Union worker: Pay freeze an attempt at intimidation by a government scared of strikes

10:35 am on 14 May 2021

The writer of this analysis is a trade unionist active in both private and public sector organising. Given their sensitive employment role, this analysis has been provided on the basis of anonymity.

Opinion: It's been a weird week for the union movement.

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The government's calls for a pay freeze have caused outrage. Photo: 123RF

The government slapped a pay freeze on public servants, waited for applause, received a backlash from workers it was wildly unprepared for, then backed down as fast as it takes to say "there never was a pay freeze".

Amidst all that sound and fury, the government followed up years of promising to introduce Fair Pay Agreements by once again promising to introduce Fair Pay Agreements. This time, however, it looks like it will actually happen. These major industrial reforms will level the playing field and end the race to the bottom in poverty-pay industries, and the labour movement is celebrating.

Much like the antagonist of Katy Perry's inescapable 2008 pop anthem, the government and the unions were "Hot N Cold" toward each other all week.

Public sector unions have been inundated with messages from members angry about the pay freeze that never existed. In between the swear words and spelling mistakes of emails bashed out in quivering rage, one question keeps being asked - why?

It's a hard question to answer. For days I racked my brains and came up empty, because at first glance it just doesn't make sense.

They said it's about keeping debt down. But is it? At around 35 percent, our net core Crown debt-to-GDP ratio is well below most developed countries. In Norway it's over 50 percent, and in the UK it's over 140 percent.

If this was about the money, surely Grant Robertson could tell us how much the freeze would save? He had no clue, and neither did Chris Hipkins or the Prime Minister.

Labour governments always fear the Opposition will accuse them of piling up debt and mismanaging the economy, but with Jacinda Ardern's popularity in the stratosphere I doubt that fear alone is enough to motivate an attack on public sector salaries.

What's it really all about?

I was beginning to think Labour did all this based on advice from a Magic 8-Ball, and then it hit me. This was never about debt, restraint, leadership or any other buzzword. It was about nurses.

Thirty thousand members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation are incensed by the DHBs' pay offer, which for most of them is a lousy 1.38 percent. Strike ballots have now been issued and it's highly likely we'll see industrial action as soon as June 9.

That's the last thing this government wants. To understand why, we must step back in time to July 2018.

The nurses were on strike. For the first time in 30 years, they walked off the wards and hit the streets to thundering cheers, a deafening chorus of car horns and - at least on the picket line I attended - Donna Summer, Dolly Parton and Diana Ross.

A deal was eventually struck and nurses went back to work. But some felt it didn't go far enough. Three years later, workloads are out of control and pay still lags far behind Australia. There's unfinished business in our hospitals.

Nurses weren't the first to strike that year. Four thousand MBIE and IRD workers walked off the job only days prior, and fast food workers, bus drivers and cinema staff all took action months earlier. But the nurses were the big one, at least before teachers followed suit. They were high profile and captured the public imagination.

The government pled poverty and blamed nine years of National, but when the nurses took action the public loved it. In the months that followed, thousands of Kiwis looked at their own paycheques, compared it to what the boss was pocketing and decided to follow the nurses' example.

It was our first strike wave in decades. It was beautiful.

National's health spokesperson (and former private hospital CEO) Michael Woodhouse said the Labour-led government caused the 2018 strikes by raising workers' expectations too high, too fast.

In opposition and during its 2017 election campaign, Labour convinced people there was scope to improve their lot. According to Woodhouse, when people took action to ensure those improvements actually arrived, the Labour-led government therefore only had itself to blame.

If strikes are caused by raising expectations, it stands to reason that strikes can therefore be avoided if expectations are lowered. Most DHB nurses earn between $60,000 and $100,000. What better way to lower their horizons than announcing a pay freeze that targets exactly that group?

With workers across the public sector ordered to tighten their belts, nurses would feel isolated and settle for less. One of the country's biggest unionised workforces accepting a minimal pay increase would set the tone for others to come, and if the nurses didn't strike they wouldn't inspire others to do the same.

That's what was meant to happen. Unfortunately for the government, it didn't work. What they hoped would come across as fiscal responsibility seemed to most people more like an attack on the heroes of Covid-19.

Labour quickly lost control of the narrative and within a week it was clear to everyone they had backtracked about as far as you can without admitting you ever had anything to back away from.

Struggling to deal with strikes

The reality is that Labour governments struggle to deal with strikes. When in Opposition they'll turn up to the picket line, get their photo taken holding a union banner and even give a rousing speech. But things change when they're in power.

That doesn't necessarily mean they stop caring about workers. Under this government, the minimum wage has gone up, the Pay Equity Amendment Act was passed and sick leave was increased to 10 days. Fair Pay Agreements alone will improve the working lives of thousands.

There is, however, a big difference between charity and solidarity. Technocratic top-down reforms are not the same thing as trusting workers to flex their own muscles and industrially challenge those who exploit them.

There will be no legal provision for workers to strike as part of Fair Pay Agreement negotiations, and while this does not negate the existing right to strike during collective bargaining and over health and safety concerns, it's part and parcel of the Labour Government's antipathy toward workers' agency.

Consider the Hobbit Law. This piece of legislation passed by the last National government allows bosses to classify most film and television workers as independent contractors, with no entitlements to public holidays, paid sick leave, employer KiwiSaver contributions or even the minimum wage. Independent contractors have no right to collectively bargain or go on strike.

Labour plans to amend this by introducing the Screen Industry Workers Bill, which will at least allow contractors to collectively bargain. But as film worker Micky Treadwell pointed out last year, he and his colleagues "will not be deigned permission to strike, severely limiting their power in these negotiations".

Actors' union leader Jennifer Ward-Lealand wrote soon after that while she supports the Bill, "the limitation on strike action was at the behest of the government, which wants to portray the industry as 'stable' in order to attract overseas investment."

Jacinda Ardern's government wants similar stability across all industries, even those where change is urgently needed. They're happy to see more legal protection for workers and higher pay for the deserving poor, but they are equally happy to deny workers our legal right to strike and dissuade those who have it from using it.

Tens of thousands of members in highly unionised workforces head into collective bargaining negotiations over the next twelve months. Strike ballots are flooding in from hospital wards around the country. Will workers push past the government's hostility to industrial action and seek pay rises that match or exceed skyrocketing rents?

Time will tell.

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