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Dunne Speaks - Strikes and the public reaction

DUNNE SPEAKS

Just over two years ago when Business New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association were using the bully-boy and standover tactics more associated with the trade unions of old in an attempt to browbeat Government support partners at the time to oppose a piece of legislation from the Labour Opposition to protect vulnerable workers, I wrote the following piece in this column: “For most New Zealander’s under about forty, the stories of industrial disruption in the 1970s and early 1980s seem like fantasy. The thought that a small group of members of the Boilermakers’ Union was able to hold up the construction of Wellington’s BNZ Tower or Auckland’s Māngere Bridge for years seems too far-fetched to be true. Yet it was, as was the regularity that the Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union or the Seamen’s Union were able to find an excuse to go on strike at various holiday periods, tying up the Cook Strait ferries and disrupting travel plans. And who would have ever thought a union secretary would be brazen enough to go on national television during such a strike to spit out “the travelling public can go to hell” as did the National Union of Railwaymen Secretary Don Goodfellow. Strange as it may seem now, this was all very much the way of the world then.”

The incredulous reaction of many to the threatened three day strike by Air New Zealand engineers just before Christmas confirms many New Zealanders have no recollection of the days when this type of disruption was the norm. The decision to lift the strike notice means that their incredulity will remain for a little while longer, although there is no doubt that the engineers made the wrong call in threatening industrial action on the eve of the Christmas holidays.

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This year has seen more industrial action than in any year of the previous quarter century, and principally in the public sector. How much of this is because of pent-up pressures from the term of the previous government, and how much of it arises from a sense that this government is a soft touch is not certain, although there is no doubt the government’s dithering response to both the nurses and now the teachers, to whom so much was at implicitly promised during the election campaign and has yet to be delivered, is a factor.

The nurses were fortunate in being at last able to reach a settlement while public support was on their side. The teachers still enjoy public support, although that will begin to wane if threatened combined strikes across the primary and secondary sectors early next school year become prolonged, and teachers become perceived as turning down not unreasonable settlement offers.

The key point in such disputes is timing. When does the inconvenience to the public go beyond what is reasonable? In the case of nurses and teachers there is a general view that they deserve a better deal, hence a greater level of tolerance for their endeavours to achieve that. However, in the case of the Air New Zealand engineers, some of whom apparently already earn as much as $150,000 a year, it was difficult to see the same level of public support ever applying, especially given the level of public inconvenience threatened.

The feeling that the travelling public was potentially being used deliberately and callously as a negotiating pawn, was never likely to be a winning one, and the reaction of recent days showed there was little sympathy for the engineers‘ position. Unlike the nurses and the teachers, they were unable to make the case they were undervalued and overworked to the extent the nation‘s health and the education of its children were being compromised.

It was telling that the Prime Minister, who seemed almost studiously to avoid getting publicly involved in the nurses‘ and teachers‘ disputes because of the public support both enjoyed, was quick to step into the Air New Zealand dispute. She well recognised that even though the government had nothing to do with this dispute, it would bear the brunt of visceral public outrage if the engineers’ strike proceeded and people's holiday plans disrupted.

The mounting industrial action of the last year is already becoming a awkward matter for the government, especially since the Prime Minister appeared during the election campaign to give assurances there would be no strikes on her watch. She will be very keen to calm things down, should the message being pedalled by the National Party that the country is on the verge of returning to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s start to gain public traction.

Although a waning memory, the spectre of Don Goodfellow’s infamous response of all those years ago still looms. No-one wants those times to come to pass again. Goodfellow's despicable sentiments should stay buried with him.


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