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  Issue No 52 Official Organ of LaborNet 05 May 2000  




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War Stories from the Shakey Isles

Interview with Noel Hester

After being flat-earthed, New Zealand unions are making a comeback under a new progressive government. Darien Fenton is at the forefront of the resurgence.


Darien Fenton

What sort of losses did the Service Workers Union suffer after the introduction of the ECA?

Huge losses, mainly in the first three years. 18,000 workers covered by the Tearooms and Restaurants Award disappeared when the employers refused to renegotiate that award ? covering every little coffee bar and restaurant in town, with high turnover and an impossible job to do workplace contracts for them all. This was followed by losses of around 5,000 in rest homes when first the private employers refused to negotiate a national contract and then the religious and welfare employers went feral ? remember the PSS lockout? This was designed to force workers onto a new cec with no penal rates and much reduced conditions and they did it by approaching people individually and scaring the shit out of them.

We lost masses of cleaners, hospital workers were halved because of contracting out in the 1993 ?1994 health reforms and on and on. If you believe our membership figures at the formation of the SWU in 1991, we had 70,000 members. By 1993, we had 30,000 and today, with two other amalgamations under our belts, we have just over 20,000. My real estimation is that the combined unions that have amalgamated to form the SWU (and who incurred their own losses before amalgamating ? for example, the Clerical Workers Union, which in Wellington and the South Island went out of existence within 18 months of the ECA ? the Northern amalgamated with us), I would say that around 100,000 workers in our industries used to be covered by national awards and compulsory unionism.

Was that the only reason the union went backwards or were there other reasons as well?

There were many reasons. While we had done more work than most unions on getting ready for the ECA, I don't think we made a philosophical shift - in other words, we were bound up in compulsory union and servicing thinking.

50 years of compulsory unionism, where national awards were settled away from workers and where most workers thought the government gave them pay rises meant that we were seriously weakened. Other things hurt too, like the halving of numbers in our strong bases, such as hospitals, due to contracting out along with closures and redundancies throughout the 90's. And every time there was a sale of a business, a unionised workplace quickly became a non union workplace ? for example the Air NZ Catering Site - which had around 300 members. When it was sold to Caterair, the workers had to reapply for their jobs on lesser pay and conditions ? and most of our activists didn't get jobs. The union was shut out without access and it made very clear that being part of a union was career limiting. We are just starting to organise Caterair again. This happened time and time again across all of our industries and is the reason we have been campaigning for a transfer of undertakings provision in the ERB (which isn't in there) - so that workers jobs and pay and conditions must be transferred in a sale or contracting out of business.

How come the SWU wasn't completely obliterated?

Many commentators said a union like ours wouldn't survive under the ECA ? especially a union with predominately small workplaces, (average workplace size less than 10 members) and part?time, casual and temporary jobs in the secondary labour market. Our union had made real attempts in the 80's to build strong delegates networks and structures for maori, pacific island and women members. I think this held us in good stead because it built a culture of activism. Our union, more than most, had some major campaigns in the health and hospitality sectors in the mid to late 80's, which built confidence among members and helped sustain some of the attacks. I think we also had such a shock in 1993, when the union faced $1million deficit and had to make some really tough decisions, including laying off a third of our staff, restructuring and taking all of the layers out of the union. So, we've learned to be really careful with money, to fund raise for activities and members freely giving of their own time to be active in the union.

When and why was there a change in the way of doing things?

From before the ECA, proponents for organising change, such as Paul Chalmers, our previous Education Officer, was trying to get people to focus on organising as a response to the ECA. We had sent him and others to the USA in the late 80's to find out how to prepare for what was coming, and we had Val Ervine of the UFCW here in the early 90's with a national conference on organising for all staff. He introduced the concept of one to one organising to the union, along with mapping and analysing workplaces.

In the Health Division in Auckland, we got re-inspired by a couple of visits by people like Marge Kruger from the CWA and Teresa Conrow and started trying to build organising committees, revisiting and revamping the stuff both Paul, and his successor, Annie Newman, who is a community activist, had been running in education programmes since the early 90's.

We set ourselves some goals of getting Workplace organising Committees in as many workplaces as possible, we found new ways to get workers involved and active and we had some real successes. I took over the role of the organising proponent and evangelist in the organisation and for the next few couple of years was probably the most unpopular person among the organising staff ? because I was challenging the status quo. The platform for the challenge was our continuing shrinking membership, our concessionary bargaining, our stressed our staff and our lack of genuinely active members.

It was painful and difficult still is. Those of us who supported the organising programme learned that initiating change in unions needs an organising model ? you have to find supporters and leaders, you have to build a network of people who are committed to the change and you have to expand that to others. There are some people you will never convince or change ? either you find roles for them that are useful to the organization that don't contradict the organising programme or they have to go.

It's been a long haul, and we are just beginning to see some results. I think we spent a lot of time trying to convince tired and burned out staff that this is a good idea, instead of convincing the people who really should make the decisions ? the executive and the members.

What's changed in the last year is that the leadership of the union has become absolutely and firmly united around the organising programme and the executive has taken charge of it and is holding me and the other regional secretaries accountable for its delivery. And what's different is that we have gone to members and asked for their help. This year's AGMS have been all about that ? about the union's programme, about the crisis and what it will take to rebuild ? even under the ERA ? and the response has been overwhelming.

We have hundreds and hundreds of members who have signed up for our Be ACtive programme ? being active in their industry, winning in the workplace, becoming a member organiser, or joining our maori, pacific island, women's, young workers or gay and lesbian networks.

Describe the differences between the organisation now and say ten years ago?

Ten years ago, we were a much bigger organisation, with 100 odd staff, national infrastructure, research capacity, industry leadership and so on. Today we are around a third of our previous size, with 63 staff, some infrastructure in terms of our legal and publicity staff. Our industry influence has been weakened by enterprise bargaining, whole parts of some sectors in our industries are deunionised, new industries have sprung up and the work places that we knew ten years ago have changed forever.

The impact and devastation of the ECA has been massive in hospitality, in cleaning, in caregiving, in clerical and admin work. Our density in hospitals is relatively high, despite contracting out, our density in age care and community services is around 30%, our density in contracting cleaning and accommodation is less than 10%. Food manufacturing has high density, but these are large workplaces that have by and large been hit more by economic policies than the ECA.

We are focussing on the industry and sector organising themes and the threat of the non?union competition, whereas before, I think we concentrated a lot on building workplace organisation ? perhaps seeing it as the first step towards getting activists who will help organise in other workplaces.

The leadership (elected secretaries) has almost completely changed, apart from Wellington and two women are now in these positions.

The most significant change is the way we do our work. It's almost as if we have had to revisit the politics of organising ? because the ECA has turned unions in narrow negotiators of contracts and handlers of disputes. We've had to challenge this thinking with members, with organisers, with the executive ? it's core and critical to being a successful organising union ? where the members are the union ? not the organiser. We say that blithely, but it's practising it ? in everything we do and say, in the way we work with members and the way we work with the boss. This has been the biggest change and on?going change in our union in the last ten years.

In terms of organising, we have allocated 20% of our organising resources to new organising, so that in Auckland, we have three organisers, plus an organising co?ordinator allocated for "external" organising. All "internal" organisers have growth, targets for more activists, targets for involvement in union activities and democracy and campaigns.

We are setting up a Union Rights Centre in Auckland, which which includes the information organiser, who is also responsible for compliance issues ? such as wage claims, a mediations organiser, who does the mediations beyond the workplace after they've been assessed for organising potential and the legal officer. The Centre will provide research, is developing an intranet for organisers to access collective agreement and industry information and will access first contacts for organising potential, will collect industry information and help free up organisers for more organising.

We have more activists than before. We have a goal of one activist for every five members and we are almost halfway there. We have renewed networks for women and pacific island members (including in the South Island!) and maori structures are starting to take off.

This year, we have a special budget that has allocated out of reserves money for education and support ? for staff, members and executive to help implement what is quite big change for some parts of the union.

We piloted a Volunteer Organiser Programme last year in Wellington and Auckland and it worked well. One of our volunteers in Auckland helped recruit a rest home the other day. The only problem in Wellington has been that they stand out so much that they get employed as organisers ? one for our union and one for another! However, it's our version of Organising Works I suppose. This year, we are running a Volunteer Programme in all three regions.

We have a bunch of young enthusiastic members and organisers who have set up YUM, (Youth Union Movement) ? the first iniative of its kind in more than ten years. We aim to provide a place for every member to be comfortable and to be active. So members, as outlined above have stepped up for all kinds of activity.

I also think we are more open and accessible. Even although we remain affiliated to Labour, we encourage those who prefer to be involved in the Alliance. We are the only union in NZ who is affiliated to both the CTU and the TUF. If people want to be involved in anything, it is welcomed, not restricted.

My aim is to provide for every member no matter what age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, occupation or industry to feel there is a place for them to be active in our union.

Are you growing?

We are growing in community services, cleaning and age care. Just in the last month, we recruited 500 members ? two new rest homes, some Spotless workers in a large worksite we didn't know about, a call centre for PizzaHutt. I expect the union to grow significantly this year.

Are you effective?

Yes, I think we are. We've just won a huge case in Wellington against Capital Coast Health ? over contracting out in 1993. The settlement's worth $9million and involved 150 workers, many of whom were in the court every day of the 20 day hearing.

Members are encouraged to be active, to be confident about asserting their rights, we challenge injustice, such as the contracting out at the Hyatt last year with action and we have a high public profile.

We are rebuilding the notion of industry strength ? that a hospital worker in Invercargill is linked to a hospital worker in Whangarei. This is a biggie, because there's no doubt that the ECA successfully fragmented industries and workers from one another. We're pushing the non union competition as a threat to the job security of unionised workers and our education programmes have expanded beyond workplace organisation to industry organisation and getting workers to help organise outside of their own workplaces.

Do you have a different sort of membership?

Yes, I think the members have changed with the changing population of NZ. It's very obvious in Auckland for example, that the majority of our members are PI or Maori ? even in rest homes, which used to be predominately pakeha women ? or it may be that PI and Maori have been morely to stay unionised. Workers from Mainland China, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Phillipines and many other countries are now turning up in cleaning and at the casino. We have new jobs, such as those in the information and callcentre fields and the NZ Symphony Orchestra!


*    Visit the NZCTU

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*   Issue 52 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: War Stories from the Shakey Isles
After being flat-earthed, New Zealand unions are making a comeback under a new progressive government. Darien Fenton is at the forefront of the resurgence.
*  Unions: Laying It On the Line
A complex international legal web underpins a long-running South Coast picket.
*  International: Alive and Kicking
Those representing right wing political forces and strategists for multi-national corporations would be disappointed by the success of the recently concluded Congress of the WFTU in Delhi.
*  Economics: Fair Trade not Free Trade
The successful MAI and Seattle campaigns have sparked a new debate about the role of the World Trade Organization.
*  History: The Manchester Movement
Manchester, in Asa Briggs memorable phrase, was the shock city of the early nineteenth century, a small and obscure market town that in a matter of a few years had become a huge city.
*  Satire: Passing the Buck
Government report tells bosses how to lie and pass the buck: Reith blames Kemp
*  Review: A Book to Set the Left Right
The Australian Finacial Review's Stephen Long gives his verdict on 'Tales from the new Shop Floor'.

»  Conference Showdown Looms Over Stellar
»  Olympics Pay Fight Hots Up
»  Victims Compo Win for Workers
»  Living Wage to Flow Through Fast
»  Women Part-Timers Fight ANZ
»  Clemo Fights for Wage Justice
»  Community Workers Vote to Strike
»  New Report: TV Casting Discriminatory
»  Call for ACCC Prosecutions Over Japan Coal
»  Sydney Support for Korean Workers and Arrested Officials
»  Maternity Protection Goes Global
»  Ten Years Hard Labor for Shaw
»  Sydney CD's Head For Dili
»  May One - Ground Zero

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Negotiation - Reith Style
»  Propaganda or News?
»  A Recipe for Modern Unionism
»  Disappointed by May Day Coverage
»  Politics in the Pub

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