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Back To The Dark Days Of Unionism


Back To The Dark Days Of Unionism

Things have come to a pretty pass for New Zealand business when our liberty rests in the hands of Hon Jim Anderton. Alas, that appears to be the situation.

Last week, Cabinet reportedly signed off a number of amendments to the Employment Relations Act. Only three Ministers - Mr Anderton, Paul Swain and John Tamihere - balked at the proposals, which will take New Zealand further toward the dark old days of union control, national awards, compulsory unionism, multi-employer contracts, and a requirement for employers to maintain pay and conditions or pay redundancy when a business is sold.

The latter - dubbed the `Margaret Wilson Slavery Clause' - was dropped from the 2000 Bill after the `winter of discontent'. But, like California's would-be Governor, it will be back. Hasta la vista free enterprise.

Unlike Rachel Hunter's haircare, this won't happen overnight - but it will happen, and will move the labour market from collectivisation to unionisation. The rights of workers will be sold off for the rights of union bosses.

So what does the Government have in store for workers and firms? According to one source, the Government's package of retrograde reforms includes:

Compulsory unionism lite? Hundreds of thousands of workers voted with their feet when compulsory unionism died, either cancelling their membership or not bothering to join. Ever since, union bosses have moaned about individuals claiming the same `benefits' negotiated for members. The proposed changes are expected to include a clause to have union dues deducted from all employees - whether union members or not - if bosses and unions agree. What say will individual workers have? None. They won't be asked. Welcome to the new corporatist state.

Widening the `Unjustified Dismissal' Net. The `unjustified dismissal' clause is a huge headache for employers, and it's about to get worse. Unjustified dismissal currently refers to `procedural fairness' - courts look at whether proper processes have been followed. Under the proposed changes, `unjustified' will go beyond process, taking into account whether a dismissal is `fair'. So even if you follow the dismissal process to the letter, because a worker is a problem gambler, chronic alcoholic, has six dependent children and a broken-down car, it would be `unfair' to dismiss him in the circumstances therefore it's `unjustified'.

Multi-Employer Contracts. Unions have been very sore that the ERA did not deliver national awards, and have lobbied Labour to correct this. The new Bill will make multi-employer contracts much more feasible and more difficult to block. Say `hello' to Cook Strait ferry strikes every school holidays, `no room at the inn' signs in the hospitality industry and higher prices for clothing - especially kids' clothes.

Protection of Terms and Conditions - Til Death Do Us Part? This was dumped from the ERA in 2000, but obviously not forgotten. Known as the "transfer of undertakings", it means that if you buy a business you must hire existing staff on the same terms and conditions, or pay redundancy. This threatens the dynamics of business enterprise and efficiency. There are usually sound reasons for business take-overs - a new owner might work to improve a struggling company's performance, thus securing its long-term viability. This change will put stop that. Why would any firm want to take over another firm when its hands will be tied because wage rates and conditions are fixed by Government fiat?

Compulsory Arbitration - Three's Company. At present, if a dispute between employer and union is unresolved, it just sits there. Under the new law, arbitration will be compulsory, but not binding. Sounds crazy but, in effect, the threat of an outsider making an arbitrary decision - and the associated compliance costs for the employer - means employers will have to settle disputes anyway. Even if they don't settle, it involves more red tape, higher costs and less focus on making their business prosper.

Thirty-Day Rule. Under current legislation, the only employees who start out on a collective contract are those who are specifically named. These people then have 30 days to decide whether to continue on a collective or switch to an individual contract. Under the proposed changes, classes of workers - instead of individuals - will be named. So, the PSA might negotiate with Treasury for all clerks to be included in the collective contract for the first 30 days - whether they want to or not. These people would then have to remove themselves from the collective at the end of that period if they wanted an individual contract. This is an infringement of their right to choose their employment arrangements. What would people say if the Government passed a law that all new homeowners and renters must sign up with one particular electricity company for the first 30 days, and then could choose either that company or another one at the end of that period? Would that be acceptable? Hardly.

On their own, these changes won't mean the end of the golden weather for New Zealand business. However, kicking in on top of changes to the Holidays Act, Matt Robson's Four Weeks Annual Leave Bill, and the new OSH laws, the new ERA Bill makes mockery of the Government's stated aim to get back to the top half of the OECD.

This is `death by a 1,000 cuts' and a further move toward the `Germanification' of our labour market policies - at the very time Germany is abandoning such policies to combat its 10.4 percent unemployment rate!

When the Prime Minister chaired an OECD conference in Europe in May, a Herald journalist heard her tell an audience that the New Zealand labour market was heavily deregulated. The journalist did not report this, in case future interviews with the PM were jeopardised.

The Prime Minister likes to see herself as a strong leader. Unfortunately, when it comes to standing up to union bosses, she acts more like a 90-pound weakling. No price is too high when it comes to keeping the peace with union bosses - not even trading away the long-term interests of New Zealand workers and firms.

There is more to come, with pay equity next off the blocks. Now, more than ever before, it is crucial for New Zealand business to speak with one voice and oppose union-led demands to re-regulate the labour market.

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