Labour’s law threatens nurses pay claim

by Don Franks

Their special winter bonus ending, overworked New Zealand nurses want an ongoing payment to reflect the pressure on nurses working extra hours.

Nurses are set to turn down all extra shifts next week and the new health authority Te Whatu Ora is running to the law.

In a letter to the union, Te Whatu Ora head Rosemary Clements said refusing extra work was likely an unlawful strike. “Nonetheless, in recognition of the outstanding contribution that NZNO members have made over the last several months, we do not wish to take a litigious approach to this issue,” she said.

We do not wish, but we have the right and may well use it in the future.

Rosemary Clement’s threatening noises remind us how few industrial rights New Zealand workers have. The fault lies with National and Labour governments and workers’ own union leaders.

National’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act made most strikes illegal. Thousands marched against the union-busting law, from almost all sections of the working class. Many called for a general strike to smash the ECA. Instead, unions capitulated.

At the Council of Trade Unions conference debating the ECA, President Ken Douglas successfully manouvered to deflect general strike action. A grateful capitalist class later rewarded Douglas with their highest honour –the Order of New Zealand.

Subsequent union action against the ECA was at best ineffectual, at worst, treacherous.

Auckland protest against the Employment Contracts Act

In 1997, Labour Party and top union officials drafted their alternative to National’s ECA, called the ‘Workplace Relations Bill’. The bill restored union right of entry, and the right to strike over multi-employer contracts. But all National’s restrictions and penalties for solidarity strikes and political strikes remained in the WRB, in exactly the same wording as the ECA.

At the 1997 Council of Trade Unions conference, delegates were handed elaborate folders about how to promote the Workplace Relations Bill – a document no conference delegate had been allowed to see!

Aware of opposition to their sellout, union bureaucrats were half-hearted about pushing the WRB. The fancy promotion kits lay unopened in union offices. Eventually the WRB was quietly forgotten and superseded by a second Labour/ union official creation, the Employment Relations Act ( ERA), the law we are under now.

Labour’s ERA changed the ECA’s name, restored right of entry and left the rest of National’s law essentially intact. Labour got away with that with the help of top union leaders.

Union leaders did not show the proposed ERA to their members before it was passed; the best they offered were ‘summaries’, none of which pointed out the retention of ECA anti-strike restrictions and penalties. Instead of agitating against the ERA’s anti-strike provisions, union leaders pressed form letters on their members, inviting them to endorse, sight unseen, the “fair and balanced” legislation of what they called the “new era”.

A strenuous campaign against Labour’s anti-strike laws was mounted by the Socialist Workers Organisation, but the party was too small and too unconnected to the union movement to rouse enough support to kill the bill.

Most of the time union officials found the anti-strike law campaign little more than an irritating nuisance. But when too many of their members started listening they took action. The 1999 CTU conference workshop on industrial relations backed freedom to strike by a large majority. CTU Secretary Angela Foulkes stopped the idea becoming CTU policy by refusing to put it to the vote of the whole conference.

In the Service and Food Workers Union the SWO caused bureaucrats some anxious moments by getting freedom to strike resolutions passed in all three of the union’s regional delegates conferences.

Subsequent to those resolutions SFWU secretary Darrien Fenton summoned me (as a prominent SWO /SFWU member) to a meeting with herself and organiser Don Swann. They (unsuccessfully) sought my agreement that complete freedom to strike was not reasonable – e.g. “what about ambulance drivers?”

Finally, they said “would it make you happy” if the CTU sought the right to strike over “social and political issues”?

I said that would be a start. A couple of days later, that request was put by the CTU to Labour minister Margaret Wilson, who rejected it, and that was the end of that.

At his first Wellington Local Affiliates Committee meeting as CTU President Ross Wilson stated: “Getting the legal right to strike around social and political issues is impossible” and “the chance of getting that right from a Labour/Alliance government is totally nil.” He went on to say that “if you have a mass movement on an issue, and resort to civil disobedience, then the legal right to strike doesn’t matter.”

Months later, with legal pressure on railway workers to stop their picket in support of the Kinleith strike, no union official defied the law – and Ross Wilson made no call for civil disobedience.

At the 2001 Wellington Mayday rally Wilson spoke in praise of the Employment Relations Act. At the same time, elsewhere in the country, Carter Holt Harvey was using ERA provisions to break the waterside workers’ union struggle against casualisation.

It must be said that most union officials in the country went along uncomplainingly with top union leaders’ impotent stance on anti-strike laws. The price of their inaction has been a declining and increasingly irrelevant union movement.

Today, under a Labour-led government, New Zealand workers can be fined or imprisoned for illegal strike action, the harshest penalties in industrial law in the Western world. Our freedom to strike remains to be won.