The announcement that National will undertake labour legislation reform has revealed the dark side beneath its happy face veneer. Riding high in the polls and 14 months before having to call an election, the Key-led government has dropped its populist pretense and unveiled its anti-worker credentials with the thrust of its proposed reforms. It also violates a 2008 campaign promise not to substantially revise the Employment Relations Act (ERA). In fact, the reforms are a return to the old Employment Contracts Act (ECA), one of the most draconian, overtly authoritarian pieces of labour legislation seen in the modern liberal democratic world. Rather than address all of the proposals, to include making dismissals easier, narrowing the scope of personal grievance claims and extending the 90 day probationary period to all industries, I would like to focus here on just one: the proposal that unions must secure the permission of an employer before accessing a work site.Â
Due to the asymmetric power relationship between employers and workers, collective action is the best way for the latter to secure rights and protections within the productive process. Collective action requires organisation, and the ability to organise is contingent on the ability of prospective agents to access workers in an effort to persuade them to act collectively in defense of their common interests. Access does not mean compulsory membership or even recruitment success. It just means that prospective collective agents have the ability Â to approach workers at their work places in an effort to organise them collectively.
Under International Labour Organisation Convention 87 on freedoms of association, such access is defined as an absolute democratic right for both workers and agents. In fact, it is a cornerstone of most democratic labour legislation that employers not have the right to interfere with the right of workers to organise, including organisation efforts by collective agents such as unions. Thus National’s proposal that unions must secure employer consent before approaching employees on a work site, and that such consent must not be withheld “unreasonably” (with the definition of reasonable left purposefully vague), is a direct violation of one of the most cherished international labour standards.
There is a historical precedent for this move, and that is where National’s real darkness shows. The 1991 ECA entered into law by the Bolger government had exactly such provisions. In 1993 the ILO upheld a complaint that the ECA violated convention 87 on rights of association as well as convention 98 on freedom to bargain collectively. The Bolger government ignored it and it was not until 1999, after the 5th Labour government came into office, that the more egregious anti-worker sections of the ECA were eliminated in the revamped ERA.
National’s black side runs even deeper. The ECA explicitly borrowed many of its provisions directly from the 1979 Chilean Plan Laboral. The Plan Laboral was the Pinochet dictatorship’s labour code, and was championed by its then Labour Minister Jose “Pepe” Pinera, the father of the current Chilean president. Under the pretense of promoting “labour market flexibilisation,” the Plan Laboral was an outright assault on the Chilean union movement, using both structural as well as politically-focused clauses to atomise the Chilean working class and forever break union influence on economic decision-making. To a large extent, and even with subsequent reforms by successive post-Pinochet democratic governments, it largely succeeded in doing so.
Pepe Pinera, somewhat unsurprisingly, was a friend of Roger Douglas and made regular Business Round Table visits to NZ in the 1980s and 1990s before his death. Ruth Richardson, the main instigator behind the ECA, was also an admirer of Pinera. These two individuals, with their direct and immediate past dictatorial connections and coalition relationship with National, are believed to be the prime movers behind this attempt to return to the ECA as the framework in which the social relations of production are determined. In other words, National is proposing changes to the labour relations system that have their origins in the Pinochet dictatorship, and which were suggested by people with direct links to that dictatorship. Beyond the violations of ILO convention 87, that alone should give reason for concern.
Hence, while some of the other proposed reforms can be the topic of honest debate keeping in mind where the balance between efficiency and fairness in production should be located, the attempt to curtail union access to workplaces is an overt assault on working class collective rights. This proposed clause is not about getting unions to ring employers up in order to make an appointment to see employees. This is about shutting them out.
It remains to be seen if this time around the CTU and other mainstream unions will offer more than token resistance to these proposals (as was the case when the 90 day probation period was introduced). It also remains to be seen if the NZ working classes will do anything other than bow meekly to the powers that be. But if ever there was a moment to rise up against the resurgent union-busting, anti-worker tide, that time has come. Remember: the reforms embodied in the ERA where at best minor adjustments meant to “humanise” the ECA. But the thrust of NZ labour law under the ERA was by no means a bold step towards worker’s control of production, and in fact retained much of the pro-business biases of its predecessor. Thus the current labour reform proposals are very much about putting the boot into the working class, and the union movement in particular.
It may take defection from mainstream, Labour-affiliated union ranks to more independent and militant unions for any effective resistance to happen, but whatever the case, if the worker’s movement stands silent on this one, then further rollbacks of worker’s rights can be expected the longer National is in power. For workers, those will be dark days indeed.