Port decision on hold for hearing

Steps to make Auckland port workers redundant and engage contractors to handle stevedoring work have been halted pending a court hearing on Monday over legal action brought by the Maritime Union.

A minute issued by Judge Barry Travis late yesterday revealed that Ports of Auckland had agreed not to sack stevedores or engage contractors until the conclusion of a judicial settlement conference starting on Monday morning.

The concession avoided the need for interim injunctions, sought by the union, relating to its request for a court declaration on the long-running employment dispute.

Judge Travis said the offer was made by the port's lawyer, John Haigh, QC, in a telephone conference yesterday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Auckland Council voted down two motions supporting the wharfies involved in the long-running dispute with the Ports of Auckland.

One motion from councillor Richard Northey called for a resumption of collective bargaining, while councillor Cathy Casey wanted a review of the council's requirement for the port to double its return on equity to 12 per cent.

But Mayor Len Brown, several councillors and the council's legal team, said the council could not intervene in the port's business. The port is run by a limited company, Auckland Council Investments, at arm's length from the politicians.

Brown said he took guidance from how the Government had acted with a dispute involving Air New Zealand in 2002 when the Government was the shareholder representative.

"And the Government and its ministers of the day made it very clear its position – it would not get involved in that dispute."

Lawyers acting for the council said both the Companies Act and the Port Companies Act made it clear that business judgment decisions were made by the company's board because it is a wholly owned subsidiary ultimately owned by council rather than a council-controlled organisation.

The Council of Trade Unions said it was disappointed that the council "lacked the necessary leadership" to help resolve the negotiations.

"Ports of Auckland belong to Aucklanders. By not doing what they can to help resolve the stalled negotiations, the council is putting at risk one of Auckland's most important assets," CTU president Helen Kelly said.

Kelly had hoped council would appoint an intermediary in the negotiations, which she claimed the mayor would consider if a settlement conference between the parties on Monday fails again to reach a resolution.

But Brown emphasised it was not council's place to do.