Interview: Minority Report
Industrial: Girl Power
Unions: Made in NZ
History: Spirit for a Fair Go
Economics: Fool's Gold
Politics: Worth Fighting For
Health: The Force Behind Medibank
Legal: Robust Justice
International: After the Revolution
Poetry: The Sound of Unions
Review: Bad Santa
The Locker Room
Not A Casey Fan
Made in NZ
Kiwis flooded into Australia from the early-1990s and they didn't all have contracts to play Rugby League with Manly.
The influx coincided with a radical experiment in their homeland. The Employment Contracts Act (ECA) was enacted on May 15, 1991, and within a couple of years had cut a swathe through wage packets.
"By 1999," economist Peter Conway noted "New Zealand exhibited all the signs of a divided society - between rich and poor, employers and workers, even city and country."
The obvious question for Australians is, why should we care?
Because, according to Sydney-based Paul Goulter, the same show is about to open on this side of Tasman. We have time on our sides, he says, and should use it to shore up our defences.
To the former secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) the noises emanating from Canberra are familiar.
"They are using exactly the same language as we heard in New Zealand," Goulter says.
"They will do lots of nasty things, legitimising unfair dismissals and all that, but their primary focus will be on destroying collective bargaining as the key means of setting terms and conditions."
John Howard has already put his leg in the legislative swamp but, Goulter warns, has yet to show his full hand.
Prior to the ECA, New Zealand's National Party Government targeted unions as meddlesome third parties. They were protected by legislative privilege, it argued, in terms familiar to any Howard watcher.
Its real targets always, though, were job security and earnings. The strategy was confirmed in Treasury's Budget Report No 88, tabled just 13 months after the Act was passed.
"The unskilled, especially part time and young workers will probably have no wage increases and new entrants may start on lower pay rates than existing workers," it forecast.
The Act was devastating, tearing up national awards and empowering employers to write "individual contracts" without negotiation.
To revolutionise the New Zealand workplace, unions had to be neutered and the ECA delivered a kick where it hurt, proscribing their ability to effectively represent members.
Unions had to get written authority from every individual they bargained for and these had to be shown to often-aggressive employers before bargaining commenced.
Employers were not required to bargain with unions, even if 100 percent of employees sought representation, something Howard has already introduced.
Workers could only taken action after agreements expired and severe penalties were introduced for breaches.
Perhaps, most simply though, when an agreement expired, it really did expire - everyone went onto individual contracts unless a new collective had already been finalised.
Wages fell, or were rolled over for years at a time, lockouts exploded, penalty rates and overtime disappeared up and down the country. Workplace injuries and deaths rocketed.
One lockout, in rural Milton, dragged on for over three years after staff baulked at massive clawbacks.
When employees of Tucker Wool Processors got their boss to court in 1999, after he refused to negotiate on savage cuts to terms and conditions, the Court of Appeal ruled this was exactly what legislators had intended.
Today, in 2004, a heavy machinery operator in Kaitaia gets $13 an hour. He has to work over 50 hours a week before overtime applies.
A 10-year survey of retailing, between 1987 and 1997, revealed massive falls in real wages - 11 percent on average for Monday to Friday staff, and 33 percent for those who worked some weekend hours.
The problems of a labour market, driven by wage cuts, were underlined when Helen Clarke's Labour Party regained power in 1999. An under-resourced Labour Department revealed it was investigating 61 illegal sweatshops, some of which were confiscating passports, and ducking tax, to compete.
The new environment was made possible by the near collapse of trade unions, engineered by the Employment Contracts Act.
From December, 1991, to December, 1999, union membership among wage and salary earners tumbled from 44.6 percent to 21.4 percent.
According to Victoria University data, there were 720,000 New Zealanders employed on awards or collective agreements in 1990 but just 421,400 by 2000.
The "partial lockout" became an employer favourite. Basically, it involved locking a clause, or clauses, out of the next agreement. Typically, an employer would say we will tick the agreement over, minus overtime, weekend rates and shift allowances - take it, or leave it.
Thousands, faced with striking as the only alternative, took it until the tactic was eventually rolled in court.
"It was a matter of perception as much as reality," says Goulter who now works for the ACTU's organising centre. "In New Zealand, the strong perception was that employers were on top, although that was not necessarily the case.
"It took workers and unions a good five or six years to recover their confidence."
Australians, he says, are much better placed to resist. For a start, after eight years of Howard, they still have 1.8 million members and a network of tens of thousands of active job delegates.
John Howard, Peter Reith and Tony Abbott have set alarm bells ringing, whereas the ECA was sprung on New Zealand after a century of national awards and compulsory union membership.
"The environment will make it more difficult to win improvements but it won't make it impossible," Goulter says.
"We need to be focused about the way we respond, bearing in mind that of all the provocations that will be dished up, at their core will be the attack on collective bargaining.
"We need to think about how we are bargaining and why we are bargaining. That analysis should be happening now because we don't need to know the detail of what is coming.
"Confidence is important. It would be great to have some successful collective bargaining campaigns under our belts. What we can't afford to do is go back into the hutch."
How's This for Starters?
What's in store for our workplaces? John Howard was mute during the federal election campaign but has a range of bills stacked up in the Senate that give a flavour of what he's about.
Don't be misled by some of the titles ...
Award Simplification Bill - seeks to further limit what we can bargain over.
Better Bargaining Bill - restricts the right to take legal industrial action by making it easier for the IRC to suspend bargaining periods; allowing third parties to intervene; barring multi-employer documents; and introducing "cooling off" periods
Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill - establishes industrial police forces with co-ercive powers, including the power to compel evidence on pain of gaol. Provides large fines and prison terms and severely restricts the right to take industrial action. Limits the ability of unions to visit building sites and increases damages that can be awarded against workers and unions.
Choice in Award Coverage Bill - allows small businesses to opt out of coverage
Fair Dismissal Bill - makes it legal for employers, with less than 20 staff, to unfairly sack employees
Promoting Safe Workplaces Bill - excludes Commonwealth employees, including employees of Telstra, from industrial manslaughter laws enacted by any state or territory
Protecting Small Business Employment Bill - seeks to deny redundancy payments to employees of small business and to exempt corporations from state moves to have them pay redundancy
Simplifying Agreement Making Bill - would make AWAs effective before they were approved; allow agreements to be changed without union agreement; and increase the length of certified agreements to five years.
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