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August 7, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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State of the Unions

The unions came to a supposed victory recently with an angry ‘hoard’ turning out to protest National MP Wayne Mapp’s 90-Day Probation bill. But with the numbers still paling massively in comparison to other major protests of the last few years, SALIENT volunteer and recovering ex- VUWSA President Jeremy Greenbrook-Held examines the state of the unions in 2006, 15 years after the reforms that took the sting out of their tail.

State of the Unions pic. “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” Possibly one of the less witty chants that a protest had come up with, but those involved seemed to think it summed up the situation aptly.

I was there. The 90-Day Probation Bill – apparently the biggest encroachment on New Zealand worker’s rights since the Employment Contracts Act; described by Peter Tighe of the Australian Communication, Electrical and Plumbing Union, as being as worse as anything John Howard had tried on across the ditch, and 600 people turned up to voice their opposition. The crowd was jovial and good-natured, but to be frank, was very small for such a supposedly terrible piece of legislation.

How could this be? What sort of state must the trade union movement be in? A 10,000 strong crowd showed their opposition to the Seabed and Foreshore Bill, even more marched with Bishop Brian Tamaki claiming enough was enough, and less than 1,000 thought Wayne Mapp’s piece of legislation was a bad idea. This concept was a mystery to me, so I decided to investigate the state of the unions.

N.B. This seems like an opportune time to clarify a few points on what you’re about to read. First and foremost, this is not an article about Dr Mapp’s much heralded bill, or what I think of it, but I do reserve the right to draw on it whenever I feel like it. Secondly, while I am a centre-left social-democrat with a strong belief in the collective good of trade unions, this is not about my philosophies, and, more importantly, it is most certainly not about selling those philosophies on to you, the dear reader.

Oh no. Now, read on.

In the ultimate fit of self-contradiction, let me start with the 90-Day Probation Bill. The National Party, led by Industrial Relations spokesperson Wayne Mapp, is attempting to introduce a 90-day probation period for new workers. Dr Mapp claims that it would give employers the chance to take on new workers without the risk of having to go through a lengthy dismissal process should it not work out within the first 90 days. In contrast, the trade unions had dubbed the bill the “90-Days-No-Rights-Bill” – they claimed that under this bill new workers were going to have none of the statutory rights that established workers take for granted, and that employers would introduce rolling 90-day contracts for employees. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle, but thinking of myself as a centre-left washed out student politician, I felt it was important that I show solidarity to my fellow man, and decided to go along to the rally. In order to find out where the unions are at, and why so few people turned out, I spoke to many people: academics, members of Parliament, and of course, trade unionists and employers representatives. They all gave me a unique perspective on the issue at hand.

I figured the best place to start would be at the Industrial Relations Centre at the Victoria Management School. Professor of Industrial Relations, George Lafferty is one of four authors of the annual Employment Agreements: Bargaining Trends and Employment Law Update, a survey of collective employment agreements, workers’ conditions and new precedent in employment law. Lafferty refutes Tighe’s claim that Mapp’s bill is worse than anything the Howard government’s ‘Workchoices’ industrial relations reforms has tried on with workers. The industrial relations environment in Australia is “truly draconian” according to Lafferty, explicitly outlawing union activities in many areas. “For example, if I was a bus driver, and I went on strike, my passengers could sue me personally. It’s really bad.”

Lafferty believes that Howard’s reforms are far worse than any reforms in New Zealand, including the Employment Contracts Act (ECA). The ECA was passed by the National Government in 1991, ending compulsory trade union membership, and making it difficult for unions to collectively negotiate on behalf of workers, especially when it came to multiple employers. While it made it difficult for unions to operate, employers were still compelled to collect union levies on behalf of unions and provide resources like office space and telephones for union delegates, something that is explicitly outlawed under Howard’s legislative reforms. While it wasn’t as severe as the Australian reforms, the Employment Contracts Act nevertheless broke the back of the union movement; Lafferty believes that organized labour is still in a “recovery phase”, which puts them very much on the back-foot when it comes to organizing. What’s more, while union density in New Zealand is about the same as Australia, “we don’t enjoy the benefits of economies of scale here; a union with five-thousand members still has many of the same housekeeping expenses of a union with five-million members.”

Up until last year’s general election, Darian Fenton was General Secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union, the union that represents some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable workers: hospitality workers, cleaners and clerical staff. Being number 43 on Labour’s party list, she secured herself a list seat in Parliament, and is a member of the Transport and Industrial Relations select committee. Fenton, along with all of Labour’s caucus, voted against Wayne Mapp’s bill, claiming that “it could become a wedge for future reductions in [workers’] rights…I personally am appalled by the ignorance of the bill and the lack of understanding of what life is like for many workers and how vulnerable they are in those first 90 days of employment,” but Fenton concurs with Lafferty that the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in Australia. “Have a look at their legislation and the consequences where workers are being sacked all over the place. Also, note that Australian union density is around the same as New Zealand’s despite having had years during the 1990s and until now when they had the security of legislation, national awards and arbitration.” Union membership density is the main flaw that Fenton sites for state of the unions. Only 12.5% of workers in the private sector are union members where “wages are still low,” and “there are thousands of workers not represented and a whole heap more work to be done.”

President of the Council of Trade Unions Ross Wilson believes that the crux of the issue is the bottom up, democratic nature of unions. “A union is only as effective as its membership allows it to be. In industries where there is very low union membership, such as tourism, there are poor wages, conditions and low security of hours. In areas where workers organise collectively in unions, such as in transport or nursing, they have a much stronger position to improve their conditions at work.”

Lafferty, Fenton, and Wilson are all pretty big supporters of union movement, and their views represent the thoughts of the left nicely. It was time to talk to those that represented the supposed flipside to their views. National MP Paula Bennett was a human resources manager prior to entering Parliament, and is quite cynical about trade unions. She is a big supporter of Mapp’s Bill, claiming bluntly that “in reality the unions can scaremonger all they like, but many of us have had times when we really wanted a job and really wanted someone to ‘give us a go’ and I think New Zealanders know that this bill will work for them.”

“Unions are reacting to Wayne Mapp’s bill ideologically, rather than looking at reality.” Paul Winter

The employer associations are taking a similar stance. “Unions are reacting to Wayne Mapp’s bill ideologically, rather than looking at reality,” according to Paul Winter, CEO of the Central Employers and Manufacturers Association. “However most New Zealanders are not interested in the ideological debate.” Winter claims that the government’s focus on economic transformation has moved the industrial relations environment in New Zealand from a win-lose to a win-win game.

Winters stated that there were some very big similarities between unions and his organization: they both provide advice to their members, and lobby on thei behalf. Industrial relations, though, are not about who has power; it’s about rules that dictate how groups are able to operate, and at the moment, those rules favour unions. His biggest gripe, however, seems to be that even after the reforms of the ECA, unions still enjoy a certain level of compulsion in their membership. “If you and a few mates were working and wanted to negotiate collectively with your employer, you would have to either form a union, which means you need 15 members and become an incorporated society, or you have to join an existing union. Why should you have to do that Why can’t you negotiate for yourself?” These are sentiments that are echoed by CEO of Business New Zealand, Phil O’Rielly. “Unions are certainly influential and I’m okay with that,” says O’Rielly. “Their strength is based on their capacity to debate the issues. The [Council of Trade Unions] does this well, and acts in an honest and open way. They represent their members well.” O’Rielly believes there is still a place for large scale collective bargaining, “so long as it’s in everyone’s best interest. It could be possible for [collective bargaining] in big, single industry to be advantageous, maybe even MECAs [multiemployer collective agreements]. The problem comes when unions force employers to collectively bargain.” Perhaps the unions are getting such a good deal under the Labour government that they are scared to cause any sort of a ripple? There has been much said recently about who holds influence in the Labour Party; is it the gays? Feminists? Or is it the traditional power base of organized-labour? Are unions really that powerful within the current party of government?

O’Rielly states diplomatically that, “Ruth Dyson [Minister of Labour] doesn’t wake up in the morning and think about the Council of Trade Unions, just like she doesn’t think about Business New Zealand.” He continues that governments are political by their very nature, and while there are a number of trade union officials in the Labour caucus, “it would be pretty glib to suggest that the government dances solely to the tune of the unions.” Winter is slightly more candid about the situation, claiming that Labour have changed the rules to favour unions.

Lafferty’s claims are fairly similar. He says that it would be pretty dangerous for unions aligning themselves too closely to a political party: “they don’t want a union movement which is just an arm of government. Besides, the New Zealand Labour Party is not factional enough for a single interest group to take advantage – it’s nothing like the ALP [Australian Labor Party].”

Being a Labour MP and former trade unionist, I was interested in Darien Fenton’s take on this. She denies that the unions are in Labour’s back pocket. Every union is independent of Labour, including those unions that are affiliated… Unions often disagree with Labour and in Labour we expect they will show that independence by campaigning for their issues.”

Fenton does raise an interesting point. Labour was formed 90 years ago as the political wing of the labour movement, and as such has a number of affiliated trade unions, including two of the biggest: the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union and the Service and Food Workers Union. Members of these unions are automatically members of the New Zealand Labour Party. According to Fenton, “affiliation to Labour does give a unique opportunity for workers to have a voice in a large party like Labour and to influence their policy, their candidates and their future. The success of that comes down to organization, and there is a lot of that happening in Labour where the affiliated unions have a lot of influence. Workers need delivery on their issues and that means having influence on a large party like Labour – and that means being actively involved.” However, only four of the Council of Trade Union’s 37 member unions are affiliated to Labour. MMP creates an environment that requires lobby groups to work with multiple political parties, and unions are no different. According to Ross Wilson, union activists campaigned not only for Labour, but for the Green Party, Maori Party, and the Jim Andertonled Progressives – all parties arguably to the left of the New Zealand political spectrum.

So, where to now for the union movement? Do they have a future? Is organised labour still relevant in the 21st century? Are we going to see a return to the Employment Contracts Act when National form a government?

A return to the Employment Contracts Act is a critical policy area for National, and one that Paula Bennett says they’re currently working through. Paul Winter claims that most workplaces have moved on from the industrial relations environment of the past. Low unemployment means that workers can call the shots more easily, but Winter concedes that unions will continue to be strong, particularly within low paid, industrial areas, and with government employees. He is also not particularly keen to see a return to the Employment Contracts Act, as it’s “over a hundred pages long. It’s simply not worth small businesses, with only a few employees, changing everything.” Phil O’Rielly is similarly lukewarm towards a return to the ECA, stating that while it served its purpose during the 1990s, the environment has changed that now it is no longer relevant. Both would like to see more freedom for employers, particularly in terms of whom they negotiate with, and state that Wayne Mapp’s 90-dayprobation bill is a significant step in the right direction.

Lafferty and Fenton categorically believe that unions are still relevant. Lafferty claims that while union membership density is low, they still have a significant role in society, often speaking on behalf of the wider community on broader public issues like healthcare and education, and wage levels and conditions negotiated in collective agreements has a certain amount of influence on the conditions of non-unionized workers. Fenton links the union movement with a wider democracy, succinctly claiming that “the measure of any democracy is the freedom of workers to organize and collectively bargain – to have a voice, and to be taken seriously in fighting for economic and social justice.” Unions are growing and evolving. Many are taking on members in a number of different industries. Possibly the most successful example of this is Unite, who have worked on a number of small work sites like hotels and fast food outlets, attracting large numbers of young workers, and running highprofile campaigns like ‘Super Size My Pay’, calling for a $12 minimum wage and the abolition of youth rates. The National Distribution Union is taking a similar tactic in recruiting young workers, particularly those working in supermarkets.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that union membership will never be as high as it was when my parents entered the workforce, even right up to just before the passing of the Employment Contracts Act. Unions can no longer take their membership for granted, but subsequently have to work hard to recruit and keep every member – and the efforts appear to be paying off, both in terms of union strength and the benefits for its members, particularly younger, vulnerable members. Trade unions are still very relevant in the 21st century industrial relations. As Ross Wilson said to me, “ask the young workers at Readings Cinemas in Courtney Place who got much better wages through organising in Unite, the supermarket workers who are members of the National Distribution Union, and whose wages are on average $1.50 an hour more than at non-union supermarkets, or the workers at BP petrol stations who got rid of youth rates through the EPMU. I think they would say, that yes, unions are relevant in the 21st century.”

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About the Author ()

JEREMY GREENBROOK-Held (BA, BSc) is prematurely middleaged. He is married (sort of), dresses like a Country Road catalogue threw-up on him, and lives in the fashionable Wellington suburb of Oriental Bay. He used to have a huge amount of respect for Wellington taxi drivers for knowing where his out-of-the-way dead-end street was, until he found out that the house two doors up from his was a brothel. He is a postgraduate student, whose masters thesis is a delightfully erotic mix of geography and statistics. On cold winters nights, he longs for the simpler days of yesteryear, when the VUWSA President and Salient Editor were on talking terms. His pet-hate is commerce students – in his opinion, the best thing for them would be a good long stint in Vietnam.

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