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Social Partnership and Tripartism

PSA Press Release
October 24, 2003

Richard Wagstaff (National Secretary PSA)
Address to 2003 CTU conference

Social Partnership and Tripartism

The words 'social partnership' and social dialogue have been widely used at this conference.

PSA welcomes that because in our view New Zealand unions need to explore ways of presenting new and modern forms of trade unionism.

A modern trade union movement must present a new face that is:

- positive and attractive to workers
- consistent with all workers’ desire to improve their sense of worth and dignity in the workplace, and
- properly locates unions as responsible, constructive and valuable institutions in a modern democratic society and economy.

The Social Partnership or Social Dialogue model of unionism is prevalent in Europe and fits well within the social democratic political systems of those countries, where unions by any measure are comparatively very successful. It fits well with the current NZ Government's desire to build a socially inclusive form of government and a social democracy. Social Partnership and Social Dialogue however are anathema to neo-liberals and those who see no role for unions and want a return to the ECA.

The PSA is pursuing this approach to unionism because we are committed to building a union organisation for a purpose - to make a difference to people’s lives. We do not build union organisation as an end in itself, but to maximise our influence on behalf of our members. The only way to do that is to engage in decision-making at all levels of society - in the workplace, industry, nationally and globally.

Tripartism offers just another opportunity (albeit an important one) for further engagement and is a natural embodiment of a partnership approach.

The PSA embarked on our version of social dialogue with the development of the Partnership for Quality (PfQ) strategy. While It was an important turning point in our thinking, it was not a 'u-turn' nor was it unique and original thinking. It was an extension and development of the industrial democracy policies of earlier times. We also went off-shore for inspiration. We focused particularly on Ireland and South Africa and interpreted their ideas and experience in a NZ context.

The result was an ambitious strategy that has not always been widely understood by people of all political persuasions, but it is now really gaining momentum.

One of the first things unions must be clear about is that while Partnership for Quality is the PSA's political strategy, it is also an organising approach.

It is a strategy that focuses members’ minds around key traditional areas of concern - job security and satisfaction, pay and conditions, health and safety.

In addition PfQ focuses strongly on the quality of management practice and the need to include workers through their union in decision-making. One of the biggest issues that our members feel most passionately about is their right to be heard and to be valued. Partnership for Quality fundamentally challenges the relations of production by challenging the master/servant relationship and by challenging the notion that decision-making is the sole prerogative and responsibility of management.

Another important aspect is the PSA's clear and stated desire for the enterprises in which our members work to be successful. Our members understand that their fortunes and their careers are inextricably linked to the fortunes of the organisations within which they work.

In others words, PfQ demands that the PSA works to establish enterprises that are not only good to get services from, they are good to work in and they are well managed in a way that is inclusive of workers and their unions. These are goals that can be shared with employers/Government and the wider community, and reflect a positive role for the union in the eyes of the public.

Building a union organisation within that context requires absolute clarity on issues such as the need for clear independence, the need to be pro-active instead of reactive, the difference between 'consultation' and 'participation', the need to deal with conflict and difference, not run away from it, and a genuine commitment to win/win outcomes. It involves an understanding that we are not playing a zero sum game.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday to this conference, the signing of the Partnership for Qualify Agreement between the Government and the PSA was a landmark and has had real benefits for the PSA.

It has enabled us to play a formative role in many initiatives we could not have achieved without this relationship. We have developed a public service tripartite forum where we have been able to 'chew the fat' with the Minister of State Services, the SSC and public service Chief Executives all in one room. It has led to real change in modernising the public service, the development of a public service wide HR framework, renewed bargaining parameters, and progress on retirement savings, amongst many other things.

With other CTU health sector unions we have now also developed a health tripartite forum and bipartite forums. While it is relatively early days, the creation of this forum is already having quite profound and positive effects, especially in relation to the restoration of a national health service. We have agreed on the roll-out of the Health and Safety legislation and we are currently doing a joint assessment of all DHB/CTU union relationships in terms of union participation. The development of training and support for all delegates and managers to improve practice and establish real dialogue is being worked on as part of the forum’s work.

Another very significant initiative is the establishment of the Pay and Employment Equity taskforce. This taskforce represents a new way of doing things. A move away from someone putting out a decision and workers and others being left to react to it or not. Instead we have a long term approach that involves unions on the ground floor, at the beginning where we scope the problem, do the analysis before we start throwing up solutions. Our role won't stop there. We will be part of the implementation over the five year period and beyond.

This example embodies much of what partnership is about. It is a move away from getting members and delegates to write a big shopping list of demands to trade off with the employer’s big shopping list. It is a move towards genuine discussion and dialogue around issues confronting the workplace and the quality of work within it.

This way of working throws up many challenges for unions. How do you resource it? How do you organise around issues that are not simple and do not easily fit on a placard? How do you generate media interest when the media are intent on painting unions as old fashioned and intent only on conflict and disruption?

The PSA is grappling with these issues, and learning much in the process, but we remain committed to this path. We know much progress is yet to be made to reach that point where New Zealand understands the need to restore unions as part of the social fabric, with an important and valuable contribution to make.

Thank you.


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