Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Future Of Workers.

Unions? - Please Explain: Grant Robertson subtitled his address to Labour's second "Future of Work" conference “Building Wealth from the Ground Up”. Any common sense reading of that title would predict a fulsome measure of worker participation in the exercise, which, to be effective, would have to involve the organisations dedicated to defining and articulating workers’ interests – the trade unions. Astonishingly, the term "trade union" did not appear anywhere in Robertson's 3,431-word speech.
 
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of the fact that Grant Robertson’s speech to Labour’s second “Future of Work” conference contains no reference to trade unions? Or that, in the entire 3,431-word text of the speech the word “union” appears only once? In a list of the groups involved in the “Commission External Reference Group” of Robertson’s Future of Work project. In addition to business people, academics and community representatives, Robertson admits to “union leaders” also being consulted.
 
That admission raises some pretty thorny problems of its own. If “union leaders” have indeed been involved in this flagship Labour Party exercise, then what do they make of Robertson’s very clear implication that their organisations, Labour’s founding fathers, will have no role to play in the future of work in New Zealand?
 
Robertson subtitled his speech “Building Wealth from the Ground Up”. Any common sense reading of that title would predict a fulsome measure of worker participation in the exercise, which, to be effective, would have to involve the organisations dedicated to defining and articulating workers’ interests – the trade unions.
 
But, if that is what Robertson and the union leaders advising him intend, then the absence of the slightest reference to organised labour helping to build New Zealand’s future wealth becomes even more puzzling. Either, New Zealand’s leading unionists all anticipate being made redundant in the near future; or, they do indeed see themselves playing a leading economic role, but have agreed, along with the party, to say nothing about it until Labour’s safely re-elected.
 
If it’s the latter, then the electorate will have every right to feel duped. Major changes – and a programme entitled “Building Wealth from the Ground Up” surely qualifies as such – should be signalled well in advance of a general election. Without prior notification, along with the discussion and debate such announcements inevitably provoke, political parties cannot claim a legitimate mandate for change. Lacking an electoral mandate, major policy reforms instantly become vulnerable to repeal by the Opposition. Refusing to share your plans with the voters isn’t just bad form, it’s bad politics.
 
So, why has Robertson been so careful to avoid referencing his party’s core constituency: the 300,000 New Zealanders who still belong to a trade union? The speech itself contains a number of hints.
 
The first of these is the warm welcome extended to David Coats, one of the Conference’s keynote speakers. Coats comes with an impressive CV, and is well-placed, as one of the UK’s leading commentators on trade union affairs, to assist Robertson in speaking out forthrightly on what organised labour must do to remain relevant to twenty-first century workers. Coats’ preference for a union movement that is focused on helping its members to “‘get on’, rather than ‘get even’” dovetails neatly with Robertson’s own ideas about employee aspiration. Sadly, any discussion of such matters appears to have remained strictly in-house.
 
Another pointer towards why Robertson kept the trade unions out of his speech was his reference to Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of the fact that Corbyn now stands at the heart of an intense political struggle to determine the future of the British Labour Party, and hence the future of work in the United Kingdom, Robertson mentioned his name only in relation to what was happening 18 months ago: “Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour backbencher was preparing to defy his party whip for the 489th time”.
 
The remark is vintage Robertson. In dismissing Corbyn as a disloyal back-bench pest, the MP for Wellington Central reveals how little he thinks of the British Labour leader’s left-wing ideas, and how much he values strictly-enforced political discipline. One can only speculate as to what all those “union leaders” allegedly involved in Robertson’s “Future of Work” project made of the remark.
 
After all, Corbyn recently announced his determination to re-arm the British Labour Movement by repealing the multitude of anti-union laws which, between them, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair either added to, or kept on, the UK statute books. With less than 10 percent of New Zealand’s private sector workforce involved in a trade union, our own “union leaders” must be hoping for something similar should Andrew Little win the 2017 election.
 
That’s unlikely. Especially when Robertson’s speech describes only one personal encounter with a living, breathing worker:
 
“At a public meeting in Albany earlier in the year after my presentation a man who had sat attentively at the front came forward and asked, with tears in his eyes, if I could do anything to help him get a job.”
 
It is difficult to imagine a more poignant depiction of the powerlessness of so many unemployed and precariously employed New Zealanders. If Robertson can’t make the case for empowering these workers and their unions now, relying upon him to do so after the election seems foolhardy in the extreme.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 August 2016.

21 comments:

peter petterson said...

Then Mr Robertson needs to get into the real word - there needs to be industrial law reform, not milk-sop employment law reform. We no longer have compulsory unionism, haven't since 1991, and unions need to be given the right to be involved in the workplace, in wage negotiations and protections for workers.

Steve Alfreds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Alfreds said...

One of my relatives recently moved to Australia to work on Melbourne's rail lines where they have compulsory unionism. He left NZ because the company employing him here refused to train him to get his ticket and has been importing workers from the Philippines. In Australia they are training him and paying him $40 an hour to do it and he gets over time after 36 hours. Yet on this side of the Tasman we have working families living in cars. We're being robbed New Zealand.

Wayne Mapp said...

From what I see there is a much greater interest by younger people to be self employed or own their own business. Now this may be a function of the young people I associate with, who are typically well educated and in the professions, in IT, creative areas, sports and fitness or self employed in trades. Or alternatively in policy development in government. I don't know any young people in big companies like Air New Zealand, the banks, much less in large industrial sites.

So unions are pretty much irrelevant for the people I know.

Maybe Grant also does not associate with people in large industrial sites, hence the reason for his approach.

Of course large industrial sites still exist (freezing works, pulp and paper, Fonterra etc). But these are much less dominant that in the past. Trade Unions in the state sector - well they exist - but the image of oppressed workers (out brothers, out) does not really work, at least for me, in this area. Organised teachers don't really seem to be a substitute for the militant dock workers of the past.

The reality is that as our society has become more complex, and work more varied and disaggregated the old shibboleths no longer apply.

And Grant has recognized this.

peter petterson said...

Should have been - real world.

Polly said...

What would he know , he has never had a job in his life, he has never run a business, his life is about troughing off the taxpayer and pretence of knowledge.
He became shadow finance minister and went to a seminar in Mexico to learn about economics.
He is a Prima Donna without the Prima or the Donna.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The old shibboleths don't apply. That's a constant myth put out by conservatives along the lines of "class doesn't exist anymore." – Ad nauseam. On the contrary, they apply even more, considering the large service sector which pays its workers 3/5 of bugger all, and makes them work on shifts, on-call, and in some places on zero hours contracts. Unions are all the more necessary for these people because they have so little bargaining power individually. Most of the people Wayne associates with do have a certain amount of power for individual negotiations with employers, partly because their class gives them an advantage – conservative governments won't import train loads of CEOs or lawyers from India for instance. But they will let them import farmworkers, because their supporters the farm lobby doesn't want to pay decent wages for farm labour. And of course very few of their sons and daughters work as farm labourers. They have all gone to law school.

Steve Alfreds said...

But Wayne many of "the old shibboleths" still apply across the Tasman where they still have strong unions in many industries and get paid more and employers are expected to train their staff. Funny that. New Zealand employers and the National Party seem to think you just import the workers you need to cut down on costs.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Steve Alfreds

Your brother's experience is just one small example of why Australia is stuffed.

$40/hour and overtime after 36 hours. On the rail system? Would that by chance be a gummint subsidized rail system? An unprofitable rail system?

Funny thin is, you know, if Australia is that good, why are Australians flocking in their thousands to NZ looking for work?

Wayne Mapp said...

My comment is specifically about the decline of large work sites, where unions can easily operate.

While I agree that much of the service sector, particularly restaurants and hospitality seems low paid (this is in fact one of the perils of being too dependent on tourism), it is not obvious that unionism will solve this problem. The sector is too disaggregated. I imagine that it is not that different in Australia.

Hence the reason why New Zealand needs to drive up the value chain. Callaghan on steroids! More people with higher skills doing more highly paid work. But they will not be attracted to unionism. Many of the tech firms are small, especially in New Zealand. The people work in unified teams, with highly personalized remuneration packages. Unions just don't fit in.

Grant clearly understands this. He will be coming across the new economy all the time, especially in his generation.

I accept the danger is that we think the whole economy is like this, but of course it isn't. However there is much more of it than there ever was in the past, and it has great appeal for many younger people.

Jens Meder said...

From the point of view that the long term future and stability of free elections based Social Democracy is always close to the mixed capitalist Centre of the political spectrum based more on mutual cooperation than antagonistic "class warfare", the "building wealth from the ground up" slogan of Grant Robertson is the most innovatively constructive fresh idea for a long time, it might actually define the "vision" for New Zealand, that Helen Clark was looking for without succeeding in defining it.

Unions would have quite an important and positive role in it by vigorously contributing to the success and profitability of the enterprises of their employers, with a share in the profits as I understand they work in Germany - and to some extent in Australia, where they have legislated cooperative agreements at least with the state (on their compulsory savings, I understand).

I believe Australian wages are not higher because of militant unionism, but because their productivity is higher as the result of a 25%(?) higher capital investment rate per worker.

So, it is no mystery what needs to be done here to catch up with Australia, and if Grant Robertson becomes Andrew Little's "Dr. Cullen", Labour can look into the future with confidence.

Resuming the $1000.- Kiwi Saver kick-start to all "from cradle to grave" would be one leading centrist policy that National might be too embarrassed "to steal".

Dennis Frank said...

The left's problem is psychological: dependency on job providers. Thus their love/hate relationship with the right. Bet Robertson never mentioned this dimension - you can't seriously expect a fella with no obvious intellect to suss out stuff underneath traditional beliefs, right? And Polly's point is crucial too.

I was baffled when I learnt about Mondragon back in the '70s - the obvious path for the left. Why be perpetually subservient to business owners when you can co-create your own? The advent of Thatcher & Reagan made the question more acute, and with Rogernomics starting here I was thinking "Surely the penny must finally drop now!" But no, the left are determined that the only possible path to the future is wage-slavery. Now that robots are taking those jobs, working leftists are trending towards a future when that option is no longer available.

Leftist politicians as lapdogs of the capitalists is a tried and true formula and the Clintons expect it to continue. Wouldn't it be better for leftists to choose self-respect and self-reliance instead? Wayne Mapp's observation is pertinent - but self-employment isn't the only option. People can, and do, collaborate in successful enterprises outside the standard capitalist model. Books publicising such options appear every decade. Leftist keep ignoring them, yet they cling to their 19th century tag: progressive. Solidarity could once again appear on the left, progress could actually happen! It only needs leftists to be resolute in ensuring that their actions validate their words!!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Unions would have quite an important and positive role in it by vigorously contributing to the success and profitability of the enterprises of their employers, with a share in the profits as I understand they work in Germany"

As I understand it too. But has Robertson said this will be the case in New Zealand? The New Zealand right are not exactly enamoured of cooperating with unions.

"So, it is no mystery what needs to be done here to catch up with Australia, and if Grant Robertson becomes Andrew Little's "Dr. Cullen", Labour can look into the future with confidence."

If it's so simple, why haven't those promises that every government since Roger Douglas has ever made – that we will catch up with Australia as far as wages and conditions go – been kept? It doesn't say much for the intelligence of New Zealand politicians if they haven't seen the simplicity does it?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Further to that

"But even Ikenson of the Cato Institute acknowledges the role that unions play in sustaining wages. “I rarely agree with what the [Economic Policy Institute] says, but I would agree that the erosion of union membership has had a downward effect on wages,” said Ikenson."

Nick J said...

Wayne your final paragraph hits the nail on the head. The whole economy is not ever going to be like that to which Robertson and yourself ascribe, especially for the average Kiwi worker.

Not everyone can be the young entrepreneur. Most young businesses fail. Any income and profits have to come from the aggregate of that money available to the economy. With a vast amount already captive to finance, corporates, the taxman etc any income made from these new young stars has to come at somebody else's expense. There is no aggregate economic growth; refer to negative interest rates offshore and the current measly official cash rate in NZ.

I suggest that for Joe Average Robertsons future economy represents a social and economic train wreck. Please sign him up for a safe National seat or a few board sinecures in some increasingly automated low wage industry. He does not belong in Labour.

Don Robertson said...

Employees by enterprise size.

There are about 500 000 'enterprises*' in New Zealand, employing 2 million people. 350 000 enterprises report no employees. Leaving about 150 000 enterprises that employ one or more people.

Enterprises with 100 or more employees employ about a million people - roughly half the work force. Enterprises with between 1-5 employees - your self employed contractors, IT professionals, independent tradies - employ about 225 000 people. That is about 11% of the workforce. In 1990, it was 12% of the workforce. So the sector hasn't exactly boomed over the last 15 years.

In 1990, enterprises with over 100 employees employed 45.5% of the work force. In 2015, they employed 47.5% of the work force. Not exactly withering away, either.

http://nzdotstat.stats.govt.nz/wbos/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TABLECODE7605#


*A business or service entity operating in New Zealand. It can be a company, partnership, trust, estate, incorporated society, producer board, local or central government organisation, voluntary organisation or self-employed individual. Due to rounding individual figures my not always sum to the stated totals.

Also - I just used 1990 and 2015 because that is the first and last year that showed up in the table. I didn't look at the interviewing years cos I have a life. It's not much, but its mine.
anyway - don't know if those years are anomalous, but seems the trend is towards larger, rather than smaller, enterprises.

Jens Meder said...

Yes Guerilla Surgeon - catching up with Australia is simple in principle (raising our capital savings and investments ownership per citizen and application per worker to the same or a higher level than in Australia) - but a systematic universal savings policy to achieve that is not acceptable to "free market liberals" so far, and their preferred freely consumable tax reductions result in only modest new investment wealth creation , not enough for meaningful "trickle down".
With trade union leadership in cooperation towards more efficient and profitable productivity together with systematic wealth ownership creation, costly "train wrecks" like say the Waterside Workers Union strike 65(?) years ago will remain just unpleasant memories from the past.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jens – I don't believe in simple solutions - and you didn't answer my question "if it's so simple why haven't they done it then?" Are politicians really that stupid?

greywarbler said...

This quote chills Chris.
...when Robertson’s speech describes only one personal encounter with a living, breathing worker:

“At a public meeting in Albany earlier in the year after my presentation a man who had sat attentively at the front came forward and asked, with tears in his eyes, if I could do anything to help him get a job.”

It is difficult to imagine a more poignant depiction of the powerlessness of so many unemployed and precariously employed New Zealanders. If Robertson can’t make the case for empowering these workers and their unions now, relying upon him to do so after the election seems foolhardy in the extreme.


If Robertson can be so cold-blooded and calculating to use a tearjerker line in his address, and regard it as a confirmation of how stuffed NZs are,how helpless and desperate, without his own warm response to improve and forge new unique pathways to advance and empower us all then he is just a mechanical man riding in a self-drive vehicle with his brain in formaldehyde. In fact he has less brain than the dead guy in Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus. Have a look at his scenario for the amoral, materialistic monsters of his imagined future.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TGdt1nrUSQ - (2 mins of theme and view of head)
(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZjO_fnL7gHg6ywjXy8D0kuHLzot2tDjy

Dennis Potter has something to say to us about this. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAYckQbZWbU

Jens Meder said...

But Guerilla Surgeon - democratic politicians unless very "charismatic" - cannot drift too far from majority opinions and beliefs, and lately predominant free market liberalism is ideologically opposed to raising personal and national savings rates in a systematic (compulsory) way (and ACT prefers even doing away with the NZ Super Fund).

They still believe in "trickle down" as adequate, much of the population is not too keen on the austerity required by more saving (at the expense of consumption in favour of reserves and investment expenditure), and only about 14 years ago there was a Treasury paper by a highly qualified economist that with the help of complicated equations proved, that savings are a by-product of high income and wealth, (which is known already from childhood piggy bank savings days by many) - and thereby ignored and practically suppressing or hiding the fact, that without savings no wealth is created, regardless how hard you work or high your income.

Unless these realities become understood and accepted by an adequate proportion of people - through widely open and vigorous discussions clarifying all the pros, cons, doubts and truths about them - few ordinary politician with a chance of winning would be keen to take it up, especially if it is not approved party policy already.

The apparent fact, that there still does not seem to be much enthusiasm for clarifying discussions on all that, is just another natural factor of difficulty in getting this simple principle introduced on a nation-wide level

Ripper said...

About 5 years ago I worked for Australian Associated Press' media monitoring operation in Auckland.

It was run like a prison with stand-over tactics, casual individual contracts and people readily sacked on the spot for minor errors that could have been traced back to poor communication from 'management'.

The Union went in and sorted them out; won a bitter and hard-won collective agreement including holidays, sick leave, and an agreed increase in wages set out over time.

These employers were absolute arseholes who thought they could get away with anything.

And Robertson thinks there is no need for unions in this time and age?

Think again, boy, think again!