By John Ryall, former Assistant National Secretary of E tū
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
from Alister Kirby to the news of a collective agreement was an “over my dead
body” verbal barrage down the phone.
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.”
though agree to negotiate individual contracts with each union member.
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.
months later when it was time to carry out the negotiations again, the members
decided to take on a stronger stance.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
not mean that there was any change in Alister Kirby’s position about collective
bargaining and collective agreements.
were attempts by the union to gain a collective agreement they were continually
frustrated by the actions of Romanos.
1995 Romanos received another blow when the Employment Court decided that Lofi
Tupu was unjustifiably dismissed and was awarded just over $10,000 in
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
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.
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.
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.