Monday, September 12, 2005

Those sneaky Nats

Employment: it affects us all – one way or another. Doesn’t matter if we’re workers, employers, students, mothers, fathers, the elderly or children. I have grave concerns about the Employment Policy outlined by the National Party on their website, and what this may mean for employment practices in New Zealand. The media has failed to adequately address the potential harm some of these practices may bring to New Zealand workers, choosing instead to focus on occurrences of an adversarial nature, such as the Stagecoach Bus Strike. Despite the lack of “drama” associated with boring old policy, employment (or the lack of it) plays a crucial part in the well-being of our society. It’s important for us to discuss all aspects of employment relations, not just the theatrical events played out on TV. I’m going to focus on one aspect of National’s policy that distresses me the most: union representation. And in order to do this, it’s going to involve a bit of a history lesson, for which I apologise. National is claiming to take the “best bits of the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA) and Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA)”, a statement I believe to be complete and utter garbage. By removing the rights of unions they are taking away the core essence of the ERA, which addresses the “inherent inequality in bargaining power” between workers and their employers. Really, all they are doing is returning to the ECA, a highly destructive piece of legislation that failed to achieve its objective (increased productivity) and led to poor employment outcomes for thousands of hard working New Zealanders. So let’s look at what happened last time National imposed such crap on our citizens: National is harping on about the incidences of strike action under the Employment Relations Act (ERA). I’m certainly not going to disagree with that, but what I am going to highlight is the massive increase in individual incidences of an adversarial nature that occurred following the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) in 1991. Conflict wasn’t reduced at all – but the resolution of it was restricted to those wealthy enough to afford lawyers to take their employers to court (the jump in grievances is attributed to private sector workers who weren’t previously covered under employment legislation). Because such actions didn’t involve mass walkouts, media coverage was limited. This actually led to more positive perceptions of unions by the New Zealand public, as unions were involved in less mass walkouts that affected the operating lives of New Zealanders. That all sounds very nice, but what happened to the workers???? Employers were no longer required to negotiate with unions, and union access to workplaces was decreased (National is proposing to return to this). Regular pay increases severely diminished, as workers were unable to negotiate with their employers for better wages and conditions. Many workers were employed on a “take it or leave it” approach – there may not have been other employment options available to them, so they stuck it out in their shitty job, earning minimum wage, with little opportunity to improve their lot (the idea that labour resources are ‘flexible’ is bollocks by the way). Did productivity increase, as planned?? Nope. In terms of achieving the objectives set by the ECA, I give National: not achieved. National proposes that their employment policies will “ensure employers and employees have the same rights in employment contracts.” How they propose to do this I’m not exactly sure. One of the realities in Employment Relations is that different parties do have different amounts of power. Achieving equal rights is a nice theory, but in practice it is very difficult to realise. So workers can choose where to work, based solely on the rewards offered, and if it doesn’t fit they can make a different choice? What a load of crap – choosing a job isn’t like buying bread at the supermarket – where you have numerous options and can choose the specials! There are tonnes of other factors influencing an individual’s employment decision and the consequence is that workers will often remain in jobs that are not rewarding them fairly because of other (important and valid) reasons. This is one reason why employees may choose to join a union – in order to attain better compensation for their work. A good union can offer good advice to employees about what they are worth, and advise on strategies for their negotiations. Unions are an ‘intermediary’ between employees and employers, so in theory, a good union should listen to the information presented by the employer and assess this fairly. Striking is always a last resort. In case anyone reading this is dumb enough not to realise, workers don’t get paid when they strike. Six days without pay would have been difficult for the Stagecoach bus drivers, however, they must have felt strongly enough about their cause to take such action. Do unions really have monopolistic rights over collective bargaining and collective employment agreements? National has to be careful when they talk about “monopolistic rights” in the same sentence as “collective agreements”. It could be easy to assume that only union members are able to bargain collectively with their employer. This is not the case! Collective bargaining can occur without a union. The only difference is that the resulting agreement is not a collective one, rather identical individual agreements for those involved. So, you don’t have to join a union to collaborate with other workers and place pressure on your employer for better wages and conditions. So, basically, the National Party are advocating a return to legislation similar to the Employment Contracts Act (a Unitarist approach). The problem with the theoretical concepts underpinning the ECA is that it fails to acknowledge the presence of conflict in the workplace. Conflict will always occur in organisations and the question is: how can it be managed? Quite frankly, I’m sick of people who think conflict is “bad.” Conflict managed correctly can lead to better decision making and more involvement from staff in the decisions that affect them. Unions are there to help manage conflict, particularly with regard to bargaining, setting of wages and conditions, and health and safety representation. Under the ECA we had bargaining agents instead. And what is the difference between a union and a “bargaining agent”?? Bargaining agents and unions are both forms of intermediaries that advocate on behalf of employees. Bargaining agents include unions, lawyers and ‘other’ people who consider themselves able to negotiate on behalf of employees. I’m not wholly against the idea of “bargaining agents”, provided they are registered, and clear guidelines are in place as to who they can represent (For example, a registered bargaining agent that oversaw collective bargaining between a small number of employees and their employer could work well). Something to remember though: “Bargaining agents” were tried by National under the ECA, but the expected rise in agents did not occur. What resulted was a weakening of the union movement, with no alternative provided for worker representation. Reading between the lines, my belief is the Nats would love zero worker representation, so the workers can shut up and follow their leaders like meek little Unitarists. Therefore, anyone who honestly thinks reducing union representation is going to benefit our country needs to think again about how this will impact on us. If unemployment figures rise as a result of such legislation, then it is we who have to bear the burden. Let’s not go back there.


Blogger Rachel said...

and by the way, DON'T get me started on the greens.....

7:34 PM  
Blogger Mellie said...

Amen to that.

And what's wrong with the Greens?

12:24 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

ok then. done!

and I'm just being facetious really - some of their policy is really good.

9:48 AM  

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