Unions are struggling to survive amid public perceptions that they are irrelevant, backward and belong to the past.

The late Helen Kelly attempted to modernise them, but how much did she succeed?

Bryce Edwards examines where the union movement is at after her death.

The poor health of the union movement

Many of the tributes paid to Helen Kelly in the last week acknowledged her success in raising the profile and positive perception of the union movement. More than ever before, unions are less reliant on industrial muscle and more on winning the public relations battle - getting consumers and voters on side with their campaigns and political interventions.


Kelly was a talented leader but the hard reality of union health remains grim. The movement she led has been barely holding its own after a catastrophic collapse in the 1990s.

The public isn't necessarily convinced about unions. According to UMR's 2016 Mood of the Nation report, unions are the second least trusted institution - with only 30 per cent of those surveyed having confidence. This is more than the media (26%), but less than big business (31%), churches (33%), and banks (44%).

And despite being weaker than ever, an increasing proportion of the public believes they're actually too strong. According to New Zealand Election Study survey data, in 2011 32 per cent agreed with the statement that "Unions have too much power" - up from 18 per cent back in 1999.

What about strikes? It's not necessarily a measure of union success or health, but nonetheless, the decline in industrial action over recent decades has been staggering. Back in 1988, the number of days of work lost to industrial activity - the official statistical measurement of strikes - was 381,710. But by 2014 this was down to just 1448.

The numbers of workers joining unions is abysmal.

Of course unions have generally been in decline across OECD countries for many decades, but the New Zealand experience has been more dramatic and brutal.

In 1985 union membership reached an historic high - nearly half of all workers were in a union. In the 10 years that followed, total union membership plummeted by 320,000 - over half the membership gone.

At March 2015, there were 137 registered unions in New Zealand with a total of 359,782 members.


But the decline has been uneven. Initially the public sector unions, ravaged by restructuring, corporatisation and privatisation, took the biggest hits.

But having 97 per cent membership to start with provided a huge cushion and the big education, health and core public sector unions managed to stabilise at around 60-70 per cent of workers in their sectors.

The private sector unions have suffered most, and continue to do so.

Less than 9 per cent of workers in the private sector are currently union members.

While the economic reforms took their toll, there is no doubt the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 had a massive direct impact.

Helen Kelly lifted the union image. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Helen Kelly lifted the union image. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It effectively removed any special legal status unions had - getting rid of the compulsory unionism that had previously made New Zealand one of the most highly unionised places in the world.

Most unions went into survival mode in the 1990s, desperately trying to save wage rates and conditions.

Limits on the hours of work, extra pay for long or unsociable working hours and security of work that had been fought for and won over the previous 100 years were lost by many in just a couple of years.

There is now a generation of workers who weren't even born when regular overtime, weekend and night shift penal rates and a standard 40-hour week were the norm.

Failure to engage young workers and deal with technological change

The failure of the union movement to engage with younger workers may be the biggest problem.

Workers over 30 are twice as likely to be covered by a collective agreement as younger workers.

As those who joined up in the peak period of the late 1970s and early 80s retire, they simply have not been replaced fast enough.

This is exacerbated by the decline of employment overall in industries where private sector unions have traditionally been strong, for example in manufacturing and mining.

New technology will only increase the rate of change.

The Maritime Union fought and won a long and bitter battle in 2011, but automation may yet decimate the union.

Transport has been one of the strongest private sectors for unions but the sight of the fully automated bus to be trialled at Christchurch Airport would have caused dismay for many drivers and their union reps.

On the other hand the service sector has been one of the most rapidly expanding across the globe, but this is the area unions have experienced the steepest decline and stagnation for a generation.

Union hopes for Little-led government next year

Interestingly, the decline in private sector unionisation was not reversed (or even halted) after the election of the Labour-Alliance government in 1999.

A sympathetic government, the replacement of the ECA with the supposedly union-friendly Employment Relations Act and a growing economy should have seen a rebound for all unions.

That it didn't points to deeper structural and societal changes that go well beyond just employment legislation and politics.

Despite that, almost all unions will be hoping and working next year for a change of government.

Although the polls aren't promising now, four term governments are rare and, with a high profile ex-unionist as the potential new prime minister, the unions' motivation for change will be great.

Much of National's determined chipping away of the ERA will be reversed, although even Andrew Little can be surprisingly reticent to commit to this basic level of support.

Just last year he equivocated on fully repealing the 90 day trial periods when talking to business groups.

As unions contemplate what they would like to see a Labour-led government change, even the most ardent Labour-affiliated unions acknowledge that the 2000 Employment Relations Act was a missed opportunity.

Senior Labour MPs were simply unwilling to go too far out on a limb for their union colleagues, even with their coalition partner applying pressure within Cabinet through Laila Harre as Associate Minister of Labour.

Any new left-wing government is likely to see Winston Peters and New Zealand First with significant influence which, alongside Labour's smaller (but still influential) group of centrist MPs, could easily stymie any significant pro-worker changes.

Fundamental union change required

Even if the union movement finally gets the legislative and government support it has been waiting a generation for, the ground has moved so far underneath it that a fundamental shift in how unions operate and who they represent may be needed.

Not only have unions struggled to include younger workers and to expand into growth sectors, but the very way employment is becoming structured has worked against them.

The easiest workplaces to organise are in large sites with regular hours and pay and low turnover.

These workers are the antithesis of the new so-called "precariat", whose hours of work vary from week to week, who may work from smaller scattered workplaces (or even from home or their car) and whose changes in jobs are often measured in months, rather than years.

In this respect New Zealand may actually be leading the way internationally.

The Unite union has successfully organised fast food and other "precarious" groups of workers and managed to not only unionise them, but to negotiate collective agreements which rebuild some of the conditions eroded over the past 25 years.

Their 2005 "Supersize my Pay" campaign mobilised young workers to successfully end youth rates, their 2010 "$15 an hour" campaign helped push a National government to give substantial minimum wage increases every year.

And last year their "End Zero Hours" campaign not only achieved guaranteed hours for workers at the main fast food chains, but also forced the National government to change the law to improve security of employment for all workers.

Unions can be very conservative and slow to adapt, however.

Unite may be the toast of the union movement for now, but it was shunned and attacked by many unions in its early years.

Partially this reflected the bitter political split between Labour and the Alliance parties (most of Unite's leaders were senior Alliance figures), and because Unite went into head to head competition with the then Labour-affiliated Service and Food Workers union at the SkyCity casino.

But Unite's low-fee and low-cost approach was seen by some as undermining existing union structures, and their ambitious targeting of young workers was deemed unrealistic. Moves were even made at one stage to have Unite expelled from the CTU.

The need for new ways of unionising

The Living Wage is another high profile international campaign that has had real success.

While not strictly a union-only campaign, the movement has been instrumental in it.

The recent local body elections were a big boost with strong commitments from many of those elected in our biggest cities to pay council employees and contractors the Living Wage.

Historically, public sector workers have been the first to benefit from improved employment conditions that later spread to the whole workforce.

With large corporates like Spark now moving to dramatically increase their base pay rates, the Living Wage may prove to be a far more effective boost to low paid workers than any number of strikes and pickets.

In the past, when nearly half of all workers were union members, these kind of high-profile public campaigns were not needed.

Unions had direct lines of communications with workers and could assume that their audience had good basic knowledge of what unions are and what they do.

That simply isn't the case anymore.

To break out of the current constrictions will require an ambition and willingness to take on new challenges not seen since the formation of the union movement in the 19th century.

This was something Helen Kelly clearly recognised herself, especially during her time at the head of the CTU.

Championing the safety of ununionised forestry workers, the pay of never-unionised farm workers and focusing on the needs of what she liked to call "the forgotten Kaitaia Four Square worker" showed her willingness to reach out to a generation of workers lost to unions.

She and others have made a start. But the future of unions is clearly still in the balance.

Rising stars

Erin Polaczuk:

The youthful Polaczuk has had a very fast rise - from the PPTA teachers' union to the leader of New Zealand's largest union, the Public Service Association (PSA). Admired by many in the movement for her analytical smarts.

Sam Huggard: Although Richard Wagstaff is the president of the CTU, he focuses on the backroom organising, and Huggard is increasingly visible as the face of the unions. He's very well liked in the movement.

Matt McCarten: He's the wildcard. McCarten set up the Unite union, went to work as the Labour Party leader's chief of staff, and is now back in Auckland running the party's campaigns. He might well step back into union organising, and could even run in the future to be the next CTU president.

Tali Williams: National organiser for the finance sector at FIRST union, whose coverage includes a huge chunk of New Zealand's "precarious" workers.

Chris Flatt: National secretary of the well-organised and resourced Dairy Workers Union. Not only has he risen fast in the union movement, he's an ex-Labour Party general secretary.

Tom Buckley: Young assistant secretary at the Unite union, and the next generation of leadership there.

Unions by numbers.

• At March 2015, there were 137 registered unions in New Zealand with a total of 359,782 members.

• Just over 18% of all employees are union members - down from 21% in 2010. The 10 largest unions had a total membership of 283,900, but 49 unions had fewer than 100 members.

• Workers in education, health and community services make up over half of all union members and nearly 58% of members are women.

• The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) has 35 affiliated unions, including the biggest five, and over 88% of union members belong to affiliates.

• The five biggest unions are the PSA (61,722 members); Etu (53,450); Educational Institute (47,676); Nurses' Organisation (46,688), and First (25,465),

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Otago University. He is a member of the Tertiary Education Union.