For most New Zealander’s under about forty, the stories of industrial disruption in the 1970s and early 1980s seem like fantasy. The thought that a small group of members of the Boilermakers’ Union was able to hold up the construction of Wellington’s BNZ Tower or Auckland’s Māngere Bridge for years seems too far-fetched to be true. Yet it was, as was the regularity that the Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union or the Seamen’s Union were able to find an excuse to go on strike at various holiday periods, tying up the Cook Strait ferries and disrupting travel plans. And who would have ever thought a union secretary would be brazen enough to go on national television during such a strike to spit out “the travelling public can go to hell” as did the National Union of Railwaymen Secretary Don Goodfellow. Strange as it may seem now, this was all very much the way of the world then.
Thankfully, those days are behind us and a generally more reasonable industrial relations climate prevails today. But every now and then there is a return to a mild approximation of the old ways. Ironically, though, today it is more likely to be employer groups resorting to the tactics the media of the 1970s and 1980s would have screamed against as “bully-boys”, “stand-over tactics”, or “industrial muscle”. A recent example has occurred over a relatively innocuous Labour Party Bill to give more protection to contract workers in vulnerable situations. The Bill has been making its way through Parliament over recent months, with barely a ripple, but suddenly, the employers have noticed it, and they do not like it, so like the militant unions of old they have pushed the outrage button.
Of course, their means are a little different. Mass email campaigns from people put up by their bosses, having been told only a fraction of the story, and simplistic media bluster and derision are the modern forms of industrial bullying, but the intent is no less different from the unions of old – to get their own way, come hell or high water.
A reasonable person will quickly see the farce for the sham it is and ask the likes of the Employers and Manufacturers Association and Business New Zealand why the tub-thumping has been left too so late in the day. The truth in this instance is that both organisations have missed the plot altogether, have failed to understand or even take any notice of what was going on in Wellington, and have treated the Parliamentary process in a cavalier way bordering on contempt. After all, they are employers, and Parliament needs to bend to their will. So the fury overdrive had to begin at the eleventh hour. Consequently, they will have no credibility in the future when it ever comes to criticising unions for industrial behaviour, which seems foolhardy. It is also a salutary reminder that while conflict and bluster are easy to manufacture, which is why they resort to it, constructive engagement is harder and requires more effort. Ironically, again, that is the same argument employers have used to debunk union claims in the past, yet they see no shame in doing the same themselves when it suits them.
At least the militant unions of the 1970s and 1980s had a point of principle (albeit rather warped) behind their industrial arrogance – today’s employers are just more interested in covering their butts for their own ineptitude. Hardly a good look, nor a reason to take the future pronouncements of the EMA and Business New Zealand at all seriously.