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New Zealand Dairy Workers Face Vicious Assault on Union Rights

Posted to the IUF website 28-Sep-2009

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The New Zealand Dairy Workers Union is engaged in a tough battle with a ruthless employer assaulting fundamental workplace rights, and needs your support.

The dispute is at the Waharoa plant of Open Country Cheese, one of the company's three cheese and milk ingredients plants. Open Country is New Zealand's second largest dairy producer. It was set up in the wake of the government's 2001 industry restructuring which abolished the single-seller status of the Dairy Board, allowing independent dairy companies to produce and export. Open Country has used deregulation to pursue a "low road" model for the industry. At Waharoa, workers recently joined the union in response to management proposals for degrading already precarious working conditions characterized by long and unsocial hours and the abusive use of "temporary" workers - often for years on end.

Open Country's response to the formal start of bargaining, with the union seeking a collective agreement with improved job security and a voice on staffing and hours, was to immediately set up a sham labour hire agency and shift the temporary workers onto its books to exclude them from the bargaining unit. "OCC proposals would have turned most workers into seasonal and temporary workers and seen them subject to major and disruptive roster changes at short notice", according to union National Secretary James Ritchie. The company immediately began aggressively pressuring workers to resign from or not join the union, threatening them with dismissal. In response to the bargaining impasse and management's anti-union aggression, the union filed a 14-day notice for industrial action. Open Country's response to this was to declare a six-week lockout. The day the strike was scheduled to begin at 6:00 PM, the company marched the workers off the site at 1.30pm and began running the factory with management, temporary workers and scabs.

Management viciousness has intensified in the course of the conflict. An Open Country boss slammed one union member's head in a sliding window; the union has filed an assault claim. A temporary worker who was seen on the picket line supporting his striking brother was immediately sacked. On September 21, the company released waste sludge into the Waitoa River - and blamed it on an act of union "sabotage".

The New Zealand Farmers Weekly, September 22, 2009

On September 25, the Employment Court ruled the lockout illegal and called for a return to work. The company maintains that all workers are suspended pending an investigation of sabotage, though neither the union or any of its members have received suspension letters The Court has not yet ruled on the company's claim that the replacement workers are legal - because they are not directly employed by Open Country Cheese by its parent company Open Country Dairy Ltd.

Effective control of Open Country lies with the Talley's Food Group, a leading New Zealand processor of seafood, vegetables and dairy products with a long history of right-wing political ties and financial support.

When workers stood up for some basic fairness at work and job security, they were met with aggression", says Ritchie. The assault on the Waharoa workers is an attack on fundamental rights, New Zealand and international law, and basic standards in one of New Zealand's vital industries. New Zealand unions and the IUF have pledged their support - you can support the Dairy Workers' struggle - CLICK HERE to send a message to Open Country Cheese