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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Living Wage Campaign, New Zealand Version

Auckland         Talking to union members, organizers, and activists in New Zealand, one thing many of them mentioned as a bright, shining spot has been the progress of the Living Wage Movement throughout the country.  The national mandatory minimum wage is $16.50 NZ per hour, and the living wage number this fall is going to be more than four NZ dollars higher around $20.50 NZ.  In US dollars that would be a current minimum of $10.84 compared to $7.25 per hour as the federal minimum in America, and $13.46 compared to the $15 per hour that has been the campaigning point for many in the states.  It’s not hard to see how a campaign like this would start to make a huge difference, especially to lower waged workers, just as the living wage movement has delivered in other countries.

Living wage standards are different than in the US version, because they are voluntary, rather than mandatory.  In the US, where achieved, a “living wage” victory sets a new hard floor for all workers in a jurisdiction, either corporate, public employers, or contracted workers for public authorities.  Labor unions have been most aggressive in joining with community partners in the US to force living wage levels for subcontractors as a hedge against subcontracting by eliminating the incentive for public employers to join the race to the bottom so common in the modern economy.

The Living Wage Campaign in New Zealand has been more along the lines of the effort developed in the United Kingdom by UK Citizens.  Employers are both targeted by the campaign and solicited broadly to voluntarily join the campaign and become “accredited” as “living wage employers.”  They receive a certificate that can be posted, and they are allowed to advertise the fact that the pay the living wage minimum.  There is no governmental enforcement mechanism for scofflaws, but in talking to a union organizer, not surprisingly many unions have used that fact as an organizing tool to encourage workers to join the union in order to enforce that way and generally improve wages and working conditions.

At this point there are about 100 employers that have agreed to the standard covering an estimated 1000 workers throughout the country.  Many of the early employers were nonprofits, charities, and religious organizations, but even more significantly the campaign has succeeded in bringing on public employers in several jurisdictions including Christchurch and other larger city councils.  At the end of 2017 a national utility company, Vector, agreed to the standards which was a major breakthrough as the first large private sector company.

The national government, a Labor-Green coalition, is reportedly coming on board soon which will encourage more public employers on the local level to join the new standard as well.  Since the agreement covers contractors, this should be a boon for labor organizing to see that it gets done and stays intact.  Over the next year some believe the standards may cover 5000 workers.

Many believe that these earlier successes of the campaign are helping solidify the potential for community-labor coalitions and could be one of many factors reenergizing the New Zealand labor movement.

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