Unions reflect on their loss of power

[Yesterday was] International Workers’ Day, celebrating the labour movement and the eight-hour day.

The day is a public holiday in many countries.

New Zealand has its own Labour Day holiday in October, marking the anniversary of this country adopting an eight-hour working day.

However, many organisations still celebrate solidarity between workers on what is colloquially known as May Day.

Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg said people’s working conditions in New Zealand were not improving.

“There’s no effective protection in the law and for many people, if they do work long hours, there’s no recognition in higher rates of pay or overtime pay,” he said.

Something salaried people have been used to for a long time. And lots of self-employed people also know that the extra hours don’t always translate into extra money. Somehow, “workers” expect more.  

“There’s a lot of concern about the number of people working in insecure conditions who don’t know how many hours they’ll have next week.”

Unions have steadily lost power at the bargaining table, said Annie Newman, Living Wage campaign coordinator for the union E Tū.

“In a sense the Living Wage is a rate – it’s $19.80 – but what we’re also trying to do is create a better force behind bargaining,” she said.

“The whole idea of the Living Wage came about because bargaining under the law currently is an absolutely failed mechanism for delivering decent wages for working people.”

Job automation is a real risk, she said, and unions needed to have a greater stake in workers’ rights to prevent that.

Unions came about due to Industrialisation. As we are not in the post-Industrialisation period, unions are becoming irrelevant in most cases.

How they expect to protect workers against automation in a constructive way is an idea that nobody has figured out yet.

In the end, workers of the future require good education, flexibility and a willingness to deal with change.

Joining the factory floor as a 16-year-old and retiring at the same company as a production planner 35 years later is still something unions believe should be part of the Future of Work.

It is their need to stop the world from changing that makes them irrelevant.



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

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