When I was allocated the Meat Inspection group in about 1979 I was told they tended to exhibit anarchic behaviour more representative of slaughtermen than public servants and it was my job to inhibit industrial action in favour of negotiation.
Wildcat strikes could break out in a flash and in some places the local regional secretary had little or no control over it. What I found was an uneasy peace between the inspectors and the meat workers – the former checking the on health aspects of the work of the latter – and that meat workers did not appreciate inspectors taking action which reduced their own precarious income. This was a strong curb on industrial action. There was also an uneasy relationship between the inspectors and their employer, the Ministry of Agriculture. International and New Zealand consumers depended on meat inspection for re-assurance about the health of the meat they bought for human consumption which in turn impacted on a good part of our export trade. This gave the inspectors a degree of industrial muscle but the State Services Commission exerted firm control over MAF to inhibit precedents being set in Meat Inspection pay and conditions. In an effort to keep the group from undue exuberance in pursuing their interests the SSC occasionally poked a stick at them by trying to reduce or remove conditions. This of course detonated explosions of retaliation.
Most of my work was dealing with local outbreaks of frustration over delays in dealing with job-related issues or claims arising out of particular conditions. I enjoyed going over to MAF head office or travelling to works sites, meeting delegates and helping make a deal for them usually with small, but not insignificant gains. It was a bit like bringing home the bacon for the members. The Meat Inspectors group leadership was outstanding – Ian Baldick, Sam Bartrum and Wayne Parkinson. We had a close mutual understanding, which wasn’t always the case between PSA officials and members, but which helped avoid many pitfalls in a tricky environment.
A major test of industrial muscle occurred in the early 1980s when the government, with Prime Minister Muldoon’s backing and meat processing industry connivance, made a push to reduce slaughtering costs by trying to set up a non-union shed at the new Oringi plant and reduce the work of the meat inspectors at other places. If they thought to drive a wedge between the inspectors and the meat workers, they failed miserably and in fact the opposite occurred and the status quo prevailed. Several months later, probably in retaliation, the SSC decided to cancel the 10.7% pay increase recently negotiated by myself and the Group representatives. This was very unusual and guaranteed to cause strife. Then one of the most remarkable events in my experience took place. Baldick, Bartrum, Parkinson and myself were invited to the SSC to hear from Ron Kelly the deputy chairman. He began to lecture us on how naughty the meat inspectors were in always taking industrial action, until, unable to take any more, Ian Baldick leapt to his feet and gave Kelly a tongue-lashing, furious with indignation over the injustice in cancelling the pay increase. Ian held Kelly personally responsible (which may very well have been true) and swore vehemently at him calling him some very bad names. I pulled Ian down to his seat and called an adjournment as we needed to cool him down. We didn’t hear from Kelly again who I assume had to have sedation.
The crunch came when the PSA called a successful one-day national stoppage of meat inspectors and threatened further action. The SSC backed off, meetings resumed and the pay increase was re-instated. The nett result was to strengthen the union and put the employer on notice that having a go at the meat inspectors did not pay. It was a good outcome, and out of it I’m left with the vivid memory of Ian Baldick laying into deputy chairman Kelly and a sneaky wish that it had been me doing it.
Bill Thomas, PSA Research Officer 1969-74, Senior/Industrial Officer 1977-87