By John Ryall, former Assistant National Secretary of E tū
The 1991 Employment Contracts Act undermined collective bargaining and diminished the role of unions. It promised employers a world in which they could do whatever they liked without being restricted by “onerous” worker rights.
The post-1991 period was tough for unions, but sometimes union organising was temporarily helped by employers who, in my opinion, were certified nutcases – full of their own importance, blaming their workforce for everything and so frenetically busy that they never stopped to examine whether their style of management was destroying their own business.
One of these employers was Romanos Pizzas, which owned a small factory in the Hutt Valley and was busy setting up another one in Auckland. The owner was Elaine Gordon, but the driving force behind the business was the general manager Alister Kirby.
From Liverpool to Alicetown
In my first introduction to Alister Kirby, after giving me a handshake that almost broke my knuckles, he said “I faced down the TGWU in Liverpool. New Zealand unions are pussies compared to them.”
He was short of stature, had a very short fuse, and was so busy growing his business that workforce issues were of secondary concern. His regular overnight road trips between Wellington and Auckland did not help his demeanor.
Romanos produced wrapped fresh pizzas and pizza bases for supermarkets and employed about 25 workers at its Hutt Valley factory. Given the attitude of its management towards unions it was quickly de-unionised following the Employment Contracts Act.
In mid-1992 I was approached by a Romanos worker Liz Campbell, who had been unjustifiably dismissed and despite not being a union member was seeking the Service Workers Union assistance with her case.
I told Liz that the union would represent her providing she could get the other workers in the factory to a meeting and they joined the union. She organised the meeting at her house, 10 workers turned up and they all joined the union.
I raised a personal grievance on behalf of Liz Campbell for unjustified dismissal. After a number of communications with the Romanos lawyers it was settled on terms acceptable to her.
By the time of the settlement the Romanos union membership had grown to about 50% of the workforce and our on-site organising committee was meeting regularly, led by our two delegates Yvonne Bartle and Liz Campbell’s sister Hilda.
On 11 March 1993 Romanos had complaints from customers that some of its pizzas had a strong and unpleasant smell coming from them. Alister Kirby’s immediate instinct was to blame the workers and accuse them of deliberately poisoning the pizzas in order to get him to recognise their union.
Local health officials were demanding to inspect the premises so he had a strategy to comply with their demands and also punish the workers. He announced to the workers that the factory was closed until further notice because of the deliberate sabotage of the pizzas and told them they were all locked out for health and safety reasons.
I responded to the situation at the factory within 10 minutes of the call from the union delegates and met with the workers by the back door. I told them that the lockout was illegal and if they wanted to get their jobs back and be paid for the lockout they should all stand together and join the union.
The union suddenly had 100% day-shift membership and we were in a position to threaten Alister Kirby that unless he agreed to lift the lockout and pay the workers for the time locked out we would picket the factory and also seek an injunction in the courts.
By then he was caught in a dilemma of provoking a picket and a lot of publicity around smelly pizzas or lifting the lockout, sending the workers home and paying them while the health officials did their tests.
The lockout was lifted but not without a mouthful of venom from Alister Kirby about his pizza poisoning suspicions.
The next day, as everyone returned to work, one of the workers Lofi Tupu was called to a disciplinary meeting over the damage to a locker. When we arrived at the meeting we found that the disciplinary issues had increased from damage to the locker to threatening violence to another employee, changing the “best before” date on the pizza date stamp and poisoning the pizzas with a chemical.
With very little evidence to back up the other complaints and only a couple of scratches on the locker Alister Kirby accepted that only a written warning for the locker was in order.
However, the issue did not stop there. Over the next few days super sleuth Alister Kirby interviewed a number of factory workers and came to the conclusion that Lofi Tupu had poisoned the pizzas with nail polish remover.
Alister suspended Lofi and when we met with him he said the interviews had revealed that Lofi had contaminated the pizzas with nail polish remover. He alleged she painted her finger nails and used nail polish remover, said he knew she was the culprit and out of the blue offered her $1500 if she resigned her employment.
When she turned down his offer he read out an already-prepared letter dismissing her for damaging a locker, threatening another employee with violence and changing the “best before” date on the pizza date stamp. There was no mention of the pizza contamination or the nail polish remover.
Collective agreement time
If this was meant to be a signal to the other union members that he was the boss and you should do as you are told, then it did not work.
While the union pursued a personal grievance for Lofi, the other members demanded that the union negotiate a collective employment contract with Romanos to strengthen their rights in the face of an unpredictable employer.
The response from Alister Kirby to the news of a collective agreement was an “over my dead body” verbal barrage down the phone.
I followed this up with a meeting in his office accompanied by the workplace delegates, where I presented him with a draft collective contract. Without looking at it he threw it into the rubbish bin. I told him that it was unlawful not to consider the negotiation of a collective agreement. He reached over to the rubbish bin, took out the draft collective agreement and put it in the bottom drawer of his desk with a comment “I am now considering it.”
He did though agree to negotiate individual contracts with each union member.
The negotiations were a farce as every worker was offered a 25 cents an hour pay increase with no other improvements to their employment terms. Even though the first few members made excuses about not accepting the identical offer on the spot, it soon became obvious to the workplace delegates that members wanted to grab the pay increase and to keep on organising later around a collective contract.
Twelve months later when it was time to carry out the negotiations again, the members decided to take on a stronger stance.
We decided that we would get the Romanos offer for each member and not accept any of the offers until all of the members could talk about what had been offered together. It was a form of collective negotiation of individual contracts.
I arranged a date for the negotiations and asked Service Workers Union organisers Lee Tan and Nanai Muaau to be available for those members who wished to speak or have any offers interpreted into their own language, although Alister insisted that he would only allow myself and one worker at a time in his office for the negotiations.
I meet with Alister Kirby with the first member while Lee Tan waited downstairs with the other members. The first worker was offered 25 cents an hour pay increase with no changes to other conditions. I thanked Alister and said the member wanted to think about the offer some more.
The second member came in and she was offered 40 cents an hour because of what Alister said was her “sterling work”. After a brief adjournment I thanked Alister for the offer and said that this member wanted to talk to her partner about the offer.
When the third member came through the door Alister adopted a different tone. He said that this member was being offered 40 cents an hour on condition that he signed his individual employment contract before he left the room.
When we refused this demand, Alister stood up from behind his desk, told us to get out and then pushed past us and some other members waiting on the stairs as he headed to the factory floor. Once inside the factory he shouted “Its stopwork time. Stopwork meeting. Get out!” running around the factory floor pushing members towards the door and locking it behind him.
Lockout or strike?
We had a meeting with the members outside of the factory and all decided to return first thing the next morning for a picket.
When we returned the next morning there was a big sign on the factory door telling everyone that no work would be offered until the strike was over and each worker give a guarantee that it would not be repeated. If a worker wanted to return to work they needed to leave a letter in the office accepting these two demands and the company would then consider each letter and decide whether the worker would be welcomed back or not.
After a quick discussion over the definition of “strike” and “lockout” the members quickly came to the conclusion that the boss pushing you out the door and locking it was to any casual observer a fairly good example of a lockout.
The picket started that day and continued through until our day in the Employment Court on 15 September 1994. There was a good turnout of picketers each day and because an International Labour Organisation delegation was in Wellington that week investigating a complaint about the Employment Contracts Act, the action drew a lot of attention.
Representatives from other unions and from the NZ Council of Trade Unions joined the picket line as did Labour Employment Relations Spokesperson Steve Maharey and Alliance Party Leader Jim Anderton.
On 15 September 1994 the Employment Court granted the union an interim injunction against the Romanos lockout and the day later the union members marched back into the factory without any sign of Alister Kirby.
That does not mean that there was any change in Alister Kirby’s position about collective bargaining and collective agreements.
While there were attempts by the union to gain a collective agreement they were continually frustrated by the actions of Romanos.
In August 1995 Romanos received another blow when the Employment Court decided that Lofi Tupu was unjustifiably dismissed and was awarded just over $10,000 in compensation.
It was the last straw for Alister Kirby. He had a heart attack just before the decision was released and the threat to his mortality opened the door to the union finally completing a collective agreement, with a 3% wage increase, an extra week’s annual leave and a set of standard conditions including accepted union rights.
However, this was a short pyrrhic victory as many of the original Romanos union activists soon left and the factory relocated to Auckland. Within a year of the move the Romanos business in Auckland closed as well and it was rumoured that Alister Kirby had experienced a second fatal heart attack.
Union organising at Romanos Pizzas only lasted about three years, but it was a sentinel event in our organising under the Employment Contracts Act. With the large effort put in by the union in trying to organise a small site, the question was asked about why we started in the first place.
Although the Romanos dispute did not gain our members everything that they wanted, it showed everyone, including other employers, that despite the Employment Contracts Act workers would still fight for their rights and there were no benefits in taking on a united workforce if doing so ended up destroying your business.