Union movement gathers for ‘Fairness at Work’

MANA at CTU biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

MANA at Council of Trade Unions biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

Adapted from an article for Kai Tiaki Nursing NZ. By Grant Brookes, delegate for the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and Fightback member.

132 delegates, representing nearly 300,000 union members, met in Wellington on 9-10 October.

The Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference 2013 examined the issues facing working people in New Zealand since the last gathering in 2011, and debated how to promote “Fairness at Work” as we face a fork in the road over the next two years.

Down one possible path, our future will see the end of guaranteed meal breaks, a loss of bargaining power, rising inequality and growing insecurity at work.

But the good news, conveyed in a speech to the Conference by Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, is that we are heading towards election year with the momentum to create a different future.

Former NZNO organiser Jeff Sissons, now working as the CTU General Counsel, began by giving an overview of where we’re at now.

The proportion of workers belonging to a union fell from 50% to just over 20% during the 1990s, he said, as the National Government removed the legal right to belong to a union, in breach of our international human rights obligations.

The Employment Relations Act, passed by the Labour-led government in 2000, enabled unions to halt the decline. But it wasn’t enough to generate any real recovery, and workers in many jobs (especially in the private sector) are still without union protection.

As a result, New Zealand had the fastest growing gap between rich and poor of any developed country over the last 20 years.

Jeff Sissons discussed international research by two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, showing that this inequality is behind many of today’s public health problems, from obesity, to mental illness and child mortality from accidents. And New Zealand’s income gap is still growing.

The Conference also launched a major new CTU report on the silent epidemic of insecure work (http://union.org.nz/underpressure). Under Pressure: Insecure Work in New Zealand shows that at least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are now in jobs without guaranteed hours, ongoing certainty of employment, or employment rights like sick leave, holidays, safety at work and freedom from discrimination. These workers often lack sufficient income and are powerless to change their situation.

CTU President Helen Kelly said the problem of insecure work could affect up to 50% of New Zealand’s workers. It has spread far beyond groups like young people working in fast food and is now creeping into the “good jobs” in health, banking, higher education and in government departments.

Helen Kelly mentioned the 120 staff employed in Elderslea Rest Home in Upper Hutt, who were told in July that management wanted to remove permanent rosters and roster them all casually, according to occupancy.

National’s latest changes to the Employment Relations Act will accelerate these trends and bring the problem of insecure work to more and more workplaces.

But in a keynote address, newly-elected Labour Party leader David Cunliffe spelled out his commitments for working people (https://www.labour.org.nz/media/speech-ctu-conference).

“Labour will immediately raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We will support the campaign for a Living Wage for all New Zealanders. A Labour Government I lead will scrap National’s unfair employment law changes – in the first hundred days.

“There will be no more fire at will without even an explanation. There will be no more attacks on collective bargaining, giving employers the right to opt out of good faith process. There will be no more attacks on vulnerable workers. There will be no more taking away smokos and lunch breaks.

“We will restore the protections for our most vulnerable workers currently contained in Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act.

“We will scrap youth rates because they violate the principle of equal pay for equal work. We will work to ensure pay equity. Labour will extend paid parental leave to a minimum of 26 weeks, as set out in Sue Moroney’s Member’s Bill.

“The Labour Government I lead will turn back the tide of anti-worker legislation that has been flowing from the Key Government for the last five years.”

Both Cunliffe and Metiria Turei signaled support for an overhaul of employment laws, tying into CTU efforts to move beyond the Employment Relations Act and further strengthen unions, collective bargaining and security at work.

“Labour will implement a new employment relations framework based on industry standard agreements”, said Cunliffe, “whereby working New Zealanders have a real choice to get together and negotiate better pay and conditions with their employers.”

But it also appeared that Cunliffe is straddling a contradiction. “These changes are not a one-off”, he said. “They need to be an enduring part of a New Zealand that finds common ground between productive workers and good employers.”

What happens when there is no “common ground”?

Cunliffe plugged his appointment of unionists Andrew Little, Darien Fenton and Carol Beaumont to industrial relations positions. But at the same time, he has appointed neo-liberal hardliner David Parker to the finance portfolio.

“New Zealand needs a strategic shift in economic management”, he said, “from a cost-based strategy that treats workers as commodities whose cost is to be minimised, to one that sees workers as an integral part of a system that creates high value products and services”.

Does this verbal sleight-of-hand conceal two economic management strategies which are essentially the same?

The contradiction was also clear in Cunliffe’s response to a question from the Conference floor about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He expressed support for PHARMAC, but also reiterated his party’s conditional support for the free trade deal threatening our state drug-buying agency.

How Cunliffe’s contradiction would play out in practice in a Labour-led government will depend on how unions respond.

Metiria Turei credited our movement with opening up the possibility of a different future, a path that is “good for people, good for the planet”.

“Workers and their unions are among those at the heart of the gathering momentum”, she said. “Thousands have joined rallies and stood up against National’s attacks”.

Helen Kelly called on us to “continue the local activism to get workers on the roll and out in the election campaign – not just to vote – connecting all the campaigns to make wages and work a key election issue” (http://union.org.nz/news/2013/speech-nzctu-president-helen-kelly-nzctu-biennial-conference-2013).

The next step, she said, is the referendum on the sale of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, to be held between 22 November and 13 December.

NZNO supports the Save Our Assets campaign because warm homes, power prices and ultimately electricity privatisation are a health issue.

“We need to use events like the asset sale referendum to maximum advantage”, said Helen Kelly.  “Delegates in workplaces can facilitate the voting in the asset sale referendum – get people who do not get a paper to get on the roll, and check that those with a paper cast their vote.

“We then need to keep the momentum going into next year.  We can make the difference.”

Leaflet: Stop the scab bills

Clearly we must oppose National’s attacks.

As Greg Lloyd, EPMU General Counsel pointed out in his article “Looking at the Big Picture,” the apparently minor and technical changes in the ERA Amendment Bill amount to an attempt to undermine collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, Jami-Lee Ross’ private members’ bill allows employers to bring in temporary staff (scabs) while workers are on strike.

We can only improve our wages and conditions if we oppose these attacks, and defend the right to collectively bargain at a minimum.

Not just about voting
The National government needs to be defeated.

However, during 9 years of a Labour Party government, real wages continued to decline while the rich list shot up. Labour’s Employment Relations Act also contains significant restrictions on the right to strike, which is necessary to workers’ power.

It was only a mass campaign under the slogan Supersizemypay, including both political campaigning and industrial action, that finally saw the rise to a $12 minimum wage in 2008.

Regardless of who is in parliament, we must organise in our communities to challenge these attacks from the ground up.

We need fighting unions
Labour leaders including Darien Fenton have argued that the scab bill is unnecessary, because strike rates are so low. However, the lack of strike action is part of the problem.

Unions currently cover less than 10% of the private sector, while real wages have declined 25% over the past 30 years.

In Europe and elsewhere, generalised strike action has confronted the march of austerity and offered a vision of peoples’ power. We need to rebuild a union movement willing to take action, in workplaces and communities, to challenge the attacks of successive Labour and National governments.

['Stop the Scab bills' leaflet pdf]
[Day of Action details]

Same work, same pay. Youth rates, slave rates!

The Government has recently announced the introduction of a new pay rate for 16 to 19 year-olds of a $10.80 minimum wage set to take effect on April 1st 2013.

The new youth rates will be set at 80% of the adult minimum wage (currently $13.50) which will apply for the first six months of a job. It is not limited to a first job, so conceivably a young person could be on this wage multiple times. While the government claims that it is voluntary, the reality in the workplace is that in this environment of high unemployment. Workers get no choice. The areas of work that this would apply i.e. fast food, supermarkets, retail etc. have an excess of people looking for work, demonstrated by the queues of thousands who line up to apply for a job every time a new supermarket is opened. It is estimated that 40,000 young people will be “eligible”/affected.

According to the spokesperson of the New Zealand Retailers Association Louise Evans McDonald 71% of their members supported the reintroduction of youth rates when they were surveyed in 2011. Something which is unsurprising considering that for retail in particular wage costs are a large part of their operating costs. However when reading through the associations own 2011-12 Retail Market Summary they list a 31% increase in sales volume since 2004 compared to inflation of 22%, so retail isn’t exactly suffering in the current financial climate, any decrease in workers’ pay is purely going towards increasing profits. [Read more...]

Bill could see workers denied breaks

Smoko breakA bill currently going through parliament could see workers required to be available to work during breaks- if they get breaks at all. There has been legislation for rest and meal breaks for just four years. Prior to the Employment Contracts Act breaks were covered not by law but by industry wide agreements negotiated by unions.

Council of Trade Unions policy analyst Eileen Brown told Fairfax reporters that adequate breaks were a basic employment right, and essential for the health and safety of workers. “A break is a break – there should be quite clear time off for a break. We don’t agree that having a break means you are still available to work.”

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said the bill made it clear that, if an employer asked a worker to keep up their work duties, it had to be a reasonable request – and it had to be necessary to the work, or agreed to by both the employer and the employee. But of course this ignores the power imbalance between workers and employers, particularly workers not covered by union agreements

On the job: working harder, faster and longer in the fast food sector

This article was first published in the July issue of The Spark. It was contributed by a Christchurch Unite member, Joshua Wood.

In New Zealand we eat from at least one of the nine American fast food corporations that have opened shop here. We have little real choice about whether we want fast food in New Zealand or in our lives, as fast food is now becoming the fastest, largest and in some cases the cheapest food available.

But is working in fast food what the industry makes it out to be? The answer to that is a big fat NO it’s not.

I started my work in hospitality in 2006 in fast food. Moving around from fast food outlet to fast food outlet, one thing I noticed pretty fast is that they all expected the same from you; long hours, fast work, low pay, and a demand for you to come in with little or no notice on your day off or to start hours earlier than you where meant to.  Often half an hour or even 10 minutes before you finish you would be asked to stay longer sometimes with no real need for it.

The current hourly rate at the site worked at is $13 a hour, a large majority of fast food outlets make enough to cover wages within seconds of opening the doors. This is because the company’s investment (labour, plant, logistics, and advertising) on producing its commodities for sale is well below the cost at which it sells them. We who make and sell the products see little in return.

Fast food companies say they are poor and cant pay our staff anymore without cutting hours and making products more expensive, but this is obviously not the case.

A message for all you big bosses out there, stop  working us harder, longer and faster for the same pay , and to all workers your rights are under attack so stand up fight back and be heard.

Seventy percent of workers in New Zealand want new jobs

by Byron Clark

Job advertising website SEEK’s 2010 Employee Satisfaction and Motivation survey, which had about 3000 respondents, has found that 70% of New Zealand workers are wanting a new job this year with one in four planing on leaving their jobs in the next three months. The main reason was looking for ‘a challenge’ (28%) followed closely by feeling unappreciated at work (23%). Nearly half of those surveyed (49%) responded negatively to the question “How’s the current morale in your workplace” and a slightly higher number (52%) said they would not recommend their friends apply for jobs at the organisations employing them.

What would change that would be better management (49%) and more employee motivation (41%) about a quarter of respondents also said better pay and work environment would make a difference. This open ended question also drew responses such as “ Cut the amount of work required to increase the salary to bring it into line with the extra work done for no pay” and “stop breaching employment law”.

When asked what they liked about their jobs, the most common response was “people I work with” (19%) and when asked what they hated 24% said the stress levels and 23% said the overall quality of management. Those in ‘service and support’ industries appear to have it worst, feeling less happy and less secure, as well as more likely to hate aspects of their workplace. Most were planning on leaving their job in the next six months. While 30% of young “generation Y” workers cited boredom as a reason for seeking new jobs (compared to 15% for generation X and 12% for Baby Boomers) they “tend[ed] to be more upbeat, [and] confident about their future” according to the report.

Freedom of expression @ work – a short interview with Julie Tyler

Julie Tyler

Julie Tyler

Friday January 4, Burger King held a disciplinary meeting against Dunedin employee Julie Tyler. Her alleged misconduct was the posting of the following sentence on a friend’s Facebook wall, ‘Real jobs don’t underpay and overwork like BK does’. Julie’s union, Unite, her friends, and other workers successfully built up public opposition against BK before the initial disciplinary meeting took place.

At the initial meeting Burger King adjourned the case until today, saying they were seeking further legal advice. During the adjournment BK’s censorship of staff members became a national media issue. BK New Zealand’s own Facebook page was jammed by comments of protest. Other Facebook groups – which attracted heavy traffic – were created and used in Julie’s defence. An informational picket was put on at Julie’s store today during the second disciplinary meeting. As a result the company has threatened legal action against Unite Union but Unite has replied that it will not be silenced.

The case not only raises issues surrounding the use of social media, it has also drawn attention to very basic working class issues such as freedom of expression and the right of workers to take action. Later on today we had the opportunity to have a quick word with Julie about how the case has unfolded so far:

[Read more...]

BULLIED YOUR BOSS LATELY?

Don Franks

According to a feature in today’s Dominion Post, “one in five Kiwi workers suffer from workplace bullying, one of the worst rates in the world”.

The claim’s made by a Minister of Labour commissioned university survey, released on 16/4/2010.

A joint university research team – from Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London – polled more than 1700 workers from the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors asking how frequently they were exposed to “negative acts” at work.

Overall 17.8 per cent of respondents were identified as victims of bullying.

The international range was claimed to be between 5 per cent and 20 per cent. [Read more...]

Strike rights threatened

Mike Kay

A Private Member’s Bill introduced by the National Party MP Tau Henare has been drawn from the ballot to be debated in Parliament. The Bill proposes to amend the Employment Relations Act as follows:

“A strike may not proceed under this Act, unless the question has been submitted to a secret ballot of those employees who are members of the union that would become parties to the strike if it proceeded.”

The Council of Trade Unions has announced its “support in principle” for the bill, “as it largely reflects current practice.”

The British experience may be of some use in analysing the effect of secret ballots. Over there, the law has required a secret ballot prior to strike action for nearly 30 years. I asked an official with the Postal section of the Communication Workers Union his opinion on the issue. This is his response: [Read more...]

A step forward

from The Spark March 2009

Finally, nearly a decade into the 21st century women will be legally entitled to breastfeeding breaks at work. From 1 April employers will have to allow women this right and provide a suitable space.  The breaks are unpaid – unless otherwise agreed – so breastfeeding women will be penalised by loss of wages or having to extend their hours at work.

On its own the law may not deliver much of an improvement for women trying to juggle work and childcare. Few workplaces have childcare facilities, and few are very family friendly.

Despite these shortcomings, allowing breastfeeding at work is a step towards recognising the needs of working mothers.

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