A Broader Union

Can an iwi-trade union alliance help change the economic equation in favour of workers?

By Alison McCulloch

With all eyes focused on Turangawaewae and the water rights hui late last month, another gathering of iwi leaders a few days later in Tauranga that could also have far-reaching implications slipped by with a lot less fanfare. Prompted by the role leaders from a handful of North Island iwi played in bringing the 12-week Affco meat works dispute to an end in May, the Council of Trade Unions and its Runanga brought together officials from its main affiliates, a smattering of Māori leaders as well as union members and delegates with the goal of forging a partnership to work in the interests of low-wage workers. It’s an exciting prospect for unions, harnessing Māori economic might on behalf of what one iwi leader referred to as “the downtrodden”. And while the Affco dispute provided a concrete example of how such a partnership can work, the challenge will be applying it to other industries and situations.


Affco hit the headlines at the end of February when, after 18 months of negotiations over a collective agreement, around 750 meat workers at five North Island plants were locked out of their workplaces. Affco, which was taken over by the Motueka-based Talley’s Group in 2006, was open about its desire to rein in the union, stating in a media release that management was “seeking to draw a line on Union influence in the workplace”. It pointed to five main issues, including its right to determine staffing and speed of process lines, problems over dispute resolution, random drug testing, and new employee training.

From a worker perspective, that translated as union busting, as one veteran of the strike from Affco’s Horotiu plant near Hamilton told the Tauranga hui. “They had one reason, they had one goal … to smash the union,” the worker said. “Despite all the stuff you read in the media that was it. Break the union.”

Graham Cooke, general secretary of the Meat Workers Union, said the key issue for workers throughout the bargaining was job security, which, in the seasonal meat industry, is based on seniority. Under that system, if you were taken on 20 years ago, you’ll be called in to work before someone with only five years on the job. Cooke said this was being stripped away by Affco’s campaign to entice workers to sign individual employment agreements with promises of a $1000 bonus, and “being taken care of” at the end of the season.

If they agreed about little else, both sides did agree that this dispute was never just about money.

In the three years leading up to the lockout and strike, Affco’s push for individual contracts saw the union lose a solid chunk of members, leaving it in a wounded state before the lockout even began. According to Dale Robinson, a union shed official from Affco’s Wairoa plant in northern Hawke’s Bay, union membership at his plant had dropped from 98 percent a couple of years ago to around 75 percent just before the dispute, and 44 percent immediately afterward. The lockout initially affected unionised meat workers at five of Affco’s eight North Island plants – Moerewa in Northland, Horotiu, Wairoa, Imlay at Whanganui and a beef plant in Feilding. In response to the lockout, which began on February 28, the union issued at strike notice for Affco’s remaining unionised North Island workers, who went out the following week.

Māori Involvement

One notable feature of this dispute – and what eventually brought the iwi leaders to the negotiating table – was its disproportionate impact on Māori, who comprise more than 70 percent of the plants’ unionised workforce. Ken Mair of Whanganui, and one of the key players in the eventual settlement, told the hui that iwi were there from the beginning, largely behind the scenes, supporting those out on the picket lines. But as the dispute dragged on, the financial and human toll grew beyond tolerable.

Another of the leaders who wound up around the negotiating table, Sonny Tau of Ngāpuhi [pictured left], and himself a former Moerewa freezing worker, explained that part of the impetus for iwi deciding to get more directly involved was to stem the flow of resources, and end the pain being suffered by the workers and their families. “Our runanga was bleeding money to our people,” Tau said, “to feed them on the picket lines and things like that.”

The negotiations, which involved members of the Talley family, senior Affco management, as well as union officials, delegates and iwi leaders – Mair, Tau, Ngahiwi Tomoana of Ngāti Kahungunu and Tukuroirangi Morgan of Tainui – got underway in Auckland on Sunday May 20th. “By Tuesday morning, about 5:30 in the morning we’d completed about 8 or 9 agreements,” Mair said, “and quite frankly we were quite elated albeit many, many people were very tired.” Mair said his focus throughout the talks was “will this help our families”? “We basically said, we’re here for our families,” he said. “We’re here in regards to ending the pain for our families, so every time we’re looking for a solution, think of our families.”

On the all-important question of seniority, Graham Cooke says the settlement Mair and others helped secure was a win for the union, if a slightly “watered down” one, with a few sticking points still unresolved. The negotiators also sealed a 2.3 percent pay increase, with a further 2 percent from next year.

When news of the deal broke that Tuesday, the news media focus was less on the terms of the deal than on the role played by iwi leaders in breaking the deadlock, and in particular a threat by Māori to withhold stock from Affco plants. Sonny Tau explained it at the Tauranga hui: “This clever Ngāti Kahungunu fellow, Ngahiwi [Tomoana] said, ‘Right, if Affco doesn’t listen, we’ll withdraw our stock from them. So that sort of bounced the idea around. Then we had a quick look at what Māori owned in terms of stock units in this country and it was 4.7 million stock units.” Tau continued: “We said to Talley, I think Ken [Mair] said to Talley, well you’ve got 22 percent of this today. Tomorrow you’ll have nothing. I don’t think they believed that until there was a couple of emails showed to them from other companies who said they will put on extra shifts and take up the slack, and I think that’s when they realised that Māori were really serious about this.”

For its part, Affco has acknowledged the role iwi leaders played in ending the dispute, though has not, to Werewolf’s knowledge, commented on the specific issue of the Māori threat to withdraw stock from its plants. One Affco spokesman did tell Werewolf that it wouldn’t have been in the interest of Māori to do so, but he wouldn’t comment any further on the matter.

Allan Barber, a meat industry observer who has held management roles in the industry including with Affco, was sceptical of the threat, describing it in a blog post as a “misconception”. “Apart from comments by Pita Sharples early on in the dispute, there was no suggestion Māori Incorporations should remove supply from Affco or any other Talley’s company,” Barber wrote. “In fact it was the existing relationship with Talley’s Group which led to the successful Iwi intervention.” Asked about that statement, Barber said that the impression he got from talking to some of the key people on the company side was that there was no real prospect of livestock being withheld, “especially once the parties – Affco, Talley’s and iwi leaders – sat down to talk about the realities”.

But Barber, too, sees the iwi involvement as important. “I am convinced that the dispute would not have been settled satisfactorily, had it been left to the union to negotiate without iwi mediation,” he said.

Economic Muscle

Whether or not the economic power of Māori was key to sealing the Affco deal, it’s clear that power is growing and that Māori are increasingly willing to use it as leverage. A report by economic consultants Berl for Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development, showed the 2010 asset base of the Māori economy at $40 billion, an increase of more than $20 billion since 2006. (Some of that increase was because of price rises and improved data, but nearly $6 billion of it was real growth in the Māori economy.)

“Māori are growing in political power and wealth due to Treaty settlements and the growth of Māori business, and in physical numbers as a proportion of New Zealand’s population,” lawyer Mai Chen wrote in her recent book Public Law Toolbox. Chen says the critical factor in the Affco dispute was that iwi leaders had “sufficient leverage through the industry chain – Affco is dependent on Māori workers for labour and Māori farmers for produce to supply their meat works.” Iwi leaders were further compelled to act, she said, because the industry is of “significant historical importance to Māori, due to a long history of whanau involvement in the industry”.

In Chen’s view, New Zealand needs to acknowledge that the established political and economic landscape has shifted in the past 15 years, and to understand how Māori organisations fit into that changed landscape. If Chen is right, it could be that the trade union movement is leading the way in both recognising and harnessing that new economic landscape, with the Affco dispute providing something of a model for the future.

But how will uara Māori (Māori values) stand up against the good old profit-motive? Just last year, Māori came under fire over slave labour conditions on foreign charter vessels that were fishing Māori quota, with Talley’s among those calling for Māori leaders to take action. Syd Keepa, the CTU’s Vice President Māori, and one of the main drivers of the iwi-union initiative, said fishing was the kind of issue the union-iwi partnership could certainly get involved in. He said he himself had argued for Māori putting in their own trawlers and helping address the 27 percent Māori youth unemployment. And he’s clearly not impressed by iwi who put profits before people.

“I know when I went to the Māori Economic Development Panel, I came out of there, and all that was in there really was these business people from the iwi trusts and all that they talked about was selling kaimoana to China. They weren’t talking about training, they weren’t talking about job creation or anything like that, all they were talking about was how much money they would make, so I was critical about that situation.”

Other issues Keepa hopes the partnership could look at would be retaining jobs, and health and safety issues particularly in the forestry sector which “is completely de-unionised”, and where “there’s a Pike River every three years”. (According to the CTU, there have been 30 deaths in New Zealand forests in the past 6 years, with at least 4 so far this year.) “We’ve had heaps of people being put off in the forest industry,” Keepa said, “particularly in sawmilling. Heaps and heaps of sawmills have closed. I’ve been involved as an organiser in about 600 people losing their jobs because of sawmill closures in the forest industries.”

Forestry is one industry over which Māori are gaining increasing control, but it’s a drawn-out process. While iwi have won back ownership of a lot of forestry land in Treaty settlements, Keepa points out that the cutting rights to the forests are still held largely by non-Māori, reducing their leverage. For now at least.

Precise levels of Māori ownership of forests is tricky to estimate, but according to figures from the Ministry of Primary Industries, just shy of 30 percent of exotic forest land – or around 332,000 hectares – is currently Māori owned, and this could increase to around 40 percent as further Treaty claims are settled. But, as Keepa pointed out, much of the land is subject to Crown Forest Licenses, which separate ownership from the right to “occupy and use the land for plantation forestry” – in other words, to harvest the forests. As the Ministry explains it, when a Treaty settlement transfers ownership to Māori, the “occupier” is given a termination notice, and over the next 35 years, as the trees are harvested, full ownership returns to Māori.

Workers as Beneficiaries

As well as the potential for unions and Māori to play a concrete role in settling specific disputes and mediating specific problems, CTU president Helen Kelly, speaking at the hui, raised a less tangible goal: Changing the narrative that surrounds work. “The story being run,” Kelly said, “is that workers are beneficiaries of work and employers are benefactors who provide jobs by way of a charity, that workers should be grateful to have a job, grateful to the employer, not challenge anything, not ask for decent pay or work rights.” With a shared economic interest in work, she said – what it pays, how safe it is, whether it can provide a decent life – Māori and unions “share values”. In particular, they share a common belief that people are important and that no relationship, “including work” can be one-way.

It’s an important point, and now would certainly be a good time to challenge the work-as-charity story before it becomes more entrenched than it already is. In the United States, where the narrative has arguably been played out a little longer, corporates and the wealthy have been rebranded as “job creators”, while workers and unions – at least those who make any noise – as their opposite.

It’s a narrative that rises quickly to the surface in any industrial dispute, and Kelly is clearly hopeful that a strong Māori voice for the dignity of work and workers might act as a counterweight to the much more economically powerful voices on the other side of the equation.

A Whakawhanaungatanga Relationship

There was a lot of good feeling flowing at the Tauranga hui. Meat workers presented the iwi leaders with a specially commissioned taonga for the role they played in the Affco dispute, and there was more than enough praise and gratitude to go around. Four iwi and the CTU Runanga formally signed on to a loosely worded resolution committing themselves to a “Whakawhanaungatanga Relationship” (a familial, unifying relationship) based on uara Māori, kotahitanga (unity), and oranga whanau (community well-being, or spirit). The resolution went on to say that, “the relationship will enable the parties to support each other in working together on areas of commonality”.

So far as Keepa and the CTU Runanga are concerned, that hui was just the beginning. The Runanga has another planned for Northland in November where it will be talking with five northern iwi, Keepa said. It’s also organising to meet with sheep farmers and owners on the East Coast, with a hui planned for early February, as well as a presentation for the Māori Council.

“There’s some similarities between iwi Māori and the trade union movement, so I think basically we have similar issues,” Keepa said. Asked if the CTU Runanga would be able to bring more iwi on board, Keepa said there had been no hesitation from iwi members and leaders at the Tauranga hui, “so I’m pretty confident we will”.


Photo credits: Meat Workers Union, Alison McCulloch, TV3. Helen Kelly photo: Simon Oosterman.