Ferry strike set to disrupt travel plans

19:00, Nov 18 2012

Interislander ferry passengers and freight companies could find themselves stuck on dry land next month after a breakdown in pay talks between KiwiRail and two of its employee unions.

The Merchant Service Guild and the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association say they will both strike for a week from December 1 if KiwiRail does not relinquish its stance on "clawing back" conditions like long service pay.

The association represents 70 engineering officers and the guild represents 54 deck officers. All sailings between Wellington and Picton would be suspended if they were to strike.

KiwiRail predicts about 14,000 passengers, 4000 cars and 20,000 rail wagons and a similar number of trucks would be disrupted.

Guild president Captain Lew Henderson said he was hopeful the unions could sort out their differences with KiwiRail before the stop-work deadline. But if not, his members were "steadfast" in their resolution to take action, he said.

"This is our very last resort. We understand how big an impact this will have on people in New Zealand. We know there will be an impact on the people who travel but also on the goods that people send across Cook Strait.


"We haven't taken this decision lightly . . . but in the end, we see this as the only way of forcing the company to come back to the negotiating table with a reasonable stance."

The unions and KiwiRail had been bargaining since February and were disappointed the issue had not been sorted much earlier, Mr Henderson said.

KiwiRail's initial proposal would have seen wages cut by 30 per cent, but the parties had since negotiated their way to a common ground, which Mr Henderson declined to reveal.

But KiwiRail still wanted to reduce service increments so employees could not get pay increases after being employed for a certain period, he said.

"The company dealt with a retention problem some years ago . . . with a [pay] increase that was a little bit more than norm at the time.

"But the company is now clawing back on those types of payments, and they are really asking for the same problem to occur. We're keen to ensure that doesn't happen."

Union members worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and must remain on the ship for the full seven days, as well as being available in the event of an emergency, he said.

"Essentially, our members are on the job for 168 hours per week. They are captive; they can't go home to their families or pursue other interests for that week."

Interislander general manager Thomas Davis said he was disappointed to receive strike notice. Fairfax NZ

The Marlborough Express