Opin­ion

Sunday Star-Times - - Business - Hamish Ruther­ford hamish.ruther­[email protected]

In a speech to the Welling­to­nian of the Year awards this week, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Grant Robert­son briefly apol­o­gised to a packed au­di­ence about the new Air New Zealand safety video. Ap­par­ently, the Crown’s 53 per cent share­hold­ing did not give the Bee­hive creative con­trol over a video which the bulk of trav­ellers seem to find grat­ing.

Jok­ing aside, this week­end Robert­son and his col­leagues must long for more con­trol over what must feel like two fight­ing chil­dren.

Air New Zealand, the na­tional carrier ma­jor­ity-owned by tax­pay­ers, and E tu¯ , one of the unions of­fi­cially af­fil­i­ated with the Labour Party, head to me­di­a­tion to­mor­row, but do so from a tense start­ing point.

Along with an­other smaller union, the two sides are locked in a dis­pute which could see en­gi­neers down­ing tools just as Ki­wis are head­ing off to Christmas.

The airline ar­guably in­flamed the sit­u­a­tion when it an­nounced it had re­ceived a strike no­tice, warn­ing of how hol­i­days could be dis­rupted and talk­ing up how much the en­gi­neers were paid.

The threat of dis­rup­tion at New Zealand’s largest airline, comes just days after threats to dis­rupt New Zealand’s largest petrol com­pany.

On Mon­day, First Union said 180 driv­ers who work for Pa­cific Fuel Haul, sup­pli­ers of vir­tu­ally all fuel to Z En­ergy and Cal­tex sta­tions, were plan­ning to go on strike for five days from De­cem­ber 16 to De­cem­ber 20.

The truck­ing com­pany has given lit­tle de­tail of the dis­pute, although it too tried to por­tray the driv­ers as well paid, in state­ments dis­puted by the First Union, which says the strike threat cen­tres on an at­tempt to water down re­dun­dancy pro­vi­sions.

What­ever the mer­its of the ar­gu­ments, the unions have to ac­cept that tim­ing strikes close to Christmas will be per­ceived as an at­tempt to use the hol­i­day as lever­age.

For Labour, this could turn out to be a mas­sive headache.

Its op­po­nents warned that the ex­pec­ta­tions cre­ated while the party was in op­po­si­tion would lead to in­creased in­dus­trial ac­tion.

Dur­ing elec­tion de­bates in 2017, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern dis­missed the risk of ‘‘mass strikes’’.

Although the term is im­pos­si­ble to de­fine, the level of in­dus­trial ac­tion does seem to have climbed, at least in the pub­lic sec­tor.

This is hardly a sur­prise. Labour has not only backed leg­is­la­tion to strengthen the po­si­tion of unions, strikes are more likely to have an im­pact now be­cause Labour ap­pears more likely to lis­ten.

So far, the is­sue does not ap­pear to have hurt the Gov­ern­ment po­lit­i­cally.

While the groups which have en­gaged in ma­jor strikes have gen­er­ally had pub­lic sym­pa­thy, the pay de­mands have of­ten been high.

Re­fus­ing to sim­ply bend may in­deed en­hance Robert­son’s rep­u­ta­tion of re­straint with the pub­lic’s fi­nances, es­pe­cially given the healthy state of the Gov­ern­ment’s books.

But the strikes be­ing threat­ened this week, in the event they go ahead, could be in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory.

Par­ents might be­grudg­ingly put up with the in­con­ve­nience of a teacher strike, be­cause they can see why the pro­fes­sion is push­ing back after years of low wage in­creases.

Those same par­ents may be less will­ing to ac­cept spend­ing hours with their chil­dren, crammed into air­ports hop­ing to get home for the hol­i­days.

Z En­ergy has said it ex­pects there to be lit­tle or no dis­rup­tion from strik­ing tanker driv­ers.

But any images of mo­torists queu­ing will make for un­wel­come sum­mer head­lines.

What­ever the mer­its of the ar­gu­ments, the unions be­hind the strikes need to be aware that they may quickly lose pub­lic sup­port.

They may also af­fect how the pub­lic views strikes gen­er­ally and hurt the Gov­ern­ment that claims to rep­re­sent them.

What­ever the mer­its of the ar­gu­ments, the unions be­hind the strikes need to be aware that they may quickly lose pub­lic sup­port.

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