In a changing world major trends often converge and cause unexpected consequences. Such a converrence faced the PSA Electricity Group around the time of the commissioning of the Huntly Thermal Power Station.
From the early 1970s increases in the demand for electricity, particularly for the Think Big constructions of the Muldoon era, required an increase in power generation and thermal stations came into being. In 1980 hydro power contributed about 75% of electric power to New Zealand and thermal generation made up the rest. The Marsden Station, burning oil opened in 1967, but the high cost of oil reduced its use. The New Plymouth Thermal Station using oil and later natural gas, came on line in 1975 and between 1982 and 1985 the four thermal generating units at Huntly Power Station driven by coal, gas and oil were commissioned.
Another creation of Muldoon was the imposition of a Wage Freeze which created a log-jam of pay expectations among the general workforce. The Labour Government, elected in 1984 dismantled the Wage freeze and opened the economy to market forces. The unions were keen to get around the table and the PSA Electricity Group drew up a log of claims for the Power Station Operators. The Operators were the industrial muscle of the Group and what they achieved would help other workers. The commissioning of Huntly coincided with this, providing the Huntly members with an opportunity to include specific demands in the Operators’ claim.
The hydro station workers lived primarily in either Electricity Department villages like Manapouri or in small towns along the Waitaki and Waikato Rivers as also did most of the workers in the distribution system. The hydro workers dominated the PSA Electricity Group and their ethos reflected the values of small town/rural New Zealand – conservative, until their own interests were affected as with the house rents dispute of 1976. At salary negotiating time they arrived in Wellington dressed in their best, very aware of their responsibilities to their fellow workers and with a care for the welfare of the public of New Zealand - a thoroughly public-spirited bunch.
Thermal workers came from a different mould. Whereas a hydro station had a staff of about forty a thermal station had as a many as four or five hundred. Different skills were required for dam maintenance and water generation than for steam-driven turbines; the hydro workers were rural and the thermal workers overwhelmingly urban. New Zealand had not had sufficient skilled workers to construct, operate and maintain the big thermal stations and for Huntly had recruited a significant number from the north of England who were predominantly from the urban working class with labour social and political values. Their class consciousness and militancy did not ring many bells in the hydro stations.
The Huntly workers knew that the Operator’s claim was their best chance to set a baseline for good pay and conditions for themselves and were determined to use their industrial strength to get it. They could count on support from New Plymouth and Marsden. The 1984 wage round was thus dominated by thermal claims, with an undercurrent of hydro/thermal distinctions. We knew at National Office that if the claim was not handled carefully the result could be a fracturing of the Electricity Group and divided loyalties within the PSA.
The Huntly sub-Group demanded that a special ‘Huntly Stress Allowance’ based on the perceived volatility of generating with coal, gas and oil, be included in the claim. If gained this would flow on to other thermal stations, potentially creating an elite thermal group, something the hydro members would not be too happy about. But despite misgivings among some, a gain is a gain and we would give it our best shot.
My job was to lead a negotiating team to a settlement for all members that all would agree to. I was aware that the employer would be adamantly opposed to the stress allowance and it was decided to test the water by asking for the claim to be heard as a special part of the main negotiations and bringing as many thermal delegates to these discussions as we could.
The lead negotiator for the State Services Commission was the highly respected Larry Trotter, who had been a colonel in the Black Watch Regiment of the British Army in the World War Two and his departmental off-sider was Bert Carpenter who had been a petty officer in the Royal NZ Navy. Both knew from their service experience and the environment of wartime, what extreme stress was. After hours of negotiations and many arguments the Stress Allowance was getting nowhere and I became convinced it would never get anywhere, because it carried an underlying assumption that working at a thermal station was ‘dangerous’ – something the employer would never concede. We did better with the salary claim, obtaining advantageous thermal operator gradings, within the standard scales, dependent on the passing of training modules and an increase of about 9% (if I remember correctly) to the scales. Would this be enough for the thermal stations, Huntly in particular? My information was that it would be touch and go.
The group leadership, from hydro and substations wanted to accept the settlement, but realised they could not without thermal support. Meetings were scheduled for all power stations with group negotiators present to explain the potential settlement and take a vote. As Group negotiator it was a given that I would go to Huntly – accompanied by Merv McDowell a hydro operator from Aviemore in the South Island. The leader of the New Plymouth sub-Group Alistair Tompkin was outstanding and well able to put the case there. The Huntly Chairperson, Les Hart was apprehensive of the meeting and warned that I would have a difficult time of it.
Of my years as a negotiator this was the sternest test I ever had to face. Probably I was seen as a bureaucrat from Wellington – a breed not always trusted. There were several hundred members in the Huntly canteen, all keen to hear about it and the more militant were dotted around the room. They fired questions at me from everywhere, expressing little confidence in the settlement. They gave me a hard time, but as the facts of the matter came out the questions got easier and support started coming from the floor. After an hour the vote was taken and the settlement overwhelmingly approved. I was tired but pretty chuffed and went back to National Office with good news. Solidarity seemed to have won the day as the Electricity Group as a whole approved the settlement and things got back to normal, for a few years at any rate, until the NZED became a State Owned Enterprise. But that’s a whole other story.
Bill Thomas PSA research officer 1969-74, Senior/Industrial Officer 1977-87