Who’s winning the “class struggle” between business and workers?

New Zealand is the best place in the world to do business. This is declared today in the World Bank annual report, "Doing Business 2017" - see Simon Maude's World Bank names NZ best country for business. There are many factors in New Zealand's reputation for ease of doing business, and of course the flexibility of the labour market, with very limited employment regulation, is one of the well-known benefits for business here. But can "what is good for business" also be "good for workers"? Or does the success of business come at the expense of workers? Or is the "class struggle" dead, along with a union movement that is struggling for relevance?

Business success and modernisation in New Zealand

Business appears to be doing very well at the moment, especially with a relatively buoyant economy. And on a political level, the voice of business is relatively loud, and seems to be listened to by government most of the time. For example, recently, business has celebrated the immigration changes announced by National - see Newshub's New Zealand businesses welcome immigration curbs. And in the debate over immigration, the needs of business have been at the forefront of policy discussions - see Kirk Hope's Migration provides important skills for business and Dene Mackenzie's NZ needs skilled migrants: BusinessNZ.

In the recent local body elections, business was constantly keen to get its wish lists and views out to voters - see, for example, Peter Townsend's What business expects from local government as elections loom. And candidates were very keen to show how business-friendly they are - see, for example, Nick Grant's 'Business agrees with me on Auckland's top two priorities', says Goff (paywalled).

But business doesn't always get their way, for various reasons. One of the areas that the current Government has failed to deliver on for business is reforming the Resource Management Act - see Pattrick Smellie's Need for big RMA overhaul - business groups. Though, of course, the Prime Minister is strongly hinting that business will eventually get it's wish - see Rob Hosking's Key on further RMA reform: 'ask me after the 2017 election' (paywalled).


It's not only the National Party that can be relied upon to support the cause of businesspeople. The Labour Party is also business friendly, and arguably much more orientated towards the needs of employers than even the unions that historically set the party up. The latest example has been the party's Future of Work programme, which earlier this year had commentators expressing interest that Labour was so in tune with the needs of business. For example, Richard Harman noted that "Labour is beginning to sound like a more entrepreneurial small-business friendly party as it digests the results of its study into the future of work" - see: Labour embraces entrepreneurship.

Chris Trotter also noted this trend, and drew attention to the fact that Labour's finance spokesperson was more oriented to business than unions: "in Robertson's 3,431-word opening address to the second FoW conference there is not a single reference to the institutions out of which the Labour Party was born. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, at least as far as Grant Robertson is concerned, trade unions have nothing to contribute to the future of work - or workers - in twenty-first century New Zealand" - see: Red Shift: Labour Reorients Itself Toward Small Business.

Business, like every other institution of New Zealand public life, is attempting to modernise - to varying degrees - in terms of gender and ethnicity. There's a considerable focus - if not enough success - on diversifying the demographics of those running and owning businesses. See, for example, RNZ's Move to get more Maori and Pasifika into NZ businesses, Ben Mack's More women are running small businesses, but equality still eludes us, Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie's Diversity - it's just good business, and Tao Lin's NZ businesses need to overcome bias about Maori - Westpac and Women of Influence winners announced.

But how well are we served by media reporting on business? Earlier in the year, Gordon Campbell complained about the quality of reporting, suggesting that "business news reports sound like advertisements for products that most of us have never bought, and will never buy", and that little effort is made to show how economic issues impact on the wider public - see: On the myopia of the business news.

The State of the union movement

Following the death of former CTU president Helen Kelly, there's been a renewed focus on the union movement. I wrote an article for Saturday's New Zealand Herald on the state of the union movement, with a suggestion on the way forward - see: The future of unions.

The article also details the decline in membership numbers, and some "rising stars" to watch in the movement. For greater detail about union membership numbers, which ones are affiliated to the Labour Party and the CTU, see my blog post, New Zealand trade unions in 2016.

A number of bloggers have discussed the state of the labour movement and the Labour Party. Ben Peterson has outlined some of the anti-worker reforms brought in by the current government, but interestingly he cautions against exaggerating the severity of these, and instead stresses the positive union environment and potential - see: Governments cant organise workers, only unions can.

See also, The Standard's Workers, unions and the Labour party, Pete George's Is Labour relevant today? and The Spinoff's Chart of the Week: are unions losing the young?


Part of the resurgence of debate about unions relates to Labour Day, which was on Monday this week. This has provoked Gordon Campbell to reflect on the existence of public holiday celebrating trade union victories, and he suggests that the struggle carries on - see: On holidays, Hekia Parata and Badlands.

RNZ's Eva Corlett has examined modern working conditions, and reports that "Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Kim Campbell said working conditions in New Zealand were better than they had ever been" - see: What happened to the battle for the 8-hour working day?

But industrial relations specialist Stephen Blumenfeld is quoted suggesting otherwise: "Outside of the United States, New Zealanders tend to work the longest hours amongst OECD countries." Accordingly, "Blumenfeld said labour laws needed to offer more protection to workers."

And remembrance of Helen Kelly is also keeping the conversation about unions going, with CTU president Richard Wagstaff calling on workers to join a union in recognition of Kelly, and also because they are "important public democratic institutions" - see: Unions allow the voice of the working person to be heard

Current union struggles

Last week's strike by junior doctors threatens to reoccur soon. For an explanation of the issues, see Glenn McConnell's Q&A: Why are junior doctors on strike? There appears to be plenty of public support for the doctors - and for examples, see Rachel Smalley's No-one should have to work 12 days in a row, the Press editorial, Decision to strike by dedicated doctors will not have been made lightly and today's Otago Daily Times editorial, The money and the rosters. The latter argues for a possible "independent inquiry" to establish the facts and the best way forward.

But possibly the most interesting commentary on the strikes is today's column by employment lawyer Peter Cullen - see: Should emergency services workers be allowed to strike? As well as giving a useful history of industrial arbitration, Cullen poses some questions: "Do readers think that in the case of police, the military, and now hospital workers' wages should be set by arbitration? Or should workers be able to strike? Has the time come to gather together those involved in callings where human life can be at risk and place them under an arbitration system?"

There have been some particularly interesting union successes lately. Earlier this month, the owner of the KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks outlets came to an agreement with Unite union to establish guaranteed rosters of work for their employees. This was celebrated by both the union and the New Zealand Herald - see its editorial, Fast-food company steals a march on rivals.

Unite union is now focusing on other fast food outlets - see Dan Satherley's McDonald's, Burger King threatened with legal action over zero-hour contracts. And retailers could be next, with First Union general secretary Robert Reid saying the practice of underemployment "was widespread among retailers who used it to control workers" - see Patrick O'Meara's Low staff hours widespread among retailers - union.

But other industrial issues remain a challenge for low-paid workers. Today, RNZ has reported that some immigrants are being exploited like slaves, and allegedly labour inspectors are failing to investigate properly - see: Immigrant 'paid thousands' for NZ job. And there are all sorts of modern contracting arrangements that can lead to significant exploitation and conflict - see Teresa Cowie's Insight: cleaning franchises - business opportunity or dirty business?

Even the government agency WorkSafe is unhappy about the health conditions in many workplaces, saying this week that: "The 600 to 900 work-related deaths each year dwarfs the roughly 60 people killed in workplace accidents annually. It is on top of up to 6000 workers hospitalised each year with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other chronic illnesses from workplace exposure to airborne contaminants" - see Tom Hunt's Work kills two or more New Zealanders every day, WorkSafe figures show.

So how relevant and powerful are unions? Not surprisingly, Rodney Hide thinks they're not as strong as they once were - and that's to be celebrated - see his column, How unions took on My Food Bag and lost.

But for government minister Peter Dunne, the problem in industrial relations is no longer bolshie unions, but the likes of the Employers and Manufacturers Association and Business New Zealand. He says "today it is more likely to be employer groups resorting to the tactics the media of the 1970s and 1980s would have screamed against as 'bully-boys', 'stand-over tactics', or 'industrial muscle'." According to Dunne, recent activities of these groups means that "they will have no credibility in the future when it ever comes to criticising unions for industrial behaviour" - see: The new industrial militants and bullies.

Finally, for some satire about workers struggles and union issues, see my blog post, Cartoons about union and industrial issues.