KiwiRail plans to lock out deck officers and engineers who work on its Cook Strait ferries so it doesn't have to pay wages when they go on strike.
The company issued lockout notices to members of both the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association and the NZ Merchant Service Guild on Friday in response to the unions issuing strike notices for December 1 to 8.
KiwiRail has not yet decided what it will do with able seamen and cabin staff during the strike period. These staff are represented by other unions but would not be needed if the ships are not sailing.
The pre-Christmas strike is expected to affect thousands of Interislander ferry passengers and freight companies. KiwiRail, which owns Interislander, estimates the strike will affect about 14,000 passengers and 4000 cars. About 20,000 rail wagons and a similar number of trucks will also be delayed.
The two unions, representing 54 deck officers and 70 engineers, have been negotiating collective employment contracts with KiwiRail since March. An agreement has not been reached on working conditions, with unions opposing the company's desire to trim service pay.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said the lockout notice was in response to the guild's expectation that they would refuse to sail ships during the strike but would remain on board and therefore still get paid.
"The notice stipulates that if our ships do not sail during this time, members of [the unions] will not receive their normal pay."
The company was "disappointed" unions were unable to enter mediation until Friday and was "ready at any notice" to negotiate.
"We are extremely disappointed by the unions' actions and the disregard for the severe impact a strike would have on our customers and New Zealand's supply chains at such a vital time of the year."
Major freight companies were making alternative plans for their cargo, he said.
Aviation and Marine Engineers Association national industrial organiser Stan Renwick said the association had expected the response. He had nominated Friday as a possible date for mediation but KiwiRail was yet to confirm.
"We've got a bottom line which we presented a long time ago and most employers, in my view, never want to get close to that line.
"Our members are very conscious of the public and I don't think we'll be serving [strike] notice on the employer again before Christmas."
The main disagreement was about KiwiRail's intention to cut staff service pay, which commonly grew each year as a bonus for staying with the company, he said.
"The employer's opening argument was that he needed to make significant savings.
"Their argument is if they've got a person doing a less than adequate job but has been at the company for 10 years, why should they pay him an extra $10,000 more than a new guy who's only been there for 12 months and is doing a good job.
"Service pay is a bullshit argument to get the employer out of paying what a worker is due."
The intended cut could cost some workers about 20 per cent of their income, he said.
NZ Merchant Service Guild general secretary Helen McAra hoped the issue could be resolved by Christmas but she could not rule out further industrial action over the holiday period.
It was disappointing that negotiations had reached this point after months of discussion, she said.
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