Monday, 6 July 2009

Preemptive strike against public-sector unions

The government has made a preemptive strike against public-sector unions, ahead of major pay negotiations next year, when nurses’ and teachers’ collective agreements expire. The argument, from Finance Minister Bill English is that “In the current climate, most New Zealanders are receiving little or nothing extra”. “[T]he days of going to ministers and getting large increases at the expense of the taxpayer without any productivity gains are over,” he said. English’s comments were supported by the Christchurch Press in it’s July 4 Editorial:
In this climate of austerity, English’s warning to nurses and teachers about their next wage rounds in 2010 was entirely appropriate, even if the message might sound a bit rich coming from a finance minister who himself was awarded a 4.5 per cent wage rise last year. Following his comments, English was accused of being insulting to nurses, but given the economic climate this is nonsensical... it would actually be insulting to those battling to survive with no wage rise or even no job if workers with safe berths in the health or education sectors were to put their hands up for the same level of pay increase they have recently enjoyed.
Is this the first signs of an attempt to stir up resentment against public sector workers? In some ways it would be fairly easy to paint doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants as some sort of elite. The are generally well educated, their pay may be low by international standards, but it’s high compared to others in this low wage economy, and they’re less likely to get laid off. But the thing that sets them apart the most from most other workers, is that they’re highly unionised. And thanks to some well organised campaigns that mobilised rank and file union members, they have been able to take advantage of the tight labour market in recent years and win some significant pay rises. Those campaigns, particularly the nurses, sought and won significant public support, tapping into a mood in favor of higher pay and better public services. National must be worried about a repeat performance next year. So an obvious approach for the government to take is to try and drive a wedge between nurses, teachers and other workers, by depicting them as a privileged elite, out of touch with the realities faced by recession hit public-sector workers and the unemployed. One way to combat this is for public sector unions to back the struggles of the few private sector workers (and the many low-paid workers in the public sector) who are in unions. A good place to start would be Unite Union’s campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15.

No comments: