The wealth of the Talley family is over $300 million. That’s more than any family needs to meet reasonable life time aspirations. It’s certainly enough to carry great currency in a country where family dynasties influence environmental and employment law. It’s an obscene amount when Talley’s workers face worsening employment conditions under increasing pressure to maximise throughput, long hours in dangerous settings, increasing casualization, real health and safety risks, threatened loss of seniority rights and a stripping away of union protections and voice.
But there’s a convergence of both class and racial injustice in the way the Talley family acquires companies, strips union and workers’ strength and pushes employment conditions to the wire in pursuit of yet more profit. Here’s a white family with more money than anyone could ever need, screwing thousands of (mainly) Maori workers and forcing them to work harder, increase process outputs, under less safe conditions, with fewer rights so the Talleys themselves can accumulate more.
More than 70% of AFFCO’s meat workers are Maori, in communities where alternative work options are few, where jobs are a scarce and valued commodity, and where loyalties to the industry are strong. With families to feed, workers do not take strike action lightly. But given the power imbalance between the employer and employed, workers have to stand together if they are to stand at all. In the long struggle against workplace oppression in AFFCO meat plants, solidarity between iwi, workers and unions has been key. The important force of this relationship was proven in 2012 when after a three month lock-out by Talley’s of its workers, iwi interests threatened to withhold stock supplies until an agreement with Maori workers was reached, broke the stalemate, and forced Talley’s back to the negotiating table in principle if not in good faith intent.
But last weekend, this essential troika that gave Maori / working class interests power against the Talley bosses, was undermined by arguably unmandated and illegitimate agreement reached between shed president/secretaries, Tuku Morgan and Ken Mair, and Peter Talley, which saw this week’s well planned and supported strike, and rally at Parliament, called off. The disappointment, disbelief and dismay among workers, unionists and supporters, was palpable. What had been given up, and why?
The common interests of Maori and workers were fractured. The union was undermined, by an agreement that pulled the legs from the common call to stand together and strike. The shed bosses, the ‘iwi representatives’ and Talley’s agreed to a two month negotiating period, as long as the strike was called off, all legal cases were dropped, and the Meat Workers’ Union was dismissed from negotiations. Despite the illegality of this proposal, and lack of vote –and even meetings- from many union members on some of these sites, Talley’s managed to exercise their vicious divide and rule tactics and drive a wedge between the overlapping interests of class and race. The unrepresentative representatives of the workers were conned into believing the wiley old Talley leopard had changed its spots and was finally ready to negotiate in good faith. All this has done is undermine the union, give extra confidence to Talley’s, (another round to Talleys in the long fight), given Talley’s a bit of breathing and production time while they pursue employment law changes as a bigger agenda.
The Government’s support for greedy mistreatment of workers saw Peter Talley receive a knighthood for services to industry and philanthropy earlier this year. Clearly the state condones, and even repackages as benevolence, anti-worker, anti-safety, punitive and exploitative employment conditions.
But all is not lost in the battle between meat workers and the hard-nosed capitalists, Talley’s. The tenuous agreement for further negotiation excluding the Meat Workers’ Union may yet unravel. Dissent about the decisions made by Morgan, Mair et al, may yet lead to a revised position. The facts of the matter haven’t changed – and Talley’s continues to use night shift and other sanctions to punish resistance. It’s an opportunity for the Meat Workers’ Union to regroup, and to consolidate its position and its power. A class based alliance would see iwi as again key to this bulwark against Talley’s exploitation of workers and Maori.
In the meantime, the market is king, and the way those of us who aren’t meat workers, can support those who are, is by using the market to punish Talley’s, and to undermine their market share. As consumers we have a role in resisting oppression of those who have a vital role in putting the food on our table. Mike Treen advises a boycott of Talley’s products, and John Minto discusses economic sabotage in the form of damaging Talley’s goods; other non-economic options include targeting the Talley family in their Nelson mansions as was done in 2012, taking the fight to the source of the oppression in their opulent towers. As members of other unions, we also need to stand side by side with our brothers and sisters in the meat industry. No one is without power, and we all need to lend our power, whatever its form, in support of those who are obviously exploited by the food barons of this land.
Christine Rose is employed as Kauri DieBack Community Co-ordinator by the Auckland Council. All opinions expressed herein are Christine’s own. No opinion or views expressed in this blog or any other media, shall be construed as the opinion of the Council or any other organisation.