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

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

The Wellington Tramways and Public Passenger Transport Employees Union for 20 years gallantly held the line in protecting employment conditions for bus drivers in the region. Where other unions drivers’ unions were taken out in the late 1980’s after Richard Prebble and the 4th Labour Government deregulated the public transport sector and forced councils to contract out the service. Others soon folded under pressure or sold out their conditions for one-off payments or a few more cents an hour.

In my time as a driver and branch president, we continued to preserve and improve employment conditions. Attempts to break the union by bringing in a flat rate contract and changing shifts to reduce drivers hours. The Tramways union defeated this, and improved wages and conditions at the two other bus companies contracted to the Greater Wellington Regional Council to deliver public transport services. The union did well, but ultimately we were always playing a game of defence. Competitive tendering remained the Government policy and the National Government of 2008 to 2017 Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) supported the continued competitive tendering structure. This model meant bus companies won tenders by bidding low, and the only way they had to reduce costs was to compromise on health and safety or reduce bus drivers pay and conditions.

Above: The Thank You Driver campaign was launched in 2017 to try and protect Wellington drivers jobs and work conditions after the council re-tendered the bus routes. 

In 2016 Greater Wellington Regional Council voted to get rid of the city’s trolley bus network. As one of the last remaining southern hemisphere trolley bus networks, it was a sad day for transport enthusiasts. Much worse, trolleybuses were an environmentally friendly alternative to diesel and the council’s proposed clean energy alternatives were decidedly dirtier. But the clear motivation behind this decision was to break the monopoly of Wellington City Transport, and thus the Tramways Union so to drive down wages and conditions. This project was led by my early political nemesis and former MP Paul Swain. By this stage, he had been elected to the Regional Council, a local authority with a history of disappointing Wellington bus drivers. Swain had also been a bus driver and member of the union in the 1970’s, so had full knowledge of what the consequences of his actions would be.

Sure to form, Paul Swain along with Regional Council Chair and another former Labour MP Fran Wilde proposed tearing down the trolleybus wire and increasing the city’s carbon emission. This was to then promptly followed by re-tendering all the bus routes having redesigned all the bus network so that bus companies could then compete over routes and undercut each other. At one council meeting in mid-2016 Swain was questioned about the possibility of protecting drivers jobs and employment conditions. After a few questions he lost patience, slammed in hand on the table and ended the meeting. This was the extent to which Swain and the Greater Wellington Regional Council considered supporting bus drivers during this process.

By this time I was working at the PSA and was actively looking towards moving to the UK. We had founded Piko Consulting and were starting to run successful campaigns in New Zealand. In early 2017 the Tramways Union contacted us about helping them. They knew things were looking bad with the tendering, and drivers stood to lose their jobs and take significant pay cuts if they had to go to a new employer.

Piko helped the Tramways Union launch the Thank You Bus Driver campaign to pressure the council to protect drivers’ jobs and working conditions. In June 2017 drivers and supporters of the campaign attended a Greater Wellington council meeting demanding that they support the drivers. By this time Chris Laidlaw another former NZ Labour MP, had replaced Fran Wilde as the Greater Wellington Regional Council Chair. The below recording was made by me at this meeting:

This promise would ultimately be broken a year later. In 2017 the Thank You Driver Campaign gained momentum and became an issue during the 2017 General Election with Wellington MP’s and candidates endorsing it. Whilst I was happy this was happening; I knew that in all likelihood the drivers would end up taking a hit.

Wellington City Transport (Go Wellington) retained some of the Wellington City contracts, and the pay and conditions remained largely unchanged. However, they lost a significant number of routes. The Tramways Union with support from the Council of Trade Unions (the NZ union peak body) tried to negotiate with the new contractor, who for months played games and refused to engage with the union. Despite his promises in the above clip, Chris Laidlaw refused to help.

In late 2017 the incoming Labour Government made changes to the PTOM contracting rules. But it was too late for Wellington, where the Regional Council contracts had already been set.

In mid-2018 the change over happened. Many of the drivers who’d been around a while and were nearing retirement chose to take the redundancy payment. The Union had to take legal action to ensure these long-serving drivers got their entitlement, but eventually were successful. In the tragic case of my former colleague and good friend Chris Morley, he died of cancer just a few days after the payment came through. Chris was vice president of the union and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to save his members jobs. I spoke to him a few days before he died and he told me the stress of the last couple of years had likely contributed to him getting cancer.

For those who went over to the new company, they faced a $200 a week pay cut, fewer protections regarding hours of work and rosters and generally much worse employment conditions. As many drivers quit, the new company couldn’t run its services. Thousands of passengers were left stranded on new bus routes they were promised would be more efficient. Wellington had one of the highest levels of public transport use in the country, the Regional Council’s actions destroyed this overnight. An inferior public transport system, worse pay and conditions for drivers and buses that now were emitting more carbon. Local Government decision making at its finest.

Many of the regional councillors responsible didn’t stand again in the 2019 local government elections, realising that after what they had done re-election was less than likely. But the damage had been done. Whilst things have settled down somewhat over the last two years the service is not what it was. Turnover of bus drivers has increased, and the reliability of the service remains much lower than it was prior to 2018.

The Tramways Union continues to organise drivers in the Wellington Region. The Thank You Driver campaign will continue to call for drivers pay and conditions to be restored to their pre-2018 levels. The last few years have not been easy for drivers, but the Wellington Tramways Union continues to be the voice of these workers, as it has been since it founded in 1908.

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

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

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

I was president of the Wellington Tramways Union from 2008 to 2012.

After the baptism of fire that was the 2008 bus lock out, things quickly turned to internal matters. The branch elections where I had become president were the first in over a decade.

The national council of the Tramways Union, which still had two other branches in Auckland and Dunedin had not met since 1992. After deregulation of the public transport sector in the late 1980s most of the other Tramways Union branches in New Zealand had collapsed. The history of the national Tramways Union had been that national meetings tended to result in vicious fights, particularly between the Auckland and Wellington branches. So, from the early 1990s the union avoided holding the meetings. The 3 remaining branches had operated independently for nearly 20 years, but in 2008 a court case ruled that the national union was still the incorporated body so needed to meet, have elections etc. From 2008 on wards the national council met yearly, with a new constitution making sure everything was legal.

Above: Wellington Tramways Union member Barbara Hunter at picket in Wellington supporting Auckland Bus Drivers who were locked out in October 2009. 

Above: Nick Kelly speaking to protesters supporting Auckland Bus Drivers during their lockout in October 2009. 

The yearly national council meetings were civil, and a useful forum to share information and idea. However, the Tramways Union still functioned largely as 3 separate unions in a federation. The exception to this was when Dunedin buses had a new owner move in. Auckland Secretary and National President Gary Froggett and Wellington and National Secretary Secretary Kevin O’Sullivan had to step in to help negotiations.

One issue the union faced was affiliation to the NZ union movements peak body The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU). The Auckland branch had remained affiliated to the NZCTU, but Wellington and Dunedin were not. Wellington had an affiliation to the Manufacturing and Construction Union whom it also shared an office with, which had several union affiliates many of which were also not in the NZCTU. After some discussion Wellington and Dunedin both decided to join Auckland and affiliate to the NZCTU. I ended up being the main person to represent the Tramways Union nationally at NZCTU meetings from 2009 through to 2012.

On the day to day, much of my time as union president was based on site. I still worked as a driver, though I was given reasonable amounts of time off to perform union tasks. Much of the work was on personal cases, many of which would end up being taken to mediation or some sort of hearing. Usually the dispute was over an interpretation of the Collective Agreement and how this impacted on drivers. Towards the end of my time as the union president the relationship with the company began to improve, and this helped resolve some of these interpretation conflicts.

Above: Go Wellington Drivers attend the Fairness @ Work Protest against Government changes to employment law, 20 October 2010. 

While I was quite able to do personal cases well, my preference was always to work on bigger picture projects. However occasionally there were some interesting personal cases. One that stood out was the driver caught having sex with a schoolteacher in the back of his bus outside a school at 9am in the morning. The CEO of the bus company was driving past, and saw a bus pulled over with a head popping up and down out the back windscreen. When the CEO walked in the bus to investigate the naked bus driver not recognising who had just got on his bus yelled “piss off I’m busy”. A similar case happened in Auckland where a driver was caught having sex in the bus, this driver got an oral warning for going off route.

In 2010 we had bargaining for all 3 major bus companies in Wellington. Two of them had the same owners so alignment was not too difficult, the third had the worse pay and conditions overall and was owned by a different company.

With NZ bus, who owned Go Wellington and Valley Flyer, there were some initial wobbles related to getting drivers released for bargaining which resulted in some minor industrial action. However, once we got to the table things improved. Zane Fulljames NZ Bus CEO opened negotiations by playing The Rolling Stone’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want on his phone. By the end of negotiations, we got a reasonable offer, with penalty rates put back into the Valley Flyer agreement (one of the conditions lost in the early 1990s) and various other improvements. By August 2010 drivers at Go Wellington and Valley Flyer had accepted the offer.

With Mana/Newlands coaches the negotiations were slightly more challenging. Competitive unionism is a major problem in the union movement internationally. A rival union had tried to set up at Go Wellington when I started there, but after a legal challenge and loss of members soon disappeared. At Valley Flyer the issue of competing unions had historically been a problem, but by 2010 the Tramways Union had the most members. At Mana however there had been a messy history of competitive unionism, and a management who were openly hostile. We had several cases of bullying and harassment at that company. Our main delegate on site was sacked and had to be reinstated by the Employment Relations Authority. Another driver recorded one of the managers openly telling her to quit the Tramways Union as she would be better off.

Entering negotiations, we tried to bring Mana into the NZ Bus talks as the latter company did have a small shareholding in the former. This soon proved non-productive. We held separate negotiations with Mana, which soon came to a standstill on issues of conditions, specifically penalty rates. We also were aware that the other union had previously been given more money (as were the non-union members) so determined not to accept a bad deal. Drivers at Kapiti Depot in Paraparaumu took a day’s industrial action during negotiations. Half the shifts were covered by non-union members from other sites. The local paper published a list of all services still running. Unfortunately for commuters the wrong list was published, and the cancelled services were those advertised, so many people were waiting for buses that never came.

Interview Nick did with Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) during the Mana/Newlands dispute in 2010

Eventually we got a deal with Mana. We improved the rate of pay and saw that there was no disadvantage with members of the other union or non-union members. However, it felt like we had swallowed a dead rat, as the overall package was poor compared with the other two bus companies. In the following bargaining round after I left Tramways, the membership increased and the pay and conditions improved modestly. However shortly after Mana/Newlands lost many of their service contracts with Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC).

It became clear that having one bus company paying better money and having better terms and conditions than its main competitors nationally would not be sustainable. Further, having half a dozen unions competing over the 30% of bus drivers who were unionised in New Zealand whilst ignoring the rest was foolish.

In 2011 the Wellington Tramways union started a campaign to focus on signing up new drivers to the Tramway Union, with a focus on companies where membership was weak. Kevin Atkin from the M&C Union and I began a three-month campaign to sign up new members at 3 bus companies, Runcimans, Mana/Newlands and National Coach Services (NCS). We were most successful at the first site signing up several drivers very quickly. We used to try and meet people outside of work as we found drivers were more comfortable talking openly about their workplace away from the bus depot. Mana/Newlands proved to be slow going as many of the drivers were reluctant to join for fear of repercussions from their employer. A common response was that they would join if others did, but few wanted to go first.

For NCS, Kevin and I met with the then NZCTU president Helen Kelly (no relation) who approved some funding to help us do recruitment work. Further we got some organisers from the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) the primary school teachers union, to help us run the recruitment campaign as they wanted to learn new ways to organise. Being a small company with a casual workforce this did not prove to be an easy task, but nonetheless we made some gains.

By the end of 2011, my term as President was nearing the end. I had always planned to go travelling after University. What I thought would be a one- or two-year stint on the buses had turned into five years. By that time, I was a regular in the New Zealand media representing public transport workers. I sat on the National Affiliates Council of the NZCTU, and at age 26 was the youngest person there at that time (other younger leaders came onboard later). Both Tramways and the M&C Union had talked to me about potentially moving onto other national leadership roles within their union.

My decision to leave was twofold. Firstly, for me I found the siloed nature of the Tramway branch structure limited. Whilst it often served local members very well to have a small local structure, I could see that to organise the five major bus operators in New Zealand a national strategy was needed. The level of cooperation between the transport unions was nowhere near adequate for this, and it was clear this would not be changing anytime soon, despite the best efforts of several us. The second reason was I could see for me, I could see professional development opportunities in working for one of the larger NZ unions.

Link: Media release when I finished as President of the Wellington Tramways Union 

It took some time to get my foot in the door at another union. Despite the best efforts of the NZCTU President and Secretary (both sadly now deceased) and others, I had to apply for about a dozen or so roles. Eventually in 2012 I got a role at the New Zealand Public Service Association where I was to spend the next five years of my career, again for a longer period than I’d previously planned.

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

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

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting Health and Safety

When one talks to people about unions, if they have heard of them, they generally think of them running campaigns to get more money for members. This is indeed one of their key functions. However, a good trade union should be doing considerably more than just this.

One of the major things that unions do is campaign for health and safety. Some prioritise this significantly more than others. In a world where people must sell their labour power to live, at a minimum they should not lose their lives at work. Yet every year thousands of working people globally go to work and never come home.

When you work in the transport industry, health and safety is something you need to be aware of every minute. As a bus driver you are responsible for getting hundreds of passengers safely to their destination each day. Drivers must navigate busy narrow streets, and try to avoid hitting cars, pedestrians, and whatever other obstacles the city tries to throw at you.

Early in my time as Tramways Union President, it became clear that there were some significant health and safety issues the union needed to champion. When incidents happened in the city, media reports tended to automatically blame the driver or imply the bus driver was to blame. If someone runs out into the road without looking, is it really the bus drivers’ fault that they couldn’t break in time? It was clear that bus drivers needed a voice, and the union needed to be that voice.

In 2009 the bus company ordered several new buses. Investment in the fleet was of course welcomed by everyone. Initially there was a degree of consultation with drivers about the design and layout of these vehicles, but when drivers started asking tough questions this soon stopped. New buses were ordered with dashboards which were significantly higher than in the older ones. In earlier buses you could see 2.5 meters in front of the bus from the driver’s seat, in the newer buses the dashboard meant you could only see 3.2 meters ahead. The design was taken from long haul truck and coach vehicles but was totally inappropriate for urban driving. Tramways Union Vice President Chris Morley was particularly vocal about this having been one of the drivers to first raise it. Eventually, the buses with these higher dashboards were retrofitted with mirrors so drivers could see the space blocked out by the high dash.

In a city with narrow streets and generally poor road layout, cyclists are a hazard. Inner city cycling is immensely popular these days and they have vocal lobbyists. Former Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown used to cycle to work and told a National Radio reporter that the city needed to “civilise the bus drivers.” Aside from the middle-class contempt for low paid workers, this showed a considerable lack of understanding by the Mayor as to what the issue was. A decision was made by the council to allow cyclists to use the bus lanes. So 5pm, on a dusky late autumn evening, you are driving up a bus lane past the Wellington Botanical Gardens. You go around the corner and there is a cyclist in the middle of the lane, not wearing reflective clothing and not moving fast. On your right there are cars and there is extraordinarily little room to get around the cyclist. If you stick behind them the bus will run late, but when you overtake the cyclist, they scream blue murder and get irate that you got too close to them.

In 2010 I was part of a bus drivers and cyclists forum where the goal was for each group to get a better understanding of the others perspective. The Campbell live clip of this can be viewed below:

One of the major health and safety issues, aside from the design of the vehicle was the design of the city streets. In 2010 Wellington City turned a pedestrian Mall in Manners street into a main bus carriage through the city CBD. The city planners felt this shouldn’t create any major problems, especially as they lowered the speed limit to 20km per hour.

Within a week of the Manners Street bus carriage opening there were 3 people hit. At first drivers were accused of speeding. This was proved false when those signs showing drivers speeds were put up through the route. The trolley buses, being electric were notoriously quiet, and because they were going under 20km per hour pedestrians did not notice them. Also, after 30 years of Manners Street being a pedestrian mall, old habits die hard and people continued to walk through the street.

I issued a statement saying if the council did not put adequate safety measures in place, drivers would boycott the route. This threat got significant media attention.

Eventually after the council transport team agreed to meet with the union. From this and continued pressure, some safety measures were put in place – such as barriers or additional signage.

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

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

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

20 days after being elected President of the Wellington Tramways and Public Passenger Transport Employees Union (we just called it Tramways), drivers at the Go Wellington bus company I worked for were locked out. The city nearly ground to a halt with thousands unable to get to work and traffic congestion a nightmare. Certain journalists were quick to call this a communist conspiracy. Then Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly even warned me not to keep doing media as it would be used against the drivers – I ignored her and she later admitted I did very well.

In September 2008 it seemed likely NZ Bus and the Tramways Union would be heading into dispute. However, in the final day of negotiations, after a number of “final offers” from the company that were well below what drivers were asking, the company did offer something we felt we could take back to union members. The background was that globally the financial crisis had hit, and there were fears that if we didn’t take the offer, we may end up worse off. Graeme Clark from the M&C union was strongly of this view. The members were of a different view.

Drivers voted 2:1 to reject the company offer. On September 24th the Tramways Union were set to hold 1-hour stoppages during the morning peak hour commute. The company responded by issuing a lockout notice for all union members on September 25th 2008.

On the morning of the 24th we commenced our industrial action as bus drivers. Managers were running around the Kilbirnie bus depot in a panic. There was a bit of confusion as to what the action was – so as the union president I needed to intervene. A decision was made to gather drivers at The Wellington Station bus depot. Three buses left Kilbirnie depot bound for the station – I was later accused of stealing all three, a level of multi-tasking even I am not capable of. I also jumped on the radio and called on all drivers to finish their current runs and proceed to Wellington station. One driver over the radio asked, “who is this” so I replied, “this is Nick Kelly, Wellington Tramways Union President, please all finish your trip and proceed to the rail.”

At the rail a mass gathering of drivers was held in the station in full view of thousands of passengers trying to get to work. Graeme Clark rallied the troops and talked about how we would outlast the company in the lockout. I started doing media interviews on TV, radio and print media. My colleague Kevin O’Sullivan the Union Secretary was at first reluctant to do media interviews, so I made sure media got in touch with me.

Probably my favourite clip was the Campbell Live interview done while I was driving my afternoon bus run. This was screened at 7pm on the evening of the 25 September 2008 and can be viewed here:

The lockout on the 25th of September only lasted a day. Not a single bus left the Kilbirnie or Karori bus depot. By lunchtime businesses were crying out for the dispute to end, not least because Wellington was hosting the World Wearable Arts Festival that weekend, and no public transport would cause havoc. Deputy Mayor Ian McKinnon, who served with me on the University Council, called on the bus company to look at its wage rates and urged both sides to end the dispute. By 4pm the lockout was lifted.

Above photos taken on the picket outside the Kilbirnie bus depot in Wellington, NZ 25/09/2008. 

Link: Dominion Post columnist Karl du Fresne claiming Marxist agitators Graeme Clarke and Nick Kelly had inspired the dispute at Go Wellington

In negotiations we were able to secure an 11% increase on all printed rates over 22 months, with 7% backdated to the start of April, though the company took weeks to pay this. The union also managed to stop any claw-backs of hard-fought conditions.

The final agreement of the deal was that any potential litigation from the lockout would be dropped. Go Wellington had made an error when issuing the lockout notice and not printed the names correctly. More significantly they had locked out the controllers (the people who did bus dispatch and were first response on the radio). In exchange the deal was the company wouldn’t take any disciplinary action against me for “stealing 3 buses.”

Tramways Union members voted 2-1 to accept the deal. There were a few drivers who felt we should have held out for more, but the prevailing view was that we would take the offer and come back in 22 months. This also meant the expiry date for this agreement aligned with that of the two other major bus companies in Wellington (one also owned by NZ Bus), meaning we would be negotiating for all drivers at once in 2010.

The lockout was a baptism of fire for me as the union president and for the rest of the new union executive team. The dispute established our authority as union leaders and united the bus drivers. By the end of 2008 all but one of the 300+ Wellington bus drivers were in the Tramways Union.

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

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

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

My first year or so on the Wellington buses I was just learning the ropes. Firstly I had to learn all the bus routes. Then I had to remember to stop and pick up passengers. Thirdly I had to relax driving something the size of a small building around the narrow hilly streets of Wellington – many of which are narrow in the car.

Unionism played a prominent role in the life of the bus depot. As mentioned in my previous post, at the time I started there were two unions (one brought in by the company) trying to sign up new drivers. Our first couple of weeks training were held away from the bus depot. Our trainer was clear when asked about the union situation – “don’t join the tramways union, filthy Phil is no good.” Filthy Phil was the long serving secretary of the Tramways Union. He was well known for wearing shorts and jandals all year around. He’d been the secretary at the time of the bus company being privatised, where the union had against the odds held on to penalty rates and other conditions of employment. Not surprisingly, he made a few enemies within the bus company.

My first involvement with the Tramways Union was giving evidence in the Employment Relations Authority that during training the company had promoted one union over the other. The Filthy Phil quote was included in my evidence. The Tramways Union eventually won the case and the other union were no longer on site.

My first drivers stop work union meeting was an eye opener. It had been some years since the Tramways Union had held full branch elections, and a number of drivers were irate. Further drivers were very angry about the company trying to attack penal rates. Phil attempted to run this meeting amid constant heckling, in particular from one vocal driver called Josie Bullock who seemed to have a real axe to grind with the union. The purpose of this meeting was to approve claims for the next bargaining round. At the end of the meeting they were nominating members of the bargaining team. I hadn’t really thought about it, but before I knew it one of the drivers had nominated me. So a few months after starting I was representing drivers at negotiations.

The first bargaining meeting was interesting. The company presented their claims, which from a driver’s point of view looked like the script of a bad horror movie, where conditions were slashed and where the company would shift the balance of power firmly to the employer and a long way away from the drivers. Examples of this were the reports, complaints and enquiries procedure in the collective. The existing clause had a robust process for investigating complaints which incorporated the principles of natural justice. The company proposed to replace this with wording that would have made it much easier to sack bus drivers on flimsy complaints. As a negotiating team we worked hard to stop that. We also tabled our own claims, which included a significant increase to all printed pay rates in the agreement. By the end of the meeting it was clear we were miles apart.

At the start of the next negotiations, the union decided to meet a few hours beforehand to plan our response. Phil was half an hour late. We tried to call him but he wasn’t there. Kevin O’ Sullivan the union president and Graeme Clarke from the Manufacturing and Construction Union (who was advocate for the workshop workers) went around to Phil’s house. When they got there they discovered he had died.

Phil’s funeral in June 2008 was well attended, and buses in the city stopped for hours. Phil had played a massive role in the Wellington Tramways Union, and there was concern about what would happen to it now he was gone.

Negotiations continued, and we as a bargaining team made some progress on getting the company to moderate their position. However getting movement on pay increases was slow. Mediation services got involved with the hope of bringing us together. However we felt it was likely that industrial action would follow.

At first I hadn’t seriously considered running for the union executive. Kevin O’Sullivan the president had become acting secretary and was considered the front runner for the role. Former union president Morris Dawson had joined us on the bargaining team, but he didn’t want to be more than a site delegate at that time. Chris Morley was considering running, but was more interested in the Vice President role. Kevin O’Sullivan asked if I’d consider running, and my initial response was that I was too junior. But I thought about it. I then remembered that my old adversary from the Labour Party, Paul Tolich, had once been the Tramways Union President. Shortly afterwards I decided to run.

Karori Depot bus driver and friend Alan St John. After the 2008 Tramways Union elections Alan joked “Chris Morley, Kevin O’Sullivan and Nick Kelly, the bloody Irish Catholics have taken over the union

Page 7 of this Rail and Maritime Union newsletter reports on the Tramways Union election and looming industrial dispute at Go Wellington.

I was elected by a fairly sizeable majority, as were Chris and Kevin. The negotiations were progressing, but we still hadn’t lifted the pay offer to an amount that drivers would accept. My first few weeks as Union President were about to become very busy.

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

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

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

In April 2007 I became a bus driver in Wellington. A job which originally I thought would last a few months ended up being a five year assignment.

My induction from the depot manager Bruce Kenyon was a great introduction into the working class. His words to us new drivers were “Its a shit job, it pays shit money, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off.”

Why did I become a bus driver when I finished University?

I have been asked this question many times, and given various answers over the years. Well in an exclusive to this blog (which I have been told is all about me – yeah take a look at the blog name haha), I will give the real reason.

At the end of 2006, I finished up as Students’ Association President. I had various offers of jobs, mostly through connections I’d made in the university. These offers would have given me some good career paths into the public service, or further within the university sector. I even had some options to pursue a role using my history degree for one public entity. I do wonder what would have happened if I’d followed one of these paths instead. But 24 year old me had other ideas.

In early 2007 I was still very much a follower of socialist politics, and had only been kicked out of the NZ Labour Party a few years prior. I had some earlier experience working at the ferry terminal in Wellington as a student, where one of my jobs was driving luggage trucks on and off the boat. But this was next level.

My usual car is a 1982 Toyota Starlet which you can follow on Facebook. So driving double axle buses through a city with notoriously narrow hilly streets was a challenge. In my second week on the job I managed to demolish a cleaning shed at the depot, learning that in large diesel vehicles, you need to wait for the air to build up before you move.

Within 18 months I was voted one of the top three bus drivers of the year in Wellington. I had regulars who would bring me coffee and biscuits, even the odd offer of weed (I didn’t accept). It became a job were I made life long friendships and really grew and developed as a young adult.

Capital Times on Nick being voted “Go Wellington’s best bus driver”. 19-25 November 2008

Why did I decide to go this way? In early 2007, Stagecoach Wellington (soon to become NZ Bus) decided to change all the drivers’ shifts. The aim was to cut penalty rates for drivers. In the late 1980s, the government deregulated the public transport sector. The result was councils having to privatise the bus services and run competitive tendering processes. In most cities drivers faced job losses and significant cuts to pay and conditions. In Wellington, the Tramways Union, (founded when the city still had a tram network) managed to hold this off. One reason for this was the trolley bus network, which created a barrier to entry for bus companies. Instead of breaking up the city network and having companies undercutting each other on tenders (and cutting drivers pay to cover it), in Wellington, Stagecoach and later NZ bus kept all of the CBD networks till 2018. The other reason drivers in Wellington maintained their penalty rates and other employment conditions, was that the vast majority of drivers belonged to the union.

In 2007 there was an attempt to break the union. Another union was brought in and they offered an inferior collective agreement where there was no penal rates or other conditions, but had a marginally higher hourly rate. Few drivers bought into this, despite the company actively pushing them. The shift changes made in early 2007 were designed to cut hours back so there would be less overtime, thus encouraging drivers to give up penalty rates. This didn’t work.

Fellow socialist Don Franks suggested I work on the buses for a bit. He’d been talking to a driver called Chris Morley who was active in the union. They thought the job could do with a firebrand who wouldn’t be afraid to lead the drivers into battle, and that I was the perfect candidate.

They weren’t wrong…

Previous posts in this series:

Why Trade 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

Why Trade Unionism

Trade Unions are in their simplest form, people working together to achieve a common interest. The concept is nothing new, as the story of Spartacus from Roman times shows, people throughout history have stood together in solidarity. Collectively people are stronger to stand up to power structures than they are as individuals.

Industrial trade unionism that we know today is barely 200 years old and came out of the industrial revolution. When people moved from rural based peasant society to urban industrial capitalism, the working class was formed. This economic system meant people to survive had to sell their labour power to capital. Exploitation, unsafe working conditions, child labour and other terrible working conditions were common. The response of working people was to act together to demand better working conditions and better wages.

The Tolpuddle Martyres story of workers trying to organise in early 19th century Britain was a significant moment in trade union history. Unionism was initially illegal in the UK and most other industrialised nations. In Tolpuddle six agricultural workers were arrested in 1834 for attempting to organise and were sentenced to deportation to Australia. Mass protests resulted in the six being pardoned two years later. Through these sorts of actions, eventually it was accept that unionism and workers organising collectively was inevitable under industrial capitalism.

Celebrating Martyrs – History Workshop
The Tolpuddle Martyres

Many of the current global union organisations are products of the early to mid 20th century. The late 19th and early 20th century is the era that the modern trade union movement grew and made most of its political gains. Unions became a significant industrial and political force who often fought long hard struggles to improve the lot of their members.

Trade unions have a place and an important role in improving our working lives. Things that many of us in the developed world take for granted today such as weekends, sick pay, health and safety standards, anti discrimination laws, the end of child labour and countless other working conditions are the results of often long hard struggles by unions and their members.

Since the 1980s union membership has been on the decline globally. The official union/left response to this has been that this was the result of Neo Liberalism and attacks by the right. Certainly, the end of the post war boom and the attempts to offset this through Laissez-faire economics made life tougher for unions. However it is very easy to claim unions were victims of a right wing attack, rather than look any deeper.

Austerity and the free market economics we’ve lived under since the 1980s has held down wages and have failed to achieve the significant economic stimulation promise. But unions and the political left generally have not had a coherent response or proposed alternatives to this. Responses have been either to accept the changes and wonder why workers turn away from the organisations. Alternatively unions have harked back to the good ol’ days and proposed solutions that effectively ignore a) the causes of the post war boom to end b) development and changes in technology and c) solutions that in many cases weren’t that effective when they were in place 40 + years ago.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about my time working in the union movement. Like earlier posts, it will talk about my life and involvement with events. From this perspective, I will also talk about where I see the unions and the future of work.  I will be challenging in these posts. But I have no intention of writing a series of articles arguing ‘unions are moribund’. But nor will it be a series of posts filled with glib cliches about workers solidarity and references to 1930s folk songs. These posts will will express my views, without sugar coating or spin. These posts will record certain events from my perspective (including photos and media). My hope is it will add to a useful discussion about the future of work, the future of collective organising and how to achieve a better working life for everyone in the future.

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

Black lives matter

“African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on colour, where white was master, black was slave.” Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

This week race has yet again dominated American politics and society. Over 150 years after the civil war and the end of slavery, 56 years after the passing of Civil Rights legislation, racial conflict and hatred remains an ugly scar on the country.

On 25 May 2020 George Floyd was murdered in custody by the Minneapolis Police. The cause of death was four police officers restraining Floyd for eight minutes and forty six seconds, kneeling on him to restrain him and eventually suffocating him to death. Floyd’s last words to the police restraining him were “I can’t breathe“, which has now become the rallying cry for protest movements throughout the world.

Decision made on possible charges against cops in Floyd case - New ...
Police officers in Minneapolis kneeling on George Floyd moments before he died.

From 2013 to present US police have killed 7,666 people. Despite making up only 13% of the US population, black people are two and a half times more likely than white Americans to be killed by the police. This map published by Aljazeera shows the states where Black people are most disproportionately killed by police in the United States.

The Black Lives Matter campaign was founded after the 2013 death of Trayvon Martin in police custody. Months later the officer responsible for Martin’s death was acquitted, as so often is the case with black deaths in custody in the US. Over the last 6 years this campaign has done much to highlight police killing of black people in the US, and has fought for those officers responsible to be brought to justice. This movement has continued to grow and raise awareness of this serious issue.

Large scale protests against black deaths in custody and more broadly against the way black people are treated by law enforcement in the US have been happening for years. In 1992 the city of Los Angeles erupted into riots after officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King were acquitted. During these riots the US Marines were sent into LA to try and restore law and order.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, large protests have turned out both in the US and throughout the world to condemn the Murder of George Floyd and the racism that fuelled this act of hate. Many of these protests have turned violent resulted in mass arrests and destruction of property, including police precincts. This violence has been condemned, and many have bemoaned the fact that people haven’t engaged in peaceful protesting. The below meme highlights why things have in fact turned violent:

Why don't they protest peacefully?" : The_Mueller

President Trump has taken a strong stance against protesters. In a tweet in response to the protest Trump quoted 1960’s Miami Police Chief Walter E. Headley who in response to the civil rights movement said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter placed a warning on Trump’s Tweet claiming it was hate speech, to which Trump has hit back saying his free speech has been stifled.

Trump has threatened to use the military to stop riots throughout the US. This week Trump used tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bangs to move protesters in Washington DC. Having cleared the protesters out of the way, he posed outside a church in DC holding a bible while talking to media. This act has been widely condemned by Christians and other faith leaders as opportunistic and disrespectful.

Trump has been consistently appalling on race relations. When running for President in 2016 he refused to condemn the Klu Klux Klan whose leaders had endorsed him for president. In August 2017, President Trump infamously said there was “fault on both sides” in Charlottesville when a woman was killed protesting against white supremacists. It would be easy to turn the heat on Trump, and he has certainly fanned the flames of racial division as President. But this problem goes much deeper.

Since European settlement of the Americas, racial violence and white supremacy has been a common feature. From the clearing of indigenous people of their lands, to taking African slaves to America to work the fields for white farmers, The United States has been built on the idea that White Europeans are superior and that their lives matter more. The civil war may have ended slavery, the civil rights movement may have changed the legal framework ending segregation in Southern States, but the idea that White people’s lives matter more has survived into the 21st century.

The United States claims to be a democracy. In a democracy, all citizens who pay taxes should be given the right to vote. Yet despite this in recent years there has been a trend of voter suppression in the US, and this has been targeted at America’s African American Community. One state that is now moving towards greater voter suppression, is the state of Minnesota in which the city of Minneapolis is situated. This is another example of how black people, and in particular working class black people are not given the same rights as white people in the United States. When black peoples voices are silenced in the democratic system, inevitably white privilege and white supremacy will go unchecked within the justice system.

Racism is not inevitable, and people are not born to hate others due to their skin colour or ethnic origin. White supremacy is a disease that has infected the United States since European colonisation of the region since the 15th century. It is a disease that sadly is not isolated to the United States, but has taken a particularly strong hold since Spanish and later British colonisation of the continent. Columnist for The Guardian Afua Hirsch has this week written an insightful article on the origins of this racist thinking which is well worth reading. The mistaken and dangerous idea that certain people are more intelligent or superior based on their racial origins has been long since dis-proven, yet this thinking persists. When a country has in the very bedrock of its foundations the ingrained idea of white supremacy, change has proved to be slow and difficult. But it doesn’t need to be.

One crucial way of challenging racism, both in the US and throughout the world, is to listen to the voices of those who have suffered at the hands of racism. We need to listen to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the systematic racial prejudice that exists within the US police and justice systems. We also need to listen to those who have experienced racism, prejudice or have suffered from the actions or in-actions of those who are ignorant to how white privileged works. And finally, we need to stand with those whose voices and votes are being suppressed by white supremacists within the US political system. Black lives matter and we need to stand with those who are fighting for this. We all will be better off when the scourge of racial violence and institutional white supremacy is gone forever.