Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Salt in wounds on workers' day

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Last Wednesday was International Workers' Day.

May 1 is when workers around the world take to the streets to celebrate rights won on their behalf. In New Zealand, we focus our celebration on the victory of the eight-hour day.

Most know carpenter Samuel Parnell as the champion of the eight-hour day. Parnell's first employment contract for an eight-hour day was negotiated in February 1840, about the same time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Parnell's success was his ability to convince his fellow tradesmen to meet a few months later in Wellington, where they resolved that no workman would work more than eight hours, and only between 8am and 5pm.

The meeting agreed that any worker who breached the rule would be thrown in the harbour.

We'd call it gangsterism today, but it lifted wages and made New Zealand the equitable society we once were proud of.

It took another 59 years before the eight-hour day became law. The following year, in recognition of the regular marches that had been held each October to celebrate the eight-hour day, Parliament set our Labour Day as the fourth Monday of that month.

Although the date put us out of sync with the rest of the world's May Day, unions in New Zealand have done their bit for international solidarity by hosting symbolic rallies on May 1. Until this year.

This was the first time in the 35 years I have been in worker activism where there was no official event. That sadly reflects the shift of power between capital and labour in this country.

It is telling that our Government has picked May 1 as the day that employers can now pay workers under 18 years old less than their older colleagues, even if they do the same work.

Just to rub salt into the wounds, the Government has also introduced legislation this week that deletes the automatic right for workers to have rest breaks.

But the real agenda is to undercut the ability of workers to fight for better deals.

The Government this week proposed a change that means any employer isn't required to stay in good-faith negotiations and can withdraw any time from negotiations.

And even if the workers do achieve a union contract, the employer will be able to employ new workers on a lesser rate and inferior conditions.

If a new applicant at their interview says they would like to be paid the union rate, the reality is they won't get the job.

You get the picture where this is going.

Should workers decide to strike for a better deal, the Government has introduced all sorts of rules to thwart any disruption to the employer.

In spite of the obstacles, my union, Unite, did spend May Day supporting McDonald's staff protests after their contract negotiations broke down.

Twenty cops turned up at the Queen St store to aggressively shove the workers off the footpath.

How nice for multinational companies to have our police force on call for picket-busting. Shame if anyone was the victim of a crime somewhere else.

In a survey this week, 47 per cent of workers said they survived from one pay packet to the next. That's because real wages are down 20 per cent since 1984, because successive governments have enacted laws that favour the powerful at the expense of working people.

Samuel Parnell was on to something. Workers need to get together and dunk a few people.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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