OPINION: Some will say that the union court victory over New Zealand Aluminium Smelters is a pyrrhic one, so devastating in its consequences that it winds up bearing a ruinous resemblance to a defeat.
They might even be tempted to do a dead-easy sum. The Government grants a $30 million subsidy to keep the struggling Tiwai smelter going; the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union wins enforcement of $19 million worth of wrongly denied lieu days, leaving the place just $11 million to the good in these perilously straitened times.
Simple. Well, gormlessly simplistic, actually.
Quite apart from any further appeal prospects, there isn't going to be a sudden wahey $19 million payday, promptly followed by the ruination of the smelter. Workers who have left the smelter would have their hands out, it's true, and there will be plenty of them. But for those still employed it amounts to a great deal of lieu time being added to their leave entitlements.
As workers hither and yon can attest, you can ask your company to cash up accumulated leave, but you might very well be told nope.
None of which is to deny that as things stand the smelter is facing a painful double-whammy combination payouts and provisions to handle some seriously high leave entitlements.
Let's not portray the union as grasping.
If this is a serious correction, it's because of what courts have found to be a serious injustice; changing shifts from eight to 12 hours but not proportionately increasing lieu-time leave entitlements for when the work is carried out on public holidays.
A curious note to the case was the argument that the span of 20 years while the issue lay unresolved essentially indicated acquiescence to the company's approach.
The court clearly didn't buy this, given evidence of frequent challenges during those two decades. But in hindsight it's regrettable that things took this long to come to a head.
If the further appeal deadline passes there will need to be some seriousgood-faith negotiation between the company and the union to manage the consequences. Neither party actually wants to see Tiwai stuffed. A combination of practicality and patience wouldn't be amiss here.
- The Southland Times
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