Fair Pay Agreements: The Workers’ Most Dangerous Choice this Century

Today, Marama Davidson and Jan Logie announced the NZ Greens’ three point plan to support workers through the COVID-19 recovery. One, finally pass legislation enabling fair pay agreements for workers in the private sector. These agreements would set out occupation and sector-specific minimum employment standards, such as for wages, redundancies and overtime, and would be negotiated through bargaining between workers and employers. Once decided, they would become legal requirements for the sector. 

Two, the Greens are calling for pay increases for public sector workers up to the living wage. Notable about this is the scope of their proposal, going beyond the traditional civil service to community organisations funded by the government and contractors.

Lastly, the Greens want to convene a hospitality sector working group composed of unions, hospo bosses and the Government to “get the industry on a more sustainable footing going forward”. The Hospo Workers Union has already come out in support of this working group being formed. 

The most significant policy raised by the Greens here is definitely a renewed hope for Fair Pay Agreements (FPA), which had seemingly died on somebody’s desk in the aftermath of a 2018 working group. Not only are the Greens openly calling for them in some sectors, but it is likely that some form of FPA would be the end agreement of the tripartite negotiations within hospitality, whether a formal tripartite agreement or an informal agreement which leads to a de facto FPA through legislative changes to hospitality employment law.

The prospect of these FPAs is an interesting one and definitely one of the most significant proposed changes to the NZ employment relations framework since the Employment Relations Act 2000. What makes FPAs such a complicated thing for workers to consider is that FPAs could be excellent for providing opportunities to advance the workers’ movement and the class struggle, or could be one of the biggest blows to workers’ rights since the Employment Contracts Act back in 1991 which removed all trade union rights and protections .

The fact that Jim Bolger, the National Party Prime Minister who saw the introduction of the ECA, was picked by the Labour Government (!) to lead the FPA Working Group should be an immediate sign that the FPA framework was not going to be a significant win for the working class movement. 

The report presented by this working group presented a new, crippling form of social partnership unionism that would, if implemented, kill any significant legal opportunity for workers to take industrial action. FPA bargaining, which would cover whole sectors (i.e. not just on a union-employer basis) would ban all industrial action during bargaining. Furthermore, these FPAs would be covered by a “public interest” trigger, meaning that the government could (assuming weak trade unions) abolish workers’ rights to organise and take action by stroke of a pen, assuming that FPAs replace MECAs and enterprise-level collective bargaining as primary. Given the “essential worker” nature of many of the most recent high profile strikes: resident doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, etc, what government wouldn’t pass up this opportunity to minimise disruption? It would also be a huge blow to private sector unionism. With the right donations and backroom deals, AFFCO and other big NZ capitalists could ensure a compliant workforce with no legal alternative. 

It is not clear from current FPA plans whether employers would be required to participate in enterprise-level bargaining when an FPA is in force. If that is not the case, this would be even more of a blow.

Why would this be so terrible? Because it would sharply shift the balance of class forces in favour of the monopoly capitalists by removing workers’ democratic rights. As anyone who has ever stood on a picket line knows, the strength of a collective agreement isn’t determined primarily by what goes on in the boardroom but the strength and solidarity of the working class.

As János Kádár, 20th century Hungarian trade-unionist and General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party said in 1962:

“[The trade unions] have to argue, for instance, with the so-called “shopping-bag politicians” and convince them that it is incorrect to evaluate our achievements solely on the basis of what the shopping bag does or does not contain. The full shopping bag is of no avail when there is no stable power, because there is no certainty that it will continue to be full. As long as there is working-class power, continued supplies are ensured, and the shopping bag will never be empty.”

János Kádár, On the Road to Socialism, 1965, Budapest: Corvina Press, p. 23

Contemporary traitors to the working class are our “shopping-bag unionists” who will happily and gladly sell out the lifeblood of the working class provided they can backroom deal and politically wrangle favours from the capitalists and claim workers’ shopping bags are slightly more full because of it; when in fact the working class can win significantly more through genuine struggle.

Furthermore, these FPAs could kill any chance of legal class-oriented unionism. If the puffy, fat fingers of the right-wing pet trade unions grabbed hold of a sector and ‘won’ a FPA, the legal route to collective bargaining by a class-oriented, rank-and-file union could be almost entirely eliminated depending on the exact legal and customary arrangements of the FPA bargaining framework. The monopolists would have a hold over the future of the workers’ movement like never before.

A different model of FPAs, however, allows for significant expansion in workers’ rights. Any significant remodelling of employment relations gives the class-oriented workers’ movement and the NCPA opportunity to push for an expansion of trade union rights such as removal of restrictions on union entry into workplaces or workers’ democratic rights to organise and strike. 

It could also give opportunities for trade unions to strengthen the lot of the working class through militant struggle, provided that sector-level FPA were not employment agreements in a contractual sense but rather an increase in minimum industry standards that the workers’ movement could fight for that would simply provide a higher floor for traditional union bargaining and boost the balance of class forces slightly in favour of the proletariat. 

Therefore, the workers’ movement and indeed the parliamentary left (in the Green Party) stands at a crossroads. As Marama Davidson correctly identified, the fundamental role of the working class and public support for higher pay, etc is in the spotlight more than recent history. This however, conceals a fork in the road the workers’ movement travels bigger than any faced so far this millennium. Either we strengthen the fight and make new inroads in the fight against monopoly capitalism, or we capitulate into “shopping-bag unionism” and sell out the workers’ movement to new lows unprecedented in recent history.

Where does the Green Party stand? The Greens are not a social-democratic party, nor do they have any connection to the workers movement and trade unions in the sense that the Labour Party or the Socialist Unity Party did in the 20th century. They are rather a post-New Left party driven by abstract notions of “social justice”, which makes the direction of their response even murkier. They should clarify their conception of Fair Pay Agreements urgently to make sure they do not lead the Left into blind consent for the far-right crushing of the trade union movement and workers’ democratic rights.

The New Communist Party of Aotearoa alongside the class-oriented trade unions continues to hold the red flag high and fight for increased workers’ rights and the growth of the working class movement. Our response to this, and whatever else surfaces post-Coronavirus, is still developing, but we will never betray our Marxist-Leninist principles and the working class.

Political Committee
New Communist Party of Aotearoa

6/05/2020