Primary teachers strike Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Strike! Why industrial action is up under Labour

There were more strikes last year than in any of the previous 10 years. RNZ political reporter Gia Garrick looks at why and whether Labour’s historic relationship with the unions could lose the party its public support.

Labour’s Andrew Little gazes at the framed black and white picture of his idol Peter Fraser, one of the men responsible for the unions’ foray into politics. “He drew together the Labour Party, he was an inspiration for the Labour Party, he was an amazing Labour Party Prime Minister,” muses the Justice and Treaty Negotiations Minister. “So he is somebody I have firmly in my mind as a good leader.”

He has Fraser to thank for his own career path, and the unions to thank for his election to leader of the Labour Party in 2014. Little still embodies the core values of the union organiser he used to be and he agrees Labour in government encourages emboldened unions.

Andrew Little beside picture of his idol former PM, Peter Fraser.

Andrew Little beside picture of his idol former PM, Peter Fraser. Photo: RNZ / Gia Garrick

According to the latest figures available, last year there were 46 strikes; involving 7,716 people. Among the industrial action was a major row over pay and staffing for nurses. While the industrial action was aimed at securing better pay and staffing levels, it wasn’t just the employers who were hit; patients bore some of the brunt as well.

Nick Forbes’ was one of those whose life saving diagnosis and subsequent surgery was delayed. “I was meant to fly out Thursday and then the strikes started happening and it got pushed back a week. And then they couldn’t do it that week so it got pushed back another week,” he remembers. “So I spent two weeks waiting to find out, A: what was in my head, and B: if I was going to survive it or not.”

He was told it was a cancerous brain tumour. Forbes finally got his appointment, had surgery, and six months later, after a long road to recovery, he has returned to work. He says he doesn’t hold a grudge and doesn’t blame the nurses, but wishes the government hadn’t let it happen. “The fact that they have to go to the point of striking… I’d say the government definitely needs to look at things a lot more closely and stop trying to ignore everything.”

The numbers

Latest figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment show there were 46 strikes in 2018, but MBIE says that figure could rise as not all employers have supplied information. In 2017, there were just six. In 2016, there were three. There were more strikes in 2018 than the previous five years combined. You need to go as far back as 2005, under the previous Labour Government, that the figures approach the number for 2018. That year there were 60 strikes.

table of numbers

* Not all figures are in for 2018 Photo: Statistics New Zealand and MBIE / Image: RNZ

Under National, the peak year for strikes was 2009, when 8,951 people walked off the job during 31 strikes. Unions say they merely facilitate the will of workers and that members must vote in order to strike. They argue they take into account the impact on the employer and say industrial action is only a last resort.

Is it acceptable for a worker to strike if it means others’ lives are impacted? Many would say no. But many also say yes, including Little, who doesn’t believe strike action is being overused. “It is the ultimate weapon that unions have, that workers have. It’s intended to cause inconvenience, intended in some cases to inflict economic harm,” he says. “It is a way of making a point if that group of workers thinks their voice isn’t being heard.”

Why more strikes?

There are many explanations, but Little acknowledges that Labour being at the helm does have something to do with it. “The nurses and the teachers and various others – they’ve had an extended period where they don’t believe they’ve been heard – and this is their way of making the point,” he says. “And the reason why I think they’re more motivated to take industrial action when the Labour Party is part of government is because they expect to be heard, and that they are going to be listened to.”

By they, he means the unions, which recently had the opportunity to sit down with ministers at a Council of Trade Unions’ meeting in Hamilton.

Jacinda Ardern at Westland Milk.

Jacinda Ardern says she’s not about to go on the defensive about the increased strike action under her government. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a proud E tū member herself, told the 200 people there that the Labour-union relationship was incredibly important to her. “We do frequently speak with one another and I’d like to think that speaks to the kind of relationship that we as a Government and actually as individuals have always wanted to have with the union movement,” she said.

The impact on the economy

The National Party’s having none of it, saying the unions are deliberately hurting the economy with their penchant for strikes. National’s rhetoric over the past year has been that the sudden and significant increase in industrial action will hinder the success of New Zealand businesses, and the Labour Party doesn’t seem to care. National has put Coromandel MP Scott Simpson in charge of targeting what Labour holds most dear – its core working class values. He is a former Auckland business owner and manager himself, and relishes the job.

“What we’ve seen since the change of government is a revert back to type – go on strike at the drop of the hat – and now sometimes without notice. That can’t be good firstly for the New Zealand public, our economy, or actually the credibility of the trade union movement.”

Simpson says unions need to answer some hard questions around productivity gains and increasing education skill sets. “A more sophisticated, modern view of the world and their role in it, I think, would be good for the trade union movement… and ultimately good for all New Zealanders.”

Midway up the Beehive tower and perched on the edge of his office couch, the Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway wonders if instead, National might like to answer some hard questions about why the number of working poor is rising. He joined the union when he was in his twenties, later becoming a member and organiser for the nurses organisation that last year took strike action for the first time in 30 years. By then he couldn’t join in, as he’d been made a Minister.

“It’s interesting when you’ve got friends on either side of a situation like that,” he says. “What I saw was a process that was worked through by both sides and ended up with a settlement – and that’s the way the process is supposed to work.”

It took nurses five rounds of negotiations to finally settle on a deal they found acceptable. There were strikes all over the country and a number of elective surgeries had to be put on hold.

So what is the government doing?

Reasons given for the increase in strike action last year include the fact that many of the long-term collective agreements ran out in 2017. “What you’re seeing at the moment is strong economic conditions, people feeling secure in their job, that it is time to get a better deal – and you’ve seen that in the collective bargaining that’s been going on,” Mr Lees-Galloway says.

“But I think what people expect from a Labour government is that we will take the concerns of workers on board, we will respond to those. They expect more from us – and that’s great, we welcome that – and they expect us to carry on with our programme of work.”

He’s referring to the changes to the Employment Relations Act, and promised implementation of Fair Pay Agreements. Lees-Galloway is also talking about raising the minimum wage, increasing paid parental leave and the coalition government’s goals for pay equity. And he has plans to do more – he’s had a letter written to him, signed by both business and union representatives, asking him to reform the Holidays Act.

Labour promises it won’t let up while in government, and claims it’s not scared of further movement from unions. The government still has ongoing negotiations with teachers to deal with, and junior doctors say they’ll be back on the picket line if they don’t see safer staffing levels. Whether it can navigate those and any more to come, while remaining politically popular and maintaining the historic union relationships will become clear after next year’s general election.


This story originally ran on RNZ’s Insight and is re-used with permission. Insight is on Apple Podcasts: subscribe and give us a review – Or head to Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


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