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Results matter

Written By: - 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.

29 comments on “Results matter ”

  1. Macro 1

    Thanks Richard, an excellent post. These things need to be said, and we don't hear it often enough.

    This point you make :

    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.

    is so very true. My dad was President of the Rubber Workers Union for over 20 years a Union that worked for workers in large factories in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch and smaller factories across the country. The removal of industry bargaining power – even where workers are doing essentially the same jobs, but in different locations, and the removal of tariffs on imported cheaper tyres in the mid 80's, saw the demise of a local industry, which gave good incomes, to a good number of people.*

    In the 1990's and teacher Unions were faced with Bulk Funding of individual schools. This was a direct attempt to compromise universal pay and conditions for teachers across the country. As a PPTA rep in those days, we saw that threat to the profession and were even prepared to forego pay increases for the year just to remove the threat of bulk funding from schools and preserve the universal pay and conditions for teachers across the country. It's still a gleam in the eye for ACT and National. These things never die completely, but if ever it got into schools – eg through the abortive Charter Schools – it would ultimately bring about the death of our schools.

    * My mother was a long time friend of the wife of the Managing Director (as they we called in those days) for Auckland's Reid Rubber. As a family we would occasionally spend our Xmas holidays in Auckland in their home, while they were at their family bach. Talk about the Union getting into bed with Management. lol No – although relationships between Workers and Management were for the most part very good, the Union was able to work towards excellent pay and conditions for its workers even at one point where a National MP was complaining in the House about the "excessive" pay rates for rubber workers – they were earning almost as much as him! Mind you they sweated for it, and it was a real grubby job. I worked in the factory part-time while at university. The heat from the tyre presses was huge. The carbon black got into every pour of your skin.

  2. Sacha 2

    Very well put, Richard. Thank you.

  3. Cinny 3

    Results do matter and unions are brilliant at helping people get results.

    Over a decade ago I worked for one of NZ's largest fishing companies, it really troubled me that I was told to bin any application forms that came across my desk where the applicant had checked the box stating they belonged to a union.

    In the end I would advise would be applicants not to tick the union box, but to wait until they had been employed and signed the contract before advising they belonged to a union.

  4. greywarshark 4

    Things certainly have to change for nz workers. Here is a comment from the jobs category on Trme community board. Just one example of how people who have prepared themselves for work find they are not wanted. Others cite the need to have one year's experience while businesses are not prepared to give you the experience (I guess you are supposed to go as an unpaid intern and think yourself lucky. This is what happens when lazy government gives us and hands the nation over to business to run as they fancy.)

    • Yep, my son graduated with an IT degree end of 2017 – award for technical proficiency. He tried for a year to get an entry level job in software dev that actually paid (interns and unpaid work don't work when you have to move to a larger city) No luck, despite, several interviews, but it was very hard. He's been coding since he was 12 and lives and breathes it. Seems like no-one wants to give people a foot in the door any more. This year he bit the bullet and started his own business, which has been going OK, but not ideal.
    • lprent 4.1

      Speaking as a very senior programmer, training out of school (uni, tech, school) programmers is a pain in the arse.

      I'm getting pretty jaded with doing it. Simply because I train them and they leave or the company retrenched. Not worth my time. It takes a big hole out of my year to do it. And I prefer to program rather than train.

      Besides I find most new programmers tend to be a bit fragile when I tear their code g apart.

      The HR and my ‘managers’ rely would prefer to use my time more productively as well.

      • RedBaronCV 4.1.1

        But if we old people don't train then who does? but a lot of workplaces seem to see any training as something to be done in one's own time so to speak – while maintaining personal productivity

      • Kevin 4.1.2

        Once upon s time you would have been that ‘pain in the arse’. If the older experienced tradespeople/professionals do not pass on the skills and knowledge then who will?

        • lprent

          I'm quite aware of that. I had some great colleagues through various projects where we learnt off each other. That was literally the only way of doing it back in the day because the field was always too damn new, and the books were for the previous decade.

          It is hard for those outside the field of programming and IT to understand exactly how hard it is to simply stay current. This is a very dynamic field. So mostly I didn’t learn that much from the older generations in it – there weren’t many. At best I learnt from contemporaries. Mostly I learnt from those younger than me because I started getting serious about programming when I was about 30. There is a hell of a cost to programming.

          Even now after being a programmer by profession for almost 30 years (as opposed to the 15 years previously where I just played at it), I expend about 20-25% of my time annually in just learning and playing with new things. That is just to remain employable at the bleeding edges I want to be around. Almost all of it is done on my own time – because the fastest way to learn it is to just read it on the net – which is why programmers and IT people made the damn thing work. Then you download it and spend weekends, evenings and holidays testing it to failure.

          The skills shortages are still intense 30 years after I broke into programming. It took me most of a decade to decide to do it and a whole new field of hardware (PCs). I’d started in a different direction. I did a few years doing support work on PCs after I'd finished an MBA and was waiting for my partner to finish her degrees. Even after I'd decided that I just wanted to program, it took 2 years to open up a crack I could get a job in after a couple of failed attempts.

          I didn't bother to actually finish the only formal year of part-time post-grad diploma that was in this sector – because an interesting contract come up.

          Typically for the time, it was a contract that I largely did on my own using a brand new compiler and database system. The IT group that I was doing it for didn't have any skills in a PC level. And when I had to learn most of it from scrounged books.

          In a lot of ways it isn't that much different now. It is hard to find people with actual skills in delivering projects and even harder to get them to expend time mentoring others. The reason is because they simply don't have time themselves, because of pretty permanent overwork..

          But getting back to topic. Over the last 25 years I've (in varying degrees) helped somewhere in the order of 40-50 new grads upskilling them to get over the initial hump. Not to mention a similar number of people with partial but not wide skills. Sometimes that has matured into collegial cross transfers in programming and IT. But generally it has been irritating and cuts into my learning time.

          There a very small number of people that over the years who have actually been incredibly helpful to me. Some in programming. But mostly in whatever industry I happened to be intersecting at the time. Hopefully I have helped them as much as they did to me.

          Curiously, in recent years some of the grads have been useful to me. They are using interesting tools as the programming and IT fields spread out past anyone's ability to even attempt to cover it. But they're been really good at highlighting systems that are worth playing with. A couple of them have gotten me into working on an playing with Kotlin.. Now that is an awesome language.

  5. greywarshark 5

    Another frank comment from Trme Jobs.

    Ok thanks. I have looked back at all my emails from Seek and I can't see this info on any of them. Obviously there must be a lot of skilled people applying for jobs as I have never heard anything back after receiving the automated email you get after submitting an application. I do wonder about the supposed skills shortage given that it seems to me that it would be easier to win first division lotto than to get an IT job in 2019 even when you have skills and experience.

  6. RedBaronCV 6

    Personally I'd like to see a lot more soft action from this government on the skills shortage issue and re establishing unions. My industry constantly bleats "skill shortages" but we produce a reasonable number of graduates annually. Trouble is I've only trained about one of them in the last decade. So companies over a certain size don't get to use more than a certain number of work visas. May need transistional phase but they can get busy and train people up. Some of them have had work visas operating for years- far beyond any training time. Telco's are in this zone. Push them to shift jobs out of Auckland too -remote work the way to go.

    And legislate for industry unions starting with the bigger employers. They can pay the fees for the workers for a couple of years. They spend plenty on their on industry groups. Wages haven;t risen a lot over the last 20 years- lot off disgruntled people out here who Labour seem determined to ignore.

  7. WeTheBleeple 7

    Strike till you are paid enough to be able to afford to work.

    Had a job for two weeks one time then some drunk threw his burger at me: I duck, it missed and hit the boss – then he cursed me out, said I must've started it (he was right there the whole time), and threatened violence and cursing me out while manhandling me out the door. Union got him for a months pay the very same day. wish I was a fly on that wall. Yay the union, savior of a 16 year old boy.

    Crump's book 'Bastards I have met' could easily be rewritten 'Bosses I have met.' It would be a reasonable volume of an array of pricks. I had a boss come at me with a knife once, charming. I took it off him so he ran off to the local bikie gang to get them to try intimidate me. Cowardly little wretch.

    Without the unions many are at the mercy of nasty people who don't give a shit about them. You can spot the Bastards fairly quickly by the minimal possible pay offer. They think you are their property the entitled ones. They try own your day, then extra evenings, weekends… When you claim your life back – outrage – ungrateful swine!

    Unions hold the line between working class and completely fucked.

    • Bewildered 7.1

      Saying that and to balance the Union lovefest up some useless twats hide behind unions and simply make life harder for fellow workers and employers Likewise as with all organisations there are some grade A a hole unionist as with employeers Likewise Union in some industry are pricing members out of jobs, I see that in a number of labour intensive industry where waged labour been been replaced by automaton, workers left earn more but less workers Lastly Union and employers due to nature of collective bargaining tend to negotiate to the lowest common denominator so if your any good you don’t need a union ( all you young folk out there )

      • greywarshark 7.1.1

        Speaking from your own fortunate experience no doubt.

      • Cinny 7.1.2

        It's about being valued not only as an employee but also as a human being.

        Message to all the young folk out there… join a union especially if you are employed by a large company and you are on a low pay grade. You've got nothing to lose.

        • bewildered

          You have plenty to loose Cinny if it stifles your ambition and ability to make your way rather than been held back by the pack, end of the day up to every one to make a choice but to say it’s a costless decision is plain wrong I would not recommend it simply from a mindset perspective re getting ahead, especially for young folk,

          • Incognito

            Why do you pose it as a binary choice between two rigid poles as if there’s nothing in between them?

          • UncookedSelachimorpha

            Being paid properly doesn't hold anyone back

      • KJT 7.1.3

        If you are any good, which I doubt, your comments over time show you were lucky rather than competent, your pay and working conditions still depend on the "floor" set by Union agreements. You are deluding yourself, if you think your current working conditions are not the result of a 150 years of Union activism.

        In fact the strongest Unions are still organisations like the Chartered accountants, the institute of Directors, The Doctors, dentists and lawyers Unions etc. They are just as much Unions. It is only people like tradies, and film crews, who are not allowed to "collude".

        The lack of Unions has meant employers have passed many of their costs, especially training, onto workers and tax payers.

        High wages are supposed, to make employers invest capital in productivity. The greater productivity makes products cheaper in the long term. The fewer employees with higher wages spread the money around. Making other businesses viable. Like the multiplications of coffee shops, lawn mowing franchises etc.

        • Bewildered

          20th century institution for early 19th and early mid 20th century problem Now redundant apart from a nostalgia point of view

        • bewildered

          I guess you where just unlucky KJT and your true brilliance just remains undiscovered

          • KJT

            Pretty lucky actually.

            Due to a lot of hard work, after several setbacks, but also due to New Zealand's, formerly excellent, education and apprenticeships systems, before the Neo-liberals fucked them.

    • Cinny 7.2

      Woahs WTB far our … dang. Yay for the unions crikey, thanks for sharing, that's messed up.

      You can spot the Bastards fairly quickly by the minimal possible pay offer.

      Ain't that the truth.

  8. R.P Mcmurphy 8

    keep up the good work.

  9. Ad 9

    If Mr Wagstaff is keen to celebrate successes from being in a union, he should list a few.

    They are a useful lot in a restructure, but now too diffused in all but a few of the public sector industries, let alone the private ones.

  10. sumsuch 10

    'acting collectively', not only good for unions, but why Left govts haven't been able to act for what's right, Helen Clark on. This individualistic age has torn apart the strength of democrats. And empowered silly arse rich people.

  11. UncookedSelachimorpha 11

    Unions are reliably associated with better pay and conditions for workers, enough said!

    Robert Reich – Why we need stronger unions and how to get them

    Strengthen Unions

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