Ports of Auckland: high-stakes bid for Hearts and Minds

As the long-running Ports of Auckland labour dispute becomes ever-more intractable, and escalates at a mesmerising pace, the myriad ‘points of view’ from an ever-expanding cast are increasingly difficult to keep a handle on.

Little wonder, then, that the New Zealand public, at first bemused by the 70s-style waterside confrontation, is becoming increasingly sceptical of both sides and generally brassed off. Words and phrases like “sort it out”, “childish”, “waste of space” and “bored” are becoming increasingly commonplace in the comment sections of blogs and online articles covering the topic.

Public opinion on the issue appears to have swung wildly since Christmas. At a time of chronic job insecurity and downward pressure on wages, complaints about a 10 percent wage increase and revised contracts sat uneasily with a constituency that might otherwise have gravitated naturally to the MUNZ cause. Then came the redundancies, and accusations of bad faith and hidden agendas at POAL seemed to resonate in the court of public opinion. Now, as stories spread of intimidation on the picket line and moves towards militancy, the pendulum is swinging back again.

It speaks volumes that our conservative PM, with his exquisitely-honed political radar, has only now come down on the POAL side of the fence. And then oh, so very gingerly.

The first side to lose its grip on this licence loses the game. So the battle for hearts and minds must continue.

Public opinion amounts to a hill of beans in the way this thing will be settled. MUNZ, or perhaps now more accurately the CTU, will do what it wants to do, and so will the Port. POAL already has by announcing the redundancies – and it’s not hard to believe the union’s view that a fully contracted-out workforce was precisely its intention at the start of all this. Some of the tactics employed by both sides remind me of that old maxim widely attributed to US General George Patton: “When you’ve got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow!”

But public opinion does count when it comes to sustaining momentum. As ever, each party’s ‘licence to operate’ is sustained only by a groundswell of popular support. The first side to lose its grip on this licence loses the game. So while people may be heartily sick of the dispute, and even genuinely bored by it, the battle for hearts and minds must continue.

While frustrated by the way the usual suspects are headlining their work and dragging the role of PR into the limelight, I can’t help delighting in the array of communication techniques and the plethora of tools employed by all involved. At times it feels like a good old 70s-style labour confrontation. However, when it comes to broadcasting positions, and slugging it out in the court of public opinion, it’s anything but old-school. It’s a thoroughly modern dust-up.

Social media, digital campaigns, videos, dedicated micro-sites and segmented messaging have all put in an appearance (although why POAL has only tweeted 10 times since activating its Twitter account in September last year remains a mystery). Large advertisements in national newspapers speak directly to distinct target audiences, appealing to clearly-defined political leanings and individual base instincts.

And the debate itself has long moved beyond the stereotypical 70s ‘us against them’ management v. union working practices stoush – so many new layers of nuance, implication and consequence have been added that the actual genesis of the dispute – the replacement nearly three years ago of four MUNZ-registered port shuttle bus drivers with non-union staff – can at times seem remote and almost irrelevant.

Alliance-forming and coalition-building has been a delight to watch. Particularly the work of the unionists. You don’t have to be able to hum ‘The Red Flag’  to appreciate MUNZ’s ability to harness support from around the world and bring meaningful pressure to bear even as POAL was formally axing its members’ jobs.

The recent insertion into the debate of an unlikely alliance of Ports of Auckland customers, local employers, civic leaders and unionists professing to have the interests of Auckland and Aucklanders at heart by exploring a ‘Third Way’, was pure poetry. Unionists climbing into bed with merchant bankers? Talk about driving and shaping the debate…

Discussion about who benefits from this super-sized, super-city bunfight reminds us all of the wider issue and potentially deeper agendas at play here – the potential rationalisation of New Zealand’s ports infrastructure.  With Tauranga and Marsden Point both slathering over chunks of Auckland’s lunch, and growing public resistance to POAL expansion into the Waitemata (which CEO Tony Gibson argues is essential if the port is to cope with projected demand over the next few decades), discussion about upgrading and re-opening the rail link between Auckland and Whangarei starts to look less fanciful.

And sneering references to the unnecessary extravagance of a ‘Holiday Highway’ (made almost exclusively by Aucklanders without the imagination to realise the potential of a First World transport infrastructure linking them to the ‘Brown North’) begin to sound not only petty, condescending and mean, but short-sighted too.

The very inclusion of Marsden Point in this whole discussion represents some pretty nifty footwork by someone, somewhere. And I’ll bet ‘public relations’ exists in his or her job title.

So while points must be deducted for ‘conduct unbecoming’, turning the story-teller into the story and diminishing the value of what we do, I think a great deal of kudos must go to the exhausted, caffeine-fuelled and nicotine-stained PR pros in both camps, bringing us possibly the most riveting industrial relations drama to have unfolded on our shores for quite some time.

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