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Rest-breaks under attack

Written By: - Date published: 9:47 pm, September 3rd, 2009 - 15 comments
Categories: national/act government, workers' rights - Tags:

bbIn 1908, the miners at Blackball took a famous strike over the right to take rest breaks at work. For most of the rest of the century this was enshrined in law and in our culture as a basic right of all working New Zealanders. That is, of course, until the National Government of the 1990s took away even our rest breaks in their drive to free us from the shackles of our employment rights.

Just a matter of months ago, that historic wrong was righted. On the 100th anniversary of the Blackball strike Labour passed a law restoring our right to regular breaks, much to the disdain of National and its allies in the business lobby. They didn’t complain too loudly at the time though, there was an election to win and a centrist facade to maintain.

Now their party is back in the saddle, National and the employer lobby are up to their old tricks. The Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, today announced the Government would be amending the law on breaks to make it more “flexible”, which is 90’s code for bending workers’ rights to suit the bosses.

As usual, National has a line of spin to help the medicine go down. This time their pretext is that because the Airline Pilots’ Association and regional airports don’t agree on how to apply the new law the Government has to step in and weaken it for everyone. ‘It could lead to the cancellation of flights!’, screams Wilkinson.

Bollocks to that. Even if we accept the minister’s scaremongering as genuine, there are still plenty of options available to her short of taking away our rights. Three come to mind immediately:

1) Help facilitate a negotiated outcome to the dispute, including Government intervention if necessary.
2) Tell the regional airports to suck it up and hire more staff to cover people taking their rightful breaks.
3) If absolutely necessary introduce an industry-specific exemption to the law.

But this isn’t about solving a dispute between a small union and some regional airports. It is, as Wilkinson admits in her press release, about bowing to the “pharmacies, schools, meat works and sole attendant operations such as petrol stations” who have complained to her about the law.

Fact is, some employers don’t like having to give people breaks. More importantly, they don’t like their employees having the right to take breaks. Nothing is more upsetting to the authoritarian mindset of the small-minded boss than an employee who knows their rights and insists on enforcing them.

Lucky for them, the bosses’ party is back in power. And once again the legacy of Blackball is under attack.

15 comments on “Rest-breaks under attack”

  1. indiana 1

    Fact is, some employers don’t like having to give people breaks. More importantly, they don’t like their employees having the right to take breaks.

    Name and shame these employers Eddie!

  2. John Ryall 2

    Before this legislation was introduced one of the largest group of calls the SFWU used to receive was from parents who wanted to know which law prescribed work breaks because their child was working in a restaurant of cafe that didn’t have any set breaks.

    At the Select Committee we presented a restaurant worker who was sacked for demanding a rest break after working a straight six hours.

    It looks like it is back to the bad old days.

  3. rave 3

    Lets break their system then rest. They are shit scared that this recession will become a depression and that their wealth will evaporate.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      The recession was kick started by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgages in the US. Now the prime mortgages are joining in and that’s a much larger market. I’d say that they have reason to be shit scared.

  4. Nick C 4

    I do a bit of casual work for minimum wage. The law as it stands currently says that I legally have to take an unpaid break of half an hour if I work for something like 6 hours at a time (i think, please correct me if thats wrong).

    Personally I would rather work throught that half an hour to earn more, and my employer would probably rather i did too.

    If both my employer and I are happy with no breaks then what is the big deal?

  5. burt 5

    In 1908… that about sums up the relevance of the unions today Eddie. Hell next thing we know you will be lamenting the disappearance of gray zip up shoes and tea trolleys. What next, longings for knee length socks worn with stubbies?

    • Maynard J 5.1

      Gee burt, democracy was around in 1908 – get rid of that?

      Should we get rid of all the rights we had in 1908 too?

      My security word is “suffering” – my eyes are after reading this latest Burtology (like tautology, except the first statement is the extraneous one and there is no second statement).

  6. burt 6

    Maynard J

    Yep, sure was. But hey we don’t keep marching for it because of our grandparents fond memories and some romantic notion of fighting the good fight.

    Look when 500 miners went down the mine in the morning and 495 came out but the boss said ‘move on’ the unions were gold. Times change and as much as the unions did great work back then that is no reason to keep pretending they are wonderful today.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      No need to pretend burt, the unions are wonderful today. They still do work that is needed by the workers.

      • burt 6.1.1

        Draco T Bastard.

        If the unions were doing their job as vigorously while Labour were in govt as they do now Labour are in opposition – I might agree with you.

    • Maynard J 6.2

      What about when there were two group of employees doing the same jobs for the same company but some were employed by a sham subsidiary company that existed only to pay those employees less, and the employees complained only to be told to ‘move on’ and then the union managed the situation and now those subsidiary employees are now getting closer in pay parity with the other employees?

      The role of unions is not purely to advocate for health and safety, is that what you believe though?

      • burt 6.2.1

        Maynard J

        No – I think the role of unions is to collect fees from low paid paid workers to pass onto left leaning political parties so they can campaign on increasing welfare for people earning more than the union members who funded the campaign. However, talking about a state owned company which set up such an arrangement under a Labour govt just reinforces my position. Cheers.

  7. Herodotus 7

    As the reason is based on a few exceptions, I ask the question why are our laws and reactions based on how small minority is affected. How is it that a few are the “reason” that is commonly stated for change. Does nobody think of or follow the principle of catering for society in a holistic fashion, it seems to me that there are laws/control based on the individual. Well in some cases as here in this case the/an individual may have to suffer for the benefit of the whole.
    I still want to fight for my tea & bickies!

  8. Jenny 8

    The most significant fact about the Blackball strike for longer lunch breaks, was that, it was illegal.

    Under the Arbitration Act all industrial grievances had to be decided in the Arbitration Court.

    The Blackball miners broke out of this legal straightjacket and almost single handedly kickstarted a massive resurgence of the trade union movement.

    Today the NZ trade union movement is in the same position virtually all strikes except for a very limited circumstances are proscribed by law.

    This allows employers to dismantle trade union membership and organisation with impunity.

    Telecom has decided to sack 900 telco workers and make them re-apply for their jobs in a non-union contractor model.

    Our union leaders will have to decide whether to succumb or take a lesson from the miners of Blackball and defy the current anti-strike laws.

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