New Zealand for My Father: Part I

bay of islands

New Orleans       When I would return from a trip to some country where neither of us had ever been, when my dad was alive he would ask me to tell him the things that would interest him.  Over the years I have found it a useful way of paring down an often overwhelming cultural and geographic experience, so here’s the New Zealand report that would have engaged him, shared now with all of you.

Let’s just start with driving on the left.  Ten days of driving that way for about a thousand kilometers on the North Island was my rookie run on the left side of the road while sitting behind the wheel on the right.  I heaved a sigh of relief when we turned the car into the airport that the family was still alive and well, and that the car was undamaged.  I only turned into the wrong lane twice and came near to catastrophe only once along the Bay of Islands, although I could claim distraction watching out for bicyclers, it was still too close for comfort.  On the other hand, I tended to hit a curb on the left side parking or driving almost daily.  I had perfect depth perception when I left high school and have always prided myself in that area, but this opposite site driving would take some practice on a regular diet.

views of Auckland from Mt Eden

New Zealand traffic around Auckland is what you would expect from a city built to accommodate suburban, single family sprawl in the post-war years.  In a country of less than 5 million more than 1.5 million are in and around Auckland, so it sucks up a lot of the country.  An hour north you pay a toll and all of a sudden are on two-lane roads the rest of the time and often on windy ups and downs on mountains.  I take my hat off to the country’s traffic engineers though.  The signage was excellent, the turning lanes wide and well-marked, and slow traffic turnoffs or passing lanes every ten kilometers or so.  The only thing I couldn’t figure as I was extolling the traffic engineering was the fact that curves were often not marked with solid lines to discourage passing.  I thought the traffic accident rate in the country would be minimal, but was surprised that it was better than the USA, but not by a huge margin, although that seems more an issue of drunk driving than engineering.

the cone

The North Island is not Hobbit country, so don’t ask me about that.  Talking to some of the locals, it was hilarious to see how they were still scratchy their heads about the Lord of the Rings thing, although conceding it was good for tourism on the South Island.

whirlpools at the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean’s confluence at Cape Reinga

The geography is stunning in the north as well, if you try to see the kauri reserves, rivaling the sequoias of my father’s native California.  The whirlpools where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet at Cape Reinga where amazing through binoculars.  The most distinctive geographical feature was the legacy of volcanic activity.  Walking to the top of Mount Eden overlooking Auckland at the lip of the cone was breathtaking, but an even bigger reward for travelers and the locals are the geothermal hot springs.  We went to one enjoyed by the locals off the beaten path near Kawakawa for $3 NZ with varying degrees of hot, dark water and carbon infused mud and a bunch of worn out folks like ourselves that was a lifetime experience.

I wish my dad and all of you could have been with us!

the locals’ hot springs near Kawakawa


Please enjoy Politician by Big Daddy and the Mammas Boys.

Thanks to KABF.


From Heaven to Hell and Back Again for Unions in New Zealand

Auckland     Interviewing Mat Danaher of E tu, the largest private sector union in New Zealand with 50,000 members, on Wade’s World, I got a much better idea of the organizing climate and context confronting unions – and workers – in New Zealand.  It’s quite a story of going from almost the best circumstances unions might imagine to almost the worst, forcing all unions to now find a path back again which many are now doing.

The rough outline of the recent history goes a little like this, if I heard him correctly.

Until about thirty years ago, New Zealand had something of closed economy for all intents and purposes.  Imports were expensive if not impossible to acquire.  If a family wanted a refrigerator, it was made in New Zealand.  A pair of shoes was made in New Zealand, and you had to save up for it according to Mat.  Cars were even made in New Zealand.  It was also a closed economy for workers.  There was “compulsory” unionization.   Unions bargained sectorally for whole groups of workers in various industries.  All of them were covered by the union, and all of them paid dues to the union.  Consequently, labor laws were not extensive, since public policy intended for any problems to be worked out between unions and employers.

And, then came the deluge.  A new government responding to what they saw as consumer and citizen demand, introduced neoliberalism on steroids.  Danaher pointed out that Clinton’s version of neoliberalism was beta-tested in New Zealand first.  Imports came along with foreign investment and privatization, and compulsory unionization went out the window, capsizing many labor organizations.  Some have barely recovered, and others merged.  In fact, E tu is itself the product of a merger of three unions involving everyone from cleaners to miners to flight attendants.

The new labor regime is “open shop” or what some in the USA would call “right-to-work,” but with some huge asterisks.  There is no sectoral bargaining, nor are unions the exclusive representatives of all workers in a bargaining unit.  Representation and bargaining are “members only” but with critical exceptions.  Unions can legally bargain with employers that in order for non-members to get the same wages and benefits as union members under the contract, they have to pay bargaining fees.  Furthermore, in most cases the fees are set at the same level as the membership dues, although these feepayers have no rights within the union, nor does the union have a duty of fair representation to have to handle their grievances.  It may not be as good as they had, but it is a far sight better than most organizers face!

The current Labor-Green government has three more years to run before elections.  Given the Living Wage Campaign, success and leadership by many Maori-led union chapters successful job actions and bargaining campaigns, and recent organizing successes many, including Danaher, believe now is the time to organize with the vengeance while the opportunity exists.