The NZ Union Movement and Its Prospects Under the New Government: An Interview With Ben Peterson

Ben Peterson. Photo: Rosa Woods/Stuff

Workers’ Star reporter Zebedee Schrader sat down with Unions Wellington Co-Convenor and First Union organiser Ben Peterson to discuss the future of Kiwi unionism under Ardern’s government. The period in which we find ourselves is certainly an interesting one, and the challenges the union movement faces are many. All hope is not lost however, Peterson says. “We can, and need to, turn things around.”

Zebedee Schrader: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Ben. It seems with this new government arrangement there has been some jockeying within the union movement around the Labour Party. Where do the unions stand in relation to the current government at the moment?

Ben Peterson:  Unions relate to the Labour party in different ways. There are the Labour affiliated unions – who are members of and part of the Labour Party. These are all private sector unions. Public Sector unions in NZ are not technically affiliated to the Labour Party, but many of their leaders and staff are Labour Party members, and they will maintain relationships with Labour MPs. So someone doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a Labour Party affiliated union to be a Labour Party person. Union organising in the Labour Party has been really pushing more recently, and that’s evidenced by things like Ibrahim Omer, a refugee union organiser and former cleaner from E tū, making it into parliament on their list.

The left of the unions also have a close relationship with the Greens, including some unionists who are Green members.  This was never as easy a fit as the Labour Party, as the Greens have never had space for affiliated unions like Labour, and the rightward shift of the Greens has been grating for some in that wing of the Party. 

This government is being formed while we are seeing a resurgence of confidence within the parliamentary left in an international sense, as evidenced by the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns, among other things. This has led to unions in Labour being more bold, and for the left of the Greens to double back toward a social democratic pitch to the left and to the union movement. 

This is quite new. Until Jacinda Ardern – the Labour Party was largely on the defensive. There appeared to be very little chance of forming a government and it was pretty unclear what the union movement would get out of it if it did. 

During this time, the momentum was behind more trade union independence and campaigning on issues. With Jacinda and a popular Labour government in power the partisan Labour space has been made more viable. There are a lot of people, including former Green Party members, who have moved and joined the Labour Party. 

The danger could be that we fall into a more lobbying approach. Instead of pushing for working class action, there is an argument for relying on ‘our guys’ in the big house. It will be  the same with other social movements such as climate change as it is with unions: you don’t take things behind closed doors, you go out, you make it an issue and you will win – that will always be the strongest road for the union movement.

A more lobbying perspective might feel stronger now.  It’s easy to support Jacinda and feel the ‘tide of history on your side’, but that won’t be there forever. What are the unions going to do when that tide turns, will we be stronger and better organised? It’s up to us to determine this.

ZS:  One of the key areas we will see this play out is with Fair Pay Agreements. They are high on the agenda of the CTU and one of the Labour Parties 2020 campaign policies. What’s the future for FPAs?

BP: They are one of the key demands for unions right now. However, the union movement has not really done much of a public campaign around them, in part because they are a bureaucratic mechanism. That’s not very sexy, but you have to find ways to communicate to people why this is something that can make their lives better. Wages are stagnant and conditions are going in the wrong direction for many people. We need to have mechanisms where working people can democratically get together and set the baseline for their work conditions

Ardern offered Fair Pay Agreements in her first term and that hasn’t happened. Unions should take from this that waiting for things to happen isn’t enough, waiting for Ardern to show initiative isn’t going to get us over the line. We can’t absolve ourselves of the responsibility to set the agenda for workers. You can’t replace union struggle with a few officials having sit down meetings with the government. Go to union members! Especially when people are feeling confident. It is precisely because they perceive the government to be friendly to their interests that you can bank on those people to be receptive to campaigning and pushing things around.

ZS: Does that need to be something the NZCTU should be taking initiative on?

BP- The CTU has done some campaigning on FPA’s, and I suspect they’ll make it one of their priorities this cycle, but I think this could be made stronger if unions in NZ had an emphasis on mass action and involvement of working people in campaigns. A good campaign can be more than online petitions and media stories. Why don’t we experiment more with stop work meetings, rallies and community town hall meetings? We need big actions that pitch outwards, beyond ministers and officials. Even if there is a lobbying strategy, a meeting with a minister carries more weight when there are thousands of people out the front. Organisations like the CTU could be playing leading roles in shaping effective, union wide, class struggle campaigns.   

Unions should remember that we are different to corporations, government ministries and NGOs.  Unions are organisations of working people. Our way of campaigning and fighting for change should look and feel different to marketing and media messaging. We take sides in the class war, and we celebrate the power of working people.  A lot is written about the decline from historic highs of unions, but I’m more interested in talking about the growth and strength of unions today. 1 in 5 New Zealand workers are in a union – that is power.

ZS: The legal framework for unions is so generous, there seems to be real room to do things. 

BP: There’s a lot of space for creativity in NZ’s labour law. A positive aspect of the Ardern government is that working people are confident.  It’s a good time to be on the left. People have higher expectations, our thinking is shifting away from ‘this is as good as things will get and any changes are only going to get worse’. People are looking for positive change and if the unions lean on that, we will see success. Unions are in a good position when there is a government which wants to respond to the expectations people have of it. 

ZS: Are there places where we could be going even further? What about a union movement behind legalising political strikes? 

BP: We should be pushing for as much as we can get out of this government. Having a mechanism for people to take strike action outside of wage bargaining would be positive. But I do think the way to go about campaigning for right to strike, is to go on strike. Unions are not really reaching the limits of the current law at present. I think the way to make that an issue is to utilise the strike weapon more. 

To see political strikes, we need more working people engaged and deeply committed to political issues. Start with the issue and work backwards to the tactical stuff. I’m not sure a campaign for the right to strike in the abstract would be very successful when many people do not have experience striking. For worksites to join the climate strike for example, it’s a lot easier if those worksites are used to taking action. Having a group of workers who know how to strike and are confident doing so was the best way to conduct right to strike campaigns in the past – taking strike action, not paying fines, and changing the facts on ground. 

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