26 Jun 2018

Breaking down Bridges' claim of 'more strikes' under Labour

5:30 pm on 26 June 2018

Analysis - National leader Simon Bridges claims New Zealand has had more strikes and threats of industrial action under the present government than during the previous National government's entire nine years in power.

Nurses protest at Middlemore Hospital.

Nurses protest at Middlemore Hospital. Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

National is keen to paint the current government as union-friendly - and said that meant more strikes.

Mr Bridges said that in under nine months, 32,000 workers had either been involved in industrial action or signaled an intention to do so.

He said this number far exceeded the 27,000 workers who took part in strike action during National's three terms in power.

"This is remarkable. In nine months under this government we've seen more strikes in terms of people out there wanting to do it and doing it, than we saw in nine years under a National-led government," Mr Bridges said.

Acting Prime Minster Winston Peters hit back, and said the claim was "nonsense".

"In this case it's about negotiations. They have not gone on strike yet, whereas he's saying that industrial action and negotiations for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and all sort of conditions around that, those sorts of negotiations are strikes, and they're not," Mr Peters said.

Crunching the numbers

Data on strikes is unreliable. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment do collect figures on the number of stoppages, but it's not an exhaustive list.

The Public Service Union estimated that under National there were one to two strikes a year across a range of organisations including Statistics New Zealand, Housing New Zealand, the Qualifications Authority and Community Living Trust.

Stephen Blumenfeld, who is the director of Victoria University's Centre for Labour, Employment and Work, said it was very difficult to get accurate data on strikes.

He said that historically, strike action was more common under Labour than National, although strikes were less common now than they were 1970s and 80's.

"Every time Labour forms the government, we do tend to have more strikes, but the main reason for that is that the only workers that can lawfully strike are those who are union members and the vast majority of union members going back about 14-15 years now, have been in the public sector," Mr Blumenfeld said.

The last National government made it clear public sector workers weren't going to get the pay increases, while Labour raised expectations of wage rises during the election campaign.

Thousands of nurses are now preparing to walk off the job on 5 July for the first time in nearly three decades.

The chief executive of the Nurses Union, Memo Musa, was asked at a press conference last week if nurses were taking action now because they thought a Labour-led government would be more sympathetic.

"I don't think it's about sympathy, it's really the fact that you had ten years of underfunding, we had three years of the last settlement which did not resolve a number of issues related to working conditions and safe staffing," Mr Musa said.

Mr Blumenfeld said public sector workers like nurses, public servants and teachers were threatening stike action - or considering strike action - because they believed they would have a better chance of being heard by this government.

"For nine years, under National public sector workers, including those in education and health, were squeezed pretty tight," he said.

"Earning pay increases that were just at, or below CPI, and overtime that builds up the difference between where inflation has gone over that period of time and where their wage rates have gone," he said.

The question now is whether other sectors will now follow nurses and staff at IRD and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment by planning to walk off the job in a bid to get better pay and conditions.

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