The future of unions is the slow painful demise they deserve

Unions are no longer relevant to NZ society

Unions are no longer relevant to NZ society

Bryce Edwards writes a big long whinge about the future of unions at the NZ Herald.

It is a bit forlorn, but he tries to fill it with hope and promise. The bottom line though is unions are no longer relevant for modern workers. The numbers show that.

Many of the tributes paid to Helen Kelly in the last week acknowledged her success in raising the profile and positive perception of the union movement. More than ever before, unions are less reliant on industrial muscle and more on winning the public relations battle – getting consumers and voters on side with their campaigns and political interventions.

Kelly was a talented leader but the hard reality of union health remains grim. The movement she led has been barely holding its own after a catastrophic collapse in the 1990s.

The public isn’t necessarily convinced about unions. According to UMR’s 2016 Mood of the Nation report, unions are the second least trusted institution – with only 30 per cent of those surveyed having confidence. This is more than the media (26%), but less than big business (31%), churches (33%), and banks (44%).

Hookers are trusted more than unionists. But so funny that media is trusted less than ratbag unionists.

And despite being weaker than ever, an increasing proportion of the public believes they’re actually too strong. According to New Zealand Election Study survey data, in 2011 32 per cent agreed with the statement that “Unions have too much power” – up from 18 per cent back in 1999.

Unions do have too much power, and they are flexing it more via social media. Witness the bullying of companies who don’t knuckle their foreheads to the unions. The attacks on My Food Bag simply because they use Talleys products. The constant whinging from workers about Talleys yet they continue to work there. Then there are the constant harpings of the teacher unions who pretend that they care about kids when in reality they care about protecting their patch and power.

The numbers of workers joining unions is abysmal.

Abysmal? I see it differently. I see this as hope…that the numbers will drop further.

Of course unions have generally been in decline across OECD countries for many decades, but the New Zealand experience has been more dramatic and brutal.

In 1985 union membership reached an historic high – nearly half of all workers were in a union. In the 10 years that followed, total union membership plummeted by 320,000 – over half the membership gone.

At March 2015, there were 137 registered unions in New Zealand with a total of 359,782 members.

At least we now know how many terminally and congenitally stupid people there are in NZ.

But the decline has been uneven. Initially the public sector unions, ravaged by restructuring, corporatisation and privatisation, took the biggest hits.

But having 97 per cent membership to start with provided a huge cushion and the big education, health and core public sector unions managed to stabilise at around 60-70 per cent of workers in their sectors.

The private sector unions have suffered most, and continue to do so.

Less than 9 per cent of workers in the private sector are currently union members.

Unions aren’t relevant to private sector employees. That number tells you that 91% of workers in the private sector don’t seem to have too many problems with their bosses. They no longer see the need for a union interfering.

While the economic reforms took their toll, there is no doubt the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 had a massive direct impact.

They always go?on?about jobs lost to reforms…here’s the thing…none?of those people lost a job forever. Most got on and did something else. The economy transformed, businesses and workers became more efficient and unions, the boat anchor of the economy got wasted. They got wasted by the Employment Contracts Act, to my mind, the single most effective piece of legislation enacted in the last 50 years. It gave people choice, and when given that choice they voted with their feet. The left the unions in droves, never to return. The unions blame the act, I blame the unions. If they were half as effective as they claimed they were under compulsory unionism, then they’d still have members.

It effectively removed any special legal status unions had – getting rid of the compulsory unionism that had previously made New Zealand one of the most highly unionised places in the world.

Most unions went into survival mode in the 1990s, desperately trying to save wage rates and conditions.

Limits on the hours of work, extra pay for long or unsociable working hours and security of work that had been fought for and won over the previous 100 years were lost by many in just a couple of years.

There is now a generation of workers who weren’t even born when regular overtime, weekend and night shift penal rates and a standard 40-hour week were the norm.

Yep and they don’t care for unions. All the wistful talk of 1951 and the union bully-boy talk is now but a distant memory, unless you belong to the Meatworkers Union, the Maritime Union or the various teacher’s unions. Giving people choice decimated the unions. They certainly don’t like that, but we will never have compulsion again.

The failure of the union movement to engage with younger workers may be the biggest problem.

Workers over 30 are twice as likely to be covered by a collective agreement as younger workers.

As those who joined up in the peak period of the late 1970s and early 80s retire, they simply have not been replaced fast enough.

Collective agreements hold people back. I remember the day I left the union working at the National Bank. I doubled my income, and didn’t have to pay union fees anymore. When a union is negotiating on behalf of a collective the crappiest employees get far more than they deserve while the best workers receive far less. Such is the tyranny of the collective. It is funny, because of all the industries still controlled by collective agreements they are also the industries where unions moan the longest and loudest about how impoverished their workers are.

This is exacerbated by the decline of employment overall in industries where private sector unions have traditionally been strong, for example in manufacturing and mining.

New technology will only increase the rate of change.

The Maritime Union fought and won a long and bitter battle in 2011, but automation may yet decimate the union.

Transport has been one of the strongest private sectors for unions but the sight of the fully automated bus to be trialled at Christchurch Airport would have caused dismay for many drivers and their union reps.

On the other hand the service sector has been one of the most rapidly expanding across the globe, but this is the area unions have experienced the steepest decline and stagnation for a generation.

The Maritime Union cooked their own goose. They overplayed their hand, had staff doing rather menial work on the salaries of doctors and working half the time of the doctors. Automation will undo them. Same goes in many other industries where unions have been stroppy and demanding. Unreasonable and ever-increasing demands simply make it more likely the employers will seek automation. Machines run 24/7 with no rest breaks. It makes sense really.

Unions are an anachronism of the past, they, along with the Labour party need to be euthanised.

I wrote about how irrelevant and dodgy unions were last year. As I said in the book my hostile view of unions was formed early and as a result of seeing the bullying and nasty culture of unionism up close and personal. I know of one cabinet minister who was a former Labour party supporter until the unions chose their business to attack and destroy. The unions can’t stand that minister yet it’s because of unions that minister is now in cabinet.

Put simply, unions are no longer relevant to society, they need to be put out to pasture. Nearly every reader will have a tale to tell about unions and their?unconscionable and stupid actions. Readers will have had businesses ruined, holidays wrecked, bodies assaulted and product vandalised. Why don’t you tell Bryce Edwards all about them in the comments, then the cloistered socialist academic might actually find out what real people think of scumbag unions.


– NZ Herald