Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: At last, some victories for the bosses' victims

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Labour leader David Shearer and the Affco workers have both had wins. Photo / Christine Cornege
Labour leader David Shearer and the Affco workers have both had wins. Photo / Christine Cornege

The prime minister must have a headache after getting back from the mother country. And it wouldn't have been from drinking too much free champagne.

After a four-year honeymoon, the polls have finally turned. This week's two public polls raised the spectre of a Labour-led coalition winning an election over John Key's National.

The Government's slide isn't helped by fall-out from the education debacle that Key's protege, Hekia Parata, has led.

After the education unions lost the fight over national standards, the Government had them on the back foot.

Parata's over-reach inadvertently elevated the unions to the most powerful position they've ever been in.

The education unions have now locked up all the major players, including school trustees, into an unbeatable coalition. The minister has unbelievably agreed to consult this group collectively on any further education initiatives.

It's unconditional surrender.

Only a month ago, workers and their unions were being smashed everywhere.

Employees of our biggest rest home provider, Oceania, were being offered a measly annual 1.5 per cent increase over three years, conditional on them giving up their overtime pay rates and other protections.

The Ports of Auckland maligned and locked out their wharfies, telling them they would only ever come back as lower paid contractors.

The Talley brothers joined the frenzy, locking out 1000 meat workers and demanding they give up most of their hard-won working conditions.

Not since 1991 have we seen such an onslaught by powerful ideological employers against so many working people.

Traditionally, unionised workers in an industrial dispute are largely ignored by the media and, if there's any inconvenience to the public, they tend to side with the employer. Maybe it's because employers have become too arrogant and their demands have been so unreasonable that in these three disputes the public swung to the side of the workers.

Another new factor is that the rest of the union movement and even normally neutral institutional players became active in supporting these workers' causes.

In the meat workers' lock-out, most of the workers were Maori. After 12 weeks of no wages, iwi leaders used their economic muscle to make the Talley brothers retain the current workers' job seniority and security.

The iwi negotiators - Ngapuhi's Sonny Tau, Tainui's Tuku Morgan and the Maori Party's Ken Mair - made them give the workers a pay rise for good measure. Morgan's statement that Maori iwi leaders would not remain neutral in any similar disputes showed a sea change in the balance of forces.

To top all this good news for workers, Oceania surrendered this week to its rest home workers. After nine months during which the oldies and their families supported these workers, these unsung saints got a 3.22 per cent wage increase and kept their overtime rates.

But the ultimate poke in the eye is not far away, with Auckland Port on the verge of formally giving up on its campaign to contract the jobs of their wharfies. After endless posturing, thousands of dollars in lost wages for each of their employees, tens of millions of dollars in lost business and additional costs to clients, I think the port's managers should take a leaf out of their counterparts at ACC and resign - if it pans out as I expect.

That will be four wins to the unions. Working people rarely get victories, so forgive me for celebrating.

With this sort of broad solidarity we may yet defeat the Government's theft policy, which they call asset sales.

- NZ Herald

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