New Zealand's union movement is optimistic its goals will get an "immediate boost" from the new Labour-led administration but won't rest on its laurels once new employment law is passed, says Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff.

The country's umbrella union body is holding its biennial conference in Wellington today, and Prime Minister-elect Jacinda Ardern and Green Party co-leader James Shaw are scheduled to deliver speeches this afternoon. In his opening address, Wagstaff told delegates the union movement achieved some remarkable successes in the "adversarial political environment" of the past decade such as the $2 billion pay equity deal and the removal of zero-hour contracts.

However, he said their goals will get an "immediate boost" with the Labour-led government closely aligned with unions, as shown by the commitment to hiking minimum wages to $20 an hour by 2021.

"That's real money in the pockets of workers and a great signal the new government is delivering gains to those who need it most," Wagstaff said. While that was helpful, he said the only way to lift New Zealand's low wage economy status was to restore collective bargaining practices to achieve higher pay, better conditions and increased productivity.


Labour campaigned on changing employment law to introduce 'Fair Pay Agreements' setting basic pan-industry working conditions, impose new protections on trial periods, and strengthen collective bargaining provisions.

"In the case of the Employment Relations Act, it's about making it what it should have been in the first place and introducing industry standard agreements, and a host of other improvements we have," Wagstaff said. "We have also got strong ideas on issues like health and safety law too and a raft of other laws relating to security of employment."

Still, Wagstaff achieving their goals wasn't simply about changing the law with unions set to face plenty of opposition.

"We could clearly do with a fresh perspective, a new conversation that's more balanced, replacing the dominant voice of the business community which consistently pushes ideas which don't suit us," he said.

Wagstaff said the new government ushers in a "unique opportunity" to beef up collective bargaining in the state sector and for state-sector procurement to act as "an exemplar of good employment relations practice" for wider New Zealand.

"We've had good reception of our thinking from Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens on all of these so it bodes well for what lies ahead for us," he said.

Wagstaff said many New Zealand businesses seemed to be stuck in the 1980s and 1990s in their opposition to collective bargaining, name-checking primary goods firm Talley's Group as being "hell-bent on eradicating unions". Still, at the other end of the spectrum, he acknowledged the likes of Air New Zealand and Kiwirail which have achieved the "enhanced organisation performance they're getting when people work in a union and a culture of respectful dialogue".

However, the biggest challenge facing unions is the future working environment where increased automation, which has already swept through many manufacturing sectors, and the growth of artificial intelligence is predicted to lead to wide-scale job losses, he said.

"We shouldn't pretend we can accurately predict what will happen, but it would be foolish not to prepare for what's coming," Wagstaff said. "It's crucial we work with our social partners - business and government - where we want to get to and how we create our future in the future of work."

If that's done well the changing nature of work could lead to the elimination of boring, dangerous and repetitive work where staff share in the fruits of improved productivity of higher wages and reduced working hours. However, done poorly, "we could be facing a dystopian outcome with enormous joblessness and insecurity," he said.