- Date published:
9:34 am, June 21st, 2019 - 29 comments
Categories: business, class, culture, employment, equality, human rights, jobs, Living Wage, minimum wage, quality of life, tax, Unions, wages, workers' rights - Tags:
Union activity tends to get a lot of attention in the midst of a dispute, when members down tools and walk of the job, protesting on the street for a better deal. We do this because we know collective action is the most effective way for working people to achieve results. Positive words and sentiments from employers are fine, but only real negotiations will get real results and these can’t occur in a paternalistic relationship which is what most working people who don’t bargain collectively, experience. Everyone knows that getting employers to increase rates of pay and improve conditions of work takes real pressure and the only real way working people can exert pressure, in the unbalanced relationship that exists between individual employees and employers, is by acting together; collectively.
And that’s what we’ve been doing week in, week out and getting real results. Take last week, where union members chalked up much improved offers for primary and secondary teachers, where Kmart workers won the living wage, and where Film Industry workers have gained the right to collective bargaining. While teachers are yet to vote, the offer from the Government has been greatly improved. None of these things have happened by accident, nor were they the result of employers suddenly feeling generous and kind. They happened because these Kiwi workers in these industries worked together in union and used their collective strength to get an better deal. This is a good thing.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that within our business and market friendly economic policy settings, business interests, especially big business interests have enormous sway. When it comes to getting their message out, money has a way of cutting through and drowning out the voices of the majority. Look at the one sided discussion over the Capital Gains Tax, where capital insisted only labour could be taxed, and the interests of the wealthy minority were the only real interests reported in the discussion (I won’t call it a debate!). Little wonder that the clear trend occurring over time is working people getting a smaller slice of the nations wealth or pie, and yet they are paying a greater proportion of the total tax take.
Ordinarily working people don’t have and can’t match the voice or the kind of leverage big business has. But if working people band together in union, they act as a counterweight to large financial interests and they can bring about more balanced outcomes in our democratic society. It’s no coincidence that a decline of collective bargaining in New Zealand and across the OECD, has been accompanied by a decline in the share of the economy going to working people. And now many working people, frustrated by stagnant wages and insecure employment, have a renewed interest in, and are more easily seduced by, populist politics promoting simplistic solutions and denying serious issues like global warming?
So we need to celebrate when unions deliver concrete outcomes. Because better pay and conditions at work means not just a better job and a higher standard of living, but more confidence in our political and legal system because it is working not just for the few, but the many.
Our opponents do their best to dissuade working people from joining, and promote the idea that unions don’t work. Tell that to the teachers, the workers at Kmart or in the film industry. They know they had no chance of getting the kind of results they did last week out of charity, it took real union organisation and political action. Nothing wrong with that, we just need more of it if we really want to achieve a more equal society, making New Zealand a fairier place.
But the answer doesn’t simply lie in imploring more working people to join their union. We are very focused on doing just that, but within our current reality where much of the workforce is effectively out of our immediate and practical reach, we need to do more.
A critical barrier New Zealand unions face, and one that unions in most other OECD countries don’t, is the lack of industry bargaining. That is unions negotiating with employers from across an industry , and removing downward wage competition between enterprises within industries. Our current fixation with outsourcing and competitive tendering without wage protection has been a disaster for Kiwis. We have a couple of key opportunities to fix this; Equal Pay Agreements and Fair Pay Agreements.
So let’s celebrate the gains working people are making at the bargaining table and let us also keep an eye on the future by supporting moves to introduce industry wide bargaining so that a much greater number of Kiwis can get a better deal at work.
Richard Wagstaff was elected NZ Council of Trade Unions President in 2015. He was previously NZCTU Vice President and one of two national secretaries of the Public Service Association.