GUEST BLOG: Ben Peterson – Governments cant organise workers, only unions can



2016 has been another year of decreasing membership for the Union movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Many Unionists will blame this on an anti-worker government. It is true that the Key is government has had a pro-business agenda. But to focus on government as the defining challenge of the union movement can be unhelpful. Often it diverts attention from the opportunities that the movement faces in the here and now.

John Key is an employer’s PM, but the legislative changes brought against workers by the Key government have not qualitatively changed the terrain for union organising. Several laws have been amended in recent years. Firstly, it has been made it easier for some employers to deny breaks to staff. While this is important, it has not affected Unions structurally and does not dramatically alter workplace power dynamics. More significant has been the introduction of 90 trial periods into law. These trial periods are a serious problem that legalises unfair discrimination against workers and do help to create a culture of fear in the workplace. But it important not to overstate these changes, which only affect workers for a limited time. At the bargaining table the employer’s hand has been strengthened with greater capacity for the employer to not conclude bargaining with a union. It is another weapon for bosses, but employers were never obliged to accept Union demands. In recent decades over and over employers have proven that they were already in a strong position to undermine conditions by refusing to move demands for cut backs.

These changes do make the Union movements tasks more difficult, but it does not constitute all out assault on their existence. Globally we see much stronger attacks on unions, such as the Workchoices legislation in Australia or “Right to Work” bills in the United States.

It is also worth noting that the Unions have even won significant legal improvements through concerted campaigning, such as in health and safety legislation and in the outlawing of zero hour contracts.

While the government has given some assistance to mates in business, focusing on this can obscure a little mentioned reality. The legal position of Unions in New Zealand is actually very promising. Unions have a range of tools that should make space for exciting possibilities that are currently not being exploited.

This will seem jarring to some. There has been attacks, and unions are right to condemn them, but these do not actually get in the way of our capacity to organise.

The possibilities and our weakness in taking them up is best shown by comparing Union legislation in the UK and NZ.

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Despite the massive legal advantages for Unions in New Zealand, union density in NZ is actually lower than in the UK (18.7% vs 25.1% in 2014). Given this the NZ movement would do well to ask some hard questions. How can we get more out of the tools we already have? How do we mobilise resources to make this happen? Are their internal barriers to growth that we need to confront?

Waiting for a more friendly political climate will not be enough. The union movement does itself an injustice to blame the makeup of parliament rather than accepting the challenge to organise workers in these times.

Unions don’t have to look far to see a way forward. In the last few years, FIRST Union’s PakNSave campaign has shown that there are possibilities for growth. Pak n’ Save employs a workforce that NZ Unions have been bad at relating to- it is young, casual, and has many workers from migrant backgrounds. But through an ambitious campaign, going site to site, using rights to access and using both community, political and industrial pressure, FIRST has been able to break into PakNSave sites and in many cases dramatically increased wages.

Extending this example isn’t going to be easy. Having Union rights and exercising them are two entirely different things. And every Union faces different challenges. FIRST can jump out the front of a supermarket with a megaphone if access is getting too difficult, it is admittedly harder for this to be done at a nursing home. But the point is that the Union movement has enough positive examples of rebuilding our power that it is inadequate for unionists to accept shrinking unions as the best we can do in the current “political climate”

Unions can do better, and they must.

Unions cannot legislatively force employers to play nice. Class struggle is a hard road, and organising is difficult. But ultimately, it is Union’s responsibility. It is the Union movements responsibility to make a case for why people should be members. We know that this can be done, even in casual youthful worksites like fast food and retail. It is our responsibility to make the case, and have the confidence that working people will respond.


Ben Peterson is a Union Organiser for Unite


  1. Lovely piece Ben, the comparison regarding rights in NZ compared to the UK is informative. Thank you.
    I sometimes look at just what the last New Zealand Labour Government left undone, on so many fronts, or even seemed to not know was an issue; or indeed, enacted regulation and law that was wilful and cynical toward those who should always know that they can turn to us for help and I’ve been left shaking my head in bewilderment.
    It is good to be reminded that they did so much more than just restore faith in our democracy and bring sense to our nations balance sheet, that they did indeed achieve a great deal in restoring moderation and humanity as central to our political discourse.
    But so often in my dealings with the elected representatives of my party I am reminded that while these folks all have heart, and great talent, so many are limited in life’s hard experience. They are all high achievers who have never had to beg to live, or fight to stand tall; after all, only someone who has never put himself in harms way to defend a woman could say he is ashamed of being a man…unfair perhaps to make that reference but it makes the point. You wrote… “Unions cannot legislatively force employers to play nice, class struggle is a hard road and organising difficult” …true that! I would also add that our elected representatives need to remind themselves that they should never be the employers friends. Sure we must always help the good ones but always remember that central to our purpose is that we are here to keep those bastards honest…and yes, if we do that the people will respond…

  2. I have met people who told me that they were not interested in joining a union, sometimes for bizarre reasons. Most seem to think they can look after their own affairs, and they frown upon being tied to any organisation that comes with sets of guidelines and rules to follow, and also charges membership fees.

    We live in a highly individualised, selfish kind of society, where people no longer want to be tied to anything and anybody.

    One associate of mine once joined a union, but when their negotiation with the employer did not bring about a pay increase he had expected, he swiftly left the union again, thinking he would be better off not having to pay the membership fee.

    People do not consider risks they may have in employment, and many will only reconsider to perhaps join a union, when struck by something unexpected, like an unfair dismissal or so.

    As so many employees are on term contracts, are casualised or otherwise transient, they do not plan for medium to longer term, and just rely on good luck.

    And we have over recent times learned, those most at risk seem to be new migrants, and those on temporary work visas, and also students allowed to work, and to be bloody honest, most Kiwis are not too interested in their bad luck and exploitation, as some Kiwis may rather prefer a work environment with less competition.

    So most simply try to get the skills and experience they need, and enter into the common individual contracts, and rely on their own chances, rather than get tied down in membership and more collective action.

    Me first is the common motto, me first, and fuck the rest. It may be the result of now decades of neoliberal conditions and brainwashing, and the consumerist madness we have, that again promotes individualist and selfish thinking.

  3. Don’t you think the decline of unions is mainly due to the changing nature of work?

    Thanks to various technologies, the need for thousands of ‘workers’ to congregate in one place of work has greatly diminished and the average ‘worker’ today is some kind of knowledge worker, not an unskilled labourer.

    So the ability of unions to organise has greatly diminished and their utility to these ‘workers’ is now mostly non-existent.

    Further disruption will occur – this may be just the start!

    I think you’ve had your day.

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