Monday, June 13, 2011

Is it that time already?

Union bashing raising its ugly head again - it must be an election year. Time just rolls on as you get older and the same old continues to be the same old. Old timers like me will recall union bashing has pretty much been standard National party fare since at least the days of the Muldoon governments who turned it into something of an art form-even if it backfired after the election it had done its job by then. However in the good old days there was at least some point to the exercise and even the most obtuse politician could find some bone to chew on with compulsory union membership, high levels of industrial conflict and the like.

However John Key's union bashing verges on the pathetic - what is left to bash! Private sector union membership sits at about 10 per cent and doesn't look like improving, levels of industrial conflict have been at extremely low levels for years and private sector collective bargaining reach has continued to plummet. The Prime Minister would have more fun kicking his garden gnomes on the way to work.

Moreover what is left to kick? The ERA already allows employers more than enough latitude to defeat union organising. There are few constraints on employer pressure to discourage union membership, freeloading can be actively encouraged through passing on and the obligation to bargain in good faith is largely ineffective in the face of employer procrastination.

Of course there are a few things employers want - the ability to unilaterally cut wages and conditions to further John Key's low wage, competitive labour market clearly being among them. Under the ECA non-union "bargaining" was largely used by employers to tell small groups of unorganised workers they were required to take a pay cut or have conditions reduced and that they would be locked out until they agreed. Many will recall the partial lockout when employers told you you were locked out of your sick pay but that you were required to continue ordinary work - legally dodgy possibly but it worked well then and no doubt will again (and the Employment Court case ending the practice was far from immune from a legal challenge). National governments have always been fairly contemptuous of the contractual rights of workers, witness the recent Whitcoulls saga, and would be happy to allow employers to have a few more tools to defeat such rights. And lets remember that what is now Business NZ suggested exactly such powers at the time of the ECA - employers it argued should have the power to unilaterally change employment conditions on a few days notice!

Unfortunately the last few years have seen the worst of National's small minded anti-employee prejudices come to the fore to undermine what was a balanced but inherently conservative piece of legislation put in place by Labour in 2000. Labour, in what might retrospectively be seen as a major stategic error, enacted a legislative framework that should have had a reasonable term future - it did so by being overly responsive to employer interests and by refusing to push reforms that might have made bargaining effective and was unwilling to push even modest reforms in areas such as redundancy and triangular employment. Perhaps by the next time they are in power they might have learned something from this!

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