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Wishing on a Webstar: Plant faces closure

Unless there’s a miracle around the corner, the writing is on the wall for Webstar Masterton and its 40 employees.

It’s a shock, but perhaps not a surprise in the current economic climate – rising production and operation costs, coupled with dwindling advertising dollars, make for an untenable situation.

The sting in the tail of covid can be a long time coming.

Analysis of the driving factors behind the proposal [announced on Wednesday by Blue Star Group], however, will be cold comfort to those in the local print facility’s employ. For the wider region, the print plant’s proposed decommissioning signals the end of an era.

The Government Printing Office – what would become Webstar – first opened its doors in Masterton in 1979, with phone directories as its main publication.

According to E tu union negotiator Joe Gallagher, in its “halcyon days” Webstar was Masterton’s second biggest employer.

He says the facility in its present form is typical of rural New Zealand, with staff who have decades of experience: “You find a good job that pays reasonably, you stay. One guy I was talking to was coming up his 25th year there.”

Manawatu Mail Centre’s closure is a prime example of this provincial phenomenon.

Almost 60 people lost their jobs after NZ Post signalled that the mail centre was on the chopping block in August last year.

It’s a familiar story. Declining trends in volume precipitated a business re-evaluation, and mail processing ultimately moved to Auckland. Just last month the mail centre closed its doors for good.

For the local Webstar, it looks like a death by 1000 cuts. Three years ago the workforce was halved, as operations expanded in Auckland.

However, Gallagher maintains there’s hope in Webstar’s crushing proposal: ‘Just Transition’.

It’s a process, he says, that encapsulates engagement with staff, Ministry of Social Development, local industries, and polytechnics.

“It sounds strange, but in Manawatu it was a positive experience out of a bad one. You work with the staff to figure out their skill sets and dreams for the future, and tailor a programme to meet their needs, whether that’s retiring, retraining, or redeploying.”

And while it might not feel like it right now, job seekers have the upper hand in a tight labour market.

Gallagher notes that, at the very least, the plant’s closure will be nothing like the catastrophe at Today FM.

The announcement that Today FM would go off-air, that day, after only a year of programming led to what media commentators described as an “extraordinary on-air revolt”, with host Tova O’Brien telling listeners: “They’ve f***ed us.”

Gallagher said it was the worst example of “how not to treat people” he had seen in his more than 20-year career.

“What we are trying to do here is reverse that. The company is showing a willingness to engage with us, so that’s a good sign.”

Blue Star Group chief executive Jill Cowling said that it would take incredible feedback to prevent Webstar’s closure in Masterton. Between now and Tuesday, the floor is open.

If not, in nine months’ time the presses will have well and truly stopped.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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