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.
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.’’
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.