Labour Letter: September 2012, Vol. 3 No. 9

18 Sep

National Labour News

A new survey showing New Zealanders are generally very satisfied with public services should be seen as a tribute to public service workers rather than a justification for current and future cutbacks, said the Public Service Association. The Kiwis Count survey of more than 1,000 New Zealanders conducted earlier this year found high levels of satisfaction with government services particularly through greater access to online transactional services. PSA National Secretary Brenda Pilott said maintaining the high quality of public services has come at a price for workers. "Public servants have been battling the odds with the government’s public service staffing cap leading to the loss of at least 2500 jobs since National took office," she said. She cited serious staff shortages resulting from budget cuts and endless restructurings which have put "huge" pressure on existing staff. "It’s clear that public service workers are working hard to offset the effect of job losses and funding cuts and it would be nice to see the government acknowledging that," she said.

The NZ Rail and Maritime Transport Union expressed outrage that the Government plans to spend $12.3 billion on New Zealand’s land transport system over the next three years while expecting the rail industry "to pay its own way" by becoming self sufficient in ten years. "In doing so, the government is expecting rail to compete with a road transport industry heavily subsidised by taxpayers. It’s wrong, and it isn’t going to work," RMTU General Secretary Wayne Butson said. "A modern transport infrastructure for New Zealand means a commitment to a quality rail network as a key part of the logistics supply chain, not just roads." The union said some of the funds, which will come from increases in petrol excise duty and road user charges, should be spent on maintaining the country’s railway network. "No one would realistically expect that road users meet the full cost of the national roading network," Butson said. "But it makes no sense to, on the one hand, heavily subsidise road users, and then to take a totally different approach to rail."

The current decline in workers’ rights and conditions will only change when people’s "deference" to employers and the state is overcome, declared Council of Trade Union president Helen Kelly. Kelly spoke at a lecture in Otago commemorating the Rev Rutherford Waddell, the 19th century Dunedin Presbyterian minister who inspired social and labour reforms. Kelly told the audience of 200 that conditions have improved for workers since Waddell’s time, but those conditions were on the decline today for many workers. She noted workplace deaths are on the rise, 300,000 workers are at or near the minimum wage and permanent jobs are undermined by contracting-out and casualisation. She said attacks on workers are increasing, and she predicted public sector workers will be the next to be portrayed as "overpaid, lazy and incompetent."

Helen Kelly speaking in Dunedin

Unite resolved a dispute with Burger King after the union accused the fast food chain of unfairly treating migrant workers and underpaying its staff. Unite national director Mike Treen said the details of the agreement will remain "confidential" but he added the union would recommend that New Zealanders patronize the fast-food chain. Treen said union members would be "very pleased with the outcome". "In addition the parties will work in good faith to promptly resolve any individual employee cases," he said. Treen said the union was "confident" that Burger King was committed to building a positive environment for the workers. A joint union-company notice will be posted in Burger King stores followed by a letter from the union explaining the outcome.

National, Economic & Political Events

Ministry of Social Development recently released a report that showed inequality in New Zealand is at its highest level ever. The report also shows that the average income has fallen for the first time since its low point in the early 1990’s. Meanwhile, the Labour Cost Index last month revealed a 0.5 per cent increase in the three months prior to June, indicating that wages and salaries are no further ahead compared to inflation than they were six months ago, and 2.5 per cent behind where they were in March 2009. LCI statistics showed that only 56 per cent of workers received a raise to address the cost of living or market relativities in the last year. The combination of income reports gave impetus to labour’s campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 and to the Living Wage Campaign.

The Service and Food Workers Union’s Living Wage campaign picked up key support as several leading members of the Green Party joined the effort. Green Party industrial relations spokesperson Denise Roche last month said a living wage is needed because of the growing gap between rich and poor in New Zealand. She, along with other Green MPs, including Co-leader Dr. Russel Norman, joined the Aug. 30 launch of Living Wage New Zealand in Wellington. (Labour Party has long supported the living wage.) The union explained that the campaign focuses on combating poverty through advocating for better pay rates for low paid workers. "The minimum wage at $13.50 is too low. It needs to be based on what people actually need in order to have a decent life, not on the whim of cabinet and business," said Ms. Roche. She said the recent "small increases" in the minimum wage under the National Government have "done very little" to help New Zealanders make ends meet. "Many of those on the minimum wage work long hours and extra shifts to make ends meet. Lifting wages for these workers would make a huge difference to the quality of their lives," said Ms Roche.

The Labour and Green parties, Grey Power and the Auckland University Students Association pushed forward on plans to collect enough signatures to force a non-binding referendum on the sale of state assets. But Prime Minister John Key said the partial asset sales will go forward regardless of whether or not opposition parties gather enough signatures for a referendum. "We had the biggest referendum we’re going to have – which was the general election … Partial asset sales was the major issue that was debated during the election campaign and National got an overwhelming majority going to the public with that policy," Key said. Labour Party leader David Shearer warned that outstanding issues involving several state-owned enterprises due to be partially sold could set back the sale process. He noted Solid Energy, for example, recently reported a $40.2 million loss and Maori water rights issues involving Mighty River Power are unresolved.

Green Party leader Russell Norman and Labour Party leader David Shearer

International Labour

Members of Australia’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) last month walked off their jobs and blocked the entrances to construction sites in a dispute with developer Grocon. In Melbourne, police confronted some 1,000 CFMEU members as they escorted Grocon employees past picket lines to their offices. Another 200 workers in Sidney struck as part of the dispute. NSW union organiser Darren Taylor said a key part of the Melbourne dispute was about the appointment of shop and safety stewards to represent the workforce. The workers in Sidney reportedly wanted to show solidarity with Melbourne workers and also to highlight safety issues at their worksite. Recent mediation by Fair Work Australia has failed to resolve the dispute. CFMEU Victorian president Ralph Edwards, meanwhile, said the blockade would continue until all of the issues were resolved.

Fiji Mine Workers Union reported that former Vatukoula goldminers who have been on strike for the last 21 years have yet to receive any resolution of their grievances despite promises of redress. The union made submissions to the country’s Constitution Commission in Vatukoula on August 31. "The reason we are making these submissions to the commission is because in 2007, when the current government took over, we were promised resolution of our strike by the government representatives at a meeting held at the Fiji Human Rights Commission on 23rd April 2007," said union president Josefa Sadreu. But he said no action was taken despite repeated requests seeking updates. In 2009, the Fiji Mine Workers Union formally withdrew the case from the Human Rights Commission and sent the complaint directly to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

The USA’s AFL-CIO used Labour Day, a national holiday, to launch Labour 2012 political action campaign in support of re-electing President Barak Obama and other labour-endorsed candidates. Workers celebrated the event with parades, rallies, picnics and demonstrations across the nation. According to the AFL-CIO, the Labour Day campaign is part of a broader, long-term initiative by America’s unions to send the message that "Work Connects Us All" and "to help provide a voice for all people who work." Working families participated in a national grassroots canvass across the country prior to the Republican National convention held Aug. 28-30 and visited an estimated 640,000 homes in 23 states. "Working families talking to their neighbours, co-workers, friends and families is kryptonite to the radical right wing agenda," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "We’ll be breaking through the noise of misleading ads paid for by wealthy special interests, and letting voters hear from the people they trust most on the economic issues they care about. That’s how working families will win this election and lift up the middle class."

Restorers of historic Angkor Wat signed their first collective agreement on August 31. The pact should set a precedent for Cambodia’s construction industry, union supporters said. More than 120 workers, who formed the Angkor Preservation Workers Union in 2010, led a two-year campaign for insurance that would cover injury and illness, union rights, wages and other benefits before their employer, the World Monuments Fund (WMF), agreed to the pact which also increased wages from $79 to $90 per month.. The WMF, based in New York, has been in Cambodia for more than 20 years and preserves the iconic Angkor Wat and other temples such as Phnom Bakheng and Preah Khan. "This is such an important day. We’ve witnessed a big international organisation sit down with a small independent Cambodian trade union," said Dave Welsh, country director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, which supported the workers’ efforts.

Regional and Local Union News

Fifty Massey University cleaners have the right to bargain for non-monetary redundancy entitlements with international cleaning company OCS despite their contract excluding them from redundancy payments, the Supreme Court ruled last month. The court said such entitlements could be training or job seeking assistance. The decision was a clear victory for the workers and the Service and Foodworkers union which filed the suit. The union explained that OCS slashed the cleaners’ hours in 2010 after it won a contract to clean the university’s Palmerston North and Wellington campuses. ”They gave the cleaners notice that their working hours would be reduced to 27 a week and their working year cut to 31 weeks,” union national secretary John Ryall said. According to the union, OCS sacked them when the cleaners asked for redundancy entitlements and only reinstated them when they signed up to the new hours of work. ”The Supreme Court victory is very important, not just for the Massey University cleaners, but for vulnerable workers throughout New Zealand," Ryall said.

A proposal by the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce to sell off Christchurch City assets to help fund the Christchurch rebuild was soundly rejected by New Zealand’s unions. Marty Braithwaite, the unions’ earthquake recovery spokesperson, said the commercial returns from assets such as the Lyttelton Port Company, Orion and the Airport had been instrumental in ensuring that rates for Christchurch residents have remained some of the lowest in the country. He said the Chamber of Commerce’s call was "short-sighted." Braithwaite said that unions would oppose the sale or partial privatisation of strategic assets, adding that the assets had been built up by generations of ratepayers and would continue to make an important economic and social contribution to the city. In submissions to both the Christchurch Central City Plan and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority Draft Recovery Strategy, the unions argued that the revenue generated by CCHL would be more important in the future than ever before.

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