Labour sells out workers’ rights

While the Ardern government has delivered tangible reforms in favour of ordinary people, a good part of the promised or announced reform programme has not been put into effect. It’s either delay – the subject area has been farmed out to a working group – or the reform entails legislation that has not yet gone through the parliamentary process.

Both theory and history tell us that reformist parties like the Labour Party cannot be trusted. As the reformists believe in working within the capitalist system, reforms are conditional on what the system “allows”. Incoming reformist administrations quickly lose their initial radicalism as the weight of bourgeois opinion, particularly of business people, bears down on every progressive proposal. The reformists begin to backslide on, or altogether abandon, electoral promises to the working class.

The reform of employment law is a case in point. Of all Labour’s reforms undoubtedly one of the most directly to the good of workers was the promise to amend the Employment Relations Act. During National’s term of government the Act was changed in stages to tip the balance ever more in favour of the employers. Labour’s promise to reverse most of these amendments appeared to signify the difference between the two main parties. However, Labour did not pledge to reverse National’s changes that had the effect of constraining industrial action – typical Labour!

Before the Employment Relations Amendment Bill had its first reading on 1 February 2018 Labour reneged on one of its most important promises: to get rid of the 90-day rule that made sackings for no reason legal. Labour conceded to New Zealand First, the small-business party par excellence, to keep the 90 days for businesses that employ less than 20 people. That was bad, but now things have got worse.

For the Bill’s second reading on 27 November, Iain Lees-Galloway, Minister for Workplace Relations, made several concessions to New Zealand First and the so-called business ‘community’.

The requirement for employers to pass on information about the union to prospective employees is softened.

Union officials must after all get permission to enter workplaces where there is no collective agreement. This effectively means that unions are barred from the majority of worksites.

The biggest sell-out is that employers are not after all required to conclude a multi-employer collective agreements “provided that the opposition to concluding is on reasonable grounds.” Henry Cooke in the Dominion Post commented “multi-employer deals had been softened even further into irrelevance.” As New Zealand First’s Clayton Mitchell said in the second reading debate “Now, what we’ve got is a position where those businesses, after engaging in serious negotiations, have the ability to now opt out of those multi-employer collective agreements, which, if not done properly, can be potentially problematic.”

Labour has allowed itself to be dictated to by New Zealand. Labour should have gone on the offensive, championed its original proposals and thrown down the gauntlet to Winston Peters. Ardern should have told him to back the Bill or cause a general election. With New Zealand First polling at 4 percent they would not risk a wipe out.

The Council of Trade Unions should be up in arms over Labour’s betrayal, but it has decided to keep quiet. On the day of the second reading it put out a media release, titled ‘Rebalanced Employment Law on the Horizon’, that did not have a word of criticism. Similarly, the PSA, the largest union, put out a totally uncritical media release.

Labour have quietly dropped industry-wide fair pay agreements. They have not done anything to tackle one of the most restrictive right to strike regimes in the world, and now they have given up on half of the employment law reforms they promised.

We need a workers’ party.