Labour used to be called the “class warfare” party. But it is now at risk of sharing that title — with the National party.
The latest addition to a series of workplace deregulatory law changes proposes that workers who strike or are locked out can be replaced. That builds on a change allowing proportionate docking of pay for strikes or go-slows. A raft of other law changes, some still before Parliament, make it increasingly difficult for employees to combine to negotiate wages and conditions. One, on treatment of workers when a contract is sold or transferred, is even opposed by a business lobby, the Building Services Contractors.
The new initiative is in Jami-Lee Ross’s Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Amendment Bill, drawn from the ballot last week. It repeals section 97 of the Employment Relations Act which prevents the use of volunteers, contractors or other casual employees during a strike or lockout.
Note, not just during a strike, which is initiated by employees or a union, but also during a lockout, which an employer initiates.
Ross’s bill is a member’s bill, not official government policy. But the National party’s northern region endorsed it at its conference last month. That region is National’s largest. So unless party bosses caution against it, the remit will likely pass if it is put at the national conference in August.
One cause for such a cautioning is that the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) on Friday called the Ross bill “a bridge too far”. (Simon Bridges is the Minister of Labour, in case you missed the pun.)
The EMA said the bill “needs a lot of thought and debate. At first flush employers could think the bill a good idea without taking into account unintended consequences”.
It added: “While its principles are worth exploring, it could prove very divisive. New Zealand communities place a high value on fairness and the bill could have consequences that would be considered unfair.” The EMA didn’t say to whom, or to which class, it would be unfair but there aren’t many options.
The EMA said it did not want to “jeopardise” “10 to 15 years of harmonious workplace relations” (not least, it might have added, because now only 9-10 per cent of the private workforce is in unions).
Then it added: “Employers don’t want to see the law change every time there is a change of government and we can foresee law based on this bill may not last.”
Translation: Ross’s bill represents regulatory risk. Business — most business — values regulatory certainty. Seesaw law changes upon changes of government spell uncertainty.
And the bigger the see, the bigger the subsequent saw is likely to be. That, in essence, is the EMA’s big worry.
Seesaw law is now a danger on several fronts. A list is growing of government law changes which Labour and the Greens — and, from time to time, New Zealand First — are vowing to, or likely to, reverse or repeal.
Maryan Street made that pledge last month for deep changes the cabinet is driving through in resource management law. Other repeal candidates are the cabinet’s major changes in local government law and the budget legislation giving Nick Smith the power to muscle into local councils and issue consents for houses.
Draconian anti-protest law might be another reversal candidate. Likewise, the far-reaching extension of the Government Communications Security Bureau’s functions.
Sky City might also be a candidate for regulatory uncertainty despite its coup in luring into its rugby corporate box Labour’s ex-leader Phil Goff, ex-deputy Annette King, state-owned enterprises spokesman Clayton Cosgrove and Mana MP Kris Faafoi, a former staffer of Sky City’s communications chief Gordon Jon Thompson when Thompson was an executive in Goff’s office.
Thompson’s coup has upset some in the Labour party because it has undermined Labour’s line against the gambling-licences-for-convention-centre deal. If that upset persists through a change election, Sky City might find the law can be bent against it as much as for it. In its laws barring access to the courts, the Key government has given Labour an opening in Sky City’s case.
Those laws are among worries some of National’s friends have with its departure from good process and constitutionality. The Law Society is not known as a convocation of sandal-wearing socialists. Nor is former ACT MP and National candidate Stephen Franks one. Several current court cases have constitutional overtones or implications.
In the past it was usually Labour governments that riled sticklers for form, while National governments (except, sporadically, under Sir Robert Muldoon) followed proper process.
And in the past National could fairly charge Labour with “class warfare” because of its union origins and often servile past attention to union wishes in workplace and other law.
Now John Key’s government is challenging Labour both on good process and as class warrior. Politics sometimes turns up interesting alleys.