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Anga Whakamua | Shaping our Futures President’s Speech

Richard Wagstaff

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangatanga maha, tēnā koutou

Delegates, it’s so good for us to finally meet face to face, after being denied repeatedly by the pandemic. Last time we met – virtually – we had many “irons in the fire”: Fair Pay Agreements legislation, pay equity claims, collective bargaining, screen industry protections, contractor reform, recruitment efforts, and more. We had a real sense of momentum.

Richard Wagstaff (President) and Tali Williams (Secretary) at the 2021 Biennial Conference.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the growing activism and confidence of the New Zealand trade union movement in recent years – whether it be in collective bargaining, organising for better health and safety, or demanding the voice of workers be heard. Unions have been fighting for, and winning, a better deal for members, day in, day out, and doing so with strong public support.

We’ve shown up on the job, on the street, and in the media; we have stood our ground and gotten results. 

Trade unions in the public sector have secured numerous pay equity settlements. After embedding the amendment to the Equal Pay Act at the end of Labour’s first term, trade unions were able negotiate and settle many important and significant pay equity settlements for workers in education and health – righting a wrong of gender-based pay discrimination. We want to extend these settlements to the private sector, and to extend pay equity beyond gender, to cover ethnic pay gaps as well.

Trade unions also made an enormous effort in helping to save lives and protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m talking about an estimated 20,000 lives saved, according to a recent study, thanks to the collective action we took as a nation. Trade unions played a special role in this, protecting the rights and safety of both essential workers and those who had to stay at home. This incredible result has been swept under the carpet in our media this year. Meanwhile, we have been bombarded with news of the threat of the impending recession that never happened.

This is no accident. Minimising our world-leading COVID performance serves to minimise and diminish the work of essential workers – the bus drivers, security workers, cleaners, health workers, and public servants, the supermarket workers, border workers, and others. The very people who put themselves in harm’s way and kept things going for the rest of us in 2020 and 2021. It also minimises and undervalues the role of the state, and the value of public services to the country. It’s part of an attempt to reshape the COVID narrative and take us back to a situation in which the interests of business come first.

We also got Fair Pay Agreements over the line, with the passing of the FPA Act in 2022. This was a long time coming, and a wooden stake to the heart of the remnants of the 1991 Employment Contracts Act that was designed to demolish industry bargaining and the New Zealand trade union movement. Affiliates have successfully initiated half-a-dozen FPAs across bus workers, supermarkets, hospitality workers, cleaners, security guards, and early childhood educators, with more pending.

The key to FPAs is that they establish industry minimum standards for wages and conditions. Industry minimum standards are common practice in many of the countries we like to compare ourselves to – countries that have better paying jobs, more successful businesses, and higher levels of productivity. We need look no further than Australia’s modern awards system for an example. But unlike the Australian system, the FPA process involves workers and employers negotiating in the first instance; only if they can’t reach agreement does it go to a third party to set the rate.

And it’s this step, delegates, that BusinessNZ, the National Party, and the ACT Party really object to. Why, though? Why wouldn’t employers want the chance to negotiate a settlement, rather than going straight to a third party to fix the rates and conditions? It seems out of step with other industrial processes, where employers and trade unions almost always prefer to reach agreement through negotiation.

I think this resistance comes from the fact that many employers, and their advocates in parliament, simply can’t tolerate the idea of workers coming together collectively. I have been the lead advocate in the bus-sector FPA, and I went to the workers’ meeting in Christchurch to talk about our claims and the FPA process. We had over 400 people in the room – many were union members and were used to this kind of meeting. But during the meeting, it became clear that many workers, especially migrant workers, couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They couldn’t believe they had the right to challenge their boss or be part of negotiating better pay and conditions. And it’s this very thing that many employers seem unable to support or tolerate. They can’t stand collective bargaining and trade union organisation getting anywhere near ‘their’ workers. They fear that workers will discover their collective consciousness as workers – their trade union consciousness. They can’t stand the idea that workers will realise they are not alone, that together they have strength, that in their union, they can find a voice.

As a result, not only have we had to endure a lengthy disinformation campaign against FPAs; it has also been argued that FPAs were in breach of international labour law at the ILO. BusinessNZ insisted on putting the matter before the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards in 2022, in the hope of getting a ruling to block the passage of the legislation. But the ILO Committee didn’t hesitate to rule that FPAs were entirely in keeping with human rights and good employment practice. 

Out of touch?

New Zealand likes to think of itself as a fair-minded, liberal, democratic country. And in many respects, we are. But when it comes to industrial relations and attitudes to collective worker organisation, we have fallen behind many of our peers, and by some measure.

The attacks on FPAs are but one example. Just recently, New Zealand signed a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, and they said to us, “if you want to trade with us, then you have to uphold fundamental democratic rights and standards – and that means signing up to the ILO fundamental conventions, especially Convention 87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise”. Yet Convention 87 remains unsigned.

How did we get here? Why are we in this place where we don’t, as a country, promote fundamental workers’ rights as a priority? It’s worth recalling that New Zealand was a founding member of the ILO in 1919. And when the ILO made one of its most important declarations – the Declaration of Philadelphia, in 1944 – New Zealand was right at the centre of the action, with Walter Nash acting as President of the Philadelphia Conference.

The Declaration of Philadelphia is annexed to the ILO constitution and forms an integral part of the heart of the institution to this day. According to the ILO, “the Philadelphia Declaration is as relevant and binding today as when it was signed many decades ago”. It recognises that labour is not a commodity; that freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress; that poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere; and that all human beings have the right to economic security and equal opportunity.

However, by the 1990s the National government was claiming that the ILO was old-fashioned and out of touch with the modern economy – out of touch with their vision of individual employment agreements and a flexiblised labour market. Try telling that to the European Union and to other countries that have a proud record of upholding and promoting the ILO fundamental conventions. I think it’s more accurate to say that New Zealand has gotten out of touch.

Missed opportunities

Delegates, employer resistance is one thing, but we also have to face up to the fact that the Labour government did not move far or fast enough to advance workers interests in the last couple of years. We had hoped to negotiate and settle FPAs in several industries before the election – but this wasn’t possible because the government simply took too long to get the Act in place. We had a working group report on FPAs out by the end of 2018, and yet FPAs didn’t become law until October 2022.  

But it wasn’t just the lack of speed that was a problem. The government also backed down on the New Zealand Income Insurance Scheme (NZIIS). The NZIIS was going to be a game-changer policy that would forever improve the lives of workers in New Zealand. It promised to deliver workers who lose their job through redundancy, illness, or disability 80% of their salary for up to seven months. This would prevent workers from suffering the ‘wage scarring’ that often comes with job loss and would help to improve skills matching in the New Zealand economy. We managed to get tripartite support for the NZIIS, with BusinessNZ’s Kirk Hope even going on record in the media to say that “we can’t afford not to do it”. But in a challenging economic context, the government lost its nerve.

There was also the failure to make meaningful progress on the crucial issue of tax reform. Despite the recommendation of Tax Working Group to implement a capital gains tax, in 2019 we got a commitment from Jacinda Ardern that CGT would be off the table so long as she was Prime Minister. And if that wasn’t enough of a disappointment, we had to relive the experience in 2023 – with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins ruling out a wealth tax under his administration. Let’s be clear, without a fundamental reset of our tax system, gross inequality will continue to undermine our communities, our public services, and our way of life in New Zealand.

The government also failed to move on contractor reform and Holidays Act reform. They failed to complete a pay equity settlement for care and support workers. And then there was the public services cuts that were announced in the run-up to the election, including to WorkSafe, our health and safety regulator.

I suggest, delegates, momentum for political change in support of New Zealand workers was lost a lot longer than two weeks ago.

A longer view

If we step back and consider the wider political context, we see that for the past few decades, despite its numerous failures, neoliberalism continues to prevail as the common sense in New Zealand – no matter who is in charge of government. We continue to be fixated with delivering the objectives of small government, low tax, low debt, and individualised employment relationships, and appear to have an enduring belief in trickledown economics.

Delegates, many of you will remember the brutal experience of raw neoliberalism in the 1980s and ’90s, where we were constantly told “There Is No Alternative”. You could be forgiven for thinking there still isn’t any alternative to the status quo, when both major parties continue to fight over who is the most “responsible” economic manager.

But there is an alternative – a trade union alternative. It’s an alternative where working people – with good, stable, well-paying jobs – are the priority. It’s an alternative that supports collective bargaining at both the firm and sectoral level. It’s an alternative where whole industries and their workforces are supported to transition to a high-wage, low-emissions economy. It’s an alternative that sees the New Zealand government stand up for workers’ rights, proudly adopt ILO fundamental conventions, and where heads of state stand on picket lines with striking workers like they do in other countries. It’s an alternative that is reflected in our Conference Resolution that we will be discussing tomorrow.

Getting to this trade union alternative starts now, at this conference. It starts with pushing back against those who would take us in the opposite direction – which is exactly what the incoming government is intent on doing. National’s 100-day plan is likely to include repealing the Fair Pay Agreements Act and extending 90-day trials to all businesses. We know that they want to hand out huge tax cuts to landlords and property speculators, and to pay for that by further cutting the public services we all rely upon. And we know they plan to roll back the progress that has been made on honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The incoming government has a plan to “get us back on track” – and we know what that track is: it’s one where workers’ and unions are undermined, where wages are low, where labour is compliant, where beneficiaries are demonised, where essential services are cut, and where inequality is allowed to flourish.

The New Zealand trade union movement will not sit on its hands while these attacks on working people and our communities are unleashed. We were forged in adversity as a trade union movement. We have always had the courage to call out what is wrong, even when no one else will. We have the organisation, in the CTU, of over 30 proud trade unions and sector groups, whose purpose is to organise industrially and politically. We’ve been here before, and we know what to expect. We will expose the incoming government’s policies for what they are.

But more importantly, we need to take a longer view. Simply defeating the incoming government’s agenda won’t be enough. We also need to build a broad base of support for the trade union alternative. Unless we can make our agenda politically popular, we will struggle to get enduring parliamentary support for a worker-centric New Zealand.

This won’t be easy, because our ideas threaten the big and the powerful. Our adversaries are well funded, and no doubt their government will enjoy a honeymoon – a temporary honeymoon, because it won’t take long before the true nature of getting “back on track” is felt by working people.

The New Zealand trade union movement has reach, and we know that influential conversations happen in the workplace. All of you, as trade union leaders, are crucial to making this happen. We have great workplace leaders – our workplace delegates – who we can support to take this alternative vision out into the workplace. But we also need to take our message beyond the workplace – into communities, the media, social media, and anywhere else where we can talk about a better life for working people in New Zealand.

We need to keep alive a longer-term vision for working people in New Zealand. Let’s use this conference to reflect on our predicament, and to plan for a better future. Let’s use this conference to build an alternative to the narrow, conservative policies that keep failing New Zealand, our people, and our planet. Let’s accept our responsibility and seize this opportunity to devise a way forward that is truly inspiring for working people, their communities, and those who wish to represent us politically. Only by doing that can we really say we are “shaping our futures”. Only then can we say anga whakamua.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.