Chris Trotter says employment law reform changes leave Labour’s ideological nakedness covered, business lobbyists quietly satisfied & Winston Peters claiming credit

Chris Trotter says employment law reform changes leave Labour’s ideological nakedness covered, business lobbyists quietly satisfied & Winston Peters claiming credit
Winston Peters by Jacky Carpenter.

By Chris Trotter*

On the face of it, New Zealand employers’ exaggerated concern regarding employment law reform is difficult to explain. In a country where only eight or nine workers out of every 100 employed in the private sector belongs to a trade union – what is there to worry about?

Indeed, if any employer should be worried it is the New Zealand State. Union density in the public sector is well clear of 30% – and rising. In the space of less than five years the membership of the Public Service Association has climbed from 50,000 to 70,000. Nurses have already struck successfully and teachers are striking. If anyone has cause to put the dampeners on trade unionism, it’s the Government.

And, in a way, they have, although, interestingly, not in the public sector, where it would give them some respite, but in the already nearly prostrate private sector, where mass strikes are a thing of the past and likely to remain so.

Never one to miss a trick, Winston Peters has claimed the credit for de-fanging the modest reform programme proposed by the Labour Party prior to the 2017 General Election. To be fair to Winston, he and his party possess considerably more class-consciousness on this issue than either the Labour or the Green caucuses.

Like the Social Credit Political League, which preceded NZ First in the provinces and whose electoral base Peters has made his own, the old populist realises that in small-town New Zealand it is very much a case of the small business owners and their extremely loyal workforces against the rest. Big Labour – like Big Business and Big Government – finds few friends on these worksites.

The changes to the legislation which Peters has claimed for NZ First are, however, much more likely to have been quietly suggested to his caucus by Business NZ’s and the Employers and Manufacturers Association's lobbyists. They are so strategic, so forensically sophisticated, that it is difficult to envisage any party caucus coming up with them unaided.

So, what is it that the announced changes prevent? In the simplest terms: they are designed to prevent the trade union movement from enlarging itself beyond its current pitiful dimensions. Those behind the changes have asked themselves two crucial questions: 1) What rights must unions have to reach out and sign-up new – as opposed to existing – members? 2) What must unions achieve to make mass strike action a realistic proposition once again?

The answer to the first question can be answered in two ways. Either the trade unions could secure a law change requiring employers to sign-up workers on their behalf. Or, they could be given the right to enter any workplace at any time for the purposes of recruiting members.

The first option was, of course, the solution which prevailed in New Zealand from 1936 until 1983 – the age of “compulsory unionism”.

From the perspective of 2018, it is scarcely credible that a young school-leaver seeking a process-worker’s job on the floor of the nearest factory would be told by his prospective employer that to get the job he would first have to join the union with “coverage” of process-work. His pay and conditions would be those negotiated between the union and representatives of the industry’s many hundreds of employers. And that was that. If his employer was so inclined (and in the days of over-full employment in the 1960s and 70s many were so inclined) that worker could be paid more, but he could not be paid less.

This extraordinary state of affairs, and its vivid historical after-image, is the genesis of what might be called the ghost in the machinery of New Zealand employment law. Though 30 years have passed since the days when tens-of-thousands of workers went out on strike in support of their unions’ attempts to improve the pay and conditions clauses written into their “industrial awards”, the mere knowledge that such deeply challenging activities were possible – and actually happened – has assumed the status of a educative horror-story; the stuff of free-market capitalists’ nightmares; a state of affairs that must never be repeated.

And, of course, while Labour is peopled with the likes of Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Iain Lees-Galloway, it never will be. The next best thing, however, a universal right of union entry to the workplace, could have produced some equally frightening results.

Academic studies of trade unionism in New Zealand, even after the Employment Contracts Act (1991), indicated that the precipitate decline in union density was attributable very largely to the simple fact the most New Zealand workers had never been asked to join one. With the highly instructive exception of Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union, most of the private sector unions in New Zealand have devoted almost all their time and resources to servicing their existing memberships. What the Unite Union showed, however, was that if approached in the right way even the allegedly “unorganisable” workers of McDonalds and KFC could be unionised, strike, and win.

That path is now blocked. Without the employer’s permission it will remain illegal for a union organiser to enter a workplace to do more than service members already signed-up to, or in the process of negotiating, a collective contract.

Also blocked is the path towards drawing sufficient employers into a Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) to make mass strike action feasible. The proposed reforms would have prevented unwilling employers from opting-out of MECA negotiations. Under pressure, the Coalition Government has now agreed to permit employers to walk away from MECA negotiations providing they can show “reasonable grounds” for doing so. Any employment lawyer who cannot come up with such grounds isn’t worthy of his/her hire.

Small wonder, then, that Business NZ and the EMA have responded to the final version of the legislation with quiet satisfaction. Like well-positioned snipers, their lobbyists have taken out the most dangerous elements of the enemy’s army. What remains is enough to cover Labour’s ideological nakedness and will, sensibly, be left in place until a more congenial set of politicians inherit the Treasury Benches.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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This article has left me wondering what Chris is trying to say? I agree that employers seem to continue to live in fear of militant unionism, and to some extent i agree with them. However I believe the real lesson from that time, and which is very apparent today by seldom if ever discussed, is that from both sides perspectives any organisation/business MUST be successful, that is profitable. Yet both sides seem to either ignore it or deny it to the cost of the other.

For the Unions, if the business is not profitable, how can it afford to pay decent wages and provide good conditions? From the employer's perspective, if the workforce is not well paid and cared for, how can you achieve good productivity, reduced costs, and quality products?

I must admit that I have never been a union member, as my experience is that unions have more often failed their members, as much as or more often than the employers. I have also found employers to be largely predatory, often working on a divide and conquer principle. They then demand loyalty which is often not deserved.

The recent strikes that Chris refers to, points to some good and bad outcomes, where many Government funded workers have been universally neglected for long periods of time, usually due to a power imbalance and/or trying to be responsible in presenting their case, and finally being prepared to take action to be heard. To my view at least one of the unions was closer to being a wet bus ticket than an effective representative of their membership.

In the mean time Government ministers and senior management in companies have always ensured they are well looked after, often in the face of poor performance.

Yeah, I found the article confusing too. Sounds to me like a good compromise was reached - yet he's complaining about it?

What I took as good from the points he made:

- unionism remains strong in the public sector
- small businesses need no longer worry about the changes
- over-zealous union recruiters cannot enter-at-will each and every employment premise across NZ.

And much of the low-paid private sector workers are afforded greater benefit and protection by the earlier introduced pay equity amendments made to the Equal Pay Act anyway.

Chris Trotter is missing the elephant in the room - half a million immigrants with the majority on low wages. When I grew up workers willing to take low pay and thus squeeze out trade unionists were called blacklegs and scabs. Now Prof Stringer has discovered that exploitation of workers is widespread among immigrants on work visas. The issue best summed up by a quoted remark to an Indian woman that became a NZ Herlad headline in 2016: "No Sex, No Visa".

Headline ought to be "2-Years, No Action".

NB there is no problem with well-paid immigrants.

The scabs and blacklegs will simply have to go home, their ethnic specific corruption means they can't be trusted to follow the law of the land or integrate satisfactorily. The same thing is happening in Europe with the refugees that flooded in in 2015/16.

I think our immigrants are mainly young asians with fairly wealthy parents - not clever enough for top education at home so using family savings for so-called tertiary education in NZ. A very different mix to the chancers who are illegal immigrants into Europe.
Today I counted at my local supermarket twelve staff, eleven visible immigrants, ten Indian - all pleasant and polite and professional but 5 years ago the same place was full of young kiwis. I seriously doubt the supermarket owners have upped wages or encouraged trade unions. If the eleven immigrants had been high-flying Doctors and Engineers I wouldn't mind.

All my local supermarkets are over staffed with Indian immigrants and I find their attitude to customer service to be far below what a I believe a NZ born citizen usually delivers and their English speaking levels are disgraceful. My local Bunnings had the cheek to place a non english capable greeter at the door, till I complained to management that I was going to immigration NZ over their recruitment policy.....

You need to get used to immigration if the NZ Govt signs up to the UN migration pact.

Which by the way Australia has refused to sign.

In N.Z. you can vote at the age of 18. So once you've finally left school, you can vote on policies that might have affected your ability to access a job when you were at school to save money for a car/tertiary/life/fun etc. Seems fair.

It seems that the whole concept of country, state, employer, employment etc is changing:

Public sector unionism at 30%. At what point does it all become a rort? Public sector employees get to vote like everyone else, despite the conflict of interest that this presents. The rational thing for them to do is to vote for the party that promises most government spending, ie Labour. Yet they feel the need for protection from their exploitative employer, or is it they see opportunity to extract more pay from the rest of us? Last time I saw any figures on this the public sector was something like 15% overpaid versus the same job in the private sector, which seems inequitable. Any idea what the current figure is?