Finance Minister Bill English has told doctors, teachers, and other public servants that they will not be getting pay-raises when their collective contracts come up for renewal.
That is constitutionally outrageous and a big political mistake. Ministers are not allowed to direct public sector pay negotiations. It is clearly against the rules of the State Sector Act. English is effectively purporting to dictate the terms of collective agreements that are currently under or soon will be under negotiations, in breach of the good faith bargaining provisions of the Employment Relations Act.
More fundamentally problematic is that English seems to think it is up to the government, as employer of public servants, to dictate how much they are paid. Any employment contract, including that between public servants and the Crown’s organisations, is an agreement between the two parties. An employer is not a master, nor an employee a slave. We do not meekly take whatever the employer decides, according to their generosity or lack of it. Workers, usually as members of unions, bargain with their employer to define the wages and conditions of their employment (or, more commonly, piggyback on the successes unions via pass-on).
So it is and will be with public servants, despite English’s arrogant and foolish outburst. The unions will negotiate with the members’ employers for fair pay increases. If the Crown organisations try to enforce English’s zero-increase edict, if they refuse to bargain in good faith, they will face industrial action.
I can’t help but note that English is also attempting to make a liar of John Key. Last year on Breaskfast (the vid isn’t online, reference here), Key promised to increase the after-tax wages of junior doctors who were going on strike. Now, not only have the tax cuts been cancelled but English wants them not to get pay rises either. I wonder if, in 2011, the doctors and all the others will remember the promises of higher after-tax wages National made and then broke.
As more and more workers, public and private, find their employers trying to force zero pay increases – effective pay cuts – on them, there’s a political opportunity for Labour. All they have to do is stand up for the workers, whose interests the party was set up to advance.