Yesterday was a big day for the Progressive movement in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Fair Pay Agreements Bill made its way through Parliament and is now waiting for Royal Assent before it becomes law.
The motivation for the Law dates back to National’s mother of all budgets as well as the Employment Contracts Act. That Act was designed to severely attack the Union Movement and drive workers’ wages down.
It worked. The country has descended into poverty induced chaos ever since.
The Fifth Labour Government improved things somewhat. Working for Families meant that ordinary families coped better, but because of state support, not better wages and conditions.
There has been a lot of angst thrown at this Government. Why has it not improved things for ordinary people at a time when its power was as strong as we can ever hope for.
Well four reasons.
Firstly we have been through a one in a 100 years health crisis. We have come out of it pretty well. Compare our death rates to the US or the UK and then complain. Although the local debate does not occur with this context.
Secondly this Government has reversed the mother of all budget benefit cuts and actually went further.
Thirdly we now have fairly full employment and increasing wages. If it was not for the Ukraine war and internationally induced inflation then things would be improving dramatically.
Fourthly housing stocks are on the improve.
And now there is a fifth reason. The introduction of fair pay agreements is the most significant change to the Industrial Relations system since the Employment Contracts Act.
There are many heroes but two should be acknowledged. Helen Kelly who advocated strongly for this change and Michael Wood who did the hard work in getting it through.
The third reading debate was a joy. Grumpy right wingers promising to repeal the law if given a chance. Left wingers praising the change and pointing out the potentially significant benefits there are for ordinary workers.
During the debate Michael Wood said this:
This one’s for Helen Kelly. Over the course of this debate, we’ve talked about the people that fair pay agreements will help—those who clean, those who care, those who drive, those who serve—workers who, for 30 years, have been left out in the shadows of our deregulated labour market. And sometimes, when you know the problem, you need someone who will help to light the way, and Helen was that person for so many of us. Helen spoke directly about the problems; Helen spoke directly and issued challenges to those of us who could make a difference. She said to Rebecca Macfie, who wrote her biography, “We don’t need low wages in this country. There’s no excuse for it. People should be able to go to work, work their hours, and have a decent standard of living at the end of the week.” And, as Rebecca Macfie said, reflecting on that, “It was a matter-of-fact comment that belied a monumental ambition to shake up the movement she now lead so that it worked for all workers and to build the case for a law change that would stop workers’ wages being eroded in a competitive race to the bottom.”
Helen Kelly’s challenge was to all of us: it was to our economy, it was to decision makers in this House, and it was indeed to the union movement—to stop looking inwards and just looking after short-term interests, and to look outwards to the needs of the hundreds of thousands of workers who needed a change.
And Grant Robertson gave a barnstormer of a closing speech in the debate.
National’s promise to repeal the law when it regains power is the perfect reason for progressives to campaign heavily for a progressive government next term. The system once bedded in should be able to withstand right wing attacks. But next year it will still be vulnerable to right wing attacks. As will the aspirations of our poorest paid workers.
For the meantime this is a reason for celebration. Well done Labour Government.