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President’s address, Richard Wagstaff: CTU Conference 2019

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

Our world was built by working people, with our energy and commitment, with our skill and our knowledge, with our sweat and toil. And we’ve built it for our communities, for our people, for our families, for everyone ….to share fairly. Because we know we’re in this together and living our core values means we value inclusiveness, collectivism, solidarity, and helping each other.

We didn’t build this world for the few – we built it for the many – for everyone.

This conference is about us getting our fair share of what we’ve built, something we’re not getting, something that requires decent wages and salaries, decent benefits and strong public services.

None of these things will be achieved without a strong labour movement – and a strong union movement can only thrive in an industrial environment that allows working people to freely organise collectively, without fear, negotiating from a position that commands respect, where we can speak up with confidence and security.

It doesn’t matter where we are – whether it’s  in the workplace at a members meeting, or it’s in a select committee hearing, or it’s at the bargaining table – our job as trade unionists is to represent the aspirations and dreams of working people – that’s who we are. No one else can do that. No one else can speak for us. No one else can negotiate collectively on behalf of working people. We are the independent voice of working people.

Too many workers in Aotearoa can’t effectively do that right now because too many working people have no union and no bargaining power.

Is it any wonder then, that under these conditions we’ve become a low wage economy, with ‘poor productivity?

One of the biggest barriers to fixing this problem is the complete lack of an industry wide approach to negotiating wages.  Unlike just about every other OECD country, we’re stuck in the dark ages with just individual or enterprise bargaining, without any industry coordination.

Fair Pay Agreements are meant to be a way of putting right this gaping hole in our industrial laws. The FPA working group came up with a way of stopping the race to the bottom, a race where workers always come last. These Agreements will enable NZ to grow up and create industry wide bargaining minimums that raise the bar on working conditions for specific industries and improve training and industry coordination that can’t be undermined by cowboy employers.

So today we are releasing our response to the Working Group’s report that was given to the Government last December. We think the Working Group did a great job identifying the problems of our ‘race to the bottom’ system of wage setting and came up with practical and workable proposals under which industry-wide agreements could be established.

Our response is called ‘Framework for Fairness’. To make sure Fair Pay Agreements are really fair, our response establishes six key pillars that are fundamental. They are:

  1. The purpose of Fair Pay Agreements is to enable working people to improve their terms and conditions of employment, and their skills in a coordinated industry or sector.
  2. Working people will negotiate FPA’s through their union.
  3. Fair Pay Agreements must cover every person working in a sector or industry, including contractors to protect full employment rights.
  4. Fair Pay Agreements must be about more than just pay rates, because hours of work, training, leave, career progression and how we save for our lives after work are just as important as base wages.
  5. There must be an independent arbitration available to swiftly and comprehensively resolve disputes, with as wide a mandate as possible.
  6. And finally, agreements reached must be final, not be subject to further hurdles or tinkering.

The policy work is done and now it is our Government’s turn to put these principles urgently into law so Fair Pay Agreement negotiations can begin. We eagerly await their response.

Getting a fair share also means getting Pay Equity. We are making great strides in this regard, having built on the incredible Care and Support Settlement, we’ve moved on to reach settlements for social workers, education support workers, mental health and addiction workers. There is of course much more in the pipeline and much, much more to achieve. And Pay Equity needs to go beyond fixing the in equity between men and women, it needs to extend to the terrible imbalance between ethnicities- between Maori and Pakeha, between Pacific workers and Pakeha and between Asian workers and Pakeha.  

But when it comes to getting our fair share, it’s important to understand our expectations go way further than simply getting our share of the economic pie.

Our expectations are more than just sharing the products of our labour, they are also about sharing the process of our labour! Not just sharing what we produce, but also how we produce it.

We want a fair share of life too!

Consider working time.  The amount of time we spend at work needs to be right. There needs to be enough time left over for us to be with our friends and family, enough time for us to call our own time where we are free to do our own thing, and of course enough time to sleep.

Right now Kiwis tend to work too long or too short – We need a better approach to working time that Goldilocks would support – not too little or too much, but just right. Getting there means we need to start seriously moving the full time working week to less hours and in time less days.

And we want a fair share of control over our own lives, not just by having more time away from work, but also by having more say at work.

When we work for a wage or salary, we are not exchanging our humanity for financial compensation. We are not surrendering our dignity and our mana by saying to our boss ‘you’ve paid for me so you can treat me as you please’ and unions do not accept the imposition of micro management or hi tech surveillance. Nor do we accept the concept of a master servant relationship. Getting dignity at work means being treated with respect, being listened to and being in control. It means Industrial Democracy as well as economic democracy.

As the International Labour Organisation clearly states – labour is not a commodity. Work is to be respected. And workers need to be paid fairly in exchange for their contribution, not as some sort of compensation for enduring misery.

Done well, a workplace is somewhere where people derive a powerful sense of satisfaction, self-esteem and meaning. It’s where we reach our potential. Good work is actually a great source of wellness.

And we also know that work done badly is the opposite – it is dangerous, it is boring, it is demeaning, it is alienating and destructive to the human spirit.

So when the Government talks about wellbeing, the CTU says look to the workplace, look where over 2.5 million people work day in and day out. Our message to NZ is – if we’re serious about improving the wellbeing of our people, we should put a real focus on and invest in the workplace, because it has great potential to be a key source of wellbeing.

But to maximise that opportunity, we’ll need to change our workplaces so the culture is focused on much more than just profit and efficiency, but promotes the interests of people.

And let us not forget fairly sharing the work that has to be done to address the climate emergency.  There is no fair share when the planet is dying. We have to do our bit and we are. The student climate march here and around the world was strongly supported by unions. But we are not about simply condemning whole industries and treating them as outcasts, because the workers in those industries need recognition for their achievements and deserve our support to transition to new industries.  The global call of the ITUC for a Just Transition, where everyone shares the benefits, and the burden of change to a low carbon future is very much about this idea of getting a fair share. The Just Transition work our affiliates are doing in Taranaki is a great example doing just that.

Getting our share isn’t going to be easy. We know full well that some people, some interests are getting far more than their fair share – and they aren’t going to give it up easily. They have deep pockets and an army of lobbyists.

Look at the constant Chicken Little act we get every time their castle is threatened. Earlier in the year we heard how the speculators and bankers couldn’t entertain a fairer tax system – and they wheeled out their lobbyists and propaganda and bombed any chance for a Capital Gains Tax. A Tax designed explicitly to make sure speculators started paying their way, so we could all get a fairer share.

And just last week we saw them raise their heads again, this time against the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr, who had the audacity to question the behaviour of our big banks, their exorbitant profits and the risk they pose to the NZ economy.

Now they’re getting personal, suggesting Adrian Orr is some kind of bully bringing disrepute on the office of the RB Governor – who, we are told, shouldn’t ruffle feathers and say anything too challenging. Pretty incredible when you think Don Brash- a poster child for the neo liberal establishment and who went on to head the Act Party – was the first RB Governor appointed. We never heard a whisper about ruffling feathers then amidst grinding poverty, unemployment and austerity.


Which ultimately brings us back to our core purpose and why unions are an essential element of any functioning democracy.

We are political organisations too, not just industrial, and we have to counter the powerful voices of the few who have more than their fair share of not just money and resources – but political influence. Unless working people are able to organise in unions, there won’t be any balance to our democracy.

And it’s not just the New Right – but now it’s the Alt Right. I used to think our system of Government was stable, long standing and unchanging. Looking abroad to older democracies than ours, I realise just how wrong I was and how right wing populism and its extremist fringes can lie just beneath the surface and how precious freedom of expression and association is.

It’s been two years since our last conference, and it’s been a very busy time for the CTU and for the movement. We’ve been rebuilding, we’ve been negotiating (many of us have been on the street marching) for a better deal and a better future. We’ve been busy in working groups to fix the hobbit law, to fix the ERA, to fix the Holidays Act, to fix the Pay Equity law and to introduce FPA’s.

What’s become clear is that Getting our Fair Share will take more than two years after nine years of the previous Government who trashed union rights and trashed public services.

Things have definitely been getting better, and things still have to definitely keep getting better, because we’ve only just got started, we have a long way to go and we need to press on.

We’ve got a lot of work to do and I know many if not all of you share my sense of impatience, which is driven by a sense of the scale of the challenge.

But let’s not lose perspective or get sucked in to the opposition narrative that there are too many working parties and they are a waste of time and money. It’s a good thing this Government is prepared to enter into dialogue with us and with other interested parties. It’s good they accept they don’t know everything and want to know what we think, and want to craft solutions that take into account the views of others. It’s called democracy and we should celebrate a process that is engaging.

As trade unionists, we all know what it’s like when those in authority or in management like to impose their will on us without any real consultation.  And it’s no surprise when politicians with authoritarian instincts say Governments shouldn’t be doing working parties, because in their world, they’re always in charge and they think they have all the answers and don’t need to listen to anyone.  

2019 is the ILO’s centenary year, and the ILO has urged Governments, business’ and unions of all countries to plan and act for a better and brighter future of work. Better than the one we’ve got now.

The ILO is saying that we need to approach the future with a Human Centred agenda – so that the Future of Work is a good future for people first and foremost. That has not been our experience so far – work has been arranged in the interest of finance first and foremost – and putting people first will require a profound change in attitude.

And critically, the ILO insists the path is created through social dialogue between the social partners – Government, Business and Unions – what we call Tri partism. This is where the organised interests of Government, Workers and Business negotiate change. It is a call that is being taken up here, with our Government establishing the FOW tri partite forum.

So while we understand the need to discuss and develop ideas through dialogue, that doesn’t mean we have endless patience – we haven’t.

We need to understand our role in all this. If workers are to get a fair share, unions have to put our foot to the pedal on the reforms in motion and we have to press on industrially and politically to build our presence, and win support for more changes to make NZ a better place to work and live.

And we have a huge opportunity now to do just that.

Let’s keep a sense of perspective. As hungry as we are for fundamental change, for correcting the injustice we see, we have to be strategic, we have to be tactical and we have to be smart. Most of all, we need to remember ‘The workers – United – will never be defeated’

Let’s never forget what gives us our influence and our power – it’s our collective strength, it’s our solidarity and this is as important amongst affiliates, within the movement, as it is in the workplace amongst members.

Our mission can only be achieved by growing our presence, our density. It can only be achieved by all of us acting collectively and in unity.

We have a proud history where we have never lacked ambition.

The next two years between now and our next conference will be critical.

There is a small matter of the general election, on which so many hopes rest. There is so much on the table, if we play our cards right, will enable us to take great strides forward. We have to complete our immediate priorities – FPA’s, Pay Equity, Hobbit law reform which are important, and we need to think beyond that to creating a people centred Future for Workers.

I know we have a great future when I see the work of young union activists and determination in the eyes of students marching against climate chaos.

Activism and standing up for what’s right have always been in our blood and always will be.

Let’s continue to build our momentum here at this event by sharing and developing our ideas so we can play our part in the mighty force that is NZ’s labour movement.

Have a great conference.