Where to find the workplace discontent

Spiders discomfort some people. Unions discomfort John Key. Unions are the antithesis of individualism and they get in the way. One got in the way of some film moguls so he changed workplace law to suit the moguls.
Unions are fomenting discontent by joining Greypower and other groups to get up a citizens-initiated referendum on state asset sales which could be a bit embarrassing.

Other unions have been: obstructing Ports of Auckland’s drive for much more job flexibility; not immediately embracing a meatworks company’s major unilateral work practice changes; and wanting a fair share of the increase in a for-profit old-people’s home operator’s loot from taxpayers.

This agitation differs from pre-1980s Midlands-accented workplace folklore. Unions, once powerful, are now under a tenth of the private-sector workforce and by and large on the defensive as the cabinet limbers up for more deregulation in collective bargaining, flexible hours and dismissal constraints and as globalisation-stretched companies anticipate those more employer-friendly settings.

There is pressure in the public sector, too. The Defence Force’s sackings last year to civilianise some jobs is now rewarding top brass with higher attrition and low morale. John Allen risks a similar return on his reconstruction of the foreign service: a survey of staff indicated widespread and deep upset at his big-change proposals.

People aren’t numbers.

Well, actually they are. By and large National views employees’ incomes as costs. By and large Labour views them as sustenance. The workplace is the dividing line between the two big old parties and an enduring reason why only in a dire national emergency would Labour enter a grand coalition.

In National’s world flexible work practices and containment of wages and salaries are vital ingredients of business competitiveness in a tough global economy. In that arena people are numbers.

Labour thinks competitiveness comes from investment and innovation to lift worker productivity: David Shearer has kept the science and innovation portfolio. For Labour numbers in the workplace are those that meet living costs: food on the table in a house and so on. That’s how people are numbers.

There are two main dimensions to this.

Go back 100 years: built into the conciliation and arbitration (IC&A) system then was a presumption that a wage should at the least enable a man to afford a decent supply of the basics for an average family: that is, a living wage.

The Service and Food Workers Union, which represents many of the lowest-paid workers, some of them shockingly treated, wants to resurrect that concept. It is talking to community organisations which support low-income families about launching a living wage campaign.

What is the moral case for not paying someone who works conscientiously a wage that pays for a decent supply of necessities, especially if supporting children, who hardly deserve to go without?

Actually, it is not so simple. The IC&A notion assumed a single “breadwinner”, which was then the norm. This is still the case in many households but many now have two “breadwinners”. Should the “living wage” for them be divided in two? And what if the other “breadwinner” is on a good screw?

Now apply National’s argument that work gives “dignity”. That is not easy to argue if the pay is derisory and demeaning and not enough to keep a couple of kids decently. A “dignity” policy needs strong foundations.

Now for the second numbers dimension. Global economics are driving down wages for even skilled work. Moreover, who gets most hurt if transport (including port) costs are higher than they need be? The least-well-off.

Ken Douglas, legendary unionist, used to call “wharfies” the “aristocrats of labour”: high wages and cushy conditions. As in 1951, the Labour party is wary of being seen in cahoots with wharfies. Labour’s safer position is concern that what can be done to well-organised wharfies can be done even more readily to others.

There is also a legal dimension.

The pressure generating the current tensions has been coming mostly from employers, whom unions think have been emboldened in exacting economic times by Key’s law change promises, which Key disingenuously calls minor.

There has been loose talk of a “winter of discontent”. But whose discontent is on show?

And where will employers’ discontent lead? If Key does make the changes he has said he will, the next Labour-led government will reverse them and probably overdo it, as it did after National’s 1990s deregulation.

The alternative for Key would be to tune into conservative values, one of which is durability of social conditions and conventions. Unstable workplace law doesn’t fit.

* Last week I talked of “banana-less” New Zealand, in contrast to banana-republic Australian politics. Actually, I am told, the far north grows some bananas: a few and “marginal”. The lesson: if we look for bananas politics in this country we will find it at the margins.