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

International Labor Organizing

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.