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Harre Speech to Service and Food Workers’ Union

Hon Laila Harre Speech
27 May 2002

Speech to Service and Food Workers’ Union
Otahuhu Working Men’s Club
101 Atkinson Ave;

It is always a pleasure to be with the members of the Service and Food Workers Union. My first ever job as a lawyer was with the Northern Hotel and Hospital Workers Union when we were doing legal cases not under the Employment Relations Act, not under the Employment Contracts Act and not even under the Labour Relations Act, but under the old Industrial Relations Act.

Which goes to show how many times how industrial laws have changed over the last decade and a half. I’ve only been out of law school for 15 years and there have been four completely different employment Acts to deal with.

The most vicious of all was the Employment Contracts Act.

Keeping the Alliance’s promise to repeal it as one of the first steps taken by our Labour/Alliance Government made the years of building the Alliance and campaigning for a change of government worth it.

Before the 1999 election I told union members, including members of your union, that the Alliance wanted to go into a government with Labour as your delegates.

We knew that Labour would be the bigger party in the government. We knew that we would have to negotiate hard on your behalf. We knew we wouldn’t get everything that we, and you, wanted. But we knew that if we made good arguments and kept working along-side trade unions and community groups outside parliament we could get a lot done.

Two and a half years down the track we can look back on many successes.

We have repealed the Employment Contracts Act. The ERA has made it possible for unions to organise again. They don’t have to ask the boss’s permission to come into your workplace and invite workers to join the union and negotiate collective agreements. Paid stop work meetings are a right. The Mediation Service and Employment Relations Authority are dealing with cases more quickly than the old Employment Tribunal. Employers can’t use fixed-term contracts as a way of making it easy to get rid of workers. Where there is a collective agreement new workers have to be given a real chance to decide whether to join the union.

Good faith bargaining has put an end to employers refusing to come to the table and talk because they don’t like dealing with the union. They have to talk. They have to share financial information about the business. And they have to tell you if they’re planning any big changes.

Together these changes have given working people a greater say and more bargaining power. As leaders within your workplaces and your union, you know how important it is that people join the union and make the most of the new law.

But working families need more than fair employment laws. Our government has also reduced rents for state house tenants by reintroducing income-related rentals. We have increased superannuation. Unemployment is at its lowest on 13 years.

These have been successes of the Labour/Alliance government and there are other successes that have only been possible because you sent the Alliance into government as your delegates.

Because you put the Alliance in government in 1999 we will have twelve weeks paid parental leave from July 1 this year.

That is a huge achievement. 20,000 mothers will get up to 100 per cent of their wages for the first twelve weeks of their parental leave. The maximum payment is $325 a week. For many low-paid women this will mean all or most of their wages are paid during that time. And it would not have happened without the Alliance in Government.

I want to be back in government after the next election so that we can negotiate for even better paid parental leave. The Alliance wants to increase the leave to 14 weeks, which is the new ILO rule. We want more people to qualify – including some who haven’t been with their employer for a year. And we want the maximum payment to be higher. I don’t believe these things will happen unless the Alliance is back in government making them happen.

Because you put the Alliance in government in 1999 we have had some big increases in the minimum wage too – and especially the youth minimum. 18 and 19 year olds now get the adult rate which means their minimum wages have gone up massive $3.80 and hour. Adult minimum wages have gone up $1 an hour to $8, and 16 and 17 year olds have had an increase from $4.20 to $6.40 – a pay rise of $2.20 an hour.

Increases of this size would not have happened if the Alliance wasn’t there. I want to be back there again to do better still. $8 an hour is still too low for an adult minimum wage and we would like to see it closer to $8.50 or $9 in the next year or two. Youth rates should be phased out altogether and there should be a minimum wage for school-age children who don’t have any protection at all now. These are things the Alliance can push hard for if we are in government. If we aren’t there then there won’t be anyone arguing that case.

On May Day I met with Service and Food Workers Union members at Sky City and told them about the Alliance’s campaign to increase annual leave from three weeks to four weeks. We think you have earned another week off. The Alliance has already reached agreement with Labour on some good changes to the Holidays Act. These include paying all workers time and a half if they work on a public holiday, as well as a day in lieu; allowing sick leave to be accumulated up to 15 days; and increasing bereavement leave.

But one thing we haven’t got agreement from Labour on yet is the Alliance policy for four weeks annual leave. I want to be back in government with Labour and I want our coalition agreement to include agreement to increase annual leave to four weeks.

And there is another big improvement for service workers I want to see in that coalition agreement. That is a law that says if the business you work for is sold or your work is contracted out; or you shift from one contractor to another; then you should be able to keep your job, your wages and your working conditions. For the last two years the government has been looking at this issue and it is now time to act.

Today I want to give you an undertaking that the Alliance will make this legislation a priority if we are back in government. And you can see from our success with paid parental leave and the minimum wage that when we make something a priority we mean it.

Improving working conditions – especially for low paid workers – has always been the Alliance’s mission.

But improving the lives of working families is also about improving social services and strengthening the welfare state.

It is in these areas that we want to push for much more progress in the second term of a Labour/Alliance Government.

Our government has put more money into health and education.

But unless we are prepared to make a massive new investment in both these areas we can’t do much more than tread water and reduce the costs by a little bit over a long period of time. New Zealand is not a poor country. If it wasn’t for the National Party’s tax cuts in the 1990s we would have enough money in the bank for free health care and free education – right through to university and polytech.

The Alliance believes that wealthy people should pay a bit more tax so that everyone can afford to see the doctor when they need to, pick up their medicine without having to pay for it, and send the kids to university or polytech without having to take out a student loan.

Healthcare and education are basic human rights and our whole society suffers without the best of both. If you put the Alliance back into government this year we will bargain hard for free healthcare and free education. Both are affordable. It is all a question of priorities, and there should be no greater priority than the health and well being of our people, and the best education possible for our young.

I know that many of you will have been confused by Jim Anderton’s decision to leave the Alliance. I am disappointed myself. But I am also very positive about the Allaince’s future under its new management.

As the new Leader I am determined to do all I can do convince those who have supported the Alliance in the past to keep supporting us.

Jim might have changed his mind but we haven’t.

I also believe that it is now more important than ever that we have a strong and principled party to the left of Labour at the Cabinet table in government.

With the National Party in such a mess a lot of National voters are thinking of voting Labour in this election. That might be good for Labour, but it won’t necessarily be good for you.

Unless some of Labour’s working class voters switch to the Alliance, it is possible that there will not be a coalition government, but a majority Labour government. Right now you might think that’s a good idea because the Alliance has been in a mess, New Zealand First screwed up last time, and Labour and the Greens have had a big falling out too. But I believe it is very important for working people that the Alliance stays in government.

If you don’t put the Alliance back into government with Labour then who will be there to negotiate for protection for workers when their business is sold or contracted out, a fourth weeks annual leave, higher minimum wages, more paid parental leave, free health and education?

I’ll tell you who – nobody.

With nobody there to pull Labour towards the left, they will have to keep the National party people, whose votes they are after, happy. That worries me greatly and it should worry you too. Like me, you probably voted for MMP because you wanted some checks and balances. You were sick of the big parties having all the power.

Even if you haven’t supported the Alliance in the past I urge you to consider doing so this year. Whatever happens, Labour will be back in government after the election. The only question is whether they will be back there on their own – by getting National Party people to vote for them – or whether they will have a coalition partner and if so, who it will be. Last week Labour and the Greens ruled each other out as coalition partners because of disagreements on genetic engineering.

I’d like to make the Alliance’s position on that issue clear.

The Alliance wants to keep New Zealand GE-free unless and until it is proven safe by scientists. We are opposed to Labour’s policy of allowing GE crops to be grown after October next year. If we are in the government we will work with people opposed to growing GE crops to change Labour’s mind on this issue.

Unlike the Greens, we think we will be able to do more on this from inside the government than outside it. After all it was because the Alliance was in government that we were able to negotiate a moratorium on GE while the Royal Commission was working, and an extension until October next year. If we go back into government we will keep pushing for as much GE-free time as we can get.

So with Labour and the Greens ruling each other out as coalition partners, that leaves the Alliance. We have had a very successful first term in government. To stay there we will need your help.

There are two ways we can do it – by winning more than 5 per cent of the party vote or winning an electorate seat.

Both are possible and I hope you will help us achieve them. For those in Auckland, the focus will be on my electorate of Waitakere. Our campaign there is already well underway. We will be asking the locals to return an experienced and effective local MP to Wellington.

To win 5% of the vote in we need something like 2000 votes in every other seat. We would welcome your help to get the billboards up and get our message to the voters.

There have been many times over the past two and half years when trade union members and officials have come to the Alliance to push for something in the government. They have come because when the chips are down they know whose side we’re on and they know we are prepared to battle for it. As well as the big public things we have won, we have made hundreds of changes to policies that have made a difference to a huge range of people – from single parents on the DPB and children needing a special education, to public health groups and sub-contractors in the building trades.

I am enormously proud of the Alliance’s achievements. I urge you not to punish us for the confusion created by Jim Anderton’s actions, but instead to reward us for staying true to our cause. It would have been easy for Willie Jackson, Liz Gordon, Matt McCarten, Kevin Campbell and thousands of others to just chuck it all in and spend more time at home with our own families. But it would also have been wrong. We built the Alliance to oppose inequality and injustice and as long as inequality and injustice remain, we will too.

Thank you for all the support that your union and its members have given us in the past, and I hope that through our advocacy of your cause and the cause of all working families we have earned the right to keep it.

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