But What Does It Mean?

Remember the predictions when the ERA became law? Proponents argued ?good’ employers would notice little more than change in processes while ?bad’ employers would have to mend their ways.
Opponents predicted strikes as emboldened unions pressed unrealistic claims. The reality is that it’s been pretty quiet on the collective bargaining front for number of reasons.
Firstly, many contracts were deliberately settled before the ERA hoping the rules would be clearer when the contracts are re-negotiated.
Secondly, transitional provisions mean contracts continue until they expire or July 2003 unless union members agree by secret ballot for an earlier expiry.
The third reason is that business is busy getting on with business. Most have met their new obligations by updating recruitment procedures, informing employees of new problem-solving processes and meeting their general good faith obligations. Some have given employees information about the ERA, and few are working on strategic plans with long-term perspective.
Lastly, unions are wary of campaigns they are not ready for. Under the previous legislation, union membership slumped from about 50 percent of the workforce to around 20 percent. Unions are focusing on reversing that trend and consolidating membership.
At the time of writing there have only been two industrial disputes of note. The first concerned Mainland Stevedoring’s use in the South Island of casual, albeit unionised, out of town labour instead of members of the local Waterfront Workers Union. The police flying wedge escorting casual labourers through union picket lines made emotive dinnertime viewing and led to debate about the ERA although the dispute had nothing to do with collective bargaining.
The second dispute involved Agriculture and Fisheries vets in abattoirs. The vets were re-negotiating collective agreement but the legal action surrounding the case centred on technical argument about the legality of the proposed strike. It did not clarify the cornerstones of the ERA collective bargaining and good faith.
This calm before the storm has led some to say the predictions of doom and gloom were grossly overstated view that the Government no doubt welcomes. Some now even question whether the ERA will bring about any significant change. During the stevedoring dispute, doyen of the left Chris Trotter, took this point further in challenging the CTU’s response to the dispute:
“If the Watersiders in New Zealand industrial mythology the toughest unionists around can be beaten and their jobs casualised, the Employment Relations Act will be revealed as hollow sham.”
Trotter condemned the CTU for failing to make the “right to strike” central in its campaign for industrial legislation reform:
“As result, the ERA is hedged with about as many legal restrictions on industrial action as the Employment Contracts Act.”
Trotter’s call was for mass mobilisation in support of the watersiders, even if it is illegal. His point is that without the right for secondary strikes for political reasons or in support of other striking workers the ERA will not address the fundamental imbalance of bargaining power and deliver the working person’s nirvana.
Trotter knows the present quiet will not last forever and he is right. To continue the storm analogy seagulls are heading inland for shelter. Existing contracts are coming to an end and have to be re-negotiated in some workplaces, ballots will bring other contracts to an early end.
The environment of restraint in number of industries over recent years will come under pressure from claims based on four percent inflation over the last year.
Unions will focus on building membership, but know they need to do more. The CTU’s second priority this year is collective agreements whether to replace expiring collectives or settle new ones in areas that currently have none.
Negotiating an agreement is probably the best way for union to build membership, especially in the face of employer resistance. Furthermore, in workplaces with collectives the ERA will steer new employees towards unions. In return, unions will need to show tangible benefits for members. Trotter’s predictions suggest this will be difficult when worker expectations heightened by the ERA eventually come face to face with what can realistically be achieved under the new law.
The glass is falling albeit slowly and clouds are forming on the horizon although it’s too early to forecast the size of the blow.
Just make sure you have wet weather gear in the cupboard.

Andrew Wilson is consultant with the organisational performance consultancy, The Empower Group

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