NEW ZEALAND: Pro-business IR regime meets militant union revival

Issue 

On June 2, Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle caught up with Matt McCarten, the secretary of New Zealand's Unite union, who was visiting Sydney. Like his union, which is widely acknowledged to be revitalising the trade union movement across the Tasman, McCarten is in a fighting mood.

"We are just beginning to move back onto the attack after years of retreat in the face of the kind of anti-union and anti-worker laws that you are seeing in Australia today.

"You won't believe this but New Zealand is, according to the World Bank, the most pro-business country on Earth. I kid you not. In their Doing Business in 2006 report, we were ranked number one of nearly 200 countries surveyed."

McCarten explained that Unite "started organising the lowest-paid and the most de-unionised sections of the working class, including the young casual workers in the fast-food industry, and we've had some wins with our Supersize My Pay campaign".

In the private sector, the unionised work force has slipped to about 12%. In the large retail, wholesale, restaurant and hotels sector, which employs a quarter of the work force, union membership in 2004 was just 4%.

Unite recently won significant pay rises for thousands of workers employed by Restaurant Brands, which covers in New Zealand covers Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut and Restaurant Brands call centres. And with real results to show, Unite's fee-paying membership has risen in the past year from 3500 to more than 6000. Another 5000 members don't yet pay fees and the union actively organises members who temporarily move out of work. It has even started organising Supersize My Pay clubs on schools.

"We are not just organising workers in the fast-food industries. We are also organising more and more hotel workers, casino workers, call-centre workers and security guards."

The union movement badly needed this new militant revival, explained McCarten, because it had been pushed back so far over the last two decades, including under the Labour government since 1999.

On the industrial front, Unite is now going after McDonald's and held an action to launch the campaign on June 9. On the broader political front, McCarten is a central leader of the Workers Charter, which now produces a monthly newspaper. The paper has been well received around the country. The next step is trying to build a network around it to bring together supporters for collective political action.

McCarten, who was a leader of the NZ Alliance (which broke apart spectacularly when the rank-and-file, and McCarten, revolted against a decision by most of its MPs to support NZ Labour's sending of troops to assist the US-led war on Afghanistan in 2002), firmly believes that workers need to build a new party of their own. Labour, he said, is finished as a party of and for the working class.

"You'd think by the hysterical rantings of various business spokespeople that this Labour government was doing its best to destroy private enterprise and replace it with a socialist state. In fact the evidence from the World Bank report clearly shows the opposite is true. Business has never had it so good under Labour."

The World Bank report noted that in the pro-business stakes, NZ pushed Australia into sixth place after Singapore, United States, Canada and Norway. "Only Afghanistan makes it easier for the new entrepreneur to open up for business than in NZ!"

NZ is way ahead in being "business friendly" on tax compliance, said McCarten, and NZ companies pay less tax than businesses in other OECD countries. "A medium-sized company in NZ makes eight payments a year and needs someone to spend 70 hours a year doing the paper work. Businesses in other OECD countries are required to make twice as many payments and it takes them on average nearly 200 hours each year to fill out forms for their governments.

"None of the above statistics in the report takes into account that the government also subsidises the wages paid by employers of three-quarters of workers who have families."

The World Bank also revealed that NZ has the most "flexible labour market" in the OECD. "In fact, we are ranked second in the world for the ease that employers can hire or fire workers. Only Hong Kong is more draconian.

"NZ ranks first, equal with the United States, in having the lowest dismissal costs in the world. The cost of sacking a worker in our two countries is nothing. Our closest rivals for this dubious honour are Afghanistan and Australia. Even these countries impose a cost of four weeks on their employers. The average of the rest of the OECD is 35 weeks.

"When it comes to job security, only Canada, Hong Kong, Jamaica and Lebanon offer less security of hours for workers than New Zealand. It puts National Party MP Wayne Mapp's bill, currently before parliament, in perspective. His bill would allow employers to sack new workers for no reason at all in their first 90 days of employment. If this bill is passed, we'd go to the top placing in the OECD for workers' lack of job protection." McCarten speculated that the next step favoured by employers is "probably slavery".

McCarten said it was outrageous that this has occurred under a so-called "worker-friendly" Labour government. "More than a third of Labour MPs are former trade union officials who earned their previous living from the union dues of workers. The very reason they were put into parliament was to help create laws to help vulnerable workers get a fairer deal."

However, "They have merely tinkered with employment laws, but fundamentally changed nothing. The free-market economic model ... is cemented in. The draconian employment laws introduced under the infamous Employment Contracts Act remain in place."

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.

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