Unions strike while iron is hot in sum­mer of dis­con­tent

Is it mid­dle-class rage fi­nally boil­ing over, or are work­ers tak­ing ad­van­tage of a union-friendly Govern­ment? De­brin Fox­croft looks at why an es­ti­mated 70,000 Ki­wis took to the streets in 2018.

Sunday Star-Times - - News -

It was bril­liant brinkman­ship tim­ing, or an in­fu­ri­at­ing move de­signed to cause max­i­mum cus­tomer stress. On the eve of the busy Christ­mas sea­son, the news of a pos­si­ble strike by Air New Zealand en­gi­neers re­ver­ber­ated through the coun­try.

Trav­ellers were left un­cer­tain of their op­tions as both sides in the dis­pute lobbed crit­i­cisms across the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, and ac­ri­mony built quickly as strike ac­tion on the air­line’s busiest day loomed.

How­ever, in­dus­trial ac­tion was averted af­ter a deal made in late-night ne­go­ti­a­tions.

In the months fol­low­ing the 2017 elec­tion, Na­tional MP Ju­dith Collins tweeted that fre­quent strikes were in­evitable un­der a Labour-led coali­tion.

To the ca­sual ob­server, the Air New Zealand dis­pute was just an­other threat of in­dus­trial ac­tion in a year marked by strikes by teach­ers, nurses and pub­lic trans­port work­ers.

For the unions rep­re­sent­ing 17 per cent of all New Zealand work­ers, 2018 marked a break­ing point of frus­tra­tion rather than a year of po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

An es­ti­mated 70,000 work­ers took to the streets through­out the year.

Stan Ren­wick, one of the na­tional in­dus­trial or­gan­is­ers with the Avi­a­tion and Marine En­gi­neers As­so­ci­a­tion (AMEA), said 95 per cent of their mem­bers sup­ported the in­dus­trial ac­tion against Air New Zealand be­cause they couldn’t keep go­ing with the sta­tus quo.

‘‘We haven’t had any ne­go­ti­a­tions with the com­pany for nine years,’’ Ren­wick said.

‘‘All of the frus­tra­tion was build­ing, then this year Air New Zealand an­nounced its next step in its re­struc­tur­ing process. They had a set of claims – say­ing to make fur­ther im­prove­ments, there would need to be cuts.’’

Ren­wick said that af­ter eight weeks of un­suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions, the or­gan­is­ers ‘‘went in with a straight­for­ward kamikaze ap­proach to get all this non­sense sorted’’.

The back­lash from New Zealan­ders came swiftly, he said.

‘‘Did we ex­pect the pub­lic would re­spond as they did? Yes, but we thought some of the anger would go on Air New Zealand,’’ Ren­wick said.

‘‘But they just re­leased a press re­lease say­ing the aver­age worker earned $150,000 and that was it.’’

Ren­wick said most of the work­ers didn’t earn any­where near that, even with sig­nif­i­cant over­time.

‘‘Eight peo­ple have the wealth of the world’s bot­tom 50 per cent, which is to­tally ob­scene. So, you have that lin­ger­ing in the back­ground, that the world has be­come more un­fair.’’ Jim Bol­ger, for­mer prime min­is­ter, above

The frus­tra­tion of work­ers in the mid­dle, be­yond govern­ment help but still strug­gling to make ends meet, has been build­ing over the past decade, re­tired aca­demic Michael Law said. Law, the found­ing di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Labour and Trade Union Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Waikato, said a re­cent sur­vey of dairy work­ers asked what is­sues their union should ad­dress.

‘‘What was com­ing through in that in­dus­try which is, com­par­a­tively speak­ing bet­ter paid, was an ab­so­lute out­rage over wages and that’s in an in­dus­try that had more wage move­ments than the state sec­tor had had for the last nine years,’’ Law said.

‘‘So I started talk­ing around about this and it was clear, it didn’t mat­ter where you raised the topic, and it didn’t mat­ter where peo­ple were em­ployed, there had been wage sup­pres­sion for a very long time and that dam was ready to burst.’’

Cir­cum­stances made the ques­tion of higher wages more ur­gent for work­ers, Law said.

‘‘In the state sec­tor, the prob­lems haven’t just been on wages. There have been cut­backs gen­er­ally. Peo­ple have been work­ing in worse and worse en­vi­ron­ments and had a lot more pres­sure and work­ing for not very much pay,’’ he said.

‘‘For younger peo­ple, the frus­tra­tion over wages has been com­pounded by the frus­tra­tion over gal­lop­ing house prices. If peo­ple are work­ing long hours, not get­ting any in­creases in pay and the price of houses is gal­lop­ing away from them and ev­ery week they are fur­ther be­hind then you get a frus­tra­tion and anger that ei­ther man­i­fests it­self by em­i­grat­ing or leav­ing the in­dus­try.’’

Law said in­dus­trial ac­tion across a num­ber of sec­tors had been a long time com­ing, de­spite de­clin­ing union mem­ber­ship.

‘‘I was sur­prised the dam didn’t burst in 2017. Ac­tu­ally, bit sur­prised it didn’t burst in 2016.

‘‘I think what hap­pens when you get a change in govern­ment is you get a bit of hope and ex­pec­ta­tions but it’s chicken and egg here. The dam was due to burst and an elec­tion got in the way.’’

The num­ber of New Zealan­ders rep­re­sented by labour unions had de­clined from 20.5 per cent in 2012 to 17.2 per cent in 2017.

AMEA’s gam­ble on a pre-Christ­mas avi­a­tion strike was a mat­ter of cir­cum­stance rather than bar­gain­ing, Ren­wick said. ‘‘It just so hap­pened that that is when the col­lec­tive agree­ment ex­pired,’’ he said.

The threat of strike ac­tion came af­ter months of ne­go­ti­a­tions.

‘‘Did we stop and think, are peo­ple com­ing into the coun­try? Yes we did. But we spent eight weeks mak­ing no progress,’’ Ren­wick said.

‘‘Un­for­tu­nately, Christ­mas is the one time of the year peo­ple care more about their own in­ter­ests then the in­ter­ests of work­ers.’’

Law said New Zealan­ders in 2018 had gen­er­ally re­acted with sym­pa­thy to in­dus­trial ac­tion, but sup­port had its lim­its.

‘‘The pub­lic has re­acted very sym­pa­thet­i­cally to hos­pi­tal staff as there has been a wide­spread ac­cep­tance that they are poorly paid. There has been a wide­spread ac­cep­tance that teach­ers have lost ground sig­nif­i­cantly and there has been a great deal of sym­pa­thy, cer­tainly to the bus driv­ers here in Hamil­ton,’’ he said.

‘‘So, in cases where there is al­most a moral ar­gu­ment be­hind the union claim, the pub­lic re­acts sym­pa­thet­i­cally.’’

The pub­lic’s tol­er­ance for strike ac­tion was stretched when the im­pact was closer to home.

‘‘Peo­ple get a bit snarky when they are per­son­ally be­ing dis­rupted,’’ Law said.

Scott Simp­son, Na­tional’s spokesper­son for work­place re­la­tions and safety, said he ex­pected unions would con­tinue to strike through­out the new year.

‘‘There’s a sense within trade unions that it’s their turn,’’ he said.

‘‘In the case of the Air New Zealand strike, it seemed to hark back to the days of the 1970s when the Cook Strait union work­ers took in­dus­trial ac­tion ev­ery Christ­mas, hurt­ing ev­ery­day New Zealan­ders.’’

Simp­son said blame had to fall on a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­aged union ac­tion.

‘‘I think one of the things that has hap­pened, un­in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise, is the Govern­ment has given unions em­pow­er­ment and ap­proval to take ac­tion,’’ he said.

‘‘The leg­is­la­tion hasn’t changed yet so it is re­ally only a ques­tion of the Govern­ment’s tacit ap­proval to al­low strikes.’’

Richard Wagstaff, pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil of Trade Unions, said a per­fect storm had de­vel­oped in 2018 that led to the more no­tice­able in­dus­trial ac­tion.

‘‘One rea­son is that state sec­tor unions have much higher mem­ber­ship,’’ Wagstaff said.

‘‘If you work in the state sec­tor, most peo­ple are union mem­bers whereas if you work in the pri­vate sec­tor there is a much lower union pres­ence. Sec­ondly, the largest col­lec­tive agree­ments have come up for bar­gain­ing – the teach­ers, nurses and other health­care work­ers.’’

Wagstaff said unions had been plan­ning for the last two or three years to ad­dress the griev­ances be­ing ex­pressed by mem­bers, in­clud­ing un­der­re­sourc­ing and wages that weren’t keep­ing up with the ris­ing house prices in ur­ban ar­eas.

‘‘We were headed for a lot of the ac­tiv­ity re­gard­less of the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. How­ever, there is no doubt that trade unions have a far bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence un­der a Labour-led govern­ment than they do un­der Na­tional,’’ he said.

‘‘We unashamedly pre­fer a govern­ment that sup­ports work­ing peo­ple. So Na­tional are right about that. But we don’t agree with the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of ‘trade union mates’. State sec­tor unions are not af­fil­i­ated to the Labour Party.’’

For­mer prime min­is­ter Jim Bol­ger, once the bo­gey­man of union lead­ers af­ter the Em­ploy­ment Con­tracts Act was passed, said now was not the time for pol­i­tics. In 2018, he ac­cepted the lead role in the Govern­ment’s work­ing group fo­cused on Fair Pay Agree­ments.

‘‘I think what we have in New Zealand, mainly from white-col­lar groups, is sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent than back in the 1970s and 1980s. What we have, in my judge­ment is a mod­er­ate, in fact very mod­er­ate ver­sion of what is hap­pen­ing across Eu­rope where the peo­ple have been go­ing on to the streets.’’

Bol­ger be­lieved pro­fes­sion­als felt their work had not been recog­nised suf­fi­ciently in re­cent years.

‘‘Eight peo­ple have the wealth of the world’s bot­tom 50 per cent, which is to­tally ob­scene. So, you have that lin­ger­ing in the back­ground, that the world has be­come more un­fair, more un­bal­anced in terms of the dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth.’’

De­spite mod­er­ate in­creases in wages over the years, hous­ing costs had been a ‘‘killer’’.

‘‘If we are wise, we must avoid cre­at­ing the con­di­tions that pro­duces the anger we see on the streets of Paris or wher­ever.’’

The work­ing group re­port in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sion on hous­ing, Bol­ger said.

‘‘What we should con­tinue to do is have a fair bar­gain­ing sys­tem and al­ways en­cour­age the em­ploy­ers, whether it is the Crown or the pri­vate sec­tor, to re­fer to their em­ploy­ees in wage set­tle­ments. That’s all peo­ple are re­ally ask­ing for.

‘‘They don’t ex­pect to be mil­lion­aires, they don’t ex­pect any of that but they do ex­pect, if they are in a full­time job, of­ten two in a house­hold, they can af­ford to have a mod­est house and a cou­ple of chil­dren and not feel to­tally stretched in terms of in­come.

‘‘And that’s not a to­tally de­mand­ing ex­pec­ta­tion in a coun­try like ours.’’

JOHN BISSET/STUFF

Union mem­ber­ship in New Zealand has been in de­cline for a long time but teach­ers, nurses, mid­wives and bus driv­ers turned on a dis­play of in­dus­trial mus­cle last year.

Coun­cil of Trade Unions pres­i­dent Richard Wagstaff says big agree­ments in the pub­lic sec­tor came up for rene­go­ti­a­tion last year.

Na­tional’s work­place re­la­tions spokesman, Scott Simp­son, says unions feel en­cour­aged to strike un­der the cur­rent Govern­ment.

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