The Fair Wage Agreement bill passed this week is a legacy of passionate union leaders driven to defend workers’ rights and dignity.
Helen Kelly used to talk about the Four Square Workers of Kaitaia. She never met this particular individual. Small-town grocery workers were instead creatures of political stories.
Helen evoked her from the everyday realities of low-wage workers struggling in sectors where unions had been displaced.workers whose jobs were frequent unstable and unpredictable timeand the idea of bargaining with the boss for better wages and conditions was pure fantasy.
When Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood said, “This is for Helen Kelly,” as he attended the third and final reading of the Fair Pay Agreement bill in parliament Wednesday night, he broke the mythical I may have also mentioned the Kaitaia workers of It has become a symbol of everything Helen thinks wrong about working in New Zealand’s flexible and deregulated labor market and why fundamental change is needed.
Foursquare workers first appeared in Helen’s dialogue within the union movement in October 2009, where she had served as chairman of the Trade Union Council two years earlier.
Technically, workers legally had the right to bargain, but in practice the road to agency and true bargaining was littered with obstacles. “She finds a union willing to represent her, signs forms and hands them to her employer, organizes co-workers, holds meetings, conducts collective bargaining (which is difficult in small shops), campaigns and We need to go on strike and ratify bodies where necessary.It will be achieved and we will keep the organization in the shop,” Helen said.
Instead of this happening, workers who needed jobs got whatever their employers gave them.
The Kaitaia workers became the mascots of the helpless workers and protagonists of a major reform program Helen planned for the union movement in late 2009. She wanted the movement to be a true voice for all workers and a force for social justice. Organized and abetted for fair, dignified and safe work.
But she also believed that the vision of Decent Work for All required legislative change. She said unions could negotiate with industry to reach collective wage agreements that would cover not just her one in five unionized workers, but workers across sectors and occupations. I was generating ideas for relationship structures.
It has been 20 years since the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 abolished the old national arbitration system, turned collective bargaining into a privilege limited to a few workers, and made the already low-paid workers poorer. Nearly passed.
Although the ECA was abolished in 2000, it continued to define the limits of workers’ power as it effectively fragmented workers and undermined the union movement.
Against the backdrop of individual contracts of employment becoming the norm and the nationally-led governments of the time pushing back workers’ rights, Helen’s idea of returning to wage agreements across the industrial system and occupations took a breathtakingly radical turn. It was a target. But she didn’t rise to the top of the union movement just to oversee its decline into irrelevance. She was there to restore that mana, energy, and battle.
“We don’t need low wages in this country,” she said at the time. It’s nice.”
She analyzed employment systems around the world, especially those of various European systems that allow minimum wages and conditions to be extended across industries.
By 2011, she had drafted a 207-page bill allowing all workers, regardless of union membership, to participate in collective bargaining. Her system included the establishment of trade union “industry councils” that could seek industry standard agreements once certain parts of the sector were covered by collective bargaining agreements.
Her vision is that all workers should be able to participate in the workplace, protected by minimum wages and terms negotiated between unions and employers in their sector, and work for small employers in small towns. It was to avoid being disadvantageous by doing so. Anti-union companies that resisted collective bargaining.
The whole package was guaranteed to be completely unpalatable to employers.
But she persisted, organized political allies, and by the 2011 election Labor’s manifesto included a promise to bring an industry-standard agreement.
Labor stuck to the policy or variations thereof in all subsequent elections.
It wasn’t always certain. By 2014, former Secretary of State for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, Andrew Little, was the Labor Party’s spokesman for industrial relations. He wanted to water down industry standard policies and push the timetable for implementing them should Labor be elected. He said the policy was “too big a chunk to chew” and given that many workers had neither experience nor understanding of what it was, the first step would be to rebuild collective bargaining practices and culture. I thought I needed a process.
By then, six years after the height of the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund and the OECD, once strongholds of the neoliberal economy, had lost their former enthusiasm for deunionized and deregulated labor markets. I was starting to reconsider. Collective bargaining was now seen as a good thing and a mechanism that could help mitigate rising inequality.
As far as Helen was concerned, the problem was simple. Most New Zealand families depended on wages and salaries to survive, but having a job was no longer the antidote to poverty. lived in a household with at least one adult working full time.
“This is not right,” she said in one speech. “People understand that it’s not a deal about work. No, it’s not a contract signed up by someone I know.”
It was clear to her that creating a mechanism to raise wages was critical to solving the nation’s apparent crisis of inequality and deprivation.
A staunch Labor Party member and a formidable fighter in any controversy, Helen was not prepared to allow her party’s commitment to agreeing on industry standards to soften. told Little that he did not feel indebted to Labor and that if his attitude did not change, he would go out and campaign against him.
Eventually the split was put on paper and Labor entered the 2014 elections with a commitment to agreeing industry standards as a way to set reasonable minimum wages and conditions.
Within months of that election, Helen was diagnosed with lung cancer. She survived fighting, organizing, persuading and murmuring until her October 14th, 2016. A year later, the Labor Party formed a government in coalition with New Zealand First.
By then, the industry-standard contract had been renamed the Fair Wage Contract. In 1991 the Employment Contracts Act shattered collective bargaining and a tripartite working group was established led by former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who is now plagued by the weakening of the union movement.
The working group considered many of the same issues that inspired Helen’s enthusiasm for reform. It’s a ‘race to the bottom’ in industries like security, retail and hospitality. Declining labor share of national income We need more collective bargaining to increase incomes and reduce inequality.
After all, this week marks another four years since the Working Group’s report and six years since Helen’s death, until a fair wage deal is in place. The vote in parliament was accompanied by howls of derision from the public and the law, and accusations that it would take New Zealand back to the 70s. The system predicted that it would be gone by breakfast time.
Helen would have rolled her eyes at the critics. She would have thought the passage of the law would be a good victory for workers, but one that needs to be guarded vigilantly with vigorous organizing, sound strategy and genuine care for the most vulnerable workers. I thought it was. And she would have longed for the moment when a fair wage deal would be made that would increase wages, safety and dignity for Foursquare workers in Kaitaia.
Rebecca McPhee’s biography Helen Kelly: Her Life will be published by Awa Publishing in 2021.
https://www.newsroom.co.nz/a-big-win-six-years-after-her-death A big win six years after her death