KiwiRail strikes still set but union hopes CEO departure may bring new approach to wage talks

Strike action by KiwiRail Rail and Maritime Union members still looms despite the resignation of controversial chief executive Greg Miller – but the union now hopes for “a different approach” at 11th-hour mediation next week.

The union and Miller, who was the subject of an external review ordered by the KiwiRail board after the resignation of several top managers at the state-owned company, have had a rocky relationship. KiwiRail has confirmed that in Miller’s 2.5 years as CEO, seven executives left.

The union plans a one-day stoppage in the South Island on December 16 and in the North Island on December 17. The action is in support of members’ claim for a general wage increase of 8 per cent.

The strikes will affect all rail operations in New Zealand including the rail ferries and Auckland and Wellington metro systems. As train control functions are located in the North Island, this will halt operations in both islands on Friday December 17.

New Zealand is grappling with pandemic-fuelled supply chain congestion and lengthy freight delivery delays, exacerbated by the approaching Christmas season.

Union secretary Wayne Butson told the Herald the action had not been called off in the wake of Miller’s departure, announced Wednesday and effective immediately. But facilitated mediation was scheduled for Monday and “I would like to think we will get a different approach”.

Meanwhile, it’s been confirmed that acting chief executive Todd Moyle, who resigned recently, will still take up the job of chief operating officer at Ngai Tahu Holdings in Christchurch in the New Year. Moyle was chief operating officer at KiwiRail.

Acting KiwiRail chair Sue McCormack said a search would start immediately for a permanent chief executive.

McCormack said Miller had advised that recent and sustained allegations in the media, while rejected by him, had become such a distraction that he has decided that it was in the best interest of himself, his family and KiwiRail to step down.

Miller is considered to have been a political appointment driven by NZ First’s Winston Peters and Shane Jones, both now out of Parliament. NZ First pushed for him to be appointed executive chair but this was opposed by Treasury and Labour ministers.

The result was Miller became chair in November 2018. In March 2019 he was named chief executive after the company said an extensive search had failed to find a candidate of sufficient breadth of experience.

He had been managing director of logistics operator Toll New Zealand. At the time of Miller’s appointment as CEO, Moyle had been acting chief executive for six months after the resignation of Peter Reidy who had headed KiwiRail for four years when Miller joined the board.

Butson, who has worked in rail since 1974, said the union’s relationship with Miller deteriorated from their first-ever meeting.

“Rail is very heavily unionised – CEOs have always seen us as important stakeholders. KiwiRail’s wage bill is its biggest at number one with fuel number two.

“We always had a once-a-month sitdown with Chatham House rules just to talk through our concerns. It was very good for lifting the lid off the [concerns] pot so there was no boil-over.

“When I went to the first meeting [with Miller] it didn’t go well. Greg Miller likes to talk, he doesn’t like to listen. I like to talk too, but I listen. No more meetings were scheduled after that.”

Butson said Miller’s switch from chair to chief executive had been “staggering” and “a charade”.

He said the KiwiRail board, which was mostly unchanged from that which made the Miller appointments, had to take some responsibility for the current situation.

The KiwiRail board was unavailable to respond to Butson’s suggestion.

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