Two of Aotearoa’s largest unions, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) — my union — and the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU), may merge early next year. Members of both unions will vote on this in June.
With about 56,000 members, a merged union would be by far the largest private sector union in New Zealand – only about 2000 members smaller than the largest union in the country, the Public Service Association.In December, the SFWU magazine Our Voice, argued merging would mean more resources for campaigns like the Living Wage Campaign. The editorial implied a larger union could draw other unions and community groups into campaigns. Non-unionised private sector workers – who make up as much as 90% of the private sector workforce – would be more likely to join the mega-union, the editorial suggested. The latest issue of The Metal, the EPMU magazine spent even less space on the proposal, but did promise “a lot more detail about the amalgamation in a special edition of The Metal, including what it means for you and how we might work in the future”.
The EPMU and SFWU have a strong record of working together, but what do we stand to gain, or lose?
At the Work Rights rally in Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland last year, one SFWU member said some workers employed by her company at another branch were covered by the EPMU and their contracts had different benefits and drawbacks for workers – how would an amalgamation affect situations such as this? Will it cut wages and conditions or improve them? Will the merger result in more, or fewer, organisers?
How will a merged SFWU union be able to represent so many different industries, let alone so may different workplaces? And, most importantly, how will a merged union be better able to tackle the elephant in the room, the decline of trade unions?
The EPMU in particular has a long history of merging with other unions to escape the cold tide of contracting out and casualisation. Is this just the latest attempt to avoid the bosses’ attack?
After the 1991 Employment Contracts Act (which wrote unions out of the law and, at worst, resulted in wages as low as $2 per hour and, on average, saw a 25% fall in real wages), the EPMU survived against the odds by merging, merging and re-merging – a history that The Metal celebrates in an octopus-like flowchart from 1860 to the present.
Survival is a victory but where will this strategy lead?
The union has been bleeding members for years, as the manufacturing industry has been pummelled by redundancies of loss of dozens and hundreds of members, a slow and continuous haemorrhaging of strength. Mergers provide a temporary respite and an illusion of safety, while the unionised workforce in general continues to shrink.
Industrial militancy is one way forward – every business the EPMU helps shut down is another nail in the union’s coffin; every successful fight, like the 5% in ’05 wage claim, injects confidence and life. Expansion is another possibility – the launch of EPMU Construction in Christchurch, an attempt to re-unionise building workers, could be a game changer.
Merger on its own is a dead end. But as part of a pro-active strategy, this mega-merger could turn the tide.