5 Jul 2016

Air security staff strike may be averted

3:57 pm on 5 July 2016

Unions and the government are in last-minute talks in an attempt to avert a strike by aviation security workers at Wellington and Auckland airports.

An airport security sign in Auckland

Photo: RNZ / Lauren Baker

The Public Service Association and fellow union E Tū say they have agreed to attend mediation with the Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation.

The unions had earlier announced their workers at Wellington and Auckland airports would strike in two weeks' time if the Aviation Security Service did not meet their demands for a pay rise and better conditions.

They said, if a deal could not be agreed during mediation, their members would still take strike action in two weeks' time.

Aviation Security Service managers were set to meet this morning to talk tactics ahead of the security workers' first strike in three decades.

The security workers carry out everything from screening passengers and luggage to scanning airport perimeters and checking planes for bombs.

An E Tū union spokesperson said staff had not had a pay rise for three years, despite their employer, the Aviation Security Service, making a profit in that time.

E Tū's Kelvin Ellis said morale was the lowest it had ever been.

"They're just generally feeling quite undervalued - they've had a lot more work piled on them in terms of the global security situation and, you know, a lot more is expected of them in terms of skill."

The unions said there would be significant disruption to passengers if the strike action went ahead, because the workers carried out security checks all over the airport.

'Contingency plans'

Prime Minister John Key said Cabinet was made aware of the strike threat yesterday, and was presented with a range of options.

He said the strike action would have affected both domestic and international travellers and, while it had the potential to cause major disruption, it would not result in airports being closed down altogether.

Mr Key earlier said he was not ruling out using other agencies such as Customs or police to avoid disruption if the strikes went ahead this month.

"You need to have people who can look at those X-ray machines, understand exactly what they're looking for, and make sure they're providing the protection that New Zealanders and others that might travel on through our airports need and deserve. So, we have that.

"One of the three unions has settled, so there's definitely a core of specialist staff there. The question is what else can you do."

An Aviation Security Service spokesperson said it had contingency plans, and passenger safety would not be compromised, but it hoped the pay dispute could be resolved amicably.

Govt just union-bashing - Labour

Labour leader Andrew Little said that was just "good, old-fashioned National union-bashing".

"Well it was good enough for Sid Holland, good enough for Rob Muldoon, good enough for William Massey if you want to go back to the National Party's original precursors and no doubt they celebrated all that at their 80th birthday.

"That would be classic National Party if they want to go down that path, in the end I think most people expect the government to turn to their employees and say 'yep', we've to treat you reasonably, treat you professionally and they should sit around the table and achieve a settlement."

The government had a responsibility to negotiate in good faith, he said.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges would not say outright the strike notice was unreasonable, saying "people could draw their own conclusions".

"There's been strong offers by the Civil Aviation Authority, indeed if you compare it across the public sector, you know, they can be seen as at the upper end of the kind of offers we've seen in this areas.

"And indeed the Aviation Security officers have been, in terms of their pay and conditions, also at the upper end in comparison with other outfits doing comparable work."

And he said the strike notice was designed to cause maximum disruption by the unions.

Mr Bridges also said the union representing officers in the South Island had settled some time ago.

"Which I think again gives you a sense of the strength of the offer."

The last time the government used the defence force in response to a strike was under Labour in 2001, when 1400 soldiers were called in to replace suspended prison officers, at 17 sites around the country.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs