From Cloth Cap to Mitre Board: The New Face of Unionism

Improving the terms and conditionsof employment remains the modus operandi of all unions. But political and economic forces have required major rethink on how this is best achieved. In an effort to reinforce their relevancy, unions have lifted the cloth on the notion that the only tangible benefit they can provide members is pay increase.

The net effect of the ERA was tilting towards greater unionism through statutory protection. Management’s major pre-ERA fear was that redistribution of power back to the unions (after 10 years in the wilderness) would see them flex their regained muscle through industrial action. In short, the era of union “payback-time” just hasn’t happened. So why have unions been so slow to make their way under the new Act?

The answer’s simple, says CTU president Ross Wilson. Today’s union movement has different focus. The changing composition of union membership, he says, has lot to do with changing employment demographics. The real growth areas and industrial hotbed for unions is no longer the waterfront and transport, but nursing, teaching and service sectors – areas heavily dominated by women.

Constructive relationships
If push comes to shove, unions are willing to bring strike action – strikes by post primary teachers are case in point. But Wilson says the era of industrial stoppages, prevalent in the 1980s is long gone. As result, the persona of senior union officials has become more sophisticated. More militant ideologues can still be found, but they’ve been overlooked on the union career ladder for more educated pragmatists. In fact, today’s senior union officials are more likely to be suit-wearing, university-trained professionals than shop-floor delegates who have worked their way up.

“What confrontational unionism has been replaced with is refocus on educating and developing partnerships with employers and recruiting. The new Act is framework for good faith behaviour. The 1990s, period when the government of the day worked to eliminate unions, created an atmosphere of confrontation and chaos. It’s now the objective of the unions to have constructive relationships with management,” says Wilson.

Membership numbers decimated
But that only partly explains why unions haven’t vigorously rebounded since the ERA came into law 18 months ago. At least that’s the view of Robyn May, senior research fellow at Victoria University’s Industrial Relations Centre. Based on her research, unions’ inability to exercise their new power-base is as much resource issue. “After 10 years in the political wilderness, union membership was decimated. This led to huge downsizing in resources,” says May.

In other words, unions don’t have the big dollars needed to take employers on in the courts. Not surprisingly, says May, recruitment is one of the CTU’s primary mantras. Given that the ERA did redistribute bargaining power between employees and bosses, May says the jury’s out on whether unions are making the most of their new opportunities to pursue collective bargaining. “We’re not witnessing any great sea-change here. Both management and unions appear to be taking their time to consider the ramifications of the new Act,” says May.

While that’s true, Wilson believes that management from both the public and private sector is struggling to make the transition in the era of good faith bargaining. “There’s definitely an overhang left from the bad old days. Management from the public sector are finding it particularly hard to put the bitterness of the past behind them. The aggressive anti-union stance taken by Canterbury Health is prime example,” says Wilson.

New Act ineffectual
From his view at management’s end of the bargaining table, employment lawyer Paul Tremewan observes little has changed since the new Act was introduced. He says while there’s lot of bargaining going on, it hasn’t resulted in any more collective agreements than before. What’s fashioning union behaviour, says Tremewan, is realisation the new Act is ineffectual.

The recent strike pushed by the Service & Food Workers Union at two South Island Sanford (fisheries) sites proves his point. “Workers refused to go back to work without multi-site agreement. Union leadership thought the new Act would give them the clout to achieve this. Going back to work after nine weeks, without an agreement led to huge loss of faith in unions.”

So much so that many of the striking workers have since abandoned this union. Instead of being test case for the new Act, Tremewan says it proved that the new Act can’t be relied on to deliver anything.

“It can’t take away the right to bargain, but neither can it compel one side to accept the other or vice versa.
Unions are spending longer time negotiating because they don’t have the power through this legislation to enforce change. Nor is there the political will to go on strike,” says Tremewan. Unions also know full well, says Anne Knowles, executive director of Business New Zealand, that if they’re too radical, they’ll lose the political support they currently enjoy.

Partnerships with management
So with industrial action well off the agenda, what are the unions’ primary strategies? Languishing at half their numbers of 10 years ago, Wilson & Co plan to nudge union membership from 22 percent to over 30 percent of the workforce. This means widening their relevancy to workers at large, and is why developing partnering relationships with employers is so important, according to Wilson.

“We’re making concerted effort to change. We’re evolving our strategic agenda to reflect broader range of issues confronting people in modern economy. We seek to play constructive role in ensuring wealth is shared.”

At the tactical level, Wilson & Co plan to invest heavily in workshops, and seminars aimed at educating all workers on their rights and the broader role of unions. “Many of the people we represent won’t get pay increases unless their skills are moved up notch or two, so training remains key issue,” says Wilson.

Another pressing issue for unions, he says, is connecting with younger workers. Far from being anti-union, many of those who started working during the early 1990s have simply never been exposed to union. Union officials know this all too well, and are using vanguard organisers like Karen Skinner of FinSec, to establish positive perceptions.

FinSec represents workers within the finance sector, especially the banking and insurance sectors – comprising lot of youth and predominance (60 percent plus) of women. Having young female organisers like Skinner turn up at worksite is surprise for many. But pleasant one, or so it seems – membership is on the up. Skinner is witnessing lot more interest in union membership. She says having more educated delegates with better training on rights and legislative issues is leading to recognition that unions have changed.

Legislating for stress
Education aside, health and safety issues are the blunt instrument with which unions plan to drive home relevancy. “It’s not just about collective agreements. Unions are now about any issues that workers face.
One of the key issues in our industry is stress in the workplace caused by understaffing, massive workloads, and pay-based tagging to moving financial targets. We’re trying to work with employers on these issues. We’re also pushing for stress and fatigue provisions in health and safety legislation,” says Skinner.

Without critical mass, Round Table boss Roger Kerr says unions are taking the t actical route of trying to have greater union power mandated for through legislation. He argues that labour market flexibility will suffer if proposed stress and fatigue provisions under the Health & Safety in Employment Amendment Bill are passed. Still before select committee, Knowles says with stress being such subjective thing, it would create untold problems for employers if the Bill was passed an

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