Thursday, 20 December 2007
Three unions join forces to form industrial relations powerhouse from NZ Herald, Tuesday December 18, 2007 By Simon Collins Three of New Zealand's most aggressive unions have agreed to merge into what will be the country's biggest private sector union. The Service and Food Workers Union, National Distribution Union and Unite Union will have a total of 54,000 members, about 7000 more than the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). The EPMU spurned a Service and Food Workers request for a merger early this year, throwing it into the arms of the two smaller unions. The executives of the three merger partners approved the deal in principle last week. The new union, as yet unnamed, will be Auckland-based and targeted at low-paid workers in fast-growing service sectors such as retailing and hospitality where unions currently represent fewer than 5 per cent of all workers. Unite general secretary Matt McCarten, who has grown his membership five-fold in the past two years through a media-savvy "Supersize my Pay" campaign, said he wanted the new union to double its numbers within a year to easily surpass the country's biggest union, the 55,000-member Public Service Association. "It's not just about a union getting bigger. It's about getting the critical mass," he said. "I think what it will become is the catalyst to organise other unions around it with a campaigning union approach around social justice issues. "In my view I'd want it doubled within 12 months. The others all think that's ambitious but I think we could do it, easy. "I think workers don't have a problem with joining a union at all. What we need is the capacity to meet their needs - that's what has held us back." The new union will start with a combined income of $15 million a year. Mr McCarten has bolstered Unite's income through partnerships with Te Wananga o Aotearoa and the United Credit Union and is looking at new schemes such as a "union card" offering discounts with retail partners. He said the new union would offer "membership for life" which individuals could carry with them between jobs, and he hoped it would dedicate 15 to 20 per cent of its budget to supporting workers who were not members of any union. "I think workers will feel quite positive if they know that 20 per cent of their money goes to workers who are not in unions but need support, and after that they will join," he said. National Distribution Union national secretary Laila Harre said the union would start recruiting in high schools to give young people somewhere to get advice even before they signed their first employment contracts. "I hope we come up with a category of membership that every mum and dad will want to give their kids for Christmas," she said. The National Distribution Union and Unite have already waged aggressive campaigns in the supermarket and fast-food industries, abolishing lower youth rates in key companies in both sectors. Mr McCarten said he had offered the name "Unite" to the new combined union. The merger threatens a critical part of the Labour Party's union base, as the Service and Food Workers Union is currently one of just four full unions affiliated to the party and the second-biggest after the EPMU. The NDU and Unite, which together will bring in 31,000 of the new union's 54,000 members, are not affiliated. Service Workers national secretary John Ryall said the union's predecessors were founding members of the party in 1916 and the union was one of just two, with the EPMU, which stuck with Labour when the party swung to the right in the 1980s. "I think we played a large part in restoring Labour to its union roots," he said. "We want to make sure that affiliation is maintained. That will be something that will be determined democratically by members of the new union." EPMU national secretary Andrew Little, who represents union affiliates on the Labour Party council, said his union rejected the Service Workers' request for a merger in April partly because the two unions were then at loggerheads over an Air New Zealand proposal to contract out its ground services to a Swiss firm. He said yesterday that it would be "a huge disappointment" if the new union severed its links with the Labour Party. Five biggest unions 1. Public Service Association (PSA) 55,174 2. New union (SFWU/NDU/Unite) 54,241 3. Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union (EPMU) 47,158 4. NZ Educational Institute (NZEI) 46,000 5. Nurses Organisation 39,382 More workers sign up for united stand Union membership inched upwards last year to 18 per cent of the workforce - its highest level for a decade. Victoria University's annual survey has found that union membership grew by 1.4 per cent to 382,538 in the year to last December, a slowdown from growth of 6.6 per cent in 2005. Labour Department figures for March 1 each year, also made available to the Herald yesterday, show a similar trend - growth of 5.1 per cent in 2005-06 slowing to 2.8 per cent in the latest year to a total of 382,589 members. Both surveys show that rapid growth in union membership in fast-food and nursing in 2005, driven by the Unite Union's "Supersize my Pay" campaign and a 20 per cent pay rise for public hospital nurses, slowed down in the latest year. The latest figures have also been hit by a massive 25 per cent drop in union membership in the finance and insurance sector, down from 15,077 to 11,338 in the department's figures. Financial Sector Union campaigns director Andrew Campbell said this reflected both a shrinking workforce, with fewer branches and more internet banking, and a "hostile stance" towards unions by the major banks. "We recruited more new members last year than in any year, certainly since the Employment Relations Act ," he said. "Unfortunately we lost more than we gained due to the high levels of turnover." On a national basis, the figures also suggest the unions have been running fast to stay still. The university survey shows they have raised membership by 80,133, or 26 per cent, since their low point in December 1999, just before the Employment Contracts Act was repealed. But in the same period the total workforce has grown by 17 per cent, so the unions' share of the workforce has risen only slightly, from 16.7 per cent to 18.1 per cent.