It was sobering at the Labour regional conference this weekend to hear from men working at Affco about the despicable tactics that the Tallys family are employing to try and bust the Meatworkers union.
This week's leaks of cabinet papers showing an extremist attack by the National government on the few remaining collective bargaining rights that Kiwis have should worry everyone who works, or who wants to, in New Zealand.
Labour has to stand up and say that we'll undo these changes if they go through. We have to go further and propose a much better system for industrial law and employment relations.
If these plans come to pass, the only outcome is lower wages and less hope for people all across the economy.
- Not requiring employers to conclude collective bargaining
- Allowing employers to opt out of multi-employer collective bargaining
- Allowing employers to initiate bargaining on their own terms
- Removing the thirty day rule that sees new employees covered by a collective where it exists.
I'm not an employment law expert. People who are tell me that the practical effect of the first and third bullet points will be particularly terrible. That makes sense: if bargaining doesn't have to lead to an agreement, employers can de-collectivise workplaces at will. The idea that workers would maintain the right to organise and fight for a fair share becomes a joke.
This is all in the context of a low wages, deunionised workforce in NZ. Our problem is not mighty unions. It is mighty employers who, frankly, verge on taking the piss when they argue unions are the problem. You should see how they snigger at how much people have been taken in by stupid arguments about "unions being the problem".
I have seen it. It makes me sick. It has to change. Labour and the left have to change it.
New Zealand has a weak employment rights framework. The Employment Relations Act passed in 2000 did not really fix this, and National has already weakened this since it won in 2008.
The consequence of those weak rights at work is low pay. One of the consequences of low pay is low investment and low productivity. Why invest time and money in thinking of productive ways of organising your business, if labour is so cheap you don't need to?
The weak labour law framework isn't only about wages, it's also about power.
The CTU has a nifty little graph that shows the share of our economic output that working people like you and me get in wages.
(Hat Tip for the graph to The Standard.)
It's been falling since the Rogernomics Revolution. But look at what happened from 1991 to 2000 or so - it fell further. Look what happened after that. It began to go up. The sharp uptick since 2008 is about the collapse in the economy caused by the global financial crisis. National's changes haven't yet attacked the core of collective bargaining.
You can also notice the Australian pattern of a much bigger share of the GDP being wages. This helps explain why wages are so much higher over there. It's not just that Australia is richer: it's that a bigger share of that bigger pie goes to people in wages.
That is what Australians gain through stronger rights at work, and through a legal framework that guarantees those rights. It's not about Aussie unions per se, which also have problems, but about the whole picture.
What do Aussies get? A bigger share of the pie. The fact of that means Aussie businesses have to be more productive, have to invest more, have to think about how to sell more of higher value. They do. That helps the pie get bigger. That is a virtuous circle.
This is a power question. National has been more effective than the Coalition in Australia in redistributing the fruits of people's hard work away from the people who do the work, and into the pockets of those who own business. They smashed the union movement up in a way that it has not recovered from, in a way the Aussies never managed to do. The graph says it all.
It is also a question of values. Collective bargaining and fair rights at work are about the idea that as people, we work together. We can cooperate. That the world of work is one where we have rights, where we aren't slaves to the boss for whatever hours we are paid for, and where we are giving our time and effort in exchange for decent work, the return is decent wages.
The Australian union movement managed to tap into that set of values around mateship and a fair go for all Australians when it united with the Labor Party to defeat and destroy "Work Choices", and defend fair rights at work against a vicious attack.
As a member of the New Zealand Labour Party, I wish we'd gone much further in putting in place fair rights at work during the 2000s. This attack by National is an opportunity and a threat.
The threat is that we'll mumble about it in response, and leave National and employers thinking that they can keep going down this track.
The opportunity is for us to define this as an attack on very Kiwi values of working together to make the country a better place. An attack on our opportunities to get decent wages here instead of having to leave for Australia to do it.
That is an opportunity we should take up.