16 Jun 2013


A proud record of Unionism exists in New Zealand
There has always been a proud record of Trade Unionism in New Zealand. From Samuel Parnell who arrived in the country in 1840 and quickly set out his terms of employment when contracted to build a store for a Mr Hunter. His terms and conditions are part of NZ folk-lore:
"I will do my best, but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day ... There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all."

When Parnell was told that if he was in London and not at work at 6.00am he would lose a quarter day's pay his response was simple: 'We're not in London."

  With few tradesmen in the young settlement, Hunter had little choice but to accept the carpenter's terms. As Parnell later wrote, 'the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.'

Other employers tried to impose longer hours, but Parnell enlisted the support of other workmen and informed those arriving on incoming ships of the local custom.

In October 1840 a meeting of Wellington workmen apparently resolved to work eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – anyone offending would be ducked into the harbour.

Parnell's stand was commerated in the 1899 Labour Day Act and remembered on the fourth Monday of October even now.

The 1894 Arbitration Act, developed by Liberal P.M. William Pember Reeves, recognised trade unions and individual employers or ‘industrial unions of employers’ as responsible parties in negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. Once they were registered under the Act, each party was required, if they were in dispute with each other, to discuss the matter at district Boards of Conciliation. If this failed to produce an agreement, the dispute would be submitted to the national Court of Arbitration. The industrial agreements or awards concluded under the Act were legally enforceable.

Strikes and industrial unrest were not a feature of New Zealand work places but  complaints about the arbitration system grew as it failed to increase wages in line with the cost of living, didn't compel employers to pay for all hours of work, and the provisions for employers hiring workers at less than agreed rates were considered too loose.

The growth in the number of unions in the early 1900s increased the arbitration courts workload to the point that unions could wait up to a year before getting a hearing. A change of Government in 1912 with the election of the conservative Reform Party, the precursor of the present National Party, decided that the Unions had too much influence over their conditions of work and, as Michael King wrote,  “In October of that year [1913]... employers fearing a continuation of “revolutionary” union tactics, engineered a lockout on the Wellington wharves.”and Richard Hill in his history of the police wrote “the federationists were the victims of a government determined to destroy its class enemies... Leading employers decided to strike at the heart of the union movement before the united federation had a chance to consolidate... with the government assisting in various ways ... the government was more interested in crushing the watersiders than getting the wharves going.”

The 1932 Public Safety Conservation and the Finance Acts were passed by the coalition of the United and Reform Parties - the parents of the present National Party. These acts severely limited New Zealanders' civil liberties and abilities to organise or criticise the government. 

Then in 1951the National Government of Sidney Holland declared war on the Trade Union movement and declared a state of emergency and on the 27th of February, troops were sent onto the Auckland and Wellington wharves to load and unload ships. Draconian emergency regulations imposed rigid censorship, gave police sweeping powers of search and arrest and made it an offence for citizens to assist strikers – even giving food to their children was outlawed.

The workers who stood strong for the 151 days of the lock out that the declaration of a state of emergency was designed to support are remembered in Trade Union history as symbols of those prepared to stand up against a government for whom civil liberties and the rights of workers to organise and negotiate their conditions of employment are an anethma.

Jami-Lee Ross.. practices his anti-worker sneer  as he launches his anti-Union Bill.
Now, in 2013, the shades of the past National Party dictators have roused themselves from their graves to repopulate the minds of the Key led National-ACT government. Two bits of industrial legislation are coming through the NZ Parliament. The first, the brain child of the very inexperienced MP for Botany, Jami-Lee Ross is designed to "to repeal section 97 of the Employment Relations Act 2000. Section 97 prevents the use of volunteers, contractors, or other casual employees by an employer during a strike or lockout". Ross thinks that the withdrawal of labour in the process of negotiating terms and conditions of employment is unacceptable and that this right should be removed without any compensating means of reaching a resolution of the dispute.

While the 1894 Arbitration Act limited the right to strike it did create a means of resolving industrial disputes that was acceptable. At least until the system got over loaded. Ross' bill is very simply designed as a tool to both allow employers to lock out workers and to break strikes and, in the process, create the perfect climate for industrial unrest.

 Key, who has little grasp of ethical legislation if his dealings with Warner Bros and Sky City are any indication, has pledged to support the Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Amendment Bill through its first reading.

However the Bill has not met with a great deal of enthusiasm from the Employers and Manufacturers who have damned Jami-Lee with faint and unenthusiastic praise.

Kim Campbell, chief executive of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, said the bill appeared to be a good idea ''at first flush'', but this did not take into account unintended consequences.

"While its principles are worth exploring it could prove very divisive,'' Campbell said.
"New Zealand communities place a high value on fairness and the Bill could have consequences that would be considered unfair.

"In spite of several high profile cases we have had 10 to 15 years of harmonious workplace relations and don't want to jeopardise that. We need to look carefully at the implications of industrial action on essential industries such as the ports and hospitals, as well as on small businesses.''

Campbell added that employers did not want employment law to change every time there was a change of Government ''and we can foresee law based on this Bill may not last".

His view is echoed by the Director of the New Zealand Work Research Institute, Professor Tim Bentley who says if this Bill was to pass, our best and brightest may be forced offshore.
"We want wages to be able to rise to a decent rate, towards a living wage where we're not losing people overseas and we're retaining our skilled workers here in New Zealand and I don't think this legislation does anything to advance that."

Even The New Zealand Herald has not endorsed the Bill. It's columnist, Kerry McIvor had this to say about Jami-Lee's bill:

  I would hate to think MP Jami-Lee Ross' private member's bill will ever see the light of day. He's looking to allow employers to bring in volunteers and contractors to do the work of striking employees, a move now barred under section 97 of the Employment Relations Act.

Unions don't take strikes lightly these days. It's no longer "all out brothers" at the drop of a cold pie on a smoko floor. It's a measure of last resort, usually employed by low-paid workers or those in dangerous or physically strenuous jobs.

It should be a fundamental right of a worker to withdraw their labour if they feel they are being unfairly and unjustly treated, without the employers being able to hire scabs.

New Zealand is the country that introduced the world's first compulsory state arbitration act and created a Department of Labour to improve working conditions and protect vulnerable workers.
Unlike Jami-Lee Ross' mean-spirited bill, that was legislation to be proud of.

While the Ross bill is a members bill and may not get past its first reading the Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, has his own Employment Relations Amendment Bill in the wings. Its legality under international labour law is already under scrutiny by both NZ Unions and the ILO, particularly in light of his refusal to discuss the legality of the proposals under international labour conventions while in Geneva at an ILO conference.

Bridges' Bill is designed to allow employers to opt out of multi-employer bargaining and thus undermine the effectiveness of a multi-worksite collective agreement .

In summary the Bridges Bill :

    • - Removes the current requirement for parties in bargaining to conclude a collective agreement, unless there is genuine reason not to as part of the duty of good faith;
    • - Enables the Authority to declare collective bargaining at an end on the application of any party to the bargaining.  Bargaining may then be re-initiated after 60 days;
    • - Enables employers and unions to initiate bargaining at the same time, removing the 20 day head start currently provided to unions in the Act;
    • - Allows employers to opt out of bargaining for a multi-employer collective agreement;
    • - Repeals the “30 day rule” which requires new employees to be employed on the terms of any applicable workplace collective agreement;
    • - Requires a party to provide advance written notice of any strike or lockout and enables employers to make partial deductions from the pay of employees engaging in partial strikes;
    • - Reforms Part 6A which gives rights to “vulnerable” employees in restructuring situations by clarifying the transfer process and exempting employers with 19 or fewer employees from some of Part 6A’s requirements, including the requirement to accept transferring employees;
    • - Clarifies and limits an employer’s obligations to disclose information to employees where their employment is “at risk” for example, during restructuring;
    • - Provides greater flexibility around the taking and timing of rest and meal breaks and provides for reasonable compensatory measures for those employees who cannot take breaks;
    • - Extends the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees at any time during employment and removes restrictive criteria about the number and timing of applications;
    • - Requires the Authority to either give an oral determination at the end of an investigation meeting, or to give an oral indication of its findings, with a written determination to be issued within three months.

       The legislation is dressed up with the usual National-ACT rhetoric of "Levelling (tilting) the playing field back in favour of the employer after the negotiating had been dominated by Unions under the previous Labour Government...." and to "balance fairness and flexibility" which loosely translated means that New Zealand's labour legislation will be shifted back to that favoured by past National Party legislators - from George  Forbes, to Sidney Holland and on to Robert Muldoon and will put our employment law under intense scrutiny by international agencies and return the country to one of uncertainty and on going conflict as we now see with dispute at the Ports of Auckland. (Interestingly, Jami-Lee Ross has now revealed that he framed this Bill after and during discussions with the PoAL commisars. Obviously a direct result of Jami-Lee's close connections with the National Party's dirty tricks brigade of Sater and Lusk who were heavily implicated in the PoAL lock out of its employees.) Which is something no New Zealander would want to see and experience.

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