After a year-long dispute, the New Zealand Meat Workers’ Union (MWU) appears to have suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Talleys family, owners of AFFCO, one of New Zealand’s largest meat companies.
In early August, after delaying bargaining since 2014, Talleys applied to the employment authority to have bargaining called off and the existing agreement declared void. This was possible due to a law change by the National Government in April of this year. Talleys were the first employer to make such an application. Whether or not the application would have been accepted is unknown, as members of the Meat Workers’ Union voted to strike in response.
On the Sunday evening before the strike a brief statement from the MWU announced the strike had been cancelled, with no further explanation given. In the absence of any official explanation the story emerged in the following days, through word of mouth amongst trade unionists.
The MWU has a branch structure, with each branch based around a number of plants. Each branch democratically elects its own president and secretary and other staff, who are fulltime union officials. Each plant (called a sub-branch) also elects its own president and secretary, who remain working at the plant.
Over the weekend before the strike, Talleys took the MWU presidents and secretaries from each of the AFFCO plants to an undisclosed location to meet with the leaders of several iwi (Maori tribe) corporations. The national executive of the MWU were not informed, and neither were the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), who had been providing support to the MWU over the dispute. The outcome of the meeting was that MWU members at the AFFCO plants would be withdrawing from the MWU to form a new union, based on Maori tikanga (Maori customs, in ‘partnership’ with Talleys and iwi corporations. In other words, the intent was to form a scab union. The MWU national executive and CTU were informed on the Sunday evening.
Neither Talleys nor the MWU or CTU have publicly confirmed what has happened, but social media has revealed some of the confusion experienced by rank and file union members, who have posted messages in support of their representatives and expressed frustration at a lack of support from the MWU national executive. Of course, it is likely these workers have received distorted reports of the agreement, representing the agreement as a positive solution to the prolonged dispute.
In 2012 the MWU survived a bruising dispute and lockout with AFFCO due to considerable financial support from working class people across the country. The lockout ended when the heads of several iwi corporations stepped in to ensure their farming businesses weren’t further affected by the dispute. At the time this was seen as positive by many meatworkers themselves, who were suffering considerable financial hardship and also by trade union leaders, who incorrectly saw iwi bosses as potential allies against Pakeha (European) bosses. The fact that the meatworkers themselves were largely Maori meant that many interpreted the intervention as solidarity between Maori, rather than bosses protecting their own interests.
The Talleys family have a long-history of anti-union activity, bullying and brutality in their businesses. They are major donors to the ruling National Party, but also to Labour Party candidates in electorates where their businesses are based. Representatives of the Maori Party have also allegedly participated in the negotiations.
The reliance of the MWU on anti-worker employment laws and stalled negotiations is what has opened up the space for the Talleys family to entice workers out of their union. Although this responsibility lies firmly at the feet of the MWU leadership due to it’s failed strategy, it would be a huge mistake for meatworkers to abandon the MWU to set up a new entity favourable to the Talleys family, iwi corporate leaders and opportunist politicians. Such a move would undermine the basic concept of unionism – the collective organisation of workers to push back against their employers.
Instead, workers across the country need to revive our unions through class struggle – with workers ready to use industrial action to achieve our aims, instead of relying on increasing anti-worker employment laws. This requires a political struggle within our unions to replace the class-collaborationist approach of the current leaderships with genuine socialist ideas to rebuild the union movement with strategies and tactics that can win.
By Joe Kelly