Long-time union man calls time -

Long-time union man calls time

He might have recently retired but long-serving unionist Phil Adams says he will never stop trying to make Port Otago the best in the country.

Mr Adams (67) spent 45 years working in the port industry and 43 years active in the Watersider Workers and Maritime Unions. He worked his way up through the ranks and was appointed national president of the Maritime Union of New Zealand in 2003.

Finding it difficult to balance with full-time work, he stepped down in 2007 but remained active locally, serving as Port Chalmers branch secretary from 1995 until his retirement.

While his retirement had been due soon, it happened a little earlier than he initially planned as a new grandson ended up in Starship Hospital in Auckland, and that brought things into perspective.

“Family is more important,” he said.

Fortunately, the little boy was doing better now and Mr Adams was settling into retirement with his wife Barbara, whom he acknowledged had been a huge support to him over the years.

A career on the water was somewhat inevitable for Mr Adams, who came from a family of port workers and seamen. He grew up in Port Chalmers where his father and father-in-law were watersiders, while his grandfather and two brothers worked at sea.

He started as an apprentice fitter and turner in the Port Chalmers dry docks and, when they closed in 1975, he was made redundant. He had the option of going to Christchurch for a job but chose to stay in the South, and started working for the Waterfront Industry Commission.

Over the next three decades, he learned every job on the container terminal, except driving the ship-to-shore crane, and, 18 years ago, he became one of the port’s controllers, responsible for container movements in the terminal yard.

When he first became involved in the union, he “knew nothing” about it. Bruce Malcolm was to have a “great influence” on his career and, through Mr Malcolm’s guidance, he began “learning bits and pieces”.

At times, discussions could get “a wee bit heated” and a reasonable level of patience was required.

It was also important to see both sides of the argument. “I feel I always knew how far to go with an employer, when to back off and when not to back off. And to be a wee bit shrewd,” he said.

One thing he always said to union members was that, when he walked into a dispute with the company, he had all the membership come in the door with him — not physically, but they were with him, he said. Every person who was a member deserved respect.

Mr Adams acknowledged the company also had a job to do and it was about mutual respect. He could have a row with someone one day and the next day they were ringing up and sharing a joke.

The situation with management had changed so much now. The unions had a lot of power in the earlier years but it was no longer about blowing a whistle and pulling everybody off a ship.

When it came to highlights of his lengthy tenure, Mr Adams said they were often smaller highlights, as he focused on representing the people to the best of his ability.

He enjoyed when a young worker came up to him, saying they had just bought their first house.

Also knowing that there were good conditions and wages was important. Working at the port could be a dangerous job but, through Health and Safety rules and regulations and the policing of them, workers were kept safe. There was sadly one death during his time there.

In the 1990s, redundancies were rife and the union lost one-third of its members. The union started approaching shipping companies, trying to entice them into the port.

While Mr Adams said he did not know if that worked, since about 1995 there had only been voluntary redundancies and that had been very pleasing.

For redundancies always hurt, and he said he was not afraid to say he had shed a tear. Losing young people through sickness was also something that affected him, he said.

He was involved with an initiative to introduce a cadetship, with some of those original cadets still working at the port, and he was pleased to see the company recently re-introduced a cadetship programme.

Mr Adams had seen “huge changes” in technology used at the port, including the change from ship cranes to land-based cranes for containers.

He believed it was in good heart and he also applauded that it was one of the few around the country that still did eight hour shifts, rather than 12.

With the weather conditions in Otago, and working in dangerous conditions, he believed that eight-hour shifts was very important.

He was also a Justice of the Peace, put to good use at the port, and a first-aider.

He was proud of what he had achieved during his career and, if he had his time over again, he admitted he “wouldn’t change a thing”. He missed the people and camaraderie at the port but he also felt he had done his “bit”, and knew when it was time to get out.

He was loving retirement; he and his wife had built a holiday home at Lawrence and they were enjoying spending more time with grandchildren.

The combination of Covid and retirement meant they had an opportunity to explore more of New Zealand.

Port Otago chief executive Kevin Winders said Mr Adams had spent the vast majority of his time advocating on behalf of others. It was great to join Mr and Mrs Adams earlier this month to celebrate his contribution to the port’s business and hear about their retirement plans.


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