Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.

24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.

Sixth Labour Government of New Zealand - Wikipedia
Cabinet Minister’s photographed with the NZ Governor General after being sworn into office, October 2017.

In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?

Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.

However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited, and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.

When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.

During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.

On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.

It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.

It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.

There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.

The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.

The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.

New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.

At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.

The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.

But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.

Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.

Global Governance – why we need it, and why it currently does not work.

Shortly after moving to the UK, I attended a screening of Gaylene Preston’s documentary My Year with Helen tracing the former NZ Prime Minister’s unsuccessful bid to become the next United Nations Secretary General in 2016. What became apparent throughout this documentary, was that the United Nations is neither a democratic nor meritocratic organisation. Instead it is a body where decisions are made by those nations with veto powers, or who’s economic and military might needs appeasing. And the selection of people for leadership roles is an exercise in horse trading, not selecting competent or experienced leaders.

Helen Clark Becomes Fourth Woman to Run for U.N. Top Job | Time
Above – Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark unsuccessfully ran for the position of UN Secretary General in 2016.

Helen Clark has now been appointed Co-Chair the review of how the World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be an interesting review, as clearly there were many ways in which the WHO could have responded better to the pandemic. However, much of the failing was that many nations ignored WHO guidance or acted independently rather than be part of a global response to the pandemic.

As I posted back in April one of the single most irresponsible actions during this crisis was the decision by United States President Donald Trump to de-fund the WHO. The Trump administration having ignored WHO guidance caused many thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths within the United States. In cutting funds to the WHO during a global pandemic, they have also undermined the global effort to minimise the spread of this dangerous virus.

The United States undermining global governance structures and pursuing its own political agenda ahead of everything else is nothing new, and certainly not something limited to the Trump administration. Nor are the United States the only nation guilty of this. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have the power of veto meaning they can block any resolution from the UN General Assembly, even if it has majority support. These nations are permanent members of the UN Security Council and can veto any nomination for UN Secretary General.

There are countless examples of one nation being condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights conventions, yet another nation can do far worse and the UN will take no action when a nation with the power of veto is protecting them or is in fact the nation breaching human rights. Any hopes that in the post-Cold War era the United Nations would become a stronger more united entity have been long since dashed.

A similar situation exists with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) where hundreds of very worthy conventions protecting the rights of workers all over the world have been agreed by member nations, then subsequently ignored. My recent post on global unionism outlined the problems these organisations have getting ILO conventions to be upheld, especially in regions of the world where sweat shops and low paid manufacturing are common.

On the issues of climate change, human rights, workers’ rights and economics global governance is crucial. The nation state as we know it today is a human construct only a few hundred years old, and it already is out of date and not fit to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is not to say nations should not have governments, but that trying to solve the big problems facing the modern world through national governments will not work. And we see on issues like climate change, national governments have failed to respond appropriately as the world lurches towards a crisis.

The recent rise of nationalist politics has seen a retreat away from globalism. In part this is due to a rejection of free market economics being foisted on the world through a process called “Globalisation” prior to the 2008 economic crisis. This agenda tried to merge an economic ideology of Neo Liberalism, with the inevitable trend of Globalism whereby enhancements in technology mean travel, communication have become much easier and subsequently more common. Sadly, this coupling of the free market and globalism, has meant the inevitable rejection of the former has seen a decline in support for the latter.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union can be seen as one example of this rejection of internationalism. Though the EU being a continental/regional rather than global governance body means the issues are more complicated, as one reason for Brexit was a desire of some in the UK for Britain to have a stronger global voice independent of the EU. Another factor though for Brexit support was the ineffectiveness of the EU, both in terms of democratic structures and results. Similar criticism can be made of global governance organisations and has resulted in a decline for their support.

There is no easy solution to the question of enhancing global governance to make it more effective. Were the five nations with Veto powers to relinquish this stranglehold, the UN may stand a fighting chance of gaining more legitimacy. However, the prospect of this happening in the short term is unlikely. This does not mean the power of Veto should not be constantly challenged and called out whenever one of the five nations uses this power.

Removing veto powers will not in itself resolve the pressing issue of establishing global governance structures that have the power to make decisions that are desperately needed right now. Trying to establish a global democratic structure, when many of the nations who belong to it are in no way democratic is a difficult contradiction to overcome. Further, the logistics of trying to engage people across the planet in a democratic global governance structure would be complicated. The risk is that yet again, those most engaged would be those from economically better off countries and their interests would continue to dominate the global political agenda.

The other difficulty will be getting nation states to relinquish certain powers to a global governance structure. It would make sense for the WHO to take control of the global response to COVID-19 and this would have most likely resulted in greater consistency and many thousands of lives being saved. But politically, few governments want to give up power and nor would their citizens likely accept being governed by an international force even if the motivations are good. Getting people to accept global governance and allowing it to have greater power would require a profound shift in public opinion throughout the world.

These are big questions, with no easy answers. The concern right now is that the future of global governance is not being discussed or debated nearly enough. Having a US President de-fund the WHO during a pandemic is shocking, but far worse is that few seemed terribly bothered or concerned when this happened. The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century require strong global governance and addressing this challenge should be a top priority for all policy makers.

Never too late: Prevention in an ageing world

In late February the International Longevity Centre’s (ILC UK) held a launch of their Prevention in an ageing world report which highlights the importance of prevention to reduce long term illness and disability in later life. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of this report was overshadowed, ironically by a virus where prevention was key to saving lives.

This report highlights that in response to the 2008 financial crisis, global spending on prevention in healthcare was one of the first areas to be cut. It also has been one of the last areas of healthcare spending to get a funding boost as the world started to recover from this economic slowdown.

Life expectancy has been increasing in recent decades; however, many people are not living these extra years in good health. The UK Government has a strategy of supporting people enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035. Unless the Government invests in prevention in health care systems it will struggle to achieve this goal. According to the ILC UK there are 27.1 million people in the world living with preventable disabilities, and this figure is set to increase significantly over the coming decades unless policy makers start to seriously address this.

One of the other issues addressed in this report is that investing in people living longer healthier lives will have an economic return. This would allow older people to continue working so valuable skills and experience can be utilised. People being healthier in older age means this demographic are likely to be spending more thus contributing to the economy in that way. Focusing on prevention in healthcare will help ease pressure on the NHS and hospitals by reducing the number of people needing acute care for preventable conditions.

The ILC UK have published three key themes which would help make prevention in healthcare a reality. These are listed below:

Never too late: Prevention in an ageing world - ILC UK report ...

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of prevention in healthcare. Those most vulnerable to the virus were those with underlying health conditions. The UK Government have today announced a strategy to tackle obesity and part of their justification for this was that excess weight puts individuals at risk of worse outcomes from coronavirus. So, whilst the ILC UK report may not have received the initial attention that it deserved, its content is relevant during this current global health crisis.

Trade unionism: does it have a future?

In mid-2016 the former president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly (no relation) came to speak to PSA staff at morning tea. Helen had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and would sadly die later that year. At the time some of the PSA staff thought it would be an idea to start singing at meetings or union gatherings. These would either be Waiata (Maori songs) or old union protest songs. On that morning the decision was that we should all sing We shall not be moved. Helen was very polite and thanked us for the welcome, but then responded: “I’m sorry to break it to you, but we’ve been moved.”

Filmmaker Tony Sutorius on Helen Kelly's last stand

Above: Former NZ Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly

Helen went on to give a speech I heard her make in various forms throughout her term as CTU president. As a movement, unions ‘needed to evolve’ to organise the current workforce. Most workers ‘had no contact’ with unions and our structures were a barrier to most workers getting involved. Helen and I worked together for most of her time as CTU President. We did not always see eye to eye on everything but on this, she was absolutely spot on.

In these blog posts about my time in the union movement, I have talked about some of the challenges that unions face organising workers in the 21st century. I have discussed some of the debates in the movement regarding small or industry-specific unions vs larger general workers organisations. I have talked about the role of peak bodies, and the role they are meant to play, and how at times they can be disconnected from the members they serve. This disconnect is even worse with the global trade union movement, who do important but often completely ignored work. I have also mentioned the toxic role that competitive unionism has on trying to organise workers.

It is easy to feel demoralised about the state of trade unionism in the early 21st century. At times it can feel like parts of the movement are stagnant and at times moribund. There are plenty of exceptions to this and it would be wrong to dismiss the good work that many in the movement do day in day out. And there are some unions with well thought out strategies, democratic structures that empower their members to improve their workplaces, industries and wider society. But the brutal fact is that most union organisations and structures are not strategic, they often lack democratic accountability and simply are not organisations or structures that are appropriate for organising workers in the 21st century.

I am not going to give specific examples of unions that are not performing. And these comments are not specifically aimed at New Zealand, England or any other country. The union movement globally needs to seriously rethink its structures and its culture. One of the difficult issues in trade unions is it can be seen as disloyal to criticise the movement as a whole. Also, union leaders can see any criticism of the way their union is run as a personal slight. This inability to accept criticism is unfortunate, especially when only one in five workers are members of trade unions, and in many sectors, there is no trade union representing workers at all.

My personal experience of working in the trade union movement was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I was privileged enough to attend international conferences as a youth representative. I was put forward for leadership roles and to be exposed to the structures of the movement at all levels. Also, I made lifelong friendships and still consider myself part of the union family. However, the limitations and frustrations of working within the existing union structures over time became wearying. I felt like much of what we were doing was servicing, aka maintaining the status quo. Much of the time was spent on personal cases looking after members on the job, which is, of course, vital work, but unions need to be more than social workers and legal counsel. I was privileged enough to be working with colleagues who were doing ground-breaking work – an example the Care and Support settlement for care and disability workers in 2017.

The biggest frustration was that union structures have not evolved. In the last 20-30 years, the increasing number of casual, fixed term or contractor roles has increased significantly. The Union movement is set up to organise permanent employees – and this was fine in 1955 when the workforce was mostly that. In 2020 it is not. For example, in construction, there has been a shift towards contracting and people setting up as self-employed or starting their own small businesses. Another example is Uber, where people are freelance drivers contracting to Uber, rather than employees. Unions in London have tried to argue these drivers are employees and want people who work them to be treated as such. Problem is many uber drivers, construction workers and others engaged in this way are not actually seeking to be permanent employees with fixed hours or salaries. The union movement wants a workforce that fits with their structure, rather than finding new ways to organise people in contractor type setups.

The rise of casualisation and fixed-term employment has led to work being more precarious and helped to drive down wages and conditions. Understandably the union movement wants this to stop. Trouble is, while this precarious work does cause all these problems, it also allows greater flexibility, something both employers and many workers desire. A rigid system of shifts and rosters works in some industries, in others, flexibility works for everyone. There are clearly employers who take the piss such as McDonald’s in the UK who put their staff on zero-hour contracts despite the fact these workers were given regular work rosters each week. But there are plenty of examples of industries where variable hours are necessary such as event management. For too many unions they want the world of work to fit in their box.

One of the issues unions face is that they have been told since the 1970’s that they are dinosaurs. When unions are more moderate or pliable to the employers or business they are called ‘modern’ or sensible. This is what the rival union trying to undermine the Tramways Union in 2007 was called by the employer. The reaction to this is a view that defending the old ways of organising or running the union is principled and a way of resisting neoliberalism. That some unions change by becoming ineffective wet blankets does not mean everyone who changes is a sell-out. There is a difference between ideology or principle and strategy and tactics. Yes, the goal is to get through the brick wall, but this does not mean smashing your head against it is the only principled course of action.

Above: Manufacturing & Construction Workers Union Graeme Clarke speaking at the 30th anniversary of the Wellington Trades Hall bombing.

The other issue is that unions do not understand the capitalist system they work within. For all their talk of socialism, the role of unions is to improve the pay and conditions of workers within the current economic order, in effect making it more palatable for workers. One of the things that keep capitalism going is the process of creative destruction, whereby the old and inefficient is replaced by the new and vibrant. A recent example of this is again the rise of uber, which has undermined the Black Cabs in London. Sections of the union movement have fought hard to defend the black cabs, and at times it seemed, were wanting to work with Transport For London (TFL) to wipe Uber out. When over three million Londoners have Uber accounts, and thousands of people drive/work for them this is foolish. Worse, many Uber drivers are looking to organise to campaign for better rates per job, and the old union movement structures are unable to accommodate or are standing in the way of this happening.

That unions defend their own outdated structures is one thing, that they then fetishize inefficient or outdated businesses or structures of capital is just bonkers. Yes, it is understandable that unions want to resist redundancies or restructuring where workers lose jobs or are engaged in inferior employment conditions. But becoming the defender of the old, when often the old was not that great for workers, is both uninspiring and ultimately defeating. Rather than react to or resist change, unions need to understand the process of creative destruction and respond accordingly. Part of the problem is the workers themselves will often not wish to accept that their industry is dying. When New Zealand abolished car tariffs in the 1990s the campaign to save car jobs fell flat. They were arguing for jobs whereby people were reassembling cars that had already been built overseas. These reassembling jobs were created to satisfy government tariff restrictions, meaning the cost of cars in NZ was considerably more expensive. Instead of trying to defend this, the unions needed to campaign for these workers to be transferred into new industries and to be given retraining. They needed to put pressure on industry and government to ensure people were not thrown on the scrap heap.

The other thing unions do is they rely far too heavily on the state to protect the rights of workers. Yes, of course, it is the government’s role to legislate to ensure workers have decent employment and health and safety laws. Unions should be pushing for governments to do this. However, they cannot rely on legislation alone to improve employment conditions. The role of unions is to be an independent collective voice for workers. They need to be a movement that can both win and defend better terms and conditions of employment regardless of who is in power. As my previous post outlined, unions affiliations with certain political party’s can be problematic. It can mean political relationships and loyalties are prioritised over organising. This can also mean strategies are made which rely on the centre-left winning elections, which in many countries only happens occasionally if at all, and even then there is no guarantee that centre-left governments can or will implement the wishes of the union movement. To really make a change, they need to build political support for policies that make it difficult for governments of any colour to resist.

In recent years the New Zealand CTU has called for the reinstatement of industry bargaining, based on the old award system that existed before the 1980s. This system still operates in Australia, and similar systems operate in certain European nations. The idea is that instead of just bargaining between the union and employers, there will be a second tier of bargaining across an industry which is facilitated by the state. The idea is that this will improve the minimum standards of employment across the union movement. The Award system was introduced in New Zealand and Australia as a way of quelling militant unionism at the end of the 19th century. The benefit is that it sets a baseline for pay and conditions, but it can also limit the ability for well-organised workplaces to campaign for conditions that are better than that in the award or industry agreement. For example, in the bus driving sector, awards would benefit the companies where there is no union, and drivers are paid minimum wage with no overtime rates or other benefits. In all likelihood, bus drivers in the bigger cities where union membership is much higher, this sort of industry agreement would be used as leverage to remove conditions like penalty rates that were significantly better than what would likely be in an industry-wide agreement. The other problem is that an industry agreement would apply to people regardless of whether they were members of a union or not. From this, there is little opportunity to build a union movement that can fight to improve workers’ rights. The experience in Australia which kept its Award system was that union membership was much the same as New Zealand where Awards were scrapped in 1987. Further, often the Award conditions in Australia are not that great, especially if the state generally has right-wing governments. In New Zealand, calls for industry agreements have to date had no traction, even under the present Labour Government. The union movement has failed to convince even its own membership, let alone the wider voting public, of the merits of such a change. Sadly, this has been the only real big picture strategy from the NZ trade union peak body to improve employment law, with most other proposals focussed more on tinkering with current legislation rather than challenging fundamentals.

When I started my journey into radical socialist politics in early 2001, I met with lifelong socialist and trade union activist Don Franks. He told me many on the left often threw their hands in the air and say “the trade union movement is fucked.” The problem with this as Don pointed out, there is nowhere to go after that.

Trade Unionism is about people working together to achieve a common interest, something which people have done throughout human history. Where there is injustice, humans will band together to fight against it collectively. It’s what we do. Trade unionism is human nature – working together to achieve a common goal and to help out one another. Talk about the trade union movement dying is nonsense. In the past, I have talked about certain unions being moribund – this does not mean I think unionism is. What is moribund is old ways of working, old inflexible structures that do not correspond to the modern world and the modern workforce.

The future of trade unionism needs to be about engaging the 80% of the workforce who currently do not belong, cannot belong or who have next to no contact with trade unions. It is about building a new democratic movement that is run by workers for workers. This movement would need to actively engage in politics at all levels, and rather than blindly aligning to a party it will have a strategy built by members that advance the interests of working people and creates a political climate where no government want to attack workers’ rights. There needs to be a structure that accommodates for the fact that people often work multiple jobs, across multiple professions or sectors – at present people may need to join 2-3 different unions to cover their different roles. There also needs to be a union movement where if someone becomes unemployed they remain in the union and continue to be supported by the wider movement – rather than the current situation where unions throw the unemployed on the scrapheap the same as the rest of society does.

Building a new responsive union movement that is appropriate for the 21st century will require a lot of work and energy. Many parts of the existing trade union movement can provide a basis to build the new one that is needed, but sadly quite a lot of it rather than being a useful foundation will actually be little more than a hindrance. In the same way that capital uses creative destruction to discard the inefficient and outdated for the new and dynamic, the union movement must be brave enough to do the same. While it is great to celebrate the history of the union movement and record its past struggles, we cannot preserve union organisations out of nostalgia if they no longer do what we need them to. And in this, I do not just refer to smaller craft unions, many of the larger or multi-sector organisations can be just as useless.

One of the difficulties or fears union organisers have is that they will struggle to find work outside of the union movement. I am living proof that union organisers can go on to do other things, but I also have to say that it can be difficult. In part, this is due to hostility from certain employers towards unionist who they view as troublemakers. But even in left circles, working for a trade union can be a barrier to gaining other roles, as a perception exists that unions are ineffective at campaigning or strategy. Many unions and unionists are great at campaigns and strategy, but many others are not and this undermines the credibility of the whole movement. Many unions are stuck with organisers and other employees who would love to get out but do not feel they can. At the same time, many other unionists would love to get a job in a union but struggle for years to get in. For that reason, I left when I knew it was right for me, and always thought at some stage I would move on. Part of being a strong sustainable union movement must be creating an environment where people can get involved and do their best work, but also go back into the wider workforce and do other things when its right for them to do so. Having people with broader work-life experience than just organising or union work is crucial. Otherwise, you create this weird subculture of union workers who lose the ability to relate to the wider working class. Some people want to just work for unions their whole working life, and that is great, they should. But for too many, including those in union leadership roles, they do not feel they can be employed outside the union movement so stay out of fear.

There is no blueprint for building a stronger more effective trade union movement. There are many, who each and every day wake up and do exactly that. I have had the privilege to work with and learn from these people. Both union staff and active union members make a huge difference every single day, and they rightly should hold their head high with the work they do. And it is for them, and for the workers everywhere who want and deserve a better working life, that we need to build a much stronger, vibrant, democratic, and successful trade union movement.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Trade unions and political affiliations

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Trade Unions and political affiliations

Trade Unions are often affiliated with the main left or centre-left political Party in their given country. In parts of the world trade unions are aligned to either communist or social-democratic factions, and these unions will compete for members on that basis.

My experience of unions both in New Zealand and to a lesser extent in the UK has not convinced me that unions affiliating to a political party, usually Labour, is always a good idea. Unions are political by there very nature, and they need to actively engage in politics. But is openly aligning to a political party the best way for a union to do this?

Westminster - WikipediaThe Beehive & Parliament Buildings, Wellington - Eventfinda

The Labour Party was founded to be the political and parliamentary arm of the labour movement in the early twentieth century. The idea was that eventually, most workers would join a trade union, that they would be the majority, and in turn, they would put representatives up through their party who’d get elected and would be accountable to the movement. This was the parliamentary road to socialism, the alternative to revolution and Bolshevism.

The reality in 2020 is of course very different. In New Zealand, roughly one in five wage workers belongs to a trade union, a figure that is consistent with the UK and many other democratic societies. Most workers do not join a union, a matter I will address in my next post. This has two implications. Firstly, it means that the Labour Party cannot get into government by winning the support of trade unionists alone. Given the significant decline in union membership since the 1970s globally, increasingly Labour or Party’s of the left have needed to have a broader appeal and having relationships with unions has become far less useful. Secondly, given union membership is low and has declined drastically in recent decades, what value have long-standing political affiliations with the parliamentary party’s really achieved?

I am not arguing that trade unions should not affiliate to Labour or any other party for that matter. But if they do, they need to answer one simple but important question. Why?

An effective trade union is democratic, and member led. For a union to set a successful industrial strategy, it needs its members who work on the front line not just to buy into the strategy, but proactively have input and make the calls on what should happen. The political strategy is no different. If a union is affiliated to a political party, you should be able to walk up to the train drivers, cleaners, Postie or whatever professions the union covers, ask the member why the union is affiliated to the said political party and for them to a) have a clear understanding of why and b) have been part of that decision-making process.

What often, though not always happens is a far less democratic process. Union members will elect some delegates or shop Stewart to represent them onsite. From there these representatives will send a representative to the regional forum. From there one person from each region will sit on a national committee. This national committee or a subcommittee within the committee will make a decision about political affiliation. Possibly, the matter will go to a biannual conference and will be debated by the select few union members who could take the time off and were selected to represent their workplace at the conference.  In very few cases, do unions that politically affiliate have strong ongoing democratic decision-making processes where the full membership decide whether their union, which they joined to protect their employment rights at work, should join a political party. In many cases, union members may not even be aware that their union are affiliated, or that part of their membership dues is donated to a political party.

Unions should have a political strategy. At the very least union peak bodies should have a very clear idea of what employment and health and safety legislation should be. At a sector level, you would expect education or transport unions to have clear positions on what government policies they should or should not support. Having worked in trade unions I am sad to report that this often is not the case. In many cases, unions are focused on the day to day servicing of union members and do not have a clear vision or strategy to improve things. In some cases, political affiliation is an easier substitute for union leaders than having to work with members to develop an independent union political strategy.

As much as Labour or left Party’s have less need for strong relationships with trade unions, the same could be said for unions towards them. In New Zealand for example, since the Second World War, the centre-right National Party have won two out of every three elections. In fact, in most English-speaking democracies the party of the political right is the natural party of government which wins more elections than it loses. So why align with the party that usually loses?

When Centre-left Party’s do get into government, this is not always good news for unions or their members. In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party came to power and began a programme of new right economic reforms, resulting in the single biggest transfer of wealth from working people to the very wealthy in the twentieth century. Throughout the six years of this government, union leaders were mistakenly calling for loyalty to the Labour Government, even when their members were losing their jobs or facing significant pay cuts. This is an extreme example, but one which illustrates why blind loyalty to a political party, regardless of the policies they advocate is very foolish.

On the flip side, there have been occasions where unions have been able to win major policy concessions under Centre-Right governments. Another NZ example was in 2016 when zero-hour contracts were banned in that country under a National (conservative) Government. This same government implemented a $2 billion pay settlement to increase pay for care and support workers. Yes, in both cases, Labour and other opposition party’s were calling for change, but ultimately the centre-right government made concessions due to the successful political strategy of unions.

While undoubtedly there have been times when unions having a close relationship with Labour or left Party’s has been successful, it has certainly not always been the case. For unions to evolve to what they need to be in the 21st century, they need to be extremely focused and democratic organisations with a clear idea of who they are, what they are doing and why. Unions may still be able to do this while having formal affiliations to a party, but in far too often this simply is not the case.

 

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

 

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

The role of the Union peak body is to provide national or international leadership for all union members. The union movement structure in NZ and many other countries is to have several sector-specific unions, which then affiliate to a peak body. In some countries, there is more than one peak body,  for example left or right unions will want to group separately.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the late 19th century advocated the idea of ‘one big union’. Whilst there are the sector-specific issues facing certain professions, the general role of unions is to empower members to fight and win improved working conditions. One big democratic union where joined up thinking and an overall strategy is present would be far more effective. This could still have departments focusing on sector-specific issues, but they would not be separate from the main bigger group.

Industrial Workers of the World - Wikipedia

The reality is that unions grew up as guilds and craft unions in the 19th century, and this legacy is carried through to the present day. 19th and early 20th century models of unionism are expected to serve the interests of workers in the 21st century in an ever-changing workforce.

In this context, peak bodies exist as the national or international voice of organised labour. At a national level, peak bodies like the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in NZ or the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK are the main group who lobby government on behalf of all union members. They also are the main go-to for media wanting comment on workers’ rights issues generally. Like international union peak bodies, national peak bodies can suffer the same issue of disconnect from their rank and file membership. At times peak bodies can operate in a bubble and risk being captured by officialdom and the political establishment.

The major challenge with the structure of peak bodies is that their affiliate members are often in direct competition with each other. As mentioned in my earlier post, there are multiple unions trying to organise bus drivers in New Zealand. When briefly working for a union in the UK, one of my jobs was to talk to bus drivers asking them to join Unite union when most drivers on that site were members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union. When unions are trying to defend their declining empires in a Game of Thrones-style power struggle.

There is also a big verses small union battle, which sometimes is ideological but more often union officials battling to keep their patch. The small local union model is arguably more accountable as their officials are more accountable and their focus will be solely on their local members. The big unions argue that they have more resource and have more sway with employers. Having worked in both I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of both. In the big unions, they often have members from many professions or employers, it is easy for workplaces to be neglected if there is not a proper organising structure. Equally, in small unions, the sole focus can be bread and butter local issues and the bigger picture gets neglected, ultimately harming their members.

My view is that neither big or small unions function particularly well in the modern-day workforce. There are many notable exceptions to this where both do very good work. But few have found the balance of good local support for members, tackling national and international issues and crucially not wasting considerable time and resource fighting another rival union encroaching on their patch.

Were I to try and design a model that may possibly work, it would be to have the union peak body running all the back-office functions. Combining the legal, policy, membership systems, and even campaign work into one big back-office function would allow a concentration of resource and stop duplication across the movement. Peak bodies would also become the employer of all union staff and pay scales and other employment conditions of union workers would be consistent rather than certain unions in certain sectors paying more. The unions could maintain their separate brands and democratic structures and have their sector focus but would be working cohesively as a movement.

The role of the peak body is primarily to provide the vision for the movement. Their role is to head national campaigns that improve employment and health and safety legislation. And help affiliates work and campaign together to bring positive change. But more than this, the peak body should be a shining light to the whole movement. It should be advocating for the future of work to be one where workers are empowered and no longer exploited or alienated from the systems of production they work in. In short, this peak body’s need to be a beacon of hope and a movement for real change, not just a semi coordinated alliance of union organisations that are defensive and only try to maintain the status quo.

For unions and their peak bodies to achieve this, they need to radically re-think their structures and models. They also need a fairly fundamental rethink of how they operate in an evolving 21st-century workforce. The next post in this series will consider what some of these changes need to be.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Working in the public sector – the defence force goes on strike

As well as working in local government at the Public Service Association (PSA), I also had responsibility for various Central Government entities. In my first three years at the PSA I organised several the smaller ‘State Sector’ organisations. These tended to be government agencies or government own organisation but were not core government departments or ministries. In 2015 I moved teams at the PSA and worked with the Inland Revenue Department and the New Zealand Defence Force.

One of my first assignments at the PSA was to start a bargaining brief for the Office of the Ombudsmen. Prior to 1988 public sector employment conditions were set by the State Services Commission (SSC) for all Government Departments. After the 1988 State Sector Act was passed each department could then negotiate its own employment conditions with the PSA or individuals. This was followed by the 1991 Employment Contracts Act which heavily encouraged individual bargaining and discouraged unionism. As a result of this history, the Office of the Ombudsman did not have a collective agreement for PSA members. This worked ok for a while when they were a small team and had a fairly paternalistic employer who treated staff OK. As the Office of the Ombudsmen got bigger, it needed to stop running like a family business and more like other government agencies of a similar size.

Above: The PSA centenary parade in Wellington, October 2013 

The process of negotiating that first collective at the Office of the Ombudsmen took over 3 years and was like a prolonged root canal. We started off presenting a model agreement from a PSA or government employee perspective. The employer came back with a fairly vague response, seemly hoping that we would just back down and accept the existing employment contract as the new collective. When it was pointed out that many of the policies and employment practices had significant flaws or were not necessarily in line with modern employment practice. After a few months of circular arguments and little progress, we meet with Dame Beverley Wakeham the Chief Ombudsmen to try and get things on track. She brought in Peter Cullen, another ex VUWSA President to lead the negotiations from their side.

Negotiating an employment contract in an organisation full of lawyers is a challenge. Everyone was very detail focussed and each clause of dissected and analysed multiple times. Neither side found it easy to compromise, especially on the particularly big issues of pay, pay systems, performance measures and restructuring and redundancy clauses. Whilst the PSA membership slowly and steadily increased during these negotiations, we started off with only the minority of staff in the union. A further challenge was while the delegates (elected worker representatives) were reluctant to compromise, they also did not see taking industrial action as viable. Some difficult conversations about the need for leverage in negotiations had to be had. From the employer side, the issue of having to invest time and energy into negotiations should have encouraged them to conclude sooner by trying to reach an agreement. This did eventually happen in 2015, by which time everyone just wanted it done.

OOTO June 2015

The NZ Teachers Council:

The New Zealand Teachers Council were the registration body for NZ teachers. Like the Office of the Ombudsman, the Teachers Council did not have a Collective Agreement when I took over responsibility for them. Negotiations at the Teachers Council took 18 months, which was still long but a much quicker process than the Ombudsman. The Teachers Council started off with a very low PSA membership, but a small group of workplace leaders who were determined to improve things.

Working with this group was a joy. We quickly put together a model employment agreement that our members all endorsed. In early 2013 bargaining started, and though at first the process was not well understood by the employer, the discussions were positive. Within a few weeks we’d found agreement in a number of areas, and where there were differences there seemed to be a strong problem solving attitude which allowed us to keep making progress. It almost felt too good to be true, and we soon discovered it was.

The problems at the Teachers Council started when we tried to build a new remuneration system. Not only had the Teachers Council employees gone many years without a pay increase, there was a nominal performance pay system where in reality nobody got a pay increase regardless of performance. While we were able to make some progress on the elements of the system, the Teachers Council were insistent on using Hay pay data. The issue here was the data they chose to use was total remuneration where things like superannuation and various other allowances were added into the total salary package. This caused issues with transparency, as in it quickly becomes bloody confusing trying to understand people’s remuneration package. The other problem is that the Hay data used reflected a sample of the market movement and could not be relied upon to truly reflect the cost of living increases.

Remuneration was one issue with the Teachers Council, but soon the other areas where we had made such good progress began to unravel. In early 2014 we met with the employer negotiating team to try and finish off bargaining. At this meeting, the employer presented a new “clean” document they had been working on with their lawyers. Having already agreed things in bargaining the employer were now trying to back track. Legally this was not smart as it breached the ‘good faith’ obligations both employers and unions/worker representatives must adhere to in bargaining. This also is a very quick way to really annoy your workforce.

The PSA up to this point still had relatively low membership at the Teachers Council, meaning taking industrial action was a challenge. Despite this our members were willing to try, agreeing to start with low level collective action and build up. We started with holding PSA morning teas where we would hand out flyers and pens. We started signing up more people to the PSA taking our membership from barely over 25% to 50% in a short space of time. As former PSA colleague Bronwynn Maxwell once told me in a training session “the most effective form of industrial action is to sign up more people to the union.” And it was.

As the Teachers Council staff joined the union, and the PSA legal team hit the Teachers Council up about breaching their duty of ‘good faith’, the pressure was mounting. We agreed to mediation to get bargaining back on track. After a few sessions the Teachers Council agreed to drop the ‘clean’ document and go back to the clauses they’d agreed to in 2014. After a few changes we got what looked like a reasonable employment agreement. On remuneration, we did not get everything we wanted, but council staff got a significant pay increase and we agreed a process where the PSA and the employer would analyse relevant market data each year before pay rates were adjusted. To quote the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need”.

Public Trust:

Public Trust had a close personal connection to me. My Grandfather had been the former head of the organisation in the late 1970s, and my Dad worked there for many years as a solicitor and manager. Both had been active PSA members on site. When I started working with Public Trust in 2014 I was often referred to either as Noel’s Grandson or Chris’s boy.

The New Zealand Public Trust Office was set up in the 19th century by the Government to provide a trustee service provided by the state. Since 2001 Public Trust as operated as a state owned enterprise providing a service in Wills, estate management and trusts.

Public Trust suffered from something that many government agencies have in recent decades, that being constant restructuring and change management. Every 2-3 years there would be a change of CEO/Senior Leadership Team/Board. Public Trust from when it founded in the 1870s through to 1998 only made a loss in one financial year. In the last 22 years the business has shrunk, and its balance sheet continues to worsen. The proposed remedy each time is another restructure, despite the previous restructure usually being the cause of the last loss. The Public Trust management team were usually external appointments from banking or insurance and had no real idea what the organisation did. Usually by the time they worked it out they walk before they get blamed for the latest crisis.

When I took over as the Public Trust Organiser the management had just imposed another round of grand-parenting, whereby staff employed after a certain date would no longer enjoy certain employment conditions. Specifically, Public Trust were enthusiastic about abolishing the redundancy clause as they were spending a fortune each year laying people off.

In the intervening 18 months between bargaining rounds, Public Trust announced yet another restructure. This was complimented by yet another expensive computer system, which staff were promised would actually work this time (it did not). Management were quite openly hostile to people who had worked at the organisation more than 3 years, probably because they would know more. I ended up representing several members in “disciplinary” meetings, where in reality someone with 20 years + experience was questioning their line manager who did not understand how the business worked. Confidential ‘exits’ or performance improvement plans (aka bully the staff members till they crack and leave) were managers way of dealing with people they had not managed to restructure out.

The 2015 Public Trust bargaining started out with the employer proposing to ‘modernise’ the employment agreement. What ‘modernise’ meant in reality was strip all hard-won employment rights out. The employer wanted to determine work hours and abolish overtime, they wanted to get rid of redundancy so they could sack long serving staff without the annoyance of paying compensation, impose strict caps on sick leave and were not at all interested in bargaining pay rates. And when we did not agree we were told that we were dinosaurs and that younger workers would prefer what they were tabling. We were told they were being reasonable; we were not and this was their final offer. This was in day two of bargaining.

We agreed to take their offer out, without recommendation by the PSA. Instead we suggested the CEO and their bargaining team attend our union meetings and explain the offer directly to PSA members. This was helpful to counter the idea that the PSA and staff reps on the bargaining team were not representing the wider membership, an allegation Public Trust had made a few times. At the meetings, the CEO received a frosty reception and some very tough questioning, not only about the negotiations but also about how the business was being run. We ran an electronic secret ballot of members, and only 1 person voted for the employer’s offer.

It took a further 6 months to get an agreement with Public Trust. The end result was not amazing, but considerably better than the offer members had rightly rejected before. Like the Teachers Council, we ended up involving mediation services. My boss Jeff Osborne got involved (at my request) to show that we were wheeling out the big guns. Having Jeff involved proved useful as he could talk about agreements at other organisations and to explain that what Public Trust was proposing was not ‘modern’ it was just command and control management.

Having moved (mostly) out of Local Government and completed bargaining at the Ombudsman and the Teachers Council, I was ready for a new challenge. The PSA moved me into what they called the Core Public Service – which were the main government departments. I picked up NZ Inland Revenue Department (IRD) and the NZ Defence Force.

Inland Revenue:

Inland Revenue was one of the biggest government departments and the 3rd biggest enterprise that PSA was responsible for. I was one of two organisers with national responsibility for IRD, Diarne Grant, Josh Gardner and later Cheryl Reynalds were my counterparts. We were responsible for managing the national delegate team, a great group of highly motivated and hard working individuals – but also a group that at times struggled with its own internal politics.

IRD had a legacy computer software system which dated back to the 1980s. At the time I started with IRD they were about to implement bespoke tax software system to manage the countries tax revenue. The department were under considerable pressure from the government to get this implementation right, as if it went wrong New Zealand’s tax revenue would be at risk.

Alongside this technology change, IRD were implementing significant organisational change. Over a 5-year change process, every single role was to change significantly. While many would be reassigned to new roles, the total head count at the department was set to decline. Many of those who had been employed in processing roles were set to lose their jobs as paper tax returns were to be replaced with online forms, though other new roles would be needed to be created to go through tax information submitted online.

The PSA’s strategy of constructive high engagement was tested through this process. The PSA wanted worker input into the new design and to be represented in all relevant decision-making forums. The challenge here to not be seen as just being part of the IRD management team rather than advocates for their employees. This was especially tricky when it became clear that the departments commitment to high engagement was more a commitment to tell the union what was happening, rather than have genuine engagement from their front-line staff.

The other challenge was that PSA, whilst the biggest union on site, was in competition with two other unions. One was a small union with few members, but the other, Taxpro, was an in-house conservative union with a significant membership. Traditionally IRD would do collective bargaining with Taxpro first as they would agree to what the employer wanted, meaning PSA was undermined when they came to bargaining shortly after. Over time the PSA had increased its membership and Taxpro were forced to work with them to remain relevant. One of the tensions within the PSA delegate teams (and at times with our PSA staff team) was the difficult relationship with Taxpro.

One of the projects I was involved with at IRD was their pay and employment equity review to end the gender pay gap in the department. At the time I was completing my History Honours degree at Victoria University and writing my dissertation on the Jean Parker vs IRD equal pay case of 1956. In 2016, 60 years after the first successful equal pay case in the public sector taken by the PSA, IRD still had a 20% pay gap between men and women in the department. In the working party the department took the position that the gap was almost entirely because fewer women were in middle management positions than men, and if it were not for that the numbers would not so bad. The PSA’s request to research this further than accept this assumption was not met favourably by the HR person assigned to this working party. This fight continued after I had left the PSA. Whilst I hated leaving unfinished business, the gender pay gap at IRD had been a battle the PSA had been fighting for over a century, and not something I was able to resolve in the 2 years I was involved.

When I picked up the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) role, my manager Basil Prestidge went through the history of organising civilian employees at NZDF. Much like Public Trust, NZDF had suffered from years of grandparenting and erosion of employment conditions. People who had started at NZDF prior to 2008 were covered by the grand parented document called ‘Part C’, and everyone employed after 2008 were covered by the new document called ‘Part B’. There were many differences, but the most significant was pay. NZDF decided in the mid 2000s that they no longer wanted to bargain rates of pay. They were aided in this by an omission in the Employment Relations Act 2000 which was silent on whether collective agreements needed to include rates of pay (for individual employment agreements it was clear that it did) or that these rates should be subject to negotiation. The result was those on the ‘Part B’ agreement were told by NZDF what their pay rate was, and the union had no ability to bargain the rate. Not surprisingly, union membership declined at NZDF after the implementation of this ‘Part B’ document. At the end of the briefing with Basil, he said with a smile on his face “you can’t make things any worse at NZDF.”

National organiser Nick Kelly said the pay rates for civilian workers are thousands of dollars behind market value.

Above: Nick Kelly outside Devonport Navel base during NZDF industrial action, 27 April 2017

Just before we went into bargaining with NZDF, another union had won a court case against Jacks Hardware who had refused to bargain pay when negotiating their Collective Agreement. Whilst a legal strategy alone would never be enough, this provided some much-needed leverage. In addition, we had a national delegates team of worker representatives who were a) prepared to take on the fight and b) could see the bigger picture implications of this legal case both for NZDF and the wider public service.

The negotiations began in mid-2016, and as expected the employer team were not prepared to budge on the issue of pay. Having visited military bases up and down the country, we heard from civilian employees that in many cases pay rates were poor and they wanted something to be done. For the pre 2008 employees on ‘Part C’ NZDF had offered little to no increase in previous negotiations. On the eve of the 2016 negotiations, NZDF increased pay rates for those on ‘Part B’ and made it clear that ‘Part C’ people would get an increase much sooner if they switched over. For many on ‘Part C’ there were other additional allowances which made switching over uneconomical, but also for many there was a broader principle at stake. NZDF entered negotiations by playing divide and rule and refusing to seriously entertain the idea that rates of pay should be subject to bargaining, regardless of when someone commenced employment.

The PSA strategy was a two-pronged attack. The first was to take a legal challenge against NZDF on the grounds that under the duty of good faith they needed to bargain pay with the union. The second was to encourage members to take industrial action. At the commencement of bargaining we surveyed our members asking them a) what issues they wanted the PSA to push in bargaining and b) what collective action they were prepared to take to support these claims. This helped sow the seed that collective action maybe required as part of bargaining and started workplace conversations about what this would look like. There had been previous industrial action at NZDF, however it was still a rare event. Most NZDF civilian employees are ex-service and feel a loyalty to the military. Voting to take industrial action was a big step for PSA members at NZDF when they did in 2017.

In April 2017 we had a week of revolving action throughout the country. The action varied from place to place depending on what would be more effective. On certain bases such as Devonport, Linton and Trentham members stopped work and formed pickets either outside their bases or in prominent public areas nearby. On other bases members refused to answer calls or emails at certain times or stopped doing certain tasks that they knew were a priority for NZDF.

I left the PSA in 2017 having decided to move full time working for my company Piko Consulting.

Shortly after I left the PSA won the case against NZDF. This determination meant that NZDF could not refuse to bargain pay as this was not acting in good faith. Alongside the legal win, there was a broader political strategy at play with the NZDF bargaining. We hoped to use the industrial action and strategic litigation as leverage to get employment law changed so pay would need to be bargained and rates of pay published in collective agreements. In early 2017 Basil and I met with the Iain Lees-Galloway the then Labour opposition employment spokesperson. After talking to us about the NZDF situation and other unions facing similar issues with employers refusing to bargain pay, Iain agreed to table a member’s bill to correct this part of NZ’s employment legislation. 2017 was an election year, and when we met Iain the polls were suggesting it was unlikely Labour would win this election. But as the old adage goes, a week is a long time in politics and things can change quickly. In October 2017 Labour formed a coalition government, and Iain became minister of employment. When the incoming government made changes to NZ’s employment legislation, including pay in collective agreements was one of the amendments that went through.

Being an employment advocate can be a truly amazing job where you get to make real changes to people’s working lives. It can also be immensely slow and frustrating, and it requires an enormous amount of energy and patience to push through the many frustrating road blocks. As an advocate you play an important leadership role, but ultimately the key to success is having a strong team. The successes I had as an organiser could not have happened without my amazing colleagues on the PSA staff and the PSA members I was working with. It was a great opportunity to be part of the organised labour movement and help people in both big and small ways. I do not for a second regret my involvement, but I also realise that by 2017 it was time for me to move on.

Media report of NZDF industrial action 2017:

Pay promts protest against NZDF at Devonport military base

NZDF civilian strike “a last resort”

Stand Together for NZDF Civilian Staff

NZDF’s intimidating letter to strikers “appalling” 

Radio New Zealand: Defence Force accused of intimidating striking staff

NZDF undermining tactics continue

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Local Government provides some of the most crucial and front-line public services we have in society. Yet internationally, voter turnout and engagement with Local Government is generally abysmal.

The services provided by local and central government vary from country to country. Certainly, living in the UK Local Government plays a much stronger role in social housing, public health, and education than in NZ where these are the responsibility of Central Government.

In 2012 I started working at the Public Service Association (PSA), the union for public servants in New Zealand. The PSA organised the core public service, health workers, community public services (including social care) and Local Government. The PSA had merged with the Northern and Central Local Government Officers Union in the 1990s. The Southern Local Government Officers Union merged with the PSA in 2015 while I was working in the sector.

Local Government was often viewed as the poor cousin both within the PSA, and more broadly within the public sector. From a union perspective, much of the sector was not well organised and often it proved difficult promoting PSA membership to council workers. There were notable exceptions to this. When the Auckland councils merged into one super council in 2010, the PSA successfully signed up thousands of members and played a crucial role in protecting and improving employment conditions in the new council.

One feature of Local Government, at least in New Zealand was that it often had a small ‘c’ conservative workforce. Where unions, or specifically the PSA did not have members it would generally be a slow painstaking exercise signing people up. The chicken and egg situation always were that you needed members to win decent conditions, but to sign members up you needed to promote the good work the union had done. If there were previous bad experiences of the PSA or any other union, this became 10 times harder. Talking about good work done at other workplaces only went so far, as people wanted to know what you could do in their workplace. Eventually, we would always breakthrough, but it was often a slow process.

The other problem with local government was the general lack of knowledge about what it did. When trying to promote local government or campaign to save or improve services, the initial step is to raise awareness. Very often the public does not realise what services are provided by their local council. Even fewer can tell you what is provided by a local council vs a unitary authority or regional council.

The other significant challenge in local government from a union perspective was the multiple unions working in the space. This was often down to historical issues, such as one union organising all the gardeners or parking wardens when another organised the clerical staff. These demarcation lines were seldom clear and would often lead to competitive unionism and other distractions. The issue of competitive unionism certainly is not limited to Local Government, but in New Zealand, it was certainly a problem in this sector.

My role in the PSA was initially one of the local organisers responsible for looking after the councils. My patch was Wellington City Council, Wellington Regional Council, and some of the privatised council work units. My colleague George Laird looked after the other councils in the region, and Wellington Water the shared entity set up by the councils to manage the regional water supply. In reality, we shared the workload from the local councils and designed a joint strategy to improve collective bargaining outcomes for council members in the region.

When George and I started in 2012, Porirua and Upper Hutt City Council’s had no collective agreement. Wellington City (the largest council) had collective agreements covering Library and Building Compliance and Consent staff, but not anyone else. The regional council had one of the better collective agreements, but conditions were coming under attack from management. And contracting out of services meant that many council services were provided by private companies – some represented by unions, many others not.

Contracting out and privatisation has been a trend in New Zealand Local Government since the 1980’s. The Wellington buses I had worked on previously were until 1990 run by Wellington City Council and the drivers were council employees. Throughout the 1990’s councils contracted out many of their services to private providers. The driver for this was largely ideological and encouraged by the Central Government.

When we challenged the incoming Wellington City Council CEO about this in 2013, he responded that councils have always use the private sector as they “do not make pencils.” On one level this is correct, it would be daft to say there is no role for the private sector in local government. But the issue was services being contracted out to the private sector, without a business case demonstrating efficiency or where it would save the community money. Worse, too often the contracts were awarded to the company who put in the lowest tender, then subsequently failed to deliver the service they were contracted to, resulting in increased costs to the council.

For council employees, promises of transferring to a new employer on no loss of pay and conditions were great words, but all too often nothing more. In many cases, workers were simply made redundant after decades of service and given little to no compensation.

One example of this was Wellington City Council contracting out their Citi Operations business unit by stealth. In the mid-1990s, the elected councillors had voted down a proposal to privatise the council’s public works unit. The argument then was that the council should continue to do maintenance of the city’s roads, footpaths parks, drains, rubbish collection and the rest. Having lost the political battle, council senior management began a nearly two-decade campaign to outsource all the council operations jobs. This went largely unnoticed by the elected councillors.

This article I wrote for The Standard in 2013 gives a bit more context.

By March 2013 Citi Operations was almost gone and outgoing CEO Garry Poole was just getting rid of the final bit when I started organising WCC. The team of about 50 were all that was left of the once 1000 strong Citi Operations group. When I contacted local councillors about this none of them knew of the proposal and were very annoyed. In particular Labour Councillor and now MP for Rongatai Paul Eagle was outraged. He and I met with the workers several times in the first few weeks of 2013. Various other councillors also got on board and we mounted a campaign to save the 50 remaining Citi Ops jobs.

On the day of the council vote, we organised for the effected Citi-Ops workers to sit in the public gallery in the Council rooms wearing their High Viz’s and work gear. I was one of three speakers for the union, expressing opposition to axing these jobs. The Council debated the issue for about 30 minutes. Those councillors in favour of making the workers redundant argued that they should not interfere with management decisions. Those against the decision felt that management did not have the mandate to make this decision. The vote ended up being 7-7, so Green Party Mayor Celia Wade-Brown used her casting vote to uphold management’s decision to outsource these workers jobs. The Citi Operations staff were sitting in the room, so Celia and the councillors were looking at these workers as they made them redundant.

wcc-2-cookstraight-news

Saving Public Libraries and the Living Wage

Privatisation was not the only thing Wellington City Council management was trying to do by stealth. We discovered through our members in the Library that WCC was planning on cutting over $1 million from the Library budget and had in previous years made even bigger budget cuts to the library operating budget. The details of this can be seen in Gordon Campbell’s article from the time.

The PSA had strong membership in Libraries, who were very vocal against cuts to the service and library branch closures. The PSA helped form a community coalition of Library users to campaign against branch closures and cuts to the services.

Like the gradual privatisation of Citi Operations, elected councillors had no idea that library budgets had been cut. None of the documents that senior management had presented to council pointed this out. When we produced the actual budget documents that Council Senior Management had presented to Library management and staff, it became clear that there were to be cuts to the Library budget. Library staff were told they were not allowed to talk to elected councillors about this as that would breach the council code of conduct. When I discovered this had been happening, I worked with colleagues to ensure the alarm was raised.

2013 was a council election year, so cutting library budgets was not a popular move. Councillors were quick to call for the cuts to be reversed. With public pressure from the Library’s Coalition, we were able not just to stop the cuts but secure a modest funding increase for the city libraries that year.

WCC cookstraight news

Above: One issue at Wellington City Council was they were constantly restructuring and forcing staff to reapply for their jobs. Over time this is very damaging to staff morale in any organisation.

The other significant campaign that started in 2013 was the Wellington Living Wage campaign. Based largely on similar campaigns in London and San Francisco, the aim was to get all wages in the city up to a rate that was calculated to be liveable – as in a worker could provide the basics for themselves and their family.

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown was quick to sign up to this campaign in an election year, and the then Service and Food Workers Union were happy to get the Mayor of NZ’s capital city on board. The campaign rather than being union led, was a coalition of faith and other community groups, political parties, and unions.

This was a positive campaign and did get some early victories with the council voting to adopt the living wage rate for all those employed by the council. By employed, they meant directly employed – not the many workers whose jobs had been outsourced to private companies. This meant many of the lowest-paid workers such as the cleaners, the parking wardens and the council security guards missed out.

For those who got it, there were issues too. Most of the directly employed council staff were in the PSA if they were in a union so I ended up representing them during the implementation phase. Pool lifeguards were told they would get the new living wage rate, but only once they had completed training which would take three to six months. Our argument was that if it is a living wage and what someone needs to survive, then the living wage should be the starting rate and training should just be happening anyway. The other issue was the small issue of inflation. In 2014 when the living wage campaign announced the new rate, I wrote to the councillors as the union organiser asking them if they would be paying the inflation adjustment. Several councillors panicked, not realising that the living wage would increase each year (because presumably, they had never heard of inflation before) and got cold feet. The council management tried to get around this by calling it the Wellington wage – which would increase each year but not as quickly as the living wage.

Collective Bargaining:

The real goal for the PSA was to get bargaining sorted across the Wellington Councils. The employment conditions varied wildly across the different councils just in the Wellington region, and even more so nationally. One of the issues was that each council bargained separately and often at different times. Our goal was to line up bargaining dates across councils in the region so we could bargain, and if needed take industrial action across the region at the same time.

The best of the Agreements was the Wellington Regional Council unitary authority, where we were constantly playing a game of defence against HR who were doing their absolute best to claw back employment conditions. This was not an easy task when other council workers in the region had inferior terms of employment.

At Wellington City Council (WCC) there was a significant gap between those who were in the PSA and covered by a Collective Agreement and those who were not. In 2014 we had our first attempt to do a single collective agreement to cover all WCC employees. At those negotiations, we succeeded only in combining the two existing agreements in the Libraries and Building Consents. Under NZ employment law, any workplace with two or more union members is entitled to be covered by a collective employment agreement. As the council were trying to treat each department as a separate business unit, I responded by initiating bargaining for each one. After a heated email exchange between the HR team and I (much to the entertainment of council members I bcc-ed into the exchange), the council finally decided that negotiating 15 separate contracts was not how they wanted to spend the next year. It took us another 18 months, by 2016 we had successfully negotiated an agreement that covered all business units in the council meaning there was a consistency of, and improvement to employment conditions.

wcc-dec-2016

Above: The PSA Journal reporting on the historical collective agreement signing in December 2016. 

During this time, my colleague George successfully negotiated the first Agreement at Porirua City Council in twenty years. By the end of our time working in Local Government all but one council had a collective agreement. Though the bargaining continued separately for each council, we were achieving greater consistency of conditions across the region.

The goal could not just be to improve the working conditions for those directly employed by council. Large swathes of council workers have had their jobs outsourced to the private sector. The challenge for the Living Wage campaign was to get councils to make their contractors pay this rate when private sector companies would argue that the council should not be stipulating terms of employment. Also, councils like having the excuse of not paying the difference saying it was up to the private company to find the money. Generally, workers employed in these private companies were on worse conditions, as the council would go with the lowest tender when outsourcing work.

In 2013 we picked up a group of road and footpath maintenance workers who had just been transferred from one company to another. The union that had been organising them had failed to do anything during this transfer, resulting in the workers losing all their conditions of employment. This workforce had been without active union representation for some time, despite their depot being located next to a large private-sector union office. A PSA colleague Melissa Woolley put me in touch with these workers after talking to a few of them at her local pub. From there we were able to sign up most workers on-site and negotiate a collective agreement. Unfortunately, about 18 months later the company lost the contract and all these workers got made redundant. Wellington City Council’s response was that they were not responsible for employment matters with their contractors.

Shortly after this, the council started bringing certain services back in-house. The council parking wardens had been outsourced for a couple of years. The decision was made to employ the parking wardens directly and increase their pay to the living wage.

Local Government – National Strategy

As well as doing local work, I was responsible for coordinating the Local Government Sector Committee. These committees sat under the board, the governance structure body of the PSA and were responsible for the sector nationally. I was also one of three national organisers who had oversight of the PSA’s organising strategy at a national level. During this time, the PSA merged with the Southern Local Government Officers Union, so I was part of the committee when this integration took place.

The big national issues at the time were proposals to amalgamate councils, which had started off with the Auckland region where the councils had all been merged into one larger entity. Attempts to do this throughout the rest of the country had met with resistance, including in Wellington. The PSA took no formal position on council amalgamations, though many officials were in favour of mergers based on the Auckland experience. The PSA had increased its membership during the Auckland process by being proactive and ensuring council workers concerns were raised during the process. Outside of Auckland, PSA members were wary of mergers and were pushing the organisation to oppose any change. The Government eventually walked away from council merger plans when it was clear there was growing public opposition.

In 2015 I moved from local government, instead working with government departments. The time working with local authorities taught me that these are crucial branches of government that have considerable power. While people tend not to engage on local council matters, when services are at risk of being cut, they will get involved. Often people are simply unaware of what local government does or how to influence it. When people do get involved in local government politics there is the potential to make real and significant changes to the lives of many in our communities.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Public Service International – global unionism

One of the keystones of trade unionism is the idea of internationalism. The idea that organised workers should supporter each other not just within their nation state, but globally.

In the era of globalisation, the importance of having global labour standards becomes paramount. This is why along with the United Nations; the International Labour Organisation was established to ensure workers’ rights were upheld globally.

International Trade Union Organisations sit alongside the ILO. These have existed in some form or another for nearly as long as the current trade union movement has existed. There are now several international trade union organisations. The more high-profile ones include the International Transport Federation or ITF, Education International and Public Service International, the latter one I was lucky enough to serve as an Asia-Pacific youth rep on from 2013 to 2017. Then there is the main international union peak body the International Trade Union Confederation or ITUC, an organisation I was also to have some involvement with.

It was early on after starting at the NZ PSA that I was put forward as the New Zealand youth representative. NZ PSA had one of the stronger union youth branches of any union in the region, and the PSA was eager to form links with other public service unions doing similar work. The hope was to run international campaigns and form solid connections between young workers in the Asia Pacific region.

The blunt assessment of my 4 years in active involvement in global unions was that these organisations had good ideas, and several good people involved. But frankly, they do not deliver to the extent that they should.

Part of this is a structural challenge. Firstly, we live in a global economy where capital moves relatively freely but labour does not. Yet global governance organisations like the ILO are toothless. In 2015 I attended a global governance training workshop in Chiang Mai. Here I learnt about the various ILO Conventions that had been passed since this body was established in 1919. Depressingly, I also then learnt about the number of countries which refused to ratify these conventions or did ratify them but then made no attempt to uphold them in their own country. For example, the ILO passed Convention 105 banning slavery in 1926. Nearly a century later there is still slavery in many parts of the world, including in nations that have ratified C105.

While serving as a member of PSI and working full time as a PSA Organiser in New Zealand, I was also writing my university dissertation. One of the chapters on this looked at the ILO conventions on equal pay which I earlier posted to this blog. The ILO passed Convention 100 which called for “equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value.” Despite this, many of the countries that ratified the ILO equal pay convention took decades to take any action on it. To this day the gender pay gap remains a significant problem globally. Seven decades after Convention 100 was ratified, few countries are even close to realising the goal of this Convention.

And this is the problem. Generally, the issue with global governance structures like the UN, the WHO, the WTO or the ILO lack teeth. Or if they do have power, it is usually due to them having the backing of a major power like the US or China. For the ILO, the Conventions end up being little more than a list of well-meaning guidelines, which are ignored and breached on a daily basis.

In this context global trade union organisations also struggle to be relevant or to be the force for good they hope to be. When they run international union campaigns, they rely significantly on being able to get buy in from their affiliate unions. These unions are generally focused on their domestic politics and work and see little relevance or leverage from running campaigns through international unions.

There are of course several good exceptions to this. The International Transport Federation (ITF) do lots of good work representing their members. Unions organising in transport need an international focus due to the nature of their work. The ITF run several effective health and safety and workers’ rights campaigns in their sector.

Often people regard international union conferences like the ones I attended for PSI to be nothing more than a talk fest. My experience of attending these meetings was that it gave union leaders and opportunity to exchange ideas and build global networks. This in turn did improve the quality of some of the work being done by domestic unions. Also, it allowed some of the unions from poorer nations to ask for support from larger international unions which had more money and resource. 

There were also opportunities to build international campaigns that have started to get some traction. One example is the long running campaign for a global financial tax, which PSI called the Robin Hood tax. This tax works by taking a small percent on every global transaction. The funds raised from this could be used to fund public services and end austerity politics. PSI and other global unions and NGO’s have played an important role in promoting debate on this issue.

Above: Nick addressing the Quality Public Services conference in Bangkok, Thailand, October 2013. The presentation notes can be viewed here

Another issue with global unions, is that their structures and practices heavily mirror that of their affiliates. This can often include things like gate keeping and leaders who push their own agenda rather than that of the wider membership. Like most domestic unions, the level of democracy in the international union movement can vary. And there have been some instances of people being encouraged to move to international unions as a way of side-lining or ejecting them from national union leadership roles.

Above: PSI Youth meeting in Sydney, March 2014. The meeting endorsed the PSI’s Robin-hood tax campaign. 

When I talked to people in the NZ union movement about global unions, they often could not see the point. The response would be something like “well what do they even do, they are just a talk fest. The real work is done here organising locally.” In a world where capital moves globally with relative ease, ignoring international unionism is not only an error, it is very damaging. In recent decades so much production has moved to countries where wages are lower and labour standards are cheaper.

Unions need an international response to this, and they need international structures to take up this challenge.

My experience of helping to build the international PSI youth section in the Asia-Pacific region showed me that building strong international unions was not going to be an easy task. Getting buy-in and a clear direction across such a vast and diverse region is a struggle. But where we were able to get things happening and we got member buy-in, we had something that could potentially grow to be enormously powerful.

Many unionists and their leaders may still struggle to see the relevance of their international organisations. But for unions to remain or gain relevance over the coming century, having a global focus will be crucial.

Report in the PSA Journal on the Asia Pacific PSI conference in Japan, October 2016.

Link to the PSI Oceania Young Workers meeting report. The meeting was held in Sydney, March 2014.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

After five years at the Tramways Union, in April 2012 I became an Organiser at the New Zealand Public Service Association (NZPSA or PSA). I would stay at the PSA for another five years as an advocate, employee representative, international youth rep (barely qualifying as youthful towards the end) and campaign manager.

The New Zealand Public Service Association is New Zealand’s largest Trade Union, which had around 60,000 members when I worked there and has slowly grown since. There had been a bit of a family tradition with this Organisation. In the 1960s my grandfather had been a member of the PSA’s national executive. At this time there was concern that the PSA had been taken over by Communists. My grandfather, who at the time worked for the Public Trust Office, stood for the national executive as part of a Catholic led anti-communist ticket. When I started at the PSA, I joked that 50 years later I had joined the union to undo Grandad’s good work.

My Dad was also a PSA union delegate, who like Grandad (his father) worked at Public Trust. In 2014 I was to become the National PSA Organiser responsible for Public Trust, continuing the tradition. Public Trust is a government entity specialising in Trust and estate law. They were great to work with, but bloody hard work.

My next few posts will talk about the work I was involved with at The NZ Public Service Association, ranging from youth and international work as well as organising public sector employees in both local and central government.

Above: Nick holding a PSA marriage equality sign with Labour MP Louisa Wall in Masterton, September 2012. 

The PSA has a diverse membership. Whilst many of its members were what could be deemed white-collar or professional roles, a significant number of members were low paid and in roles that would traditionally be considered blue-collar. The incredible diversity of professions and people working for the government or government-funded organisations made the role fascinating.

The NZ PSA had a reputation as being conservative. As alluded to earlier the union had been through periods of militancy and political radicalism. An example of this was the PSA’s advocacy for equal pay for women in the public sector, which I wrote about in my 2016 history honours dissertation. However, at other times it had been more moderate.

The PSA took a significant hit to membership numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because of privatisation of public services and government attacks on collective bargaining. After this, the PSA adopted a strategy of Partnership for Quality. Described by its critics as getting into bed with the boss – the strategy was not universally popular. One theory of its origin was that it came from the Moscow aligned Socialist Unity Party, as one of the leaders of the PSA in the early 1990s had affiliations to this party. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Russian Party told its followers that capital could not be overthrown, so best try to influence and establish worker participated partnerships with it.

Whether partnership was just part of a soviet plot or not is speculation. But the strategy remained PSA policy for the two decades before my starting with the organisation. In 2012 the strategy changed to Transforming the Workplace. This was not seen as a fundamental departure from the earlier strategy, rather building on the gains that had been made earlier (the union had grown during the partnership era, in no small part due to gains made in bargaining under the 1999 to 2008 NZ Labour Government). The new strategy focused on increasing members participation and input into how these government agencies ran. Many trade unions act as little more than bargaining agents primarily focused on pay and certain conditions of employment. This strategy aimed to take the conversation beyond this, through to one of the workers getting a meaningful voice at work.

For whatever strengths or weaknesses were of the PSA strategy, it was nice to be part of a union that had a strategy. Moreover, a strategy that was more than just defensive and dared to try new things. Many unionists are wary of moving away from adversarial industrial relations. And I agree when facing capital those representing labour should expect conflict, up to and including strike action. But where unions or workers organisation is strong enough to gain decent engagement with employers, governments, or major corporations why on earth wouldn’t unions use that? Further, why not advocate for this alongside pay increases and other conditions of employment?

I started as a PSA Organiser in my late 20s, having held leadership roles in both the Tramways Union and before that in Student Politics. The PSA would be a much bigger organisation for me, and subsequently, I was much further down the organisational food chain. However, I quickly found myself in various leadership roles, both within the national union and within the international union movement.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive