The role of iwi leaders in ending the three-month-long Affco lockout proves Maori are a business force to be reckoned with, a Ngapuhi leader says.
The bitter and costly dispute between the Talley Group, which owns the Affco freezing works, and the Meat Workers Union ended on Tuesday after intervention by the Iwi Leaders Forum.
Te Runanga-a-iwi o Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau - who took part in the final, epic negotiations alongside Ken Mair, Tukoroirangi Morgan and Ngahiwi Tomoana - said iwi became involved out of concern for Affco workers and their families, 90 per cent of whom are Maori.
Families of locked-out workers were suffering and iwi organisations around the country were pouring money into supporting them.
"We have a significant amount of stock going through Affco ... we said to the company, if you don't sit down [with the union] we'll withhold our cattle or send them somewhere else," Mr Tau said.
Each year Northland iwi organisations and Maori farmers sent 45,000 head of cattle to Affco; nationwide, iwi owned up to 4.5 million cattle.
"They admitted they'd hit a brick wall, so we offered to be the circuit breaker."
In the final days of negotiations, iwi leaders asked the union to step aside while they dealt directly with company management.
The final agreement, reached at 5am on Tuesday, was a proud achievement for iwi.
"People have to realise that they will go nowhere quickly without iwi. They ignore Maori at their peril."
Mr Tau said the union had retained seniority, separate site agreements and the right to belong to a union. The company had also made gains, and could now run the business unimpeded by archaic agreements.
Agreements of up to 1400 pages had been binned and replaced by five-page agreements for each plant. The two sides had agreed to bury the hatchet and drop all lockout notices, strike notices and legal action.
"It's a new beginning and a new relationship between the owners, the union and iwi. It's been a momentous event. Never has there been an intervention by iwi on this scale."
Meat Workers Union shed secretary Laurie Nankivell said the challenge now was getting everyone back to work without issues. "We have to patch up our differences. We don't want anyone losing their jobs now," he said.
The agreement was a positive outcome for both sides.
"There's also a commitment to work together to solve our differences, and to be more transparent with each other."
Mr Nankivell said the workers were thankful for the support they had received. "We're grateful for everything people have done - the food, the donations, joining in the march, even just beeping their horns when they drove past."
He said he was looking forward to going back to work and 6am starts, instead of the 4am starting time for the pickets.
Mr Tau paid tribute to company director Andrew Talley and his part in ending the dispute. The company had also offered $400,000 in hardship pay to be spread among the families affected by the lockout.
Other terms of the agreement included employee drug testing and a 4.3 per cent pay rise over 18 months, backdated to January.