Labour’s legal leg-irons – thanks to the fourth Labour government

Posted: April 30, 2012 by Admin in Labour Party NZ, Lockouts, New Zealand history, Ports of Auckland, Unions - NZ, Workers history, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes

by Philip Ferguson

Two of the issues that came up during the Ports of Auckland dispute were the role of Labourite mayor Len Brown and the way in which industrial laws can be deployed to hamstring workers from taking solidarity action.  For instance, whenever wharfies and RMT union members in other cities took action in support of the Ports of Auckland workers, local employers would simply get court orders forcing them back to normal work; the punishments for not obeying the orders were enough to ensure that solidarity industrial action stopped.  Much of this type of legal leg-irons on workers were introduced by Len Brown’s party, Labour.  In fact, this year is the 25th anniversary of the 4th Labour government’s horrendous Labour Relations Act of 1987.

That Act gave employers the power to claim for “losses” they alleged resulted from industrial action in breach of the Act or an award.

Second-tier bargaining was eradicated.  Second-tier bargaining was where workers could win pay and conditions above those in a national award by having a workplace agreement as well.  In some industries having two-tier agreements was crucial to workers’ pay and conditions.  In the meatworks, for instance, these second-tier agreements accounted for up to 50% of pay and many of the workers’ conditions.

Strikes became illegal at pretty much any time outside the final 60 days of an award and immediately following it expiry date.  The number of “essential services” was expanded, with strikes in these being able to be banned at any time by government decree.  The meat and dairy industries were even included in this.

The definition of a strike was expanded to include stopwork meetings not authorised by the boss.  A “strike” basically became any unauthorised stopping of “normal” work.

Union members and officials failing to comply with court orders could be jailed for up to three months, fined up to $5,000 and have their property seized.

A government-appointed Registrar of Unions was given the power to overturn union rules and interfere in union elections.  Under the Act, unions could not even decide their own size, the state set it at 1,000 minimum.  The size requirement could also be changed at any time by a government order.

Unions could also be forced to hand over their records and accounts.  It was made illegal to strike against deregistration.

On August 7, 1987 the Labour Court established under the new industrial legislation issued an order against two union delegates at a factory in Onehunga, Auckland.  The order was that they not strike.  (The workers at the factory had actually returned to work but the two delegates hadn’t signed a return-to-work order.)  The company also filed for over $3 million damages against the union for loss of production and profits during the strike.

The consistently anti-working class policies of the fourth Labour government encouraged employers to use lockouts against workers.  For instance, in late July 1986 the massive Fletcher Challenge company locked out pulp and paper workers in Kawerau for 11 weeks.  On October 17 that year, Waitaki International, another substantial company, locked out 800 meat workers at Longburn for refusing to accept pay cuts of up to 40%, speed-up and job losses.  This lockout continued through the rest of 1986, all of 1987 and into early 1988, the company eventually shutting down the Longburn works.

The State Sector Act of 1988 abolished three pieces of National Party legislation (State Services Act 1962; State Services Conditions of Employment Act 1977; Health Service Personnel Act 1983) under which public sector workers had achieved standard pay scales and conditions.  The new Act meant government departments would be run by chief executives with the power and status of a boss.  In the health services, chief executives would replace elected health boards.  In opposition to this massive attack on workers’ rights and local democracy, tens of thousands of public sector workers organised by the PSA (Public Service Association) went on strike on March 14, 1988.

These days a layer of Labour politicians and their friends in union officialdom pretend that anti-worker and anti-union legislation is all the product of National governments.  At best, this is a product of a kind of necessary forgetfulness; usually, however, it is outright lying.  Much of the current leg-iron legislation against workers being able to withdraw their labour in pursuit of their and other workers’ interests is the product of Labour governments.  The Labour Relations Act, whose repressive provisions remain in place today, is a prime example.

  1. William Stronach says:

    And they wonder where support from the workers went and try to organise us to campaign on there behave as Union members running up to the Elections.
    After Michael Cullen and Helen Clarke and of course Roger Douglas,Richard Prebble.
    yea right go take a hike Labour.

  2. C.H. says:

    The mark of a strong union leadership is the absence of fear in breaking anti-union laws with unprotected strike action. Witness the gains made by staunch unions who were willing to pay the price of fines and even the gaoling of their officials.

  3. John Ryall says:

    Yes Philip this legislation was horrendous, but nothing compared to the devestation caused by the Employment Contracts Act and the destruction of the award system and the move towards the willing buyer-willing seller system of employment relations.

    Despite the 1999-2008 Labour Government we have never moved beyond that (despite a few tweaks, which are now being rolled back by National), although the Labour election manifesto for the 2011 election was proposing a return to a form of awards.

    Let’s remember the past, but fight for the future.

    • Don Franks says:

      What sort of future?
      During my working lifetime the overwhelming urging of union leaders has been not to fight at all, but to politely entreat a thoroughly capitalist party for a few tweaks.
      In the light of bitter experience I would not even want to use a Labour election manifesto for crumpling up to wipe my arse.