Jamie Mackay introduced last Thursday’s Farming Show with a reminder it was the anniversary New Zealand’s bloodiest farming protest (from 4:31).
June 9, 1978 was the day 250 farmers frustrated by on-going strikes at the freezing works drove 1500 sheep into the main street of Invercargill and slaughtered them.
Those were the bad old days when unions ruled and the rest of us paid for it in frustration, inconvenience and lost productivity, wages and opportunity.
My father had retired by 1978 but he’d been a carpenter at the freezing works. As a tradesman he was usually able to continue working when the freezing workers struck but he used to come home with stories about the stupidity of many of the strikes, called for little on no reason, sometimes over an issue somewhere else.
They had a propensity to call strikes at the most inconvenient time when stock were prime or feed was short and delays were costly in both financial and animal welfare terms.
Repeated strikes weren’t peculiar to the freezing industry, but on the wharves, railways, ferries and anywhere else where unions held sway.
Changes to employment law in the 1990s by National curtailed much of the union silliness. Labour reversed some of the changes, giving more power to unions which isn’t always to the benefit of workers.
Unions aren’t all bad. Businesses with large workforces often prefer to deal with one bargaining agent than lots of individuals. Unions can often achieve more for workers collectively than they’d be able to get for themselves individually; they can be a strong advocate for a worker with a grievance and they can bring about improvements in workplace safety and conditions.
But their actions sometimes appear to be more about flexing union muscle than doing what’s in the best interests of their members. Prolonged strikes are an example of that when wages lost through time off end up costing more than the wage rise over which a strike is called.
National has moved the employment pendulum back towards the centre with improvements to the law since 2008 and is now intimating it will campaign on making more progress:
Prime Minister John Key has indicated National will campaign on further changes to labour laws – and will not rule out reinstating a youth minimum wage or changes to collective bargaining.
At the Seafood Industry Council conference yesterday, Mr Key said making the labour market more flexible was a priority as the economy began to grow and National intended to unveil further changes in the election campaign.
There is debate about youth rates but there is no doubt that youth unemployment has gone up much more than that for other ages since youth rates were removed.
Offsetting Behaviour has several posts on the issue including youth rates revisited with graphs which clearly show youth unemployment has been worse than general unemployment since the removal of youth rates. Check My Sources explians how young workers are being priced out of the labour market.
In an interview with Sean Plunket on The Nation yesterday John Key said:
We know that there are people that are 18 years of age on an unemployment benefit and I think as a country most of us would sit around and say that’s crazy, they should be in work, they should be in training, or they should be back at school.
It would be much easier for young people to get work if employers weren’t forced to pay them the same rates as they pay more mature workers.
A little more flexibility in labour relations which won’t be welcomed by unions but will be better for employers and their staff would also be welcome.
We’ve come a long way from the bad old days when unions held the country to ransom but there’s still room for improvement.