The successful union campaign against "zero hour" contracts, as well as new pro-worker industrial legislation promised by the National Government, suggests something interesting is going on. It might not exactly be a socialist revolution, but there are some rather rare victories for workers being achieved. So, what's happening?
On the political right, Paul Henry has sided with unions against employers - see: McDonalds needs to drop zero hour contracts. Even Mike Hosking made some supportive comments in a recent interview - listen to: Union strike.
Last month conservative commentator Karl du Fresne admonished the National Government for letting employers become too powerful: "You don't have to be a staunch trade unionist (I'm certainly not, as most readers of this blog would know) to believe this runs counter to the New Zealand belief in a fair go, especially for those with little or no power to protect themselves. All else aside, it just looks mean-spirited that at a time of robust economic growth, with the share market humming and most companies reporting healthy profits, National passes legislation whittling away workers' traditional entitlements" - see his blog post, Six reasons why National deserved to lose Northland.
National forced to the left
The Government is now making some moves to shift the balance of power - to a small degree - back towards workers. It has new legislation in the pipeline that is supposed to lead to greater penalties for employers breaching employment law. Labour Minister Michael Woodhouse says the legislation will strengthen workers rights and restrict employers "flexibility" - which has been the Government's mantra in this area for some time.
In terms of zero hour contracts, the Government initially seemed only prepared to tinker around the edges, but they will now address the core issue of guaranteed hours - see Nicholas Jones' Government to move on zero-hour contracts. It seems that the Government has been forced to rethink its approach in response to union campaigns that simply could not be ignored.
Until now this Government has taken a highly effective incremental approach in industrial relations. Rather than ramming through major reform in one hit, as with the Employment Contracts Act in the 90s, National has chipped away successfully since 2008. Some changes, like the 90 day probation periods and tea breaks legislation, had a direct impact on workers, but many other lower profile changes have eaten away at unions' legal rights for collective bargaining and made striking harder.
It's not only unions pressuring the Government on workers rights. The media has been an important part of a sea change of public opinion. The Campbell Live programme has led the way with some very important items explaining and campaigning on the zero hours issue. TV3 journalist Anna Burns-Francis has produced four important five-minute items for the programme: Zero-hour contracts leave Kiwi families struggling, Kiwis tied to zero-hour contracts speak out, Minister to zero-hour employers: Rethink your rosters, and Woodhouse aims to improve zero-hour contracts.
Newspaper editorials have also been pro-worker on the zero hours issue. The Herald has been unequivocal about what needs to be done: "The Restaurant Brands employees won a guaranteed number of hours of work. That must also be part of the Government's changes. The law must specify that workers paid at an hourly rate are assured an agreed weekly minimum number of hours" - see the editorial, Guarantee minimum work hours.
The Dominion Post has said: Zero-hour contracts need more attention.
Provincial papers, also not known generally for their pro-union bias, have been equally emphatic. The Nelson Mail declared: "It seems larger companies are more likely to seek and exploit loopholes in employment law - and shame on those who do so. That the zero-hour nonsense looks likely to be stamped out is one blow on behalf of the vulnerable" - see: Exploitative contracts need to go.
The Timaru Herald editorial is unequivocal: "Employers adopting zero hours contracts should be ashamed" - see: Time to kill off zero hours contracts. The newspaper issues a warning on any further extension of employment flexibility: "the employment playing field is titled too far in employers' favour, allowing bosses to introduce conditions that are plainly exploitative".
See also, the Manawatu Standard editorial: Workers need guaranteed hours of work.
So if the Government is listening to public opinion on this then they simply have no choice.
Even employers have struggled to defend the contracts publically. Kim Campbell from the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association told Radio New Zealand that they were "essential" for employers because "businesses just can't guarantee work" - see Radio New Zealand's Fast food protests supersized. Yet Campbell also said of Restaurant Brands agreement to end them: "Frankly, I think this is a good sign" - see: RNZs Zero hours on agenda - McDonald's.
Unions fight back
How are unions managing to fight back now? Union membership internationally has been in decline for many years. In New Zealand the strength of the public sector unions, especially teachers, nurses and the core public service has been in stark contrast to an incredible collapse in membership for private sector unions over the last thirty years - now less than 10 per cent of the workforce.
What successes there have been are mostly defensive, trying to cling to wages and conditions against government and employer onslaughts. The notable exception has been Unite Union, which has aggressively organised low paid workers in fast foods and cinemas where traditional unions had long since retreated from. They have, against the tide, improved pay and conditions significantly for those workers over the last ten years.
Dita de Boni writes that Unite's success has been hard won: "Lord have mercy, that union has come in for some pretty spectacular bashing from the Government's allies and the public at large. They've been labelled crazy, corrupt, racist, and both insignificant and too significant, among other things.... They've had both a moral and actual victory with their consistent opposition to zero-hour contracts, and deserve a hearty slap on the back" - see: Sometimes Underdogs can win.
Experts on workers rights
The zero hours issue is not simply about good or bad employers. Author of the "The Spy Who Fired Me", Esther Kaplan, was interviewed by Kim Hill last week about the technological and economic changes driving corporations across the world to view employees as just another input in the business, ignoring their needs as people. Particularly interesting was Kaplan's analysis of "efficiency" changes that actually proved to be bad for the business.
Similarly, employment relations advocate Phillip de Wattignar, writing in the Otago Daily Times, labels Zero-hour contracts a race to the bottom. He says these international trends and the removal of collective bargaining speed their introduction: "the present system deprives these employees of the ability to respond and negotiate together at work, it is to be expected the use of zero-hour contracts will become widespread and more private sector employees will be part of this growing second tier."
In this very incisive article Wattignar also identifies a key aspect of zero hour contracts as being "the ideal tool for disciplining and culling the workplace of the unpopular, the poor performer and disposing of unwanted employee expression. They dispense with the cost and need to engage human resource or legal assistance with time-consuming work performance and disciplinary processes".
This view is reinforced by statistics showing a close correlation between falling union membership levels and the concentration of wealth in the top one per cent - see The Daily Blog's Cotton On cottons on.
There has been much discussion internationally about the growth of the "precariat" workers - those at the bottom of the employment heap. These are people who lack basic traditional employment security. Such workers were previously seen a major problem for unions internationally because of the difficulty in organising them, but now they may actually prove to be the biggest boost for unions in a generation.
The campaign against zero hour contracts is now international. Radio NZ's The Wireless has a good summary of the issues driving this campaign, and the momentum gained over the past two years - see: Fast food protests supersized.
One of the major problems unions have with these workers is the inability to exercise traditional industrial muscle through strike action. As Unite has shown very effectively over the past month, however, when you are up against major retail brands then publicity and public support can be far more effective than pickets.
Australian retailer Cotton On found this out the hard way last month when the First Union outed the company for trying to use recently passed laws to negotiate away tea and meal breaks. As Vernon Small reports in Cotton On staff will not lose tea breaks, the mainstream and social media backlash was swift and "widespread". The company backed down within a few days.
There are also other recent signs of wins for workers in New Zealand - see Brian Rudman's Slavery in New Zealand, and Radio New Zealand's Home care workers win right to minimum wage.
For one of the best analyses of how the "zero hours" issue fits into the bigger picture of social and employment policy, see Max Rashbrooke's Insecure Work.
Not everyone agrees, however, and economist Eric Crampton puts together some dissident opinion from the right in his blog post, Zero-hour.
Finally, cartoonists have also been siding with the workers - see: Cartoons about inequality and workers rights.