AFFCO able to operate despite lock out

Interested observers of the argument between AFFCO and its unionised meat workers may be confused by a state of affairs which results in a portion of the workforce being locked out, another percentage going on strike in support of their colleagues, and the rest of the workforce being able to keep production going.


In the (bad) old days a strike was just that – all the workers went on strike and production came to a sudden halt. So how on earth can close to half the workforce keep working and maintain production at a satisfactory level? Times have changed since the 1980s and 1990s, assisted progressively by the Employment Contracts Act, then the Employment Relations Bill.


Under present legislation unions are still permitted to exist and can negotiate workplace agreements under a workplace or collective contract, but employers may also engage workers on individual employment agreements (IEAs) which are negotiated directly between company and worker without union involvement. As important as the flexibility this provides, hopefully to the benefit of both parties, is the fact that the unions cannot strike on principle, if some of their work colleagues are not union members.


According to AFFCO the key issue at the heart of their current disagreement with the union is the freedom to manage the company, as opposed to having terms and conditions imposed on the company by the union. Key demands which have consistently presented an obstacle to achieving a settlement of the core collective agreement include manning levels, processing speeds and removal of seniority or the principle of last in first out where lay offs are involved.


Obviously from AFFCO’s perspective, it is a lot easier and more efficient to have its workforce on an IEA which enables the company to negotiate manning levels and tally speeds, as well as deciding which workers it wishes to retain without the seniority provision dictating who stays or goes. But these matters are very dear to the heart of the union, as they are seen as key bargaining chips in their negotiations with employers. The danger is if unions continue to lose members, they will find themselves losing power and influence over their remaining members.


I understand AFFCO is able to handle its present throughput without problems and, in fact, the company is keen to emphasise its continuing ability to service supplier and customer needs. It is being assisted by the relatively slow kill pattern this season, with no real lamb peak anticipated and a late start to the beef kill when the cull cows get underway, probably later than usual because of the plentiful availability of feed. Some union members have already left the union and signed an IEA since the lock out began last Wednesday.


All AFFCO’s North Island plants which are the ones covered by the Aotearoa branch of the NZ Meat Workers Union are currently operating at or above half the nominal capacity; and this is adequate to handle available stock flows. Clearly the situation will get a bit tighter when the beef kill ramps up in April and May, but I sense AFFCO is determined to see this one out, probably believing with some justification it will never have a better chance of achieving the workplace environment it wants.


Farmers appear to be fully supportive of AFFCO’s stance, although there is no pressure on processing at the moment, so this may change when they are faced with a queue for space in the autumn and early winter. Apart from CMP Marton, there have been no other union disagreements for quite some time.


However other companies, particularly multi plant operators with collective agreements, will be watching developments with interest. They may be happy to pick up any livestock that AFFCO finds it can’t handle with a reduced workforce, but they might be even happier, if this stand means the meat industry can move towards a more efficient relationship with its workers.


Before the Meat Workers Union gets stuck into me for being a union basher, I make the point IEAs must be fair to both parties and if the union wants to retain its influence, it should look seriously at a more modern approach to its core collective negotiations. This could be a win win for both sides.

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One Response to “AFFCO able to operate despite lock out”

  1. Rural round-up « Homepaddock Says:

    […] AFFCO able to operate despite lock-out – Allan Barber: […]

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