The first and only award talks I attended as an office-holder of the old journalists' union were a revelation.

It was shortly before the Employment Contract Act 1991 was passed and while we had not yet amalgamated with printers, journalists and printers negotiated jointly with newspaper publishers.

My abiding memory of the talks was the negotiating style of one of the leading printers addressing the bosses.

He was passionate. He was rude. He was devastating. He engaged in oratory designed for a stadium rather than the room in a small building just along from the Auckland High Court.

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"You pack of bastards!" he drawled at the top of his voice as he slowly paced the room, itemising a pitiful history of their pay offers over the years compared to their fat profits.

"You pack of bastards! You pack of miserable bastards!"

It was a long tirade, evocative of the militancy of the 70s which National says is waiting around the corner with the proposed Fair Pay Agreements.

Who knows if it added a fraction of a percentage to the final offer in those award talks.

A short while afterwards, the largest change in industrial law since the 1890s was passed by Sir William Birch in Jim Bolger's Government.

They removed national awards system and the statutory monopoly of unions in bargaining and banned compulsory unions. Anyone could bargain for any contract, individually or collectively.

Major reform of industrial relations law had also occurred under the previous Labour Government but it was more about resolving disputes than weakening unions.

They abolished compulsory arbitration, which had been in place since 1894, but by that time, Governments had much more influence over wage disputes and wage setting.

Bolger, in Guyon Espiner's excellent Ninth Floor series of interviews with former Prime Ministers, talks about how when he was Minister of Labour, Rob Muldoon suggested he have a big office on the ground floor at Parliament to accommodate all the unions and employer groups when mediating.

Bolger may have said neoliberalism had failed in that interview but he did not resile from passing the ECA.

Now leading the FPA reforms, Bolger actually said the ECA was one of the biggest factors in the success of the New Zealand economy, although he did think unions had probably got too small.

Helen Clark's Labour Government restored to unions the sole right to bargain collectively but nothing has since made up for the decimation of union membership under the Bolger Government.

In all likelihood, the proposed Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs) will not make a major impact on union membership either, although National suggests it is a device to "payoff the unions" as the expense of everyone else.

The Employment Contracts Act led to big protests such as this march down Queen St by education workers in 1991. Photo / Herald Archives
The Employment Contracts Act led to big protests such as this march down Queen St by education workers in 1991. Photo / Herald Archives

National's attacks on FPAs is making up for lost time.

The FPAs were going to be one of National's big targets going into the last year's election campaign.

But after Andrew Little resigned as Labour leader, the workplace policy did not have the electoral potency they could have had with a former trade union leader at the head of the party.

In part, they did not get the scrutiny they deserved because "Jacinda-mania" took over.

But essentially they did not get the scrutiny they deserved because there was too little to scrutinise.

Labour learned from experience, with capital gains tax for example, that the best way to avoid becoming a slow moving target for National is to avoid committing to the fine print on policies.

So during the campaign and now, FPAs are just an outline of an idea - the idea being to set up a new type of industry-wide employment agreement, to set minimum wages and conditions for everyone, similar to the old national awards.

The blanks will be filled in over the coming months by Bolger's group including unions and Business New Zealand.

Much has been made of the involvement of Bolger as chair of the group, as it should in such a contentious policy space.

Before Tuesday's public announcement, personal private appeals were made to Bolger to withdraw, but in vain. If he had been better utilised by the Key Government, he may have thought twice.

But also worthy of note is the close co-operative relationship of Business New Zealand with the Government.

It is involved in the Hobbit-law working group, chaired by Linda Clark. It has signed up to the tripartite Future Work Forum to announced by Ardern just before the Budget.

Kirk Hope is continuing the approach of Phil O'Reilly before him to engage with Governments of every hue in order to influence as much as possible the direction and detail of policy.

On the one hand, it is giving legitimacy to a system that will be bitterly opposed by many employers who will be forced into paying higher rates under new industry agreements.

But unless it takes part in such working groups, it cannot exert influence over the outcome or mitigate its worst features. Boycotts are not an option.

There is much to disagree on. Comparisons between the process to get the pay equity settlement and designing or negotiating Fair Pay Agreements are fanciful.

They are worlds apart, not least because the upholder of the purse in the former was the Government with a spare couple of billion and the holder of the purse in FPAs will mainly be the private sector.

Strikes by workers negotiating a Fair Pay Agreement will be unlawful. But an FPA will set an industry minimum for pay and conditions but employees within an enterprise for example will almost certainly be able to strike in support of a higher-than-FPA rates.

One of the likely conditions of the parties entering FPA negotiations will be to agree to arbitration in the event of a breakdown in talks.

In effect, it will provide compulsory arbitration but for the small number of industries involved in establishing a parallel FPA system of negotiation.

The working group also has to come to an agreement as to what would trigger the start of talks – no simple task when the interests of employers are not only different to unions but can vary between employers.

Some employers are likely to welcome FPAs – the ones that pay staff well but who lose out under competitive contracts when they are undercut by companies offering lower wages, the so-called race to the bottom.

At this stage it is speculative as to which industries will be first up and they will be but security guards and bus drivers have been suggested as early starters.

The biggest challenge for Fair Pay Agreements is not the political attacks from National or a return to the militancy of the 1970s. It is coming up with a workable design that lives up to its name.