I'm sitting in the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions conference, tapping away at my laptop. Phil Goff is addressing us and surprisingly, to me at least, is doing well.

When I was a young rank-and-file worker in the early 1980s I was lucky enough to attend a couple of conferences of the now-defunct Federation of Labour, with 500 worker delegates crammed into the Wellington Town Hall.

These events were a coming together of real union leaders, many of whom came off the factory floor and knew how to hold a mass meeting in the palm of their hand.

They were orators par excellence who lifted you into a simpler world, where good battled evil and where a worker was due a fair wage for making the capitalist rich.


There was no pretence about partnership. It was class war in the open.

The debates between the radical and the conservative wings of the movement were mighty. Any young worker like me didn't need to go to university to learn about politics. You learned more about life in these two-day conferences than you ever would in a lifetime of seminars.

Of course, those union leaders did deals with the capitalist bosses day in and day out. But they prided themselves in always being there to scrap for the best deal for workers they could get.

This was a time when it was accepted that any wage paid by an employer had to be based on what it cost a worker to live a reasonable life. Now a worker's wage is based on a market where lower labour costs is a goal in itself.

In the late 1970s, New Zealand workers were paid more than Australian workers (that's right, more) because our unions were strong. Now we've slumped to a third less, in real terms, than our cousins across the Tasman.

All this happened because the union movement was neutered by the Employment Contracts Act introduced by the Bolger government in 1991. It's one of the greatest blunders of our times that the union leadership didn't fight it.

Today, the union movement is different. Union conferences no longer debate how we advance the lot of workers but instead develop defensive strategies on how to keep what workers we have left.

I wasn't expecting much from Goff. It wasn't, of course, the table-thumping rhetoric I love but he did a good job touching on real issues that are affecting working New Zealanders.


There were even moments where real passion crept in, such as when he talked about a nurse with 28 years' experience who had started a new job but shortly afterwards got a serious illness and had to go into hospital. On the day she got out she arrived home to receive a letter from her boss sacking her.

Under John Key's 90-day trial-period law, this nurse had no right to have this decision reviewed. Welcome to Key's new world for workers.

I counted five times where Goff received spontaneous applause. When he committed to lifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour; making the first $5000 of income tax free; lambasting National's attacks on the unemployed; recommitting to the pledge to sell no public assets; and introducing a capital gains tax that would help stop house prices soaring out of the hopes of most New Zealanders.

He brought a few sobering gasps, such as when he said 150 families in our country now own $7 billion of assets - hardly the equitable society our forebears dreamed of.

In terms of content, it was a great speech that any working person could embrace. In terms of delivery, I gave him a solid B pass. The delegates on my table gave him an A.

After he received a warm reception at the conclusion, CTU president Helen Kelly commented that she didn't mind him running over time for his speech when he spoke like that. I agreed. If he keeps this up then Key will actually have a competition on his hands.