John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Veteran activists need new tactics

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Labour knows that hotel invasions are not the way to sway opinion against workplace laws. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour knows that hotel invasions are not the way to sway opinion against workplace laws. Photo / Dean Purcell

The left-wing activists who stormed the Sky City Hotel last Sunday in an inevitably futile attempt to force their way into the National Party conference should take a good hard look at themselves.

The noisy fracas with security guards inside Auckland's Temple to Capitalism certainly got the activists what they wanted - top-of-the-bulletin coverage on that evening's television news. But if they think such tactics are going to mobilise public opinion against the Government's just-released package of workplace law reforms then they should think again.

Their actions were widely viewed within the Labour Party as unhelpful, though no one was saying so publicly.

Moreover, though there is anger about the reforms, the invasion of the hotel was simply for show. The activists knew John Key wasn't there. He was safely tucked away across the road behind police lines in the Sky City Convention Centre.

The TV cameras having indulged their attention-seeking, the demonstrators executed a retreat from whence they came.

On Tuesday in Parliament, Rodney Hide mercilessly lampooned leading protagonists in this farce. He dismissed former Alliance party strategist Matt McCarten, former Green MP Sue Bradford, and "professional protester" John Minto as "veterans from the 1970s" who "could not even find the right building in which to finally start their long-hoped-for class war".

Hide's description of this Theatre of the Absurd might be funny if it was not so tragic.

Bradford, McCarten and Minto seemed to have set their watches to 1910, not 2010. Any moment you might have expected horses ridden by strike-breaking armed "specials" to come around the corner. Or at least they would in their imaginations.

The storming of the hotel might have fitted the finest tradition of the labour movement - and McCarten warned of more to come. But it is not itself that the labour movement needs to communicate with if it is to roll back National's planned changes to employment law.

The Labour Party has worked that out. If the debate is only about what the unions think and want, then it is all over before it has begun. The strategy is going to have to be a little more sophisticated than that.

Last Sunday's television pictures will have already swung things more in National's favour. In his conference speech, the Prime Minister pitched his package as amounting to modest, moderate and pragmatic change. That night viewers saw the opposition to those reforms coming from the extremes of the labour movement. In the current climate, you don't have to guess who has more credibility.

Labour, wisely, has kept its distance from the extremes. While some Labour MPs showed up for Sunday's rally at Sky City, they, and some trade union figures, left when the biffo started.

While others on the left have been quick to label National's package as a "class war" being waged on the country's workers, Labour has avoided using such over-the-top language.

When it comes to portraying National's policy prescription, there is a danger of crying wolf. More so because much of the package is based on National's 2008 election policy. That prescription pleasantly surprised some left-wing commentators for being so moderate and not a return to the Employment Contracts Act. They cannot now turn around and argue that the package released by Key last Sunday is designed to wage class war.

A chunk of the package seeks to fix faults with the system for resolving personal grievance cases taken by employees against their bosses. Many of the changes have been sought for years and are non-controversial, for example trying to speed up the resolution of cases and promote increased mediation of disputes.

Some alterations tilt the balance more to the employer but not overly so - such as a change in wording for the "test of justification" as to whether an employer has behaved fairly and reasonably in dismissing a worker.

Another part of the package allows employees to cash in the fourth week of their holidays with their employer's agreement. This might suit some workers. The unions are worried some workers might be pressured to do this - and ascribe the change to the Government's desire to lift productivity at workers' expense.

The Government counters many of the alterations are designed to increase flexibility in the workplace which will lift productivity, but point to the doubling of penalties for breaches of the Holidays Act as proof of the Government's commitment to ensuring employers meet their legal obligations.

More questionable is allowing employers to ask for proof of sickness when sick leave is taken. Employers can do that now on "reasonable grounds". The Government intends removing that qualification for supposed reasons of simplicity.

However, the employer will now have to pay for the doctor's certificate. Given that, an employer is hardly going to demand such a certificate unless they have strong grounds for believing a worker is frequently taking sickies. Where opponents of the package do have justifiable cause for complaint is the application of the 90-day trial period to all workplaces. This extension of the current position of such trials being limited to workplaces with fewer than 20 employees was not flagged in National's manifesto.

Now everyone faces the prospect of a trial period if they switch jobs and the employer insists on one.

The ability to say "no" will be dependent on the the state of the labour market and competition for skills. With the economy still in sluggish recovery, the advantage rests with employers. Labour is seeking to exploit these fears, noticeably tailoring its language by referring to "wage and salary earners" and not just "workers".

It is seeking to exploit the electorally fertile combination of apprehension and annoyance which middle-income earners will feel about being put on trial if they change jobs.

The risk for the Government is two-fold. First, for credibility's sake, it cannot keep arguing that the policy is helping the disadvantaged gain jobs when the evidence from its own officials says otherwise. Second, anecdotal evidence is emerging of blatant employer abuse of trial periods. And anecdote is far more politically potent than any volume of statistics which show the contrary is happening.

One statistic is important, however. The 90-day trial provision already applies to just under a third of the workforce. And it is smaller enterprises which breed the conditions where trial periods are more likely to be abused and used as a renewable source of cheaper labour.

Labour will argue that the change will suppress wages as well as freeze the labour market as people stay in their jobs. It will repackage the package as something you would find in a low-wage economy - not one with ambitions to equal Australia's standard of living.

Labour will also place the changes in the context of National's other moves, such as more flexibility with tea breaks and changes to the accident compensation scheme. Meanwhile, the Council of Trade Unions is planning a campaign which will include industrial action, with demonstrations, public meetings and community activities.

Unlike mining in national parks, however, National is not going to back down on this one. Its members, supporters and backers would simply not tolerate such an eventuality.

Left punching at air by the Cabinet's policy reversal on mining, Labour has something in which to really sink its teeth.

- NZ Herald

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