Tuesday, 27 March 2012

on accountability and public ownership

i've been thinking with this ports of auckland dispute about how it would have gone if POAL was actually a private company instead of a publicly owned one. i wonder if the shareholders would have stood by while the board and management ran the company into the ground the way this board is doing?

if it was a private firm with shareholding largely held by a family group, then perhaps the board would take such a risk - particularly if the family was backed by a serious amount of wealth and had other profitable businesses. but a private company with institutional shareholders that held parcels of shares? somehow i don't think a company like that would have been allowed by its owners to carry on this dispute in the way that it has.

the POAL board are taking advantage of the fact that they are under a public ownership model that protects them from public accountability. the protection comes from the fact that the auckland city council can not fire the board, they can only fire some members of the board of a holding company. so POAL is in a position to be able to run down a public asset, and use up what are effectively public funds (in that the profits belong to the public) in expensive legal fees and advertising campaigns, in order to push down the wages and working conditions of its employees.

i know that other private organisations have managed this feat - the casualisation of its workforce, the driving down of wages - quite successfully in this country. telecom managed to shift a good chunk of its workforce into contracting via chorus, leading to a significant loss of income for those workers. and a significant loss of adequate services for many nz'ers. that was a sad loss.Link
and people like cleaners and bus drivers have been pushed into some pretty nasty contracts as well. but despite this, i can't help but feel that the POAL board are really taking advantage of public ownership in a way they wouldn't have been able to do as a private company, and wouldn't have been able to do if they had a simple ownership structure and clear lines of accountability to the public.

which is not to say that i'm letting mr len brown off the hook. regardless of his inability to act decisively to reign in the POAL board, there was nothing to stop him from condemning their actions and speaking out for the workers who are being affected by this dispute. that he has failed to do so is his own personal failing and he can not blame any structure or government for that.

it's good to hear that the workers have had another win in court. but given a board that is unwilling to negotiate, i'm not sure how they can win the dispute in the long run. unless a court forces the board to stop casualisation of the workforce, they will carry on with that process as soon as they are able (now 16th of may according to the latest ruling). there is no good faith bargaining to be had here.

1 comment:

Hugh said...

I do wonder.

Shareholder passivity is something that's remarkably common across all industries, though. Presumably because it's so hard for a shareholder to get information outside the media.