A New Vision Needed By Labour Movement

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Reprinted from The Daily Blog (Aotearoa/NZ). By Mike Treen, Unite Union National Secretary.

One of the disappointing aspects of some labour movement leaders comments on the private members bill to legalise scabbing was that it wasn’t needed because strikes were so low in this country.

But that is part of the problem. It is true that industrial action has reached record lows in this country. The employers as a consequence just seem hungry for more.

New Zealand workers have some of the fewest legal protections in the world. Even the USA has time and a half after 40 hours in their law! In many states unions can impose union recognition and compulsory unionism by a majority vote of the affected staff. In New Zealand that isn’t even on the agenda as a possible discussion point.

The one minor legislative entitlement won under the last labour government (making meal and rest breaks a legal entitlement) is being taken away by the government. The previous Labour Government also gave unions the right to access workplaces to sign up new members but membership as a percentage of the private sector workforce continued to decline overall and now stands at less than 10%.

This was a product of a long retreat of the union movement following the passing of the Employment Contracts Act into law in 1991. Union membership halved in numbers and went from 40% to 20% of the workforce and stayed at that level despite the economic growth and new legal rights under the 1999-2008 Labour Government.

Alongside the deunionisation went a radical restructuring of the workforce. Full time male employment fell for a period then recovered at a lesser rate than the working age population. Part time and casual work expanded. Cheaper female employment rose for both full-time and part time.

Real wages were driven down 25% in real terms in the 1990s and have never recovered since. Whole industries were largely deunionised. One sector my union represents in the international Hotel chains went from a standard employment agreement of full-time work with penal rates for overtime and on the weekends, to being effectively on the minimum wage, having no guaranteed hours and no penal rates or other allowances. Their real wage decline was probably in the order of 40 to 50%.

The Statistics Department reports that the the working age population expanded by 38% when comparing the December year 2012 to the earliest recorded number in the series for 1986.

Over the same period male full time employment (working 30 or more hours a week) expanded by only 17% and part time employment by 45%. Female full time employment expanded by 72% and part time by a staggering 144%.

Traditional manufacturing jobs declined as factories were driven out of business by cheap imports. Many simply went out of business whist others relocated to cheap labour countries abroad. Service industry jobs expanded and tended to be dominated by cheap young, female casualised labour.

We can turn the situation around. But it will require a revitalised movement that is NOT afraid to use the strike weapon. But that is not enough. We need a vision for society that can inspire a broader social movement behind us.

The fact that my own union has succeeded in reunionising thousands of fast food workers and won (modest to be sure but real) improvements is wages and working conditions is something that can be emulated. We have Collective Agreements with all the major chains – Restaurant Brands, McDonald’s, BK and Wendy’s. We are not alone and the progress the First Union is making in the major retail chains must be acknowledged also.

Unite achieved what we did without any funding outside our own credit cards. We may still have a few back debts to IRD as a consequence but I can assure all our critics that these debts will all be gone before our conference this year. It has been a remarkable effort and deserves to be celebrated.

At Restaurant Brands (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Carls Jr) we have over 50% density. Our collective agreement there reflects this fact and this year we restored overtime at time and half for the first time in the industry since decades ago. Major progress has also been made on ensuring breaks and more regular and secure hours. We have made less progress at the other main chains and are currently in a major dispute with McDonald’s for which we will be appealing for help and solidarity over the next few months.

It is in the interests of the broader labour movement to support these efforts. This includes the public sector unions who have bank accounts with millions of dollars in them and could be using some of that money to support their poorer and weaker private sector cousins. A weak private sector is ultimately a barrier to making gains in the public sector as well.

The problems I have been describing are an international phenomenon. And there is an international discussion happening on what needs to be done. So to finish this blog I would like to end not with a lecture but to encourage readers to look at a recent speech by Dan Gallin who is the chair of the Global Labour Institute which has a secretariat in Geneva. Dan is former general secretary of the IUF (the international federation of food, agriculture, hotel and catering and tobacco workers’ unions).

He gave his talk appropriately enough to a conference in Greece. It is entitled “Fighting Austerity: Our Crisis and Rebuilding Unions from Below.” In it he says he want to “open a discussion on our crisis, the crisis of the labour movement, because I believe that the multiple crises we are facing in society are ultimately the result of the failures of our movement, and that we cannot effectively deal with those economic, social and political crises unless we overcome our own crisis first.”

I share this sentiment.

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