New Zealand union structure past its use by date

by Don Franks

Christmas 2020 in New Zealand will for many folks be a ghastly memory of hunger and homelessness. Rumblings of protest are growing louder and more frequent. A November 6th letter to the government signed by 60 community groups shows the depth of concern. Signatories include long-standing mainstream social advocates like Auckland City Mission, Barnardos, Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Bureau, National Council of Women, New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services and the Salvation Army. They stated:

“Unemployment has risen at a record-breaking pace — increasing by nearly a third in the three months to September. Foodbanks and youth homelessness services are reporting huge increases in demand. By Christmas, it’s expected Work and Income will have allocated over 2.5 million hardship grants and advances this year alone. The situation is urgent. As the new government, you can release the growing constraints on individuals, families, and children. We are calling on you to lift one of the biggest limitations on whānau and child wellbeing: not having enough income.”

Other government critics are more blunt. Auckland Action Against Poverty’s (AAAP) coordinator Brooke Stanley Pao says Ardern’s refusal to raise benefits before Christmas and her justification for not doing so are not good enough. Ardern confirmed she would not be raising benefits before Christmas, saying poverty is not an issue that can be solved in a week, month, or Parliamentary term. She cited the permanent $25 boost to benefits introduced in April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘substantial increase’. “Referring to $25 as a ‘substantial increase’ in benefit levels is so problematic and disconnected with the realities of people who are living day to day in this country, and to be frank it reeks of privilege,” says Pao. “This Labour government has consistently campaigned and talked about being ‘transformational’ in their approach to social issues like welfare reform and we are yet to see any of these slogans backed up by real and lasting action.”

Pao also challenged the Prime Minister and other politicians to try and live on the current benefit for a month and “see how they find themselves”.”They have no idea what it’s like having to live day-to-day, and it really shows, as they truly believe they’re doing enough at the moment which simply isn’t the case.”

No Right Turn blog’s November 10th post noted: “Labour has ruled out a wealth tax, a capital gains tax, or any increase in taxation beyond their derisory re-imposition of a (low) top tax rate on people who earn more than backbench Labour MPs. The message is clear: their ‘kindness’ extends only to rich people, who will be exempted from paying their fair share of the costs of the pandemic (or society in general).”

In a rising tide condemning inequality, where is the organised workers’ voice? The country’s main union centre, the NZ Council of Trade Unions, was one of the 60 signatories. If you search for “poverty” on the CTU’s own page though, the words appearing take a different tone. “The Council of Trade Unions is pleased that the Government is continuing to shine light on the issue of poverty in New Zealand and specifically child poverty with new statistics out today.”

CTU policy director and economist Andrea Black was at the Stats NZ briefing today. “What these facts show is that New Zealand continues to be a low wage and at the same time, high rent economy. . . Children who are living in poverty are part of families who are also living in poverty. Research by the Human Rights Commission showed that 23% of single parents in paid work who were renting were in poverty. If parents received their fair share of the income generated in New Zealand, then children wouldn’t be living in material hardship. So if we really want to be addressing child poverty we would do so by lifting wages, decreasing rents and increasing benefits. . . Those working people who are earning the least need to be priority; the working poor. A specific step the Government must take is to move faster on the implementation of fair pay agreements. Fair pay agreements will make it easier for those being paid low wages by their employers to collectively bargain. . . OECD research has shown that New Zealand is a complete outlier with our industrial relations framework and the consequence of this is poverty – for children and their families.

“The Government needs to continue to show leadership when it comes to affordable rentals. Many of the working poor earn above the threshold for social housing, even if they earn less than living wage. We also strongly encourage the Government to adopt and implement the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group taking this action would make a real difference,” Black said. Main message up front, the Council is pleased, and while, yes, there is room for improvement, the answer is for the government to ‘continue’ showing leadership.

This sort of delicately courteous qualified praise for government has been go-to CTU comment for years now. The leaders of self-described “New Zealand’s largest democratic organisation”, by their actions reveal as inconsequential cheerleaders for the Labour Party.

Of course, words are just words, and if the CTU was talking sweet disarming diplomacy while organising ground troops to fight back, weasel words would not matter a jot. But the central union movement is not doing that. Its structure has changed. There are no mass multiunion campaigns rallying marching and striking for working class demands.

Central union policy was once driven to some extent from below, by representative plenary meetings of the members. This process was uneven, and by no means perfect, but it happened. Federation of Labour leader Sir Thomas Skinner had to reluctantly reckon with and factor in pressure from workers on big organised sites. Federation of Labour conferences to some extent dictated union direction and it is not for nothing that their doings dominated mainstream press front pages for the duration of the gathering. Governments of the day took care when selecting their Minister of Labour.

There are many reasons why New Zealand’s union movement has become a farcical shell of its former self and it’s not my intention here to try and make the evaluation. My point is, low paid workers are becoming worse off with each year that passes. The working class of this country has come to the point of badly needing a new form of organisation.

There is no point in leftists railing at the present leadership to be more militant. The present leadership is a product of its time and the present model has passed its use-by date. It’s easy enough to bewail the present atomised marginalised state of the useful people of New Zealand, the point is to change it. I have faith that the increasingly impoverished New Zealand working class will create the new movement needed to take themselves onward to the vastly better life they deserve. How it will arise I know not; but, for the sake of common justice, may it start soon.


  1. It is past time for stating the obvious, the working class has gone down now for over 35 years under neo liberal hegemony. Including 3 years of Jacinda and Robbo’s “NeoKindness” as blogger Bradbury put it. Showers of shit like a two tier Covid Benefit system, and recent gifts to speculators, rentiers and developers show where this is all heading.

    The NZCTU is about to discover their coveted Fair Pay Agreements intended to put in wage floors across industries, will never be enacted, or enacted in name only. This current majority Govt. is “Blairism NZ style” (minus the extreme war crimes and arms industry deals–though NZ is increasing citizen surveillance and obeys 5 Eyes dictates.)

    I don’t blame anyone being thankful that the Ardern Govt. significantly put people before capital for a few brief weeks during Level 4 Lockdown–but direct action is clearly now needed. The 60 NGOs that wrote to the PM could form an Alliance, an extra Parliamentary opposition, and community organising focus. Strikes, and demos are needed to firstly disrupt, and then build a campaign towards retiring structural Neo liberalism from the NZ state–Reserve Bank Act, SOEs, State Sector Act etc. with a timeline of 2023. I am not imagining that Parliamentarianism is the way out, but it is a start given the pathetic level of political consciousness of a number of NZers.

    Wherever Labour MPs appear placards and pickets should be automatic. Rent strikes, boycotts–Unite all who can be united around extending Minimum and Living Wage, Free public transport and Wifi, rent freezes, individualising benefits, raising benefits, wiping all punitive MSD/WINZ practices. The feeling is there for action in a number of communities–co-ordination and organisation are needed.

  2. Bit of a cop out of an article: some penetrating analysis of what’s wrong (echoed in other pieces by Trotter et al) but no concrete suggestions around possible solutions…

    I agree that ‘if we really want to be addressing child poverty we would do so by lifting wages, decreasing rents and increasing benefits.’

    And I agree the current union model ‘isn’t working’ in this regard, but there are no suggestions in this piece of an alternative that might…

    Don complains about there being no structures where workers can get involved,

    I understand Unions Wellington, in Don’s home town, has just elected a committee of eight and the majority are rank and file workers, including library staff, civil servants, hospo workers and a new start at the Ngauranga meatworks.

    Unions Wellington has held meetings with dozens in attendance to support striking nurses and had a rally of a couple of hundred to support the bus drivers’ strike.

    I was on a picket line with striking nurses last week in Christchurch together with port workers and Unions Canterbury frequently organises solidarity action of this type.

    Both Unions Canterbury and Unions Wellington are convened by younger unionists who weren’t around at the time of the FOL.

    When was the last time the author of this piece attended a Unions Wellington meeting, picket or rally? With all due respect to his previous union work, if the author doesn’t stay connected other than via on-line means he runs the risk of becoming out of touch and irrelevant.

  3. Thanks for your response John, several pertinent questions there. Enough to merit a substantial reply. I’ll post it here in the next couple of days.

  4. Just taking the concluding dismissal : “When was the last time the author of this piece attended a Unions Wellington meeting, picket or rally? With all due respect to his previous union work, if the author doesn’t stay connected other than via on-line means he runs the risk of becoming out of touch and irrelevant.”
    Numerous times over the years I’ve voiced similar observations about political commentators, certain that only actual physical attendance at a struggle gave someone a right to hold an opinion about it. A sort of early identity politics.
    I’ve come to realise that my previous attitude was bullshit. Political analysis is out of touch and irrelevant when it fails to properly consider enough relevant data. Attending public local union events gives some of the information needed to try and understand New Zealand workers present plight. But not all the information, nor even most of it.

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