John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe delivering the 'wow' factor

Cartoon / Rod Emmerson
Cartoon / Rod Emmerson

Maybe it was too early in the day, but the delegates' traditional rendition of the old union anthem, Solidarity Forever, was somewhat lacking in gusto at this week's Council of Trade Unions conference.

Helen Kelly, the umbrella organisation's president, did her best in her address opening the two-day meeting to put a positive slant on the vexed circumstances in which organised labour now finds itself.

However, the atmosphere on the floor of the conference was in unfortunate harmony with the tired-looking decor in Wellington's Mercure Hotel, the conference's venue.

The reticence was understandable. The trade union movement is staring down the barrel of National Party-initiated industrial relations legislation which could destroy much of what little is left in the way of collective agreements (they now cover just 13 per cent of the labour force) should employers choose to use the pending law change to their maximum advantage.

A couple of hours later, however, the languid mood suddenly lifted. Had the 150 or so delegates been given the chance to express Solidarity Forever once more, they might well have lifted the roof off the hotel.

"Wow," Kelly declared through her microphone. Wow, indeed. She spoke for the room as David Cunliffe sat down having made his first big speech since becoming Labour's leader just four weeks ago and delegates rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

Given a large majority of the memberships of those unions affiliated to the Labour Party awarded their first preferences to the New Lynn MP, Cunliffe was on notice to deliver on the commitments he made during the leadership campaign.

He did not disappoint. The hated Employment Relations Amendment Bill would be "gone by lunchtime" under a Labour-led government, the minimum wage would be raised immediately to $15 an hour, a "living wage" of $18.40 would be set for low-paid workers in the core public service, youth rates would get the chop, the 90-day "fire-at-will" trial period for new employees would be axed, and the paid parental leave scheme would be extended from the current maximum 14 weeks to 26 weeks.

Cunliffe later put some fiscal caveats around some of that agenda. The delegates were realistic enough to accept that. What mattered to them was the sentiment of Cunliffe's address and the scale of his agenda.

His reward was his first experience of the Greens' penchant for one-upmanship, with that party's co-leader Metiria Turei saying Cunliffe's "living wage" did not go far enough in terms of covering low-paid workers from companies contracted to do work for the core public service, such as Parliament's cleaners.

Neither Turei nor Cunliffe will enjoy the luxury of being able to bicker over such matters in government if National wins next year's election and employers have another three years to exploit provisions in what will soon become the Employment Relations Amendment Act.

National argues the law change is necessary to restore a level playing-field in collective bargaining arrangements between employers and employees.

The bill - now before a parliamentary select committee - claims in its explanatory note that it will "help create an environment where employers can grow their business while ensuring the rights of employees are well protected".

The first part of that statement may be valid. The second is on a par with the double-speak in George Orwell's 1984.

The bill will enable employers to walk away from collective contract negotiations at whim, thereby putting pressure on workers to sign individual contracts if they are to get any kind of pay rise. Employers will similarly be able to opt out of multi-employer contracts that set minimum conditions for the likes of the nursing profession.

The bill also removes the requirement that the pay and conditions for new staff is in line with any prevailing collective contract for the first 30 days of their employment.

Employers will be able to institute partial pay cuts for limited industrial action. Employers will effectively be able to dictate the timing of meal breaks and rest periods.

The verdict of presumably politically neutral officials in the old Department of Labour, since merged into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, was that the proposed changes would increase "choice" for employers and reduce it for unions and employees.

The officials further warned that the proposed changes in the industrial relations regime might expose New Zealand to "critical international scrutiny" over meeting its obligations to workers' rights in international treaties to which it is party.

Along with the Public Service Association, which provides union coverage for public servants, the CTU mounted an inevitably futile campaign to pressure National to drop elements of the bill.

The best the campaign has managed to achieve so far has been to flood the select committee considering the bill with public submissions in order to delay the measure's return to the House.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, has adopted the sensible fall-back position of using the select committee stage to make the bill more tolerable where it is vague or poorly worded.

National's politics has been clever. It has avoided making a big deal of the legislation. Taken individually, the bill's parts do not mean the end of the world for organised labour. Taken as a whole, they all add up to a very different story.

In contrast, the left has dropped the ball. It got thoroughly worked up by John Key's bill covering the operations and oversight of the Government Communications Security. Yet it has largely ignored something which is likely to impinge far more negatively on far more people's lives.

The problem facing unions is that the bill will make it tougher for them to recruit members at a time when those on collective contracts are retiring in increasing numbers while younger workers have fewer qualms about going on individual contracts.

National should not assume its measure will necessarily destroy the union movement, however.

For a good chunk of employers and their employees, current arrangements are satisfactory as evidenced by the current low number of working days lost through industrial action. They have no need for solutions to problems that for them do not exist.

Moreover, Labour intends to change the industrial landscape through the introduction of industry standard agreements that see the setting of minimum wages and conditions, but would not stop employers paying wages above that level if they could get productivity gains as a result.

It is all part of a wider strategy to lift economic performance which Cunliffe will be rolling out progressively in coming months - and which will make employment relations a pivotal issue at next year's election.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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