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Dr Bryce Edwards

May 1st is International Workers Day, which is a good time to reflect on what’s happening with workers’ rights and industrial action under the Labour-led Government.

Of course, in New Zealand we don’t have a strong culture of celebrating May Day. You’ll barely find a mention of it in the media and the day goes unmarked by leftwing politicians and even most trade unions. May Day has become even more of an anachronism in recent years, with the decline of unions and the labour movement in general. Overt working class politics went out of fashion a long time ago.

This is discussed today by John Moore in May Day and working class politics. He says: “Is May Day an archaic event? This working-class day came to prominence at a time when class-centred politics was at the fore. During a large part of the early to mid-twentieth century, a mass working class movement existed, in the form of trade unions, labour parties, and a wider socialist and communist movement. However, in the later part of the twentieth century, working class politics was declared effectively moribund.”

Class politics is, however, currently enjoying a revival Moore says: “Even in places such as New Zealand, strikes and unions have become cool again. And even socialism and communism are becoming increasingly trendy amongst politicised youth.”

Certainly, a revival of working class politics can be clearly seen in the significant increase in strikes over the last year. For a pro-worker analysis of a current dispute, see Gordon Campbell’s Why we should support the junior doctors.

How to explain this revival of industrial action? Earlier in the year, Debrin Foxcroft took on this question, asking: In 2018 unions took to the streets to make their demands heard, but were they?

Former prime minister Jim Bolger is quoted suggesting that the rise of industrial action is reasonable and in fact just part of a global reaction to increased inequality: “I think what we have in New Zealand, mainly from white-collar groups, is significantly different than back in the 1970s and 1980s. What we have, in my judgement is a moderate, in fact very moderate version of what is happening across Europe where the people going on to the streets.”

University of Waikato labour and union specialist, Michael Law, is also quoted explaining that frustration with pay and conditions had been mounting for a while: “For younger people the frustration over wages has been compounded by the frustration over galloping house prices. If people are working long hours, not getting any increases in pay and the price of houses is galloping away from them and every week they are further behind then, you get a frustration and anger that either manifests itself by immigrating or leaving the industry.”

And CTU president, Richard Wagstaff also explains that an increase in industrial action was due regardless of the 2017 change of government, saying simply that “the largest collective agreements have come up for bargaining – the teachers, nurses and other healthcare workers”, and that “unions had been planning for the last two or three years to address the grievances being expressed by members”.

For a very good examination of the revival of worker militancy, see Massey University academic Toby Boraman’s recent article, Overworked and underpaid: the revival of strikes in New Zealand. Boraman points to a variety of economic and political factors that have produced what he says is “the highest number of people involved in strikes since the late 1980s, and possibly the most working days not worked due to stoppages since 1992.”

Boraman agrees with some analysis coming out of the National Party that “that government has raised expectations that wages will increase”, leading to workers being readier to strike in the belief that they deserve and can achieve better conditions and pay.

But he says that this is a minor factor compared with the reality of the economic squeeze employees have been feeling for a long time: “The [suppressed] level of government spending is a significant factor in causing the strikes simply because the government employs most workers who have gone on strike. Long-term neoliberal austerity has caused public sector workers’ wages to fall well behind those of most others.” Therefore, “it seems this is a ‘catch-up’ strike wave to reverse decades of stagnant or declining real wages.”

Despite assumptions to the contrary, Boraman also points out that this class struggle has a strong female component in New Zealand recently: “women have led the strike wave. Women made up the majority of participants in most strikes, and female union delegates were often at the forefront of disputes. Indeed, stoppages have mostly occurred in majority female occupations such as teaching, nursing and government sector work in general.”

But he doesn’t believe the current wave of unrest is in any way a return to “the alleged ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s”. Instead, “legal restrictions that outlaw most forms of strikes” and the fact that most industrial action is in white-collar industries, means there’s less likelihood of the country coming to any sort of standstill.

For a similar analysis, Ross Webb writes that “the strikes are a positive sign that organised labour can and will pressure governments when they promise transformational change” – see: The Strike Returns to New Zealand. This article puts the current wave of actions in an historic context, and details the variety of different industrial struggles that have been taking place.

Webb discusses the role of the Labour-led Government in dealing with the demands for pro-worker reforms, pointing to some of the progress: “increases in the minimum wage and the establishment of ‘Fair Pay Agreements’ across entire industries to prevent the “race to the bottom” and improve the ability of unions to bargain collectively”. But, questions remain about the extent of pro-worker changes, with Webb pointing to Labour’s broken promise “to repeal the “Hobbit law” introduced by the previous government, which scrapped a number of workplace rights for film workers in order to appease Warner Bros”.

In addition, “wider existential issues remain: precarious work, the continuing issue of technology and its impact on workers, climate justice and the ‘just transition,’ and the exploitation of unorganised workers (especially migrant workers) who remain largely out of the reach to organised labour.”

This issue of the “gig economy” and what it means for workers’ rights and conditions is dealt with very well by David Cormack in his January column, The crappiest gig. He says we shouldn’t be fooled by how wonderful this new style of working might sound: “We’re getting screwed and it’s so that those with power and money can entrench their power and money while at the same time reduce protections, stability and security for those actually doing the work. It’s called the “gig economy”, a name to make it sound cool and accessible.”

In many ways the “future of work” is looking rather scary, and perhaps something the labour movement needs to get to grips with: “The more we believe the ‘gig economy’ is just a new cool, convenient way for us to work on our own terms and not a concession of our rights as workers, the worse it will become. We have no bargaining power if we are competing against each other. If we come together as workers, cooperate as larger groups, then we can get better working conditions, better pay and consequently a better life for everyone.”

Union membership is still incredibly low – having fallen most recently from about 20 per cent of workers in 2012 to about 17 per cent in 2017. Could this Government help turn this around, and address its goal of ameliorating inequality? That’s the upshot of a recent piece by four New Zealand and Australian academics – including former Labour Minister, Margaret Wilson – who make the case that high levels of union membership leads to lower levels of inequality – see: How a default union membership could help reduce income inequality.

Here’s their main point about increasing union membership: “In our research we propose an innovative solution, drawing on insights from behavioural economics, which involves defaulting employees to union membership in workplaces where unions already have some members or a collective agreement. Once employed, employees would be automatically enrolled in the on-site union, but retain the freedom to opt out at least after some time.”

This Government is making two other important employment changes that are worth noting on May Day. The shift towards a minimum wage of $20/hour is being slowly-but-surely implemented. For one of the most interesting commentaries on this, see First Union general secretary Dennis Maga’s The minimum and living wage gap in closing, but not fast enough. He says: “New Zealand wages adjusted for the cost of living have fallen from sitting in the middle out of 23 OECD countries in 1990 to the fifth lowest out of the 36 countries in the OECD. We are also amongst the lowest for labour income share – this is the share that working people get of the nation’s total income, or the wealth their work produces.”

Maga has also written positively about the Government’s proposed new industry-wide bargaining model, saying that this offers “a potential opportunity to turn around our low-wage economy and regulate our lowest-paying industries” – see: Fair pay agreements: We can turn around our low wage economy.

And for an interesting discussion of the extent of the current low-wage economy, see Richard Wagstaff’s It’s not enough to grow the pie, workers need a bigger share. Here’s his main point: “work done by our economist Dr Bill Rosenberg shows that if working New Zealanders’ wages had grown with the pie since 1981 we’d all be $11,500 a year better off on average. In other words, while improving productivity is crucially important, sharing these gains and giving working Kiwis’ a fair slice of a growing pie is fundamentally important. And therein lies the key to the real problem. Even as we have grown our wealth as a nation there has been a systematic decline in the share of that wealth that goes to wage and salary earners.”

Even those at the bottom who were supposed to be getting a better deal from the historic pay equity settlement aren’t quite getting the progress that many expected – see Katherine Ravenswood and Julie Douglas’ Historic pay equity settlement for NZ care workers delivers mixed results.

Finally, May Day is supposed to be a celebration of international workers’ rights, but many foreign workers are still terribly exploited in this country. Newshub’s Michael Morrah has been doing excellent work in recent months to expose some of this – see: ‘Treated like slaves’: Overseas students claim they’re underpaid, overworked, threatened, and Chinese workers in New Zealand allegedly left without passports, food, toilet paper.