‘Jobs that Count’ The Fight against Precarious Work at AFFCO Wairoa: An Oral History

By Ross Webb

Wairoa is a small town located in Hawke’s Bay with a population of about 4,000.Located on State Highway 2 halfway between Gisborne and Napier, it is a town that most pass by. It is also the site of one of the most bitter and protracted industrial disputes in New Zealand’s recent labour history, and one that took a large toll on the town. In May 2012, the Hawke’s Bay Today reported that the Wairoa was in “serious decline”; school rolls were falling— down 13 per cent since 2007, and projected to fall further. The main reason, the paper continued, was “a loss of faith in job security with the town’s biggest employer, meat processor, Talley’s AFFCO.”1 Since 2010, the year the Talley’s took ownership of the plant, workers have been engaged in an ongoing battle against the imposition of precarious work in their plants. The central issues have been the ability to be a member of the union, to negotiate a collective agreement, and to maintain key terms and conditions such as seniority, a key provision for job security in an industry where the seasonal nature of the work produces insecurity. The dispute —which has included lockouts, strikes and battles in the
Courts—has had a major impact on the town. This has been a nation-wide battle, but Wairoa has been hit the hardest. The town has also been the site of the most staunch and effective resistance against the company’s anti-union agenda.

This article provides an insight into the story of the struggle for the survival of the union within Talley’s owned meat plants in New Zealand, and what that means for the many men and women who make a living working at these plants. It does not provide a detailed overview of the events. Rather, it provides an insight into the events from the point of view of four workers: Peter Amato, Daphne Wharehinga, Loncey Crawford, and Hilton Rohe. This is a story about precarious work, the imposition of precarious work on meat workers, and their resistance and fight back. Meat workers have always emphasised their sense of pride in their identity as meat workers, loyalty to one another, and ownership over the job. All of this was underpinned by a strong union culture and a sense of history and continuity. This has always been important in defining their identity and their rights as workers, even as circumstances change. And the arrival of the Talley’s in the meat industry marked a significant change.

Precarious work in the meat industry

The creation of a precarious workforce—that is the creation of a flexible workforce and the transfer of risk and insecurity onto workers—has been on the employers’ agenda for some time. The increase of such work since the 1980s has emerged as a major contemporary issue for trade unions; it is a global issue, cutting across many areas of concern for the trade union movement and social justice activists. Work in New Zealand’s meat industry has always been precarious to some extent. Seasonal work has been a constant feature of life for the meat worker throughout the industry’s history, significantly shaping the rhythms of the freezing workers’ life, workplace and union culture. Unions in the industry sought to address the precarious nature of seasonal work by introducing rules of seniority. Initially organised on an informal and local shed basis, seniority was eventually formalised in the National Award of 1958, giving workers who had previously been employed the right to work at the beginning of the new killing season and the guarantee of being laid off last at the end of the season. In the 1980s and 1990s, the combination of closures of plants, the opening of smaller, non-union plants, a more united employer front and the Employment Contracts Act, served to de-unionise large sections of the meat industry and to make work in the industry more precarious.

Today, as in the past, the seasonal nature of the work continues to be a source of uncertainty and insecurity for meat workers. In their report, Under Pressure, the CTU profiled two meat workers, Mike and Kevin, with their stories of precarious work in the industry. The report stated: “The meat industry is hard on its workers —they don’t know day to day how many hours they will be working, and because it’s seasonal work, they don’t know year to year how many hours they will have.” The rule of seniority is supposed to work, the report claimed, and the clauses have “been hard fought for over several collectives to create some security out of the seasonal nature of the job. But that’s not always happening.” “It teaches you to be resilient. It hardens you to life,” claimed Mike.2 For workers in Talley’s owned AFFCO plants, as we will see below, the fight against precarious work has been ongoing since 2010. This is the story of four of those workers at Wairoa.

Before the Talley’s

In order to understand why the fight against precarious work in the meat industry is important, we need to understand what work in the industry meant to workers, especially in the years before the Talley’s took over and commenced their anti-union campaign. Workers describe the family atmosphere and the whanaungatanga of the works, and the workplace as a central site of the community.

Peter Amato

I didn’t plan on being a meat worker. After Art School, I was in the restaurant business for a while. I was a bartender, a bar salesman, and was actually doing quite well there in Auckland while I was there. But you know, there’s no place like home and so I came home. I was 24 when I came back. And yeah, came back and was happier. Auckland was good, but you can’t beat home. This is
where I wanted to settle. And part of that was becoming a meat worker. I didn’t plan it like that. I thought I’d do it for a year, and the people and the family system we had was awesome. There was a family structure. When I first started, I had maybe seven uncles in the room I was in. And when I first went in there it is quite intimidating. In the beef, you get these big animals. One gets out, it’ll kill you if you’re new to the business. But the people were that awesome, it just wasn’t funny.

The family. The whakawhanaungatanga. It was just welcoming. You know they’d say, ‘come here, boy. Come sit here and have a feed with us. Grab a coffee and come over here’. I made a lot of good friends and got to know a lot of my family members a little bit better. I kind of knew them in passing, but now i got to actually know them. And was actually looked after quite well when I first got there. But everyone was and that’s why you became a meat worker. That’s why you didn’t mind being a meat worker. There’s a family environment. And it’s welcoming. And I think myself and some of my mates still pass that on to the next generation of meat workers… I started in 1997 and worked there ever since. The first week’s wage was high. And then you got the family bit. So yes, the money was good, and gave us a lot of freedom.

We weren’t well off. But when I got a job, we had the freedom to go for a drive, to Napier or Gisborne. You know what I mean, we had freedom because of the money. But like I said, the welcoming and the family structure was the greatest attraction. The family structure was good. Everything was awesome. Everybody looked forward to going to work.3

Daphne Wharehinga

[Before 2010] it was happy. Everyone was happy; everyone got on. At our breaks we’d play cards. People would smoke and cook big feeds and the environment was happy. You would do your jobs, have your breaks; everyone was smiling, joking, laughing. Everyone was one. And it was just a really neat place and environment at that time… I always loved to get up and go to work. You’d see your friends, see your family, get the job done and go home.

Loncey Crawford

I came back for a holiday. As far as I was concerned I got the job as a holiday job. I ended up being on holiday for 20 years. I didn’t know why anyone would want to leave…. It was awesome. Awesome. It was great. It was a great job. Great people. It was great because of the understanding that everyone was the same. You weren’t going to get treated differently… At the beginning when we worked there and we were all union and we had an agreement with the company, all of us under that umbrella were treated the same and we could get on with it. It was awesome.

The Talley’s and the 2010 lockout

In 2001, the Talley Group bought a 10 per cent stake in AFFCO meat company, increased that to a controlling stake in 2006 and acquired the remainder in 2010. Before the acquisition of AFFCO, the Talley’s employed 600 in their seafood division with an estimated annual turnover of $220 million. With the acquisition of AFFCO it increased its staff by 2,800 and its revenue by $1 billion. Some commentators were enthusiastic about their arrival. In 2011, Alan Barber, a freelance agricultural journalist, specialising in the meat industry, wrote that “AFFCO under Talley’s direction is the most determined to challenge the status quo and test the boundaries.”4 For the meat workers union and its members, their arrival was “like a cold front arriving”, according to Meat Workers Union organiser, Roger Middlemass.5 For Wairoa Meat workers, the major change came in 2010: the first lockout.

Hilton Rohe

It was in 2010 that we started to notice that there was something different. That was when Wairoa experienced the first lockout. They said it wasn’t a lockout. We were approached by the supervisor and we were taken into the office, all the butchers and were asked to do an extra hour work—that was 120 lambs—and when we asked what the overtime was, you know what’s
this going to be worth to us. 4 dollars. Everyone politely said no thank you. When we went back to work the next day, we were given notice that the season was finishing due to lack of stock. At the same time, we could see all the trucks heading out of town with the stock. They were being sent to the other plants. And that’s what they did. They played us off against everyone else. We
thought this is strange. It wasn’t like AFFCO. That’s when we started to notice on the news about Talley’s having shares in the company.

Daphne Wharehinga

They called it a seasonal layoff, because we wouldn’t turn the chain speed up. That was it. The next day we went in, we were given notice, so that was five days…. We were off for a good 5 months before they took us back…. That was hard, that was the beginning of when it really started to affect our town. That’s when we slowly started to lose our membership with that one. Because that’s when they started offering out the [Individual Employment Agreements]…

Peter Amato

2010 wasn’t really a lockout, they just didn’t bring us back. They said they didn’t have any stock, or availability of stock. But they did, they were sending it to all the other plants for process. What they were trying to do was to make us all sign the new Individual Employment Agreement…. None of us signed them. I think they made a mistake of trying to do their fight here at the big one. We are all very much family and all that. To an extent, we still are I suppose. But yeah. Yeah, it was all bad. Yeah, 2010 they just didn’t hire us back. They just dragged the off season the longest it’s ever been. It was maybe 5 months [without work]… basically it was a plan of deunionising the whole plant.

There’s a difference from then to now. Now, as soon as they bought the place, they wanted to do away with the family structure. I’m talking about Talley’s, yes. When the new owners came, we thought that’s alright, we can keep working. And then no, it was niggly at first, they said we’re gonna lay these fullas off and we’re gonna bring these fullas on, and these fullas had no skills at all. And like I said with our family structure being so strong, it wasn’t right. [They] were laying off fullas who had been there 7 years, 8 years… they were doing it without impunity, without caring… and some of us started saying, this ain’t right. This ain’t right. But they didn’t care. We were told they were bad… we could only take it on face value. We gave them the benefit of the doubt… the first year they were there, they actually didn’t do anything. They decided they would let us run the way we usually would. Then the following season, they started implementing what they thought would make it better. That meant lowering your wages, turning the chain [speed] up, doing an extra half-an-hour for nothing. That works for them, but you don’t get no money or anything from it…. The first thing they tried to initiate was to get rid of the old hands. The people they locked out were all the older workers…. They were good workers…. [they wanted to do it discreetly] they didn’t want people to jump up and down [in 2010]. But in 2012, we all jumped up and down….

Lockouts: 2012 and 2015

At the end of February 2012, the company issued locked out notices to meat workers at plants across the country. The gates were locked and they would be out of work, without pay, indefinitely. The lock-out notice targeted specific workers: 762 out of about 1200 union members. Many union members who were not locked out went on strike in support.

Peter Amato

It basically just happened. Bang, you’re locked out. It was almost instant…. With the decision to strike, a lot of people were scared. It was the first time that we had been on strike and I’d never seen one in my life. When you’re scared and all, you have to look to your leaders. They have to show you the strength and conviction to get through it.

On a personal level, two of my cousins that are really close family were locked out. I wasn’t locked out, I was still working. So when they said ‘strike’, it was the easiest thing for me to do because I loved my cousins and I’ll stand by them. It was a pretty easy decision… I thought, “well, I’m gonna stand by my cousin” and that gave me strength to know that what I was doing was right. And all the other events leading up to it. The decision for myself was quite easy because of that. It was either stand up and fight it, or you’re gonna lie down and get given what you’re gonna get given. My grandfather was a meat worker and a unionist, too, and he was in the room that I’m in. And they always talked about him being a unionist too and what kind of grandson would I be, you know what I mean? And I love my grandfather. I’m a very family oriented person. I love my grandfather. He fought hard for me to have what I’ve got now, [so] who am I to drop what he fought for, for me? And if I drop the ball, the next lot of meat workers will miss out.

Hilton Rohe

We got by, because we got help from koha down from the bay, we set up a resource centre again. We paid the bills of our people. But a lot of people were whakama about coming forward. We’d say “everyone is in the same boat. Don’t let is escalate too high”… But we got by… Some got other jobs. Some went out of town. But most of us stayed here on the bridge [protesting]—rain, hail, or snow… Every morning until lunchtime, we were on the bridge, then we’d go to the resource centre and have a cup of tea, then go home. Go back again the next morning….

Daphne Wharehinga

We’d make our signs and stand on the bridge and protest. But it was good, because everyone that was in the union that was locked out all come together and that’s what it was about, coming together. Coming together, supporting each other. Just trying to keep each other strong… because we were regimented in our work, you know, we’d meet there at a set time, 8 o’clock, meet down there, prepare kai, go and protest, come together, talk about anything, family, or if anyone had problems. For me, going to that resource centre with the union family was the best thing ever.

Because once I’d come off that bridge, come home, I’d come home and cry. But I never ever showed that to my union family, because I didn’t want them to see me break because I was one of those people that they came to talk to, that they sort of looked upon or for advice…. Hug, cuddles, whatever. But as soon as I got down from the bridge and come home, that’s when I cried.

Loncey Crawford

There were some that didn’t come down [to the resource centre]. They were too proud to ask for help. It was quite sad for those ones…. We have people who are hunters, hunters and gatherers and all that. So we’d all be down there doing our protest thing, ‘toot for your support’ and that sort of stuff and behind the scenes there would be people in the resource centre cooking up lunch. It’d be a shared lunch. We’d all come and bring little cakes and bread and stuff and stuff we’d made, stuff that was given to us. We’d go down there and put it on the table. And everyone would help themselves to it.

It was really tribal. It was like that was our marae. We’d go down there, we’d cook up a feed for everyone and when everyone was finished with their mahi we’d go down and have a kai and go back and do their mahi again. It really gave me a sense of…

Daphne Wharehinga

…belonging to the union.

Three months after the lockout notice was issued, iwi leaders, officials of the Meat Workers Union, Helen Kelly, Talley’s lawyers and Andrew Talley himself negotiated a deal at the Novotel Hotel in Auckland. It took over twenty four hours, and was finally signed at 2 the morning. While it was a compromise agreement with some major clawbacks, Pete Amato recalled that those who made the stand returned to work with heads ‘held high’.

Peter Amato

The unionist in 2012 we had our heads held high. Yup, we were broke, we were poor, you know what I mean? But, we held our heads high, which is a big thing in this town, you know? This is only a small town and we talk to each other…. So people would say “these fullas, they stood up for you.” And the ones that didn’t, they would have their head down. Yup. It was bittersweet because some of them are my mates. They’re friends. And I still consider them friends, too. It was bittersweet for myself.

But the settlement of the lockout did not end the issues between the union and company. In 2015, workers were locked out again. This time it was different, however. This time, Wairoa was on its own. The 2015 lockout also occurred against the backdrop of the National Government’s Employment Relations Amendment Act being passed, allowing employers to ‘walk away’ from collective bargaining, and the stand took on a bigger meaning for meat workers. One year earlier, the union launched ‘Jobs that Count’, a new national campaign to highlight job insecurity in the Meat Industry. At the same time, Individual Employment Agreements (IEAs) were being signed across the country and the union was losing members. At Wairoa, workers took a stand, refusing to sign the new IEA.

Hilton Rohe

With the 2015 lockout, we stood out on our own anyway. That’s what it is about our people. We’ll stand and fight for what we believe in…on the advice from the executive [of the union] was sign the IEAs and ‘go and fight from the inside’…. Rangiuru people were putting all their problems on Facebook and telling us they were being taken off their jobs and being put on other jobs… we weren’t gonna ‘fight from within’. We said no, we’ll go on our own… I wasn’t there when they made that decision, but I sent a message saying “yup, tautoko that.” We weren’t going to go back and work like slaves for them… that was five months [locked out]… we got our crap together for 2015 and we knew how to set up our administration, bills, talking to people and setting up the resource centre.

Peter Amato

I saw it coming from Rangiuru [in Bay of Plenty]… we saw it coming when it hit Rangiuru. They sent us everything they were wanting to bring in [to the new IEA agreement] and it was all bad. It was all IEA. We saw it coming down through all the sheds. We saw it coming a mile away. I was telling my people, this is what you’re going to be doing. I would give them the pamphlets. They said “na, they’re not going to do this”…

For me and other friends I talked to, we said we need to knock that Bill [Employment Relations Amendment Act] on the head, too. Because if we are the first to be tipped over by it, we’re not going to be the only ones that are going to be shafted by it. It’s going to be all the other unions. Not only that too. The whole meat industry would follow suit. So we’d be setting a precedent. And that’s why we’re going to say na, we’re not going to do it. We forced our own union to come to the party… we came back to Wairoa. We told [the union], “no, we’re not going to sign it” and that we were going to make a stand… so if we didn’t make the stand, they’d walk away and we would be non-union. Then you had to worry about who they would hire back and who they wouldn’t hire back. We drew our line in the dirt, and that was us.

I tried to keep people’s morale up. Why be at home angry when you could be diving, when you could be fishing, when you could spend some time with your kids that can’t spend time with because you’re too busy working? Don’t feel bad about yourself. Because you’re doing something morally right. It’s not so much about the money and it’s never been about the money for me. It’s about let’s do something that’s right. Especially in that point in time when I knew that the law had changed. Let’s do something right for everybody, not just us…. We knew we’d be affected, but what about everyone else. What about the nurses. That’s what it was always about for me…. Everyone else after us is going to be affected if we don’t make the stand. And everybody got it. This is not all about us…. Let’s take it on.

We used the resource center to help boost morale… It was a place that we could bring people together and solidify our thoughts that what we were doing was right. And it was true. When we’d go off and do a hikoi and put the word out about Wairoa and what we were doing….But the morale was high. If someone was down in the dumps and we heard about it, some of us would go to their place and see how they were going. And if people didn’t pick up their food parcels, we’d pick it up for them and bring it to them. When you have nothing, when you’ve got absolutely nothing, these little things pick you up and give you the little boost you need…. In a way it was therapy. You could talk about your own things that were affecting you…

In late February 2016, 160 Wairoa workers returned to work after 168-days locked out, following an Employment Court ruling. But for workers returning, the Court ruling was a pyrrhic victory. On the announcement of the Court victory, those locked-out were skeptical about the willingness of their employer to accept union members. Some did encounter hostility at work and others were unhappy with the agreement reached. Hilton Rohe explained that several clauses in the new agreement were a step back. The workday has been extended slightly; weekly guaranteed minimum pay has been cut back; and premium pay for overtime has been reduced for the Wairoa plant. Provisions for seniority, important in controlling who is laid off or called back first in this seasonal industry, are preserved in line with court rulings, but worded to give the company some leeway. Justin Kaimoana claimed that “AFFCO is still pushing to deunionize the plants” by appealing the Employment Court ruling that the lockout at Wairoa was illegal to the Supreme Court. “Everything we’ve won in the courts they’ve challenged”, said Kaimoana. “We have to win the Individual Employment Agreement workers to the union with the new contract. We’ve got rights and they haven’t.”6

Indeed, the company appealed the decision of the Employment, with the case ending up in the Supreme Court. On 7 September 2017, the Supreme Court rejected AFFCO’s appeal. Following the decision, the Meat Workers Union said AFFCO and its owner, Talley’s Group, “appear[ed] to adhere to the US Union Busting Manuals with a singular determination reminiscent of a street fighter.” The National Business review claimed that the union has had more than 60 legal cases against the Talley’s since 2010 and had “come to rely on the payouts from successful lawsuits to bankroll its ongoing legal actions.”7 Meat Workers’ Union Organiser Darien Fenton responded to the findings: “The losses these workers have sustained, I think in places like Wairoa they’ve never recovered from it… Now we can get on and work out what the compensation is for the Wairoa and various other workers around the country. I hope we can get to a point where we can settle this and start to build on the relationship that we’ve formed with AFFCO in the last few months with a new collective agreement, and put all this behind us.”8 As Fenton said, despite the victory, the disputes had caused huge strain.

The story is not over for meat workers at Talley’s owned plants. But for those who have taken part in the resistance against the company’s anti-union campaign, there are no regrets.

Peter Amato

I genuinely stand by what I had done. You know, I would never change anything. I love being a unionist. I love all my mates that have been with me and done this with me. If we don’t make this stand, who makes this stand? Who’s going to draw that line in the dirt? If we did fail, if we did get shafted, I really didn’t want it to happen to the Doctors, the teachers, the nurses, the bus-drivers. If the [Employment Relations Amendment Act] had made it past us, everyone would be in the firing line. And I can’t have that. Yeah.

Daphne Wharehinga

I know what we did was right, to stand up for what we believed in… If this ever happens again, I’d be ready. And I’d do it again.

Ross Webb is a historian based in Wellington. Currently, he works as a researcher at the Waitangi Tribunal and is a member of the Labour History Project Committee.

Footnotes

1. ‘Hard times in Wairoa’, Hawke’s Bay Today, 1 May, 2012.

2. Council of Trade Unions, Under Pressure: A Detailed Report into Insecure Work in New Zealand (CTU: Wellington, 2016), p31

3. Peter Amato, interviewed by Ross Webb, 14 September 2017

4. Alan Barber, ‘Industrial agreements should reflect modern work practice’, Barber’s Meaty Issues; Agribusiness and meat industry commentary, https://allanbarber.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/industrial-agreements-shouldreflect-modern-work-practice/

5. ‘Talleys immovable in dispute’, Nelson Mail, May 12, 2012.

6. Cited in ‘NZ meat workers fight against nonunion individual contracts’, The Militant, April 24, 2017.

7. Cited in: ‘Supreme Court dismisses Affco’s unlawful lockout appeal’, New Zealand Herald, 7 September, 2017

8. Ibid.