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Lockouts were once a last resort for employers but are becoming more common, indicating a trend towards more "employer activism", says Massey University historian Dr Kerry Taylor.
Talley’s AFFCO meatworks has locked out more than 1000 workers in Moerewa, Horoitu, Whanganui, Wairoa, Rangiuru and Feilding in a dispute over pay and conditions. A further 500 workers will be locked out over Easter so AFFCO can reportedly avoid paying statutory holidays.
Dr Taylor, head of the School of History, Philosophy and Classics, says AFFCO’s escalating action is a startling reminder something serious is going on in New Zealand political and industrial landscape.
“In the past lockouts were the last resort, today they’re almost becoming commonplace.”
He says the lockout is a clear case of “employer activism”, where the lockout is deployed as part of an aggressive strategy to target certain conditions of work and weaken – or break – collective action by workers.
Historically employers seldom resorted to locking out workers, with the principal exception of the 1951 waterfront dispute, he says, although there have probably been more in the meat industry than most other sectors.
The Government often played an active role supporting employer activism through legislation privileging employers or by direct interventionist techniques such as the deregistration of unions, aggressive policing of disputes, or using troops to replace workers, as in 1951. “In the current context the Government seems keen to stay in the background and, by its deafening silence, empower employers to act as they please."
Today employers feel free to act and are no longer worried about being seen on the front foot. But Dr Taylor says tactics used by employers to depict organised labour negatively no longer stick. “Arguments that workers are lazy or greedy are not credible when employers are using lockouts as the first strike weapon.”
Dr Taylor says there are a wide range of other strategies and tactics available to employers short of shutting things down and locking gates to work sites.
Workers and their families would be feeling the strain this Easter and it was time to spare a thought for them. “How would you react if you were asked to work more quickly, for less money and with less security? I wager you would not be rushing to sign on the dotted line. Yet this is essentially what AFFCO is asking their workers to do. Employers feel empowered and can even shamelessly suggest threatening a lockout is part of good faith bargaining.”