Editorial: Times change in workplace relations

16:00, Mar 07 2012

In the 1970S and 80s, most newspapers employed "industrial reporters". Their job was to chronicle a stream of industrial action throughout the economy.

Back then, union membership was compulsory; pay rates and conditions were often negotiated in Wellington between union delegates and industry counterparts. When they did not agree, government mediators stepped in. When that failed, Federation of Labour and the Employers' Federation chiefs headed for the Beehive where the labour minister  sometimes the prime minister  tried to succeed where officials had failed.

It was idiotic and inflationary; workers in Gore were paid the same as counterparts in Epsom, despite different living costs, and small employers then charged customers more to meet the higher wage bill.

The Employment Contracts Act 1992 changed all that. Employers and staff had to negotiate site-specific arrangements, forcing some to talk face-to-face for the first time. The government stepped right aside. Industrial reporters went the way of the typewriter. In 20 years, union membership has more than halved to 17.4 per cent, though it is higher in the public service.

These days, private sector trade unions strike much less often than their forebears did. But, today, watersiders, rest-home workers and meatworkers are all embroiled in industrial action. More unrest seems inevitable, especially when the Government is forcing its agencies to live within capped budgets. Dominion Post columnist Chris Trotter has argued the employers' tough line, especially in Auckland, is a "naked bid for unbridled employer power". Gosh.

More likely, employers are reacting to the reality of tough economic times. Rest-home workers are dealing with the consequences of tighter taxpayer funding of their sector. Others are reaping what they have sown. In a booming economy, businesses sometimes agree to wage rates and working arrangements that make no sense when profits are harder to make. Ports of Auckland , for example, has found it needs greater productivity to be competitive. The result is a stoush  one that CentrePort staff illegally tried to join this week  that has led to POA announcing it will contract out its waterfront work, employing three competing firms to supply stevedoring services.

Striking watersiders will have to apply for those jobs. Yesterday they said they would not. They seem not to have grasped that their dogged resistance to change  these men earn up to $90,000 and staunchly maintain a closed shop  has put their individual futures and the future of the company that employs them at risk.

They have also put the leader of the political party the Maritime Union funds  Labour  in a difficult position. The pragmatic David Shearer understands that tough times mean everyone's lifestyle is affected; at the same time, he knows that he who pays the piper ... Like Prime Minister John Key, the Opposition leader should stay out of this  unless he opts to quietly say that thoughtful unionists act not to make their members' jobs irrelevant. Watersiders might ask themselves why no-one in the construction business uses boilermakers any more.