A timely warning about workers’ rights

The Standard reports a warning on Morning Report this a.m. from Australia’s ACTU president (and kindly provided a transcript):

“We say to your workers here, be very careful, you don’t want to go backwards to the early 90s, it’s a world that is not good for working people. Rights at work are fundamental and I would urge all of your workers to make sure that political parties here, if they want to change the government, actually, do the right thing by workers.

“Certainly when we look across the ditch…we see you with a rights base that’s been reconstructed after the era of the early 90s that does much better things with collective bargaining, much more respectful of workers. And we were so envious of that in the last eleven years. So be careful, don’t go backwards, that’s our message.”

Well, yes, we had noticed ourselves how bad things got here in the early 1990s. But, given that NZers currently seem amenable to trusting National not to undo the goods things the Labour-led governments since 1999 have done, it is a timely and welcome warning.

I’d query whether there was that much to choose between the NZ & Australian employment legislation between 1999 and 2005, when the infamous “Workchoices” amendment came into affect.

I’m much of Matt McCarten’s view that the Employment Relations Act 2000 is really just the ECA with access. I don’t think that the good faith provisions have made much difference to the vast majority of workers — that’s what the government’s review of the ERA showed — and the 2004 provisions to deal with “passing on” haven’t impacted outside of a small number of workplaces.

That said, access is very important. It seems to have been a major factor in unions being able to keep up with the unprecedented growth in the workforce under Labour — while replacing members who emigrate, die, retire, etc. This is no mean feat.

But at the end of the day, that’s all the unions have managed. That’s because the ERA does little more than provide unions with a platform from which to make a pitch for members. And with wage increases generally at or above the level of inflation this past decade, it’s been a difficult pitch. Most workers in non-union workplaces have yet to be convinced that the union would make much difference, according the only survey to ask them.

Things might change now that the economy is entering a rocky patch, but that remains to be seen. We do know that the ERA has not provided many low paid workers with access to unions; levels of unionisation remain at around 10% in this sector, and that’s where unmet demand for unions is greatest.

Can we trust National not to thrust us back into the dark days of the ECA? It does seem that they have cottoned on to how unpopular anti-worker laws are. Certainly, the fate of Howard and his Workchoices law provides National with a sobering reminder.

Since Key took over, the hysterical attacks on the ERA by Wayne Mapp have diminished, and noises have been made about no substantial changes being made to the current settings. We await the release of their policy with optimism, tempered with fear of backsliding after the election (should they win).

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