Cowboys in the boardroom

By Don Franks

NZ Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff has just published an interesting piece : “New Zealand needs to change how it does business.”

Richard notes that over the last 30 years, “the share of the economy going to working people has fallen from over 50 per cent to just over 40 per cent, cutting $20 billion  a year from pay packets.”Income-Inequality

The union leader sees this having occurred because:

“… too many decisions about the work we do nowadays are made outside of employment law altogether.

“You see it for the people who are pushed to become dependent contractors and take all of the risk and little of the reward – that’s tens of thousands of drivers, utilities technicians, and construction workers over the last decade alone.

“You see it in the boardroom level decisions to re-tender whole workforces on lower terms and conditions by changing contractors (even though they end up largely employing the same people).

“Put simply, there are too many loopholes and too many people are falling through them”

Or, in other words, capitalists are screwing more and more out of their workforce because there’s nothing to stop them doing this. 

Richard Wagstaff goes on to very politely point out that the present Labour government is unlikely to stop the rot: 

“The changes to industrial relations announced by the Government will make a real difference to a lot of New Zealanders. Basic stuff like ensuring people can have a meal break and are protected from discrimination are fundamentally good things, but they are also largely focused on the margins.They reinstate some bare minimums you’d expect in a first world nation like ours.

“These changes alone won’t be enough to achieve the Government’s vision of safe, well-paid and productive working lives for all New Zealanders. And they won’t rebalance the economy so the working Kiwis who produce most of our wealth get their fair share.

“Some of the legislation the Government will bring in in the next twelve months, such as protections for contractors and industry minimum standards, will help narrow those loopholes, but decision-makers need to recognise that how we deal with employment is the critical piece in creating a fair society and a strong economy.”

Paraphrasing again, beneath the spin and a few tiny long overdue reforms, inequality in New Zealand is on track to continue.

Richard Wagstaff offers a solution to this injustice, but it’s here that he suddenly shies away from hard realities. 

“We need to move away from our reliance on a low-wage economy where companies compete by paying people less.

“We need to remove the temptation to throw more cheap labour or longer work-hours at a problem, and make investment in skills, productive capital and innovation the better option.”

Recall when the Lone Ranger and Tonto found themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger’s like:

“What are we going to do, Tonto?”

 And Tonto’s “What do you mean we, white man?”

There is no “we” in industrial relations. To imagine it is to see how silly the notion is – workers suddenly being tempted to throw more cheap labour or longer work-hours at a problem. Our side has neither the temptation nor the power to make investments because we don’t own the instruments of labour, or even the wealth we produce with them. The only people capable of altering the shape of the economy are the big capitalists who privately own and operate the levers of power. 

That’s not to say that workers are powerless. In combination we can organize and strike to gain a better return on our labour, in combination, committed and armed we can even alter the shape of society. 

Well, we’re a long way from that right now. But even putting some sort of brake on the increasingly harsh inequality in this country requires a turnaround in our thinking. In economic terms there’s just our side with our interests and the employers side with their different interests, there is no “we”. The bullshit concept of “we” only serves to confuse and cloud our thinking, its high time we got shot of it.


  1. No shit Sherlock, I could’ve told them 20 odd yrs ago before I jump ship and move to Oz in early 98. This issue pops up when I’m at home or on phone when dad talks about the low wages, low union turn out, the lack of investment towards the Kiwi workers and my reply is “Well Dad your gutless union toady leadership group at the time aka so called Red Ken Douglas & co rolled over like a little puppy dog against the Torie National 1991 ECA, instead of taking the fight to them and the end of the day you have yourself to blame for this current mess. As where as the Ozzie Unions took the fight to John “The Rat Howard with work choices in the late 90’s early 00’s and if it had happen here we wouldn’t had half the issues the Kiwi worker is facing now all because of a gutless toady union leadership group, who couldn’t run a chook raffle let alone a piss up with fist full of fifties at local pub”.

    My Father was a union organiser for the Engineers Union in CHCH in under Bob Todd and later Ged O’Connell.

  2. Quite right about Ken Douglas and the ECA. That episode did us a lot of serious damage.
    I was interested to read Richard Wagstaff’s criticism of the new Labour government’s minimal delivery. Beneath the diplomatic language he’s making it clear he’s not happy with them. Ken Douglas and his Socialist Unity Party never took such exception to Labour. Not that I expect a class lead from the CTU office we have to somehow find that for ourselves

    • Don,

      I’m hoping the new laws are sign of things to come? As my old TpCdr/ SQN 2/ic (He was raise in Kenya and did a lat transfer from the RNZAC to RAAC after INTERFET) use say “if you want to catch a monkey, you have do it very slowly and think like a Jackal because the monkey is way smarter than you are”. I don’t think it would be in our best interests if Labour and it mates went charging in like a bull in a china shop changing the employment laws etc, when one considers the panic in the global equity markets atm and also I think the public don’t change at warp speed after what happen in the 80′ through to the late 90’s. Slow and steady as you go seems to the new norm now when you look at how John Key got his changes though by going slowly which seem to upset the Hard Right more than it did the Centre Left at the pace he was going.

      I don’t normally get myself involved with left wing politics after what happen the my Great Grandfather down in Blackball in the 20′ and 30’s, but ECA and OHS laws was one fight the Ken Douglas gutless union toady leadership group had to fight for and to this day I would to know what was Red Ken and his mate were thinking at the time? Where considers what had happen to the unions under Maggie in the UK and workers rights in the US.

      It was good to see the Ozzie Unions take the fight to the Tories and made them back down and makes me wonder now if we had taken the fight to the Tories in NZ in 90’s where would the NZ worker be now?

      No Pike River mine disaster
      No over work truck drivers
      East Town Railway workshops maybe still be open
      The list is endless

  3. Why is this article headed “Cowboys in the Boardroom” when the article is entirely about the (historical) Cowboys in the Caucus ….?

  4. Hi Hoane Doe. My piece was trying to look at several different political points, I just like alteration 🙂

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