lack of trust and breakdown in the relationship that it is inappropriate to continue to endeavour to reach an agreement."

A court-ordered mediation on the collective agreement ended last week after the company walked away, the union said, and workers have voted to strike next Monday and Tuesday even though it's in the middle of the bobby calf season. The union says at least eight busloads of meatworkers will turn up to Parliament next Tuesday to stage a protest against the company's use of the new employment laws.

The action follows the union's June bid in the Employment Court for an interim injunction against Affco, claiming it was locking out 190 workers at its Rangiuru plant who refused to sign individual contracts rather than the collective agreement. Chief Employment Court Judge Graeme Colgan dismissed the injunction but ordered immediate mediation.

Union national secretary Graham Cooke said Affco workers who predicted the company would be the first to take advantage of the new employment laws have proven to be right.

"Talley's is an outlier in the meat industry in the way it deals with employment relations and health and safety. The public hasn't forgotten its cruel lockout in 2012, which lasted 84 days and caused real hardship to families in poor communities," he said.

Cooke claimed during the current bargaining round the company had added new demands to reduce job security, threatened the union and others with legal action, and bullied staff at work. He said during the mediation Affco had said it wanted to get rid of seniority, something common in the industry, which gives long-time staffers priority for work when the season starts.

"It seems they were just waiting for the law to change, so they could walk away.

If they can't be trusted to treat their workers fairly and safely at work, how can the public trust their brand?" Mr Cooke said.

Mr Hogg rejected the claim, saying Affco was ambivalent about whether workers were on individual or collective agreements but in the face of declining stock numbers and industry over-capacity, the company needed to negotiate new contracts that reflected the competitive industry while still giving workers "better earnings and a longer season."

Mr Cooke alerted Federated Farmers and animal welfare about the potential for bobby calves waiting in pens to be slaughtered so farmers can potentially make alternative plans during the strike.

Mr Hogg said 75% of the workers at the plants were non-union and would be turning up to work next Monday. He questioned the union's claim that 1000 workers were likely to strike but refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality to say how many staff Affco had at the eight North Island plants.

Council of Trade Unions boss Helen Kelly was sent a letter last week by a lawyer understood to be acting for Talley's, which threatened legal action against her and the CTU if they continued in "the dissemination of misleading information designed to cause economic harm to the company." Affco warned that it had been advised Ms Kelly planned to lead a protest and/or picketing of Affco and Talley's plants and perhaps customers, which it said would cause economic loss and reputational demand and was unlawful.

Ms Kelly's response was this post on Twitter yesterday: "Oh I am so scared. I won't be buying Talley's products until they settle a collective agreement with Affco workers."

(BusinessDesk)