Friday, April 26, 2013

Smashing the unions

Today is virtually a public holiday, with a large number of New Zealanders taking the opportunity of Anzac day on a Thursday to take a four-day weekend. So naturally, its the perfect day for National to introduce its latest attack on worker's rights.

Not that they're brave enough to call it that - instead the PR is about a procedural tweak to the workings of the Employment Relations Authority. The real policy is included almost as an afterthought:

A return to the original position in the Employment Relations Act where the duty of good faith does not require the parties to conclude a collective agreement. Instead, the Employment Relations Authority may declare whether collective bargaining has concluded.

Allowing employers to opt out of multi-employer bargaining.

In English, that means that it will no longer matter if you belong to a union or not, because your employer can just refuse to bargain with your chosen representative. The net result will be to de-unionise New Zealand workplaces and force employees onto individual contracts, where strike action is effectively illegal. And that means lower wages and worse conditions for New Zealand workers.

This is how National plans to "close the gap" with Australia: by driving kiwi wages lower through de-unionisation. I guess John Key would "love to see wages drop" after all.

But this isn't just wrong - it is also stupid. Like criminal law, employment relations law exists to provide a framework for mediating certain kinds of disputes. But in order to function effectively, that framework needs to be seen as fair to all parties. If it is not, then they seek alternative means of dispute resolution. Historically, when governments have attempted to outlaw or smash unions, it hasn't prevented strikes; they've just been more violent, and been accompanied by repression and sabotage.

That's what National's nineteenth-century model of industrial relations as a master-servant relationship opens the door to: nineteenth-century means of dispute resolution. By eroding acceptance of the law, they push us back towards the state of nature. And that isn't good for anyone.