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Beef Up The ERA - Union

July 16, 2002

Beef Up The ERA - Union

The country’s largest union kicked off its biennial conference today by calling for the Employment Relations Act to be beefed up.

EPMU national secretary Andrew Little told delegates at the conference in Rotorua that while the current Government deserved praise for scrapping the hated Employment Contracts Act, the replacement legislation could be improved.

“Workers still suffer enormous difficulty when businesses are sold and the work transferred or contracted out,” he said.

“This union is confronting this very issue with its membership at the Kinleith pulp and paper mill at the moment. Carter Holt Harvey has not been able to present a sensible business case for what it proposes for its pulp and paper mill, and, in typical fashion, it has tried to barge ahead and marginalise the union in the process.”

The problem of non-union workers “freeloading” off the conditions fought for and won by union members also needed addressing, he said.

“It cannot be fair, and cannot be consistent with good faith, for employers to allow fee-paying union members in a workplace to advance employment rights in that workplace, and then simply pass them on to quiescent members of the workforce.”

The conference is the supreme ruling body of the union, and brings together delegates elected from around the country by the union’s 55,000 members.

Issues to be debated over the four days include genetic modification, the Kyoto protocols, industrial issues and the coming election. Guests speakers include Prime Minister Helen Clark, Labour Minister Margaret Wilson, Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, Alliance leader Laila Harre and Greens co-leader Rod Donald.


Note Andrew Little’s speech notes follow. The conference is being held at the Centra Hotel, Rotorua. Most sessions are open to the media.

Andrew Little - National Secretary's Address to National Biennial Conference July 2002

Bro President, National Councillors, conference delegates, comrades

This conference is an important conference for the EPMU.

We are meeting at the time of a general election campaign, the outcome of which will have significant implications for us, our members, and New Zealand as a whole.

We also meet at a time when we are considering our own future as a union as we look to maximise the advantages already conferred on us by the present Labour-led government.

During this conference we will hear from some of the parties contesting the election. We will hear from the Labour party, which this union founded, and to which we are affiliated and have been for many decades, the Progressive Coalition party, the Alliance, and the Greens.

As we consider the election issues, we should consider some of the key achievements of the current government. Of clear importance to us is the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act and the introduction of the Employment Relations Act. The Employment Relations Act has returned us to the standards of the civilised world, by ensuring that the legitimacy of unions, and the legitimate choice of union members to be organised, is properly respected and protected. It's the right of every worker to belong to a union. The Employment Contracts Act had, as its clear political aim, the eradication and elimination of unions from New Zealand workplaces. The Employment Contracts Act favoured individualists and gave employers unfettered powers over working people.

The Employment Relations Act recognises the right to organise, protects unions' rights of access to the workplace, and promotes union organisation through paid stopwork meetings and paid education leave.

The good faith provisions of the Employment Relations Act have fundamentally changed the way many employers must now deal with unions. The days of the "take it or leave it" offer are over. Employers must deal with unions and their members openly and transparently.

The Employment Relations Act has transformed the way unions are regarded in our communities. We are not the pariahs that the National Party and its fellow travellers tried to make us. We are a legitimate part of New Zealand industry and the workforce. We have the Government to thank for this change in values and a change in attitude.

But this change in law is not enough to secure the long term future of this, or any, union. We must seize the opportunities that we have been given. Those opportunities will not be here forever. This is why during this conference we need to talk about making some changes to the way the union operates if we want to take advantage of those opportunities. I will talk about this a little more shortly.

The Government has promised to review the operation of the Employment Relations Act once re-elected. It is important that this happens. The legislation is good legislation but it can be improved. Workers still suffer enormous difficulty when businesses are sold and the work transferred or contracted out. This union is confronting this very issue with its membership at the Kinleith Pulp and Paper mill at the moment. Carter Holt Harvey has not been able to present a sensible business case for what it proposes for its pulp and paper mill, and in typical fashion, it has tried to barge ahead and marginalise the union in the process. We are challenging that conduct and will continue to challenge it. It is demonstrably contrary to the spirit of our employment law.

Another area that needs addressing is the ongoing issue of freeloaders at work. This is a very difficult area to find a solution to but it cannot be fair, and cannot be consistent with good faith, for employers to allow fee-paying union members in a workplace to advance employment rights in that workplace, and then simply pass them on to quiescient members of the workforce.

To return to the achievements of this Government, these also include draft legislation on new health and safety laws, giving real power to designated health and safety representatives and to workers who are organised in their workplace through health and safety committees. If there is one area that needs drastic attention now, it must surely be workplace health and safety. New Zealand is suffering an unprecedented deterioration in its health and safety record this year. The pity of this general election is that it has interfered with the enactment of legislation that can make a real difference to workplace health and safety, that could turn around the terrifying rate of workplace fatalities we have suffered, and that will ultimately make our members safer at work. If there is one thing that the newly elected Government must do with urgency and priority, it is to pass the health and safety legislation and get it in place. At this conference we will have a presentation and workshop on just what the proposed new law entails.

Another achievement of this Government is the draft law on improving protection of pay, holiday pay and redundancy entitlements in situations when companies go into receivership or liquidation. I am sure we all remember - and I certainly will not forget - the disaster that befell eleven hundred workers for Qantas New Zealand, formerly Ansett, last year. The reckless actions of a small coterie of so-called high-achieving New Zealand businessmen, meant that those workers who were in good jobs, running a good operation, had their jobs literally turned off overnight. To compound the situation, they went for weeks without receiving their final pay and outstanding holiday pay. In many instances, workers did not receive their full outstanding holiday pay entitlement. In all cases, employees have not received just redundancy entitlements. On the best prediction, they will get a mere fraction of their entitlements.

The Government has proposed a move to substantially lift the amount of money owed to employees in the wind-up of a company. They also propose to extend the protection beyond simply outstanding wages and holiday pay to include redundancy compensation. These measures will afford greater protection to a lot more workers. But the real question is what protection can be afforded to all workers, and why can that not be their full level of entitlements.

At this conference we will hear about a scheme promoted by our Australian counterpart, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, which has been the subject of heated and intense disputes in Australia recently. The measure promoted by the AMWU is a means of affording full protection for a worker's full termination entitlements by placing the value of those entitlements into a trust which is not controlled by the employer. We need to think seriously about measures like this for New Zealand.

There is a range of other achievements that this Government has made in its term; these include a dramatically improved housing policy giving more low income workers access to state housing at realistic rental levels, promoting New Zealand industry and investment in New Zealand industry, major investment in trainees and apprentices, and so-on.

In relation to New Zealand industry, it is refreshing to see a Government that is prepared to actively promote industry development in New Zealand. In this respect, we must take our hats off to Jim Anderton, who has tirelessly promoted the role of the state in encouraging jobs - good jobs, real jobs - in manufacturing in New Zealand. He has brought unions and employers and the bureaucracy together over the wood processing industry. He has encouraged other industries such as boat building.

The new Government has a real opportunity to advance this cause with the naval ship build that it has earmarked $500 million for. It is possible for the ships and boats that the navy needs to be built in New Zealand. We urge the Government to ensure that as much work as possible, if not all of it, is carried out in New Zealand.

As we go into this election campaign, the outcome in coalition terms is not clear. Labour aspires to an absolute majority but there are other key players who are poised to have a significant stake in our parliamentary representation. Chief amongst those is the Green party. It has been easy, and sometimes good sport, to pass the Greens off as coming out of left field, being a single issue party, being out of touch with reality, and so-on. But the Greens, and more importantly what they stand for, are a real factor in politics, not only in New Zealand, but around the world. That is, the long term protection and sustainability of the environment.

Like it or lump it, a growing number of people in our communities are concerned about what the future holds for a planet that is under attack from toxic chemicals, a changing climate, and an ever-growing population. These are not marginal issues. They are mainstream issues. The Labour government has grasped the nettle of climate change by seeking to adopt the Kyoto Protocol. That international agreement will be the subject of a workshop at this conference.

The new fear is genetic modification or genetic engineering. My chief concern about the way this issue has been dealt with, particularly during this election campaign, is that an inordinate sense of fear has been built up about a technology that is not widely known or understood. For this reason, we have a workshop on this issue at this conference. While I understand the Green party fear about harnessing a technology whose full extent and implications are not yet fully understood, I do not accept that we can just limit access or use of the technology in the way suggested. Where we have the power to make a difference through the application of intelligence and intellect, it is natural that we will want to push back those boundaries. The public policy balance is in ensuring that the public interest is protected but that the boundaries of knowledge are not restrained.

The issues and concerns of the Green party are not theirs alone. They belong to all of us. For a union organising predominantly in the manufacturing sector, we have a responsibility to ensure the approach and view that we take on progress and development acknowledges the need for environmental sustainability into the future.

The final comment I want to make about the Greens relates to their style of conduct in this election. At least one commentator I have read has described them as the Ralph Nader party of the New Zealand general election. If that analogy is correct, then we have much to be worried about. Ralph Nader's contribution to the American election in 2000 was to consign the US to a fundamentalist right wing leadership for four years, and now possibly for eight years. It is ironic that one of the main planks of the Green party is to criticise the current Government's decision to send SAS troops to Afghanistan in support of the US war against terrorism, which is now sanctioned by the UN. We have Ralph Nader to thank for the current US foreign policy platform.

A challenge for the Greens is to not place itself as a despoiler of the left and a promoter-by-default of the right.

I want to talk a little bit about the other key issue we confront at this conference. And that is the change we are contemplating about this union.

When I spoke to you at the conclusion of the conference in 2000, I spoke of leading a union whose future lay in the hearts of its members. I said we have challenges that lie ahead, that those challenges cannot be met by paid officials alone, and that we had much to achieve while we enjoy the benefits of new legislation.

I said then that our key challenge - what will define our place, your place, in the grand history of this union - is to organise ourselves in such a way that members want to take us with them, wherever they work, that we become a natural part of the communities in which we organise, that we become unassailably part of the New Zealand workplace.

These remain my aspirations, and I know they are the aspirations of the current leadership of the union, the National Council.

After two years of the Employment Relations Act, overall union density in New Zealand remains much as it was in 2000. As the workforce has grown, so our membership has grown with it. But we need to do more than simply keep pace with the growth in the workforce.

We must grow the proportion of the New Zealand workforce that belongs to unions.

For the EPMU, we must significantly grow our membership in some key sectors. Key amongst them for us are the mixed manufacturing and forestry sectors.

Last year we faced a major challenge with our budget. I said then, and I repeat, we were not then and we are not now in any crisis. We are a very financially secure union. But if we do not make change now and look to our sustainability and our security into the future, we will not be the financially secure and stable union that we are at the moment.

We need to be serious about making real gains in membership growth. Not growth for its own sake. Not just growth in the size of the union. But growth in unionism.

Growth in unionism means more workers feeling in their hearts and their minds the desire, the need, to stick together with their workmates at work to protect their interests and to contribute to their place and their enterprise and their industry.

Over the past 12 months there has been much discussion and debate within the union, and especially its formal decision-making bodies, about whether to make change and, if so, what change to make to address this need to increase unionism and grow the union. All, or most, of you will, have, in the past couple of weeks, attended presentations on the strategic review and follow-up work to it.

The facts have not changed. We are not growing rapidly enough to ensure that we, as a union, can fulfil our mission well into the future.

At the presentations I suggested that our mission was to organise labour in order to improve members' terms and conditions of employment at work, in order to influence the wider labour market and to influence public policy (that is, the political process) so that we can lift the social wage and improve social conditions.

We cannot achieve these things as part of a movement that is barely one fifth of the total New Zealand workforce.

The challenge will not be an easy one to meet. But it will not be met by doing nothing. And it will not be met by hoping or wishing that conditions might change so that a different decision might be taken in months or years hence.

I'm looking forward at this conference to some robust and healthy debate about the ideas that have come forward. There are a number of workshop times scheduled to allow that debate to happen. These will be facilitated by skilled or independent facilitators.

As the National President has said, this conference is the highest decision-making body in the union. There are two key points: This is a representative body and it a decision-making body. The job of representation is often difficult. It requires judgement and sometimes requires boldness.

I am confident that the changes proposed in the strategic review will, over time, make a radical difference to our ability to organise workers, to empower them, and to achieve the goals we have as a union to improve working and social conditions for our members. I am confident that the proposals that will be put before this conference to trial these changes are robust and will reassure those who are correctly cautious about making significant changes to the union in one fell swoop.

I look forward to meeting you all throughout conference. We have a stimulating programme for the week. I thank you for the time you've taken from your regular jobs to take up the important responsibilities that go with being a conference delegate. This is our opportunity to make our mark at a fascinating time in industrial, social and political history.

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