Labour’s key concern is keeping in with business and making it more profitable (Photo: Thomas Coughlan)

by Don Franks

Sometime next year your pay and working conditions may be completely rejigged by the government.

For better or worse?

The fine print is yet to be penned. Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has announced that a 10-person working group would report back by the end of 2018 on the design of new workplace laws setting minimum terms and conditions for workers in the same industry or occupation. The resulting terms will be called Fair Pay Agreements.

Through strike action Unite has won significant improvements in pay and conditions for fast food workers. This, not corporatism, is the way forward for workers. Photo: Unite

What’s prompted this new course?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stated that employers approached the government to express their interest in sector-wide agreements, because they wanted a level playing field when bidding against competitors who currently have lower labour costs.

“This isn’t just something that employees have been asking for so I want to correct the record on that,” she said.

What employees have been actually asking for, or rather, demanding, in sectors where they’re organised in unions is large pay increases. Nurses are set to strike because of inadequate pay rise offers and teachers can’t be far behind, having panned their latest small wage increase prospects. A strike-levered breakthrough by these state workers would likely encourage other sectors to take action.

The need for action is certainly there. Increasingly, full time working New Zealand families are being forced to rely on foodbank relief. But strike action will not be an option for workers who become subject to the new workplace pay agreement laws, because the government has already ruled that out, ahead of the working group’s deliberations. Fair Pay agreements will not allow strikes.

Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff has made no complaint about this restriction, welcoming the coming new laws as “Providing decent jobs for Kiwis trapped in low wage industries” and “a turning point for workers and employers”

Wagstaff gushed: “This announcement is the turning point from 30 years of struggle for working people, for home-grown business, and small communities sustained by Kiwi industries. The last Government said low wages were our ‘competitive advantage’. Fair Pay Agreements put New Zealanders first and show our real competitive advantages are the Kiwi values of dignity, opportunity and respect.”

As he’s a member of the working group it’s not surprising to see the CTU leader in favour of the new laws.  What has surprised some is the nomination of former National Party politician Jim Bolger as group leader. When prime minister, Bolger ushered in the Employment Contracts Act, an anti-worker law which virtually wrote unions out of existence and crippled New Zealand workers’ organisation.

In recent years, however, Bolger has commented to the effect that unions have lost too much power and there needs to be some balance brought back into the employer-union equation. Words are cheap but, for better or worse, the new changes are coming.  What might workers expect to happen?  Are we likely to get anything decent out of this?

It’s possible that some sectors of the workforce may get some improvement to their present situation. Longtime socialist activist Philip Ferguson commented:

“There is a bit of a crude idea among a lot of the left that the capitalists are just greedy, greedy, greedy, always trying to screw workers over to the maximum and this just isn’t the case. The capitalists know that stable social relations are important and, in the First World, certain levels of existence – well above subsistence – are necessary to keep the workers happy and fit enough to turn up each day to be exploited.

“I also think that smarter sections of the bourgeoisie realise there has been a problem with the way capital has been increasing productivity here over the last few decades – namely, that making workers work harder, faster, longer runs up against serious limits. Thus NZ productivity has been rather sluggish in comparison to most other OECD countries and investment in new plant, machinery, equipment here is right at the bottom of the OECD. Shifting the balance just a wee bit back towards pay and conditions, under the careful control of the state, can be in the interests of capital. And, of course, one of the things to remember about the state is that it represents the interests of capital in general rather than any individual sector like property investors etc.

“It should also be kept in mind that initially, back in the 1800s. capitalists resisted cutting the work week – eg from 60 or more hours a week – but they quickly reconciled themselves to it because they realised they could actually get their workers producing greater amounts of surplus-value in a 40-hour week than a 60-hour week by significantly investing in more efficient production. I think another thing that is important is that the trade union bureaucracy has been marginalised since 1984. This brings them back in to a certain extent and allows them to play a bit of their historical role again. We now have a partial return to corporatism – the state, the bosses and the trade union bureaucracy. And the workers as supplicants who will do as they’re told and be grateful for what they receive from on high.”

This further marginalisation of the working class is not a worry for the well-paid union officials who supposedly represent them; it means less trouble and a quieter life.  Many workers will likely not be worried about the new workplace laws either, but they should be. The only control we have over our destiny is united organisation and united action. For example, without the threat to strike and the readiness to carry out that intention, the nurses’ pay dispute would have been settled long ago, at a paltry figure.

The government and the employers are extremely conscious of the strike weapon’s potential power, which is why they continually seek ways to wrest that weapon from our hands.

Further reading: Which way forward for workers and unions? and also see A brief history of strikes and striking in NZ

  1. John Kerr says:

    As a relatively well-paid union official I agree that removing the right to strike over national minimum standard agreements may lead to less trouble and a quieter life for some people in jobs like mine. But then I’m not looking for a quiet life and I believe strikes, properly planned and run, can be used to build organisation…

    • Don Franks says:

      Yes, I guess strikes properly planned and run can be a part of building organisation. In my experience strikes are more often anarchic, messy, hard to choreograph, particularly hard to end tidily. Like a relationship, easy to start, hard to finish without tears. Strikes are like little dress rehearsals for revolution. With a strike, for a while all the exisiting norms are turned upside down and the down trodden are suddenly, impatiently, calling the shots. Then, when time goes by and the money runs out, strikes are hell, testing tearing and sometimes breaking up families. There is a lot of awful shit that goes with strikes, but we need them, apart from riots and looting they’re all we’ve got.

  2. Simon says:

    Everyone should just quit their jobs; that would show them.

  3. If only more strikes really were “anarchic” Don, then you would have direct workers control over the strike, non-hierarchical organisational structures, greater democracy and a more imaginative range of strategies in play.

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