New Zealand for All of Us: Maori, Equal Pay, and More – Part II

Maori war canoe replica at Waitangi Museum

Don’t get me wrong, New Zealand is no perfect pearl.  There’s a bounty of issues.  Inequality is rising dramatically.  Sprawl around Auckland is a huge issue.  Environmental impacts on some of the island is devastating.  There are interesting signs of progress though, and they are worth looking at closely.

There are too many reminders of the American experience in colonialist land grabbing abetted and rationalized by religious evangelists in the subjugation of New Zealand’s native people, the Maoris.  Making rights wrong and eliminating discrimination and racism is an ongoing project with miles to go, but reading any of the history there seems to be a more concerted effort in recent decades to make New Zealand multi-cultural.  Of the major unions, five of the six have Maoris in key leadership positions. Translated signage in Maori is everywhere.  At 15% of the population and coupled with the island Polynesian votes, they can decide elections and were critical in putting the current, more progressive Labor-Green coalition into power.  Change is coming.

A museum at the seminal location where the Waitangi Treaty was signed between the British Crown and some of the Maori tribes promising them lots, including continued control of their lands, which were honored in the breach was educational.  The museum though acknowledging some of this horror and now turned over to Maoris to run and administer still treats the whole sordid deal as a “partnership” from then to now, which is a bitter pill for many to swallow, I’m sure, and raised eyebrows from us, even as we learned from the experience.

More encouraging perhaps were new amendments to the Equal Pay laws in New Zealand recently.  In the public sector workers in largely female job classifications that low paid are now able to bring claims that their job duties and job content is equivalent to other workers in largely male classifications that are paid significantly more.  While visiting in offices of the union, E tu, with their campaign staff I heard about their huge victory where the equivalent of home care workers was able to challenge their pay discrepancy with prison guards and win a judgment raising their standards to that level costing millions.  What a wonderful tool for finally achieving pay equity!

women’s exhibit in Auckland Art Gallery

Have I already mentioned the best-in-class Auckland Botanical Garden?  Yeah, I guess I did, and it ought to be on everyone’s list who ever has the opportunity to pass through Auckland and the North Island.  My team were also fans of the Auckland Art Gallery, the big museum there.  The downside though on both the Maritime Museum, which I enjoyed, and the Art Gallery and the Waitangi Museum, was the fact that these institutions were free to locals but charged $20 NZ for foreigners with no breaks of any kind, which I found obnoxious for institutions that want to be compared to national class museums in the US and other countries.  It goes without saying that the Botanical Gardens were free.

I wish you all could have been with us.

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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.

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