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.


Missouri Votes on Right-to-Work – Again

Auckland       Unbelievably, workers and their families, and, well, everyone registered to vote once again has to go to the polls on the whether or not businesses can impose so-called right-to-work legislation in Missouri. This isn’t the first time.In the last 50 years, if memory serves, unions have had to beat back these corporate challenges at least twice, and thus far always been successful.

Missouri is simply one barometer of how contentious this issue continues to be since the first right-to-work laws were passed after Taft-Hartley kicked the ball over to the states in the 1950s when previously union shops, and even closed shops, had been allowed. Many southern states led the right-to-work train. Louisiana was the last to fall twenty years later in 1976.  The anti-union, anti-worker push has continued to grow extending right-to-work even to the bastion of Michigan. Now, there are 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow union shop provisions and 27 that are right-to-work.

Right-to-work has nothing to do with work or getting a job. The title has been clever – and effective political marketing.Right-to-work legislation simply means that when unions represent workers in collective bargaining agreements they have the ability to negotiate with their employers certain fees for the mandatory representation obligation that is the responsibility of unions under the exclusive representation interpretation that has emerged under decisions of the National Labor Relations Act.Economic studies find that workers in right-to-work states make an average of 3.1% less in wages.

Unions are hardened to this fight in Missouri.  The conservative, Republican legislature passed a right-to-work statue during the last term of the legislature that was promptly signed by the Republican governor.  Labor and their allies quickly got more than 300,000 signatures to repeal the legislative action on the ballot. The right-to-work proponents played the last trick in their hand by scheduling the vote in the August primaries where there would be fewer base voters than the November midterm general elections, so the vote is coming now.

In a rarity union backed groups have outspent their opponents, raising almost $12 million to the over $3 million that anti-union groups have pulled together according to the Missouri Election Commission. Some odds favor the momentum of labor in this ballot.Missouri’s “show me” voters have tended to reject legislative acts when they have the chance to have their voice heard by voting.Anti-worker business interests are hoping they still have some steam in their tank in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision that recently eliminated agency fee agreements for public employees. The Wall Street Journal has reported that 24,000 public workers in Pennsylvania and 31,000 in New York ceased fee payments potentially cost unions more than $16 million in dues revenue.

Class struggle seems to never have an expiration date, and in Missouri it shows its ugly face every decade or so in the struggle over right-to-work.I’m betting on unions and workers again, but it’s never a sure thing.