While Labourites continue to fixate on the weighty issue of which poor Buggins should try to lead them, the Nats have dusted off their momentarily-stalled agenda and bounded back into the legislative fray with gleeful gusto.
The Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which would have passed its final hurdle in the last parliament if John Banks hadn’t been such a naughty boy, promises to tinker around the edges of employment law and inject some workplace flexibility and choice; or, it’s another vicious slap in the face for workers’ rights. Pop on your red or blue shirt, pick your side and join in the fight.
Predictably, because it makes for
good cheesy headlines (even I couldn’t help myself), the media have focused on one aspect: the threat to that sacred shibboleth of the laconic, hardworking Kiwi – the morning smoko. And it’s not even a smoko these days unless you’re prepared to stand in the rain. The 10 minute tea-break, like the kiwi, is now endangered. Except, of course, it’s not. Employers must provide “reasonable compensatory measures”, which could be anything, ’tis true. But in most workplaces, common sense and flexibility will probably prevail, as it probably has under the current regulations.
This is no mere storm in a teacup for the left, though, who have turned all their water pistols on the rest break changes – you can sign the petition here. The trouble is, this is risibly easy for National to bat away, given their current levels of popularity. And if the worst comes to the worst, John Key can just smilingly step in to save the smoko for plucky Kiwis, while the rest of the proposals, which are more concerning, sail through into law.
I’m not going to analyse these changes in tedious detail, as other sites have done so far better than I could, suffice to say that a leading employment lawyer concludes that while it hardly mirrors Franco in 1939 or Hitler in 1933, it certainly “shifts the balance of power towards employers and away from unions”. In short, collective bargaining will get tougher for unions and employees, and there are more obstacles to negotiate before any industrial action.
The indignation and polarised views of both sides have been so tediously predictable. Neither side can ever ‘win’ the perennial conflict between labour and capital. In any co-dependent, two-horse race, too much success one way will inevitably result in a backlash: hell, the Kiwis finally got one over the Kangaroos after a long enough wait.
The stereotype of the union firebrand, incapable of using his inside voice, and strutting the picket line like a peacock in a donkey jacket, has ossified among the public; but this is because the only time we hear about unions is when they are embroiled in industrial strife. Ditto the corpulent, ruthless boss. Most of the time, relations are civil and cordial, and negotiation rarely becomes protracted and nasty. And a union does much more than rant about pay – it ought to be (and certainly is, in the case of my own) an advocate for individual members, and a source of ideas for better work practice, health and safety and more.
In Germany, union representatives even sit on company boards. Stop laughing at the back there – it’s true! And here is the issue in New Zealand. There is a historic lack of trust from both sides of the divide which merely prolongs the pendulum of legislation swinging from one side to the other as the government changes. Perhaps it’s time for this adversarial attitude to stop: I’m not holding my breath. While the PPTA are about to nod through the government’s Investing In Educational Success programme (in which a right-wing government appears to be offering a sizeable number of teachers the opportunity to increase their salaries), the NZEI has rejected them outright. And do you remember the petulance of NZ Bus when they responded to a threat by the Auckland bus drivers’ union to work to rule? They simply locked them out completely, in a fine fit of petulant grandstanding, and to hell with the hapless commuters. The silliness is not confined to one side.
If there were any comments on this blog, those of a right persuasion would argue that this is all very well, but it’s the unions that have to change, and the left would say the opposite. QED. There is a grown-up, joined-up approach to industrial relations, but these laws (and too many stakeholders) don’t have the balls to consider that.