A New Vision Needed By Labour Movement

Unite members picket McDonalds. Image courtesy of Unite News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I share this sentiment.  


  1. I agree Mike the fight of labour must be an international struggle in keeping with the development of capital. We must fight for better conditions in Aotearoa but china also.

  2. I didn’t say it wasn’t needed because of low numbers of strikes Mike. I said National are obsessed with strikes even though the number of strikes are low. I was referring to Tau Henares stupid secret ballot for strikes bill and the provisions in the ERA that will enable fines for partial strikes, restrict strikes if bosses refuse to conclude bargaining and ban strikes for multi employer agreements. I agree employers have a never ending quest to weaken worker power. And more power to your arm with the work you are doing I fast food chains.

  3. Well said Mike. So many union organisers and other officials in NZ are embarrassed by the idea of workers using their industrial power.

  4. Industrial power, now there’s gotta be two words when sent sequentially must get flagged by the GCSB servers, yeah?

  5. What the unionists need to learn is to push for stable money in a steady state economy – instead of the wasteful pursuit of chasing ever increasing wages to keep up with what is systemic-purchase power eroding-inflation – that is mathematical certainty under our current dishonest entirely interest bearing – private loan based – money system.
    The current stance you pursue is absolutely futile and means when you do get sufficient influence – you cause only a wage-price-spiral – that is the other side of the inflationary coin the private bankers love.

    Learn a Little about the structures of our money system – or remain an unknowing ally of the private banking pyramid scam;
    The Anglo-Saxon Private Banking Empire has subverted and perverted the money systems of big and small nations alike;

    Don’t want you cutting your wrists – there are tried and tested solutions;

  6. From Mike’s post:

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

    Yes, you are absolutely right there, and many in New Zealand, which are mostly those who have not worked as employees in European countries, in Australia or North America, would not be aware of this.

    There are injustices everywhere, in the more developed and certainly the less developed countries.

    But while New Zealand as a country likes to count itself to the “first world”, the more developed ones, a closer look at labour laws and workers’ protection is overdue. I am grateful for this post here, as it shows what is going on in New Zealand industrial relations, and what the issues and challenges are.

    I believe that union membership did not grow so much during the Labour led governments between 2000 and 2008, because for one reason, employers still had the upper hand all along, and the workers had resigned to their individual survival and lone struggles since the Employment Contracts Act was enforced on them. Many were also disillusioned with the unions, as they failed to take decisive enough action to fight the ECA. A national strike could have at least forced the National led government that introduced the law, to back down and make some concessions. But it never came to that.

    Under Clark things were soon picking up economically and that globally, and although partly financed on easy credit, consumption led to a kind of boom not seen for years, bringing New Zealand almost close to full employment, so that wages and salaries also started to grow fairly well for a while.

    Few may have thought then there was a need or pressure to rejoin unions, as those working and having skills were almost all in demand and could negotiate reasonable contracts (most, not all).

    When the Global Financial Crisis hit, it was perhaps a bit much expected to see workers rush to join unions, as the “me first”, and “I can manage” attitude had become engrained in people’s thinking. But now we see, that society has become so individualised and divided, it is exactly what employers and particularly big business want and love, weak workers are a present on a silver platter to them.

    Some serious economic and social rethinking is needed, and some articles about what Joseph Stiglitz, one more progressive economist thinks, may give us some ideas, how to solve some issues, and how to avoid further pitfalls. Yet New Zealand on its own will not achieve much, it must join the countries that think ahead and see the real solutions, rather than try to play the old cards handed out by Douglas, Prebble, Richardson, now English and Key.



    A major rethink must happen globally to bring about more fairness, and to hold especially the giant corporates accountable, to also pay their shares, that is in taxes, not to their dividend and thereby profit earning shareholders.

    Workers and unions must play a major role in bringing about the changes to create livable wages and more fairness in incomes.

  7. Until Labour gets back to tis roots, the trade union movement & the working people of NZ nothing will change. Labour need to stop focussing foolishly ion trying to woo “Middle NZ” who are Key’s people. They need to start telling the union movement who the were created by, & the workers that they will repeal these laws, that they will strip back more of the ERA than they did last time they were in government.

  8. Darien said:
    >> I didn’t say it wasn’t needed because of low numbers of strikes Mike. I said National are obsessed with strikes even though the number of strikes are low. <<

    Danien, the problem with your statement here is that it implicitly accepts that Henare's bill would be acceptable if the number of strikes were high. I'm not saying you believe that, but I agree with Mike that this is a weak argument because it doesn't explicitly reject it.

    Imagine you submitted a member's bill to get rid of the Fire-At-Will Act, and Tau said your bill was pointless, as the number of employers firing people after 90 days was low. You might rebut this by saying Tau is avoiding the point, which is whether the 90 day trial is defensible or not. By the same token, you need to fight Tau's bill head on by pointing out that the right to strike is based on basic human freedoms (freedom of association, protection from enslavement etc), and that his bill – and in fact any law specifically limiting the right to strike – is anti-democratic and indefensible. Otherwise you are building a glass ceiling into your bill that will limit further roll-back of laws that limit strike freedom.

    Mike, big ups for your fantastic work in the service sweatshops, especially the return of time-and-a-half overtime rates. Unite's persistent growth as they organise these workplaces and win concessions from employers, while most of the NZ union movement spins its wheels, is proof positive that a labour movement which begs for the "realistic" (a pro-worker Labour government), instead of demanding the "impossible" (substantive workplace democracy), will get neither.

Comments are closed.