Who wouldn’t want ambulance drivers to be safe and healthy at work?

St John ambulance drivers aren’t asking for much: regular breaks, fair pay, and not being sent out on their own to deal with dangerous or violent patients.

But that’s apparently too much for St John – a charitable organisation whose values include “doing the right thing” and being “straight up” – who have not only taken legal steps to close down collective bargaining, but docked workers’ pay 10% for taking industrial action.

Let’s be really crystal clear here – we’re not talking about strike action. Ambulance drivers who are members of FIRST Union are still showing up to work on time and getting the job done. They’re just wearing a t-shirt that says “Healthy ambos save lives” while they do it.

Side note: what is with some employers and a kneejerk hatred of cool union t-shirts?

What’s struck me is the number of comments I see from people – “ordinary” New Zealanders, if you like; people who don’t spend nearly as much time as you or I nerding out about politics – asking how this is legal. This can’t be okay, surely? How can the boss take 10% of your pay just because you’re wearing a silly t-shirt?

Well … no one likes to hear “I told you so.” But here we are.

In 2013 the National-led government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Among other things, it included:

  • docking pay 10% for industrial action – if an employer couldn’t be bothered figuring out the proportion of work being affected by, say, an overtime ban (or, perhaps, just punishing workers for wearing t-shirts!)
  • making it easier for employers to walk away from collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements, which maintain basic standards of pay and conditions and stop cowboy operators undercutting everyone else by paying poverty wages
  • removing mandatory minimum rest breaks and giving almost all the power to the employer to decide what a “reasonable” break would look like
  • weakening protections for workers like cleaning and catering staff, whose jobs might get taken over by new contractors who want to pay them less
  • tightening the rules around strikes so bosses’ lawyers can tie unions up in legal action for months over a typo.

The law weakened the position of workers and their unions, and strengthened the ability for dirtbag employers to be dirtbags. That’s precisely what it was designed to do.

And of course there was resistance. Thousands of people rallied in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the bill. There were submissions, and op eds, and public speak-outs.

And National did what they have done so well for eight years: they dodged the issues. When unions pointed out that this law would remove the right to a rest break, Simon Bridges said “It’s about flexibility, we can’t have teachers and air traffic controllers just walking off the job to have a cup of tea, can we?” – as though this answered the question, as though this would ever happen. When unions pointed out people could be disadvantaged by not being on the collective agreement for the first 30 days in their new job, Michael Woodhouse said “It’s about fairness!” – as though it’s fair to expect someone new to the job and new to the company to know what to expect, what to negotiate for. As though 90% of employers bother to genuinely negotiate individual agreements with workers who don’t join the union.

Maybe unions could have done a better job talking about these issues. Maybe the media could have done a better job getting government ministers to actually answer the questions put to them (instead of, say, using a workers’ rally to attack Grant Robertson for being gay, as occurred in one particularly shameless piece).

The point now is that the industrial action being taken by people who do an incredibly important job, driving bloody ambulances, is making many people realise how broken employment relations are in New Zealand. Yes, folks: your employer can dock your pay 10% because you and your coworkers stand together and wear union t-shirts while doing your jobs. That’s not fair. That’s not about flexibility. That’s not something we like to think of happening in our country.

So tell St John. Tell every employer who tries to walk away from the bargaining table when they don’t like people taking a stand for health and safety and decent work: it’s not on. It’s not how we do things. And tell the politicians, too. Because laws change when we make them change.

Easter trading

Easter Sunday is one of the three-and-a-half days a year when (most) shops have to be closed. That could be changing. From Denise Roche of the Greens:

The new rules would supposedly protect people’s rights to say no to shifts on Easter Sunday or to apply for annual leave for that day. But that just shows how out of touch National is with the real situation for many working people.

Imagine you’re a young person going for your first or second job in retail, and in the job interview the boss asks you how you’d feel about working on Easter Sunday. You’re hardly going to say no, because you want the job.

Or maybe you’re a single parent, juggling childcare and work. The person who does the rostering for the shop where you work is already annoyed at you because your commitment to your kids means sometimes you need to change the roster. Are you going to risk annoying your boss even more by asking not to work on Easter Sunday?

Unfortunately, I think, it seems to be a line some in Labour will accept:

Labour leader Andrew Little has expressed favour in allowing shops to trade on the weekend, but he had a few concerns.

“I wouldn’t object to a law that allowed trading on Easter Sunday, providing the right of the worker to genuinely opt-out,” he said.

Allowing employers leeway with words like “reasonable” and “genuine opt-out” probably works fine in some situations. It’s like the Danish “flexicurity” model which is being bandied about in the Future of Work conversations that are happening at the moment. Flexicurity gives employers huge leeway – in a context of massive collective strength for workers. Chris Trotter already joined the dots on this one:

New Zealand and Denmark have many similarities, but in 2016 they also feature a number of vital differences. In relation to flexicurity, the most important of these is the respective level of union density.

As the official Danish website puts it: “The development of the labour market owes much to the Danish collective bargaining model, which has ensured extensive worker protection while taking changing production and market conditions into account. The organisation rate for workers in Denmark is approx. 75%.”

The organisation rate for New Zealand workers in 2014 was approx. 19%.

In fairness, Little did say:

“The bottom line is you’ve got to protect the right of workers to genuinely opt-out and not be subject to stigma and pressure.”

But this is a bit of a paradox. The employer/employee relationship is inherently unbalanced. One side starts off with all the power and money. The power to hire in the first place. The power to take the job away. The money to hire the best lawyers and drag out court proceedings over disputes and weather a long lockout. There will always be stigma and pressure on a worker to accept the deal they’re offered.

The power imbalance is only mitigated – not cured – when the people who do the work can stand together in solidarity, and when a basic set of good employment standards are entrenched in the law and enforced adequately.

This is labour relations 101. Look where the power lies. Look at the context. Right now, the context is that workers in New Zealand aren’t even guaranteed a minimum set of rest breaks during their shift. Operations like Talley’s AFFCO are literally threatening disciplinary action to make people work on public holidays.

In this environment, with that level of power imbalance, the idea of giving employers more and more of the power as long as they promise to be “reasonable” is so Pollyanna-ish that Pollyanna would look at it and think “damn, that’s a little optimistic”.

It would be so great to live in a world where workers and employers can have truly healthy relationships. Where people can have the flexibility to take or work on holiday weekends, where pay is fair and jobs are secure. We don’t live in that world. We live in the world where people like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

So let’s not dismantle the very last scraps of workers’ rights just yet.

~

Labour is allowing a conscience vote on the issue. It might be interesting to see where the lines are drawn.

Bold politics: redefining a good business model

I’m slightly in love with this idea of Jeremy Corbyn’s: to stop companies paying dividends until they pay the people who work for them a living wage. He said in a speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday:

Only profitable employers will be paying dividends, if they depend on cheap labour for those profits then I think there is a question over whether that is a business model to which we should be turning a blind eye.

By “slightly in love” I mean I cackled for a good five minutes after reading it because it’s so beautiful, righteous, and utterly outraging to the anti-Corbyn folk who have so desperately tried to get him to back down from his principles. This is not a guy who’s worried about being called “hard left” or “socialist”.

jeremy corbyn gives you the eye

It’s a serious proposition, though. It challenges our ideas of how businesses should operate – ideas which we tend to take for granted.

We know what a “good business” is meant to look like. It must be profitable! And efficient! And innovative! And of course it must “value” its employees – by giving them their own nametags or buying them Christmas hampers or talking a lot about just how much you value them. Even the second-most-horrible employer would agree that having happy employees/staff/associates/~partners~ is important to the success of your business.

(The most horrible employer is the Talley family, who think workers should be grateful to be fired for wearing green t-shirts. There’s always an exception that proves the rule, etc.)

We often talk about profit as though it’s the single most important measurement of a company’s success – but profit doesn’t trump everything.

britney serious

We don’t say “you only need to implement basic food hygiene after you become profitable.” We don’t say “accuracy in advertising is only required once you’re making money.” We understand the need for common-sense minimum standards in business.

If a CEO stood up and said “Look, our business model just wouldn’t be profitable if we had to ensure there wasn’t fecal matter in the ground beef” we would say “Your business model is broken.”

If a Director of Corporate Social Responsibility stood up and said “Our business model isn’t sustainable if we have to stop pumping raw sewage into the harbour” we would say “Your business model is both literally and figuratively shit.”

We already accept the idea of a minimum mandated wage for people who work. So why not stand up and say, “if you can’t afford to pay the people who do your work enough to live on, your business model is broken”?

Of course there’ll be pushback. Of course there’ll be resistance. And the people opposing us will have larger media platforms and greater influence and more money to throw into advertising and astroturf.

But that’s nothing we haven’t overcome before. That’s pretty much the entire story of the labour movement and the entire reason we have Labour Parties across the world.

This is the kind of idea which ticks all the boxes. It just makes sense. It challenges the rich and powerful who get whacking great payrises while the people who do the work struggle.

It’s the right thing to do. And taking a stand when it’s the right thing to do is how you win progressive causes. Isn’t it?

Not the “end to zero hour contracts” you were looking for

We have two options before us, New Zealand. Either Michael Woodhouse still hasn’t had anyone explain the difference between zero hour contracts – which are exploitative trash – and casual employment – which is casual – to him.

Or, Michael Woodhouse knows damn well that there’s a significant difference between fairly negotiating an on-call position with your employer, and being at your employer’s beck and call and whim with no ability to say no; and the only reason he’s making any kind

I’m favouring the latter, in light of this report on the proposed changes to employment contracts, which relies heavily on the words “reasonable” and “unreasonable” (and when you’re the one who can afford lawyers, that means whatever you want it to mean) and apparently does nothing to address the actual problem: workers being effectively bonded to their employers and expected to show up at any hour of the day or night with no guarantee of a minimum weekly pay and no ability to get secondary employment to make up the difference.

But speaking on TV One’s Q and A programme Woodhouse said there was no real definition of zero hours contracts.

If an employer wanted someone to be on call, then there would need to be “reasonable compensation” for that, but the law would not put a figure on it.

But he agreed it would still be possible for an agreement to have no stipulated hours.

I don’t know, that sounds pretty much like a zero hours contract to me.

This is the problem for the government. Zero hour contracts are patently unfair. Everyone can see that. And thanks to a dedicated campaign by unions like UNITE and FIRST, with a publicity boost from the much-mourned Campbell Live, it became an issue which couldn’t be ignored or swept aside.

They had to at least appear to do something or the whole “fairness and flexibility” facade would have come crashing down.

But this is not a government which gives one single damn about workers being exploited by big business. This is a government which took away guaranteed minimum rest breaks and knighted Peter Talley.

They’ll talk the tough talk when they need to salvage some credibility, and they’ll promise change when they’re under the gun. But once you look at the real detail, it’s empty. If anything, it makes things worse, by creating even more loopholes for bad employers to exploit – and the irony is that this doesn’t just hurt workers. It hurts the good employers who do want to treat their staff with respect and decency, but get undercut and driven out of business by the exploiters.

In most of the industries which employ people on zero-hour contracts, there is literally no need to. They can predict demand. They know what times are busy and what aren’t. It’s the height of penny-pinching for a 24-hour fast food joint to demand that its workers come and go at no notice in order to save a buck, and it only works because those workers don’t have a lot of choice.

Even an anti-worker, union-hating National government like ours should be able to ban this kind of coercive arrangement without doing any damage to their base. The fact that Michael Woodhouse is still dancing around the issue and trying to weasel his way out of clear, decisive action just shows how morally bankrupt they are.

QOTD: Gordon Campbell on the Hobbit Law

The Green Party has unhelpfully pointed out that National’s dirty deal with Warner Bros to strip Kiwi film workers of their rights as employees didn’t deliver all those jobs we were promised.

As Gordon Campbell puts it:

If ‘Save the jobs!” was the catchcry in 2010 then the government’s moves have failed. Jobs in the film industry have since declined, not increased – and that’s the case even though we have thrown money at the Hollywood studios, increased the boodle available to them under the Large Budget Screen Production Fund and handed them the effectively de-unionised 19th century working conditions they demanded, for their allegedly 21st century industry. Away in their Dark Tower, the Warners chieftains must still be laughing about their raid on Hobbiton.

We got played, as a country, so men like Peter Jackson and James Cameron with net worths of hundreds of millions of dollars could avoid giving their workers sick leave or letting them bargain collectively.

And just to rub salt in the wound, the Hobbit movies are bloody terrible anyway.