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

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

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

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