by Denise Roche
On Monday it wasn’t until I went to catch the bus to the office near K Road that I remembered that the bus drivers were on strike. It occurred to me then that it is very rarely these days that ordinary New Zealanders have felt the impact of industrial disputes.
In the last year there have only been three major disputes in New Zealand. They were the Ports of Auckland dispute with the Maritime Workers of New Zealand, the meat-workers lock out by the Talley’s-owned AFFCO meat processing plants and the strike by resthome workers at the Oceania chain of resthomes.
Aside from urgent health and safety reasons, in New Zealand it is illegal to strike (or lock out workers from the employers’ side of the bargaining table) unless a collective employment agreement has expired. Strike action is seen as a tactic of last resort for most unions and union members because workers lose wages during the industrial action and as was evident particularly during the Ports of Auckland dispute and the Talleys/AFFCO lock-out, it can do considerable damage to the employment relationship between the workers and the employer.
What is usually the case is that if workers are voting to take strike action it’s a clear indication that the employment relationship has been at an all-time low before the negotiations for their collective employment agreement started.
Certainly this seems to be the case for the members of the Tramways Union and First Union. They have been negotiating with NZ Bus Ltd since July and despite the union recommending a deal to the union members they decided not to accept it and have voted to continue with strike action.
Bus drivers work long hours and split shifts within a 14 hour timeframe and over a 7 day week. Despite being offered a deal that included pay rises over a period of time the members say they still feel undervalued and the resentment wasn’t helped at all by the company introducing unpopular shift changes during the bargaining period.
Union organiser, Karl Anderson, who has been representing the workers during the negotiations has been reported as saying that the drivers don’t earn enough to pay their bills and give their families a decent standard of living, and the delayed implementation of pay increases offered by the company prolonged this hardship.
Over years of negotiations the same issues arise and the question needs to be asked why the drivers feel that industrial action is their only way they can have some impact on their work practises. Even the company acknowledges that every collective employment agreement negotiations have resulted in strikes over the last 20 years.
Reading between the lines, I suspect that for the drivers the shift changes ignited the dispute and I’d expect that between employment negotiations the bus company does little to foster a workplace culture where the drivers have a say on their working conditions.
Unless there’s some definite change in approach I expect that not only will Auckland’s bus users be inconvenienced by intermittent strikes this year until the agreement is settled – but we’ll face the same disruptions the next time the negotiations come around.
NZ Bus is the biggest bus company operating in Auckland. They could be leaders in good employment relationships and working conditions. Sadly they’re not.