Three suggestions for the NZ Council of Trade Unions

by Don Franks

Fellow workers may have a similar email from Richard Wagstaff, President NZ Council of Trade Unions:

 “Don – I just wanted to wish you a happy and rewarding New Year and to say thank you for being part of the CTU’s online campaigning arm… we want to hear your thoughts about what the year ahead means for you, for your pay-packet and how you’ll get by. 

“Don, together we can make 2019 a great year for working people. Let’s start by making it clear what we need to do to get there”. ( Then follow some questions; has my income and quality of working life has gone up or down, do I think workers conditions look better or worse in Australia?)  

And then “What other comments do you have about cost of living and incomes in New Zealand?”

Here are my comments.

Richard, thanks for the email. Just before we get into New Year, some workers are still reeling after Christmas. Not from over indulgence, from hunger. 

Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly told Radio NZ: “It’s been quite overwhelming and shocking for us to see just the volumes of people. . . there is significant food poverty in this country—we’re seeing here, at the moment, the real hard end of it.”  In response,  Auckland City Mission handed out 8,500 Christmas hampers over 10 days. Double the amount compared to last year, yet not enough to meet the demand. On December 19 about 400 hungry Auckland families were turned away after the mission’s food supply ran out. 

The Christchurch City Mission reported that demand for food parcels had increased 45 percent as compared to the same time last year, with many employed workers impoverished.

NZ Council of Christian social services calculate that the poverty line after deducting housing costs for a household with two adults and two children lies at $600 per week or $31,200 annually in 2016 dollars. For a sole parent with one child it is $385 per week or $20,200 annually in 2016 dollars (MSD Household Incomes report July 2017, p.106). 

From this analysis, there’s around 682,500 people in poverty in this country or one in seven households. Over half a million people, trapped in a wretched state of  hunger, insecurity, ill health, reduced life expectancy, bad housing, debt and constant stress. Stress on many levels, not least the stress of seeing your kids set up for failure, because not enough money for their education. 

All this while a tiny minority have somehow grabbed far more than they could ever possibly need. 

Figures from global charity organisation Oxfam reveal that the richest one percent now hold 20 percent of the wealth in New Zealand, while 90 percent of the population owns less than half of the nation’s wealth.

Rachael Le Mesurier, executive director of Oxfam New Zealand, said the organisation was shocked to discover the level of wealth inequality in the country:

“The gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us is greater than we thought.

“It is trapping huge numbers of people in poverty and fracturing our societies, as seen in New Zealand in the changing profile of home ownership.”

The Inland Revenue’s high-wealth individuals unit shows the number of the wealthiest Kiwis jumped by almost 20 per cent between October 2015 and June 2016, from 212 people ‘worth’ more than $50 million to 252. 

Of course, all these facts and figures are no secret. Facts about poverty are not hard to find. What’s seemingly concealed is the key to economic justice. 

I’d like to offer the CTU three practical suggestions towards a way forward in 2019.

First, I think we need more workers’ unity in action. 

Workers’ actions over the last year included nationwide strikes by teachers and nurses. Some gains were made, they could have been more. Of course there are differences in pay scales and skill levels between different groups of workers, but we’re all united in wanting to feed our families, educate our kids and get some fun out of life. We’re all the same on the beach, we should all go together in pursuit of better money and conditions. Not just a little bit more. Substantially more. As we can see, the wealth is there, it just wants sharing better.

As a move towards workers’ unity in 2019 the CTU should organise a nationwide series of cross-union job delegates’ meetings. Before the meetings, delegates should seek opinions from the workers they represent, bring these to the meetings and exchange ideas about ways to fight poverty and dismantle unearned privilege. This would translate into a nationwide programme of basic social and economic demands placed on employers and the government. It’s hard to see the government welcome such a move, which leads to my second suggestion. 

I think it’s time for the New Zealand union movement to reclaim its independence and bin its outdated fantasies about the Labour Party. The worsening state of workers’ poverty we’re now in came about under successive National and Labour governments. The idea that Labour are better for workers is simply a myth. For instance: 

“On July 21, 2006 the National Business Review (NBR) published its annual Rich List. The list contained the richest 187 New Zealand individuals and 51 families. This super-rich group had increased their wealth by just over $3.7 billion in the past year. That increase is as much as the entire wealth of the entire Rich List back in 1992. The people on the Rich List now have wealth estimated at over $35.1 billion.

“By the time the last National Party government went out of power in 1999, the Rich List had 135 individuals and 36 families, with wealth estimated at just over $9.8 billion, so the growth of the fantastically rich has speeded up under Labour. The graph of the rate of growth of wealth by these parasites is therefore interesting. Under National in the 1990s it went up relatively modestly, and then after Labour entered government in 1999 it curved dramatically upward. The rise in the 2004-2005 year – when the super-rich got over $9 billion richer – makes the upward curve especially pronounced.” 

That  extract from “The truth about Labour, a Bosses’ Party” is a typical example of Labour’s historical behaviour. Since its formation a hundred years ago, Labour has accepted the system and played the game.  Attacking unearned privilege is foreign to Labour. Like National, as a party of the money class, Labour is not our friend. 

Where then are workers to find friends and allies? 

My third suggestion is that the union movement reclaim with both hands its international heritage. We need to talk more regularly and seriously to overseas unions and workers’ organisations, to learn from each other and support each other, financially and by supportive strike action. Workers in New Zealand have more in common with low-paid toilers across the sea than we’ll ever have with kiwi born super-rich who rip us off and keep us poor. 

As you say Richard, together we can make 2019 a great year for working people. If we get back to some hardball union basics. What do you reckon? 


  1. Yes -2019 might see more assaults on unearned privilege (we hope)and expose the myth that capitalism has as its goal social harmony.

  2. Very good article.

    I also reckon that, as you indicate, Richard won’t be up for this. It is what needs doing but the union movement, as presently constituted, seems perversely incapable of doing what is needed. But it represents a way forward for the rank-and-file.

  3. I hope he’s up for it. Not over the top radical, last generation’s Federation of Labour used to do *some* of this, although still wedded to the Labour Party.

  4. I loved the fact you actually took the time to give them a considered response to what im sure they saw as a ‘fill in the blanks with a name’-style form letter. The sort of nonsense the leadership see as ‘consultation’.

  5. Happy New Year Don,

    As you note, the union movement is sadly locked into the Labour Party machine, long committed to reliance on a deadbeat capitalist party that stretched back to propping up the rich in the 1950’s in my recollection. We have learned little from the debacle of the Employment Contracts campaign of near 30 years ago when union leaders, afraid of their members, bowed to the cowardice of class compromise. We still wait for a trickle of power from the top – where ever that may be – to provide wage increases and better living conditions, more housing… Jacinda will save us…

    More importantly than that we remain wedded to The Labour Party culture of representative democracy. If every union in the country left the Labour Party and voted for whoever else seemed more working class, nothing would really change, our houses would remain unbuilt our kids hungry, and Maori imprisonment rates at criminal levels of racism. Why? because we’d still be waiting for the Messiah to make changes for us. The radical changes we need to make are towards a more participative model of unionism. We must build around rank and file organisation. Give members a chance to share in real decision making.

    Such a commitment needs a long term strategy and harder work than many union members currently give to ‘their’ organisation. And frankly, lots of our members will, at least initially, be reluctant to make such changes, it’s easier to grizzle about what our unions fail at. And how powerless we seem to be…

    In recent years good examples or rank and file activism are to be found in the work Unite did around fast food workers. But for a bottom-up movement to really grow, we also need to take up your other points. We must grow practical support among small groups of local unionists for struggles across union boundaries, in Aotearoa and in other countries, etc. We need to to breakout of the constraints of what Lenin called ‘economism’ (just focusing on wages) and see that racism in housing, and education is a cost to all workers, regardless of gender or colour, regardless of whether we are unionised or not. Unions as organised groups needs to form local groups around child poverty and challenge rank and file members to find ways of build networks that break the cycle of hunger and low achievement. We need to also to embrace the pride and joy that kids and parents get growing a kapahaka group in their schools. That kind of bottom up energy brought to working class organisation would scare the shite out of the rich…

    We don’t need to have grand goals for such changes beyond the knowledge that when ordinary workers are given a chance they come up with answers to the challenges we all face. Yup, for sure we will make a mess of some of it, but the lessons learned will grow the movement in a way the current structures haven’t dreamed of.


    • I quite agree with you Maurice. At the moment I’m attempting to set down some practical steps towards greater worker unity and union accountability. Will post that here soon and hope you have a moment to look it over and comment.

    • Maurice, I wonder if you’d be interested in writing some reflections for Redline re your own experiences as a very active bus driver unionist and marxist in the 1970s and early 1980s? One of the things that surprised me when I returned to NZ in 1994, having been away for the greater part of 14 years, was how the bus unions, like the very good one in Christchurch that you were involved in the leadership of, got smashed (I presume under the 4th Labour government). I’d certainly be very interested in reading about what happened.

      Phil F

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