A three-way merger that aimed to create New Zealand's biggest private sector union has been abandoned.
The Service and Food Workers Union, National Distribution Union and Unite have been talking for the past year about creating a single union for the country's scattered and largely non-unionised service sector workforce.
But the plan ran into trouble when the Service and Food Workers' northern region voted narrowly against continuing the talks three months ago.
Although the union's central and southern regions voted overwhelmingly to continue the talks, the National Distribution Union (NDU) voted at its annual conference in Auckland yesterday to abandon the plan. National secretary Laila Harre said the service workers' split vote meant there was no point in going ahead.
"We are very disappointed because we think it's a change that should happen," she said. "It doesn't mean it's not going to happen, it's just not going to happen any time soon."
On last year's membership figures, the merged union would have had just over 54,000 members, bigger than any other union except the Public Service Association with 55,000.
Service Workers national secretary John Ryall said before the NDU vote yesterday that he still wanted a merger with the NDU, but that there were "quite a few difficulties" in how to bring Unite into the larger entity.
Unite general secretary Matt McCarten said his union ran on a shoestring so it could keep membership fees low, and did not want to buy into a bureaucracy with higher fees.
"We don't think you should have 17 staff in your membership section. We have half a staff," he said.
"We don't think your staff should be paid $100,000 a year. We have a flat structure where we all get $40,000. We think that's fine.
"And also we have difficulty in the level of fees in new situations _ casualised situations and kids. If you go in and say you should pay $6.90 a week out of your wages, it's not going to happen. Some of our sites pay a lot more than that, but at McDonald's _ it's not going to happen."
He said Unite operated in sectors such as fast food, hospitality and call centres where most people worked part-time and moved on after a few months.
"We are on the margins. We choose to be in those areas because no one else does it," he said.
"We have 7500 paying members but we have recruited 28,000 in four years. Our turnover is virtually 100 per cent a year.
"They [the other unions] are worried about security. They are worried about assets _ put them in trusts, keep them, we don't care. The security is just grow. Our thing is grow, grow, grow."
He said Unite and the NDU were also determined to stay politically independent, whereas the Service Workers are affiliated to the Labour Party.
Service Workers northern regional secretary Jill Ovens said both Unite and the NDU were predominantly Auckland unions and had run into territorial disputes with her union at sites such as Sky City and Auckland Hospital.
She said she was still keen to cooperate with other unions and was discussing possible co-location with the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union at their new Auckland office near the airport.