Appreciation but impatience for Ardern at union conference

Jacinda Ardern may be facing bad polls, but in the trade unions she still has a friend - albeit one impatient for swifter and greater progress on the issues that occupy them.

In her first public speech as the incoming Prime Minister in 2017, Jacinda Ardern offered the Council of Trade Unions a grand vision of what her government would achieve.

“It is the start of our programme to make this a better country for everyone - a country that gives everyone a shot at achieving their dreams and doesn’t let anyone fall through the cracks,” Ardern told CTU delegates following the 2017 election.

Two years on, it is tempting to wonder whether cracks are emerging in the coalition - but union officials presented a united front at the start of their biennial conference in Wellington on Tuesday.

“They have been incredibly busy and have been very engaging of the labour movement, and so she’s absolutely lived up to her commitment to work with us and her commitment to be an open, progressive government,” CTU president Richard Wagstaff told Newsroom.

Ardern received a warm welcome from the crowd, albeit one which did not match the post-election raptures of 2017.

That is perhaps unsurprising, given any honeymoon period must come to an end, but as Wagstaff noted, there is a gap between what the Government feels able to deliver and what some of its closest supporters would like it to achieve.

“We are ambitious and I think we’re a bit impatient about the things we want to get done, but we do need to reflect that it’s two years isn’t 10 years, two years is actually a short amount of time. “But our message to the Government is, let’s get on with it.”

Winston Peters got his fair share of digs in at the union audience. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The audience got a reminder that things could always be worse, Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien opening his speech with a joking plea for political asylum and praise for New Zealand’s Government.

“It’s great to be in a country that is led by a party and a movement that understands the importance of fair work and its importance in creating a decent society,” O’Brien said, lamenting Scott Morrison’s come-from-behind triumph across the ditch amidst “dirty” campaigning.

Following O’Brien was Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters - who, despite visible discomfort as the audience sang trade union anthem Solidarity Forever, delighted in what he called a “red-letter day, in the sense that in a long career, this is the first time I've been asked to speak to you”.

“Better now than never,” Peters added; when reminded that he had in fact appeared at a previous CTU conference, he retorted, “That was a panel.”

Delegates were perhaps reminded of why he was atop their invite list, in a speech where the New Zealand First leader took several swipes at the union movement.

“While conditions for much of the workforce deteriorated under the previous government for nine long years, with stagnant wages and a rising cost of living getting out of control, we didn’t see enough action from you,” Peters proclaimed.

“We are in our first term. If you expect a massive shift in industrial relations in just three years, you are asking for the impossible.”

“Now, just as right wing governments and private interests exploit perceived vulnerabilities to exploit their agendas, we are being attacked by the union movement in this country.”

With National “hopelessly captured by the interests of private capital” and Labour “betrothed to the unions,'' he put New Zealand First forward as the sole voice of reason.

“This is why we listen to trade unions. This is why we listen to farmers. And this is why we also listen to business leaders.”

Describing the timing of union strikes as “unfortunate to say the least,'' Peters offered a warning. “We are in our first term. If you expect a massive shift in industrial relations in just three years, you are asking for the impossible.”

It was a message echoed, albeit in a more gentle way, by Ardern. The Prime Minister offered a laundry list of the workplace wins so far under the Government, but a reminder that all three coalition partners needed to be on the same change for progress to be made.

That was perhaps a nod to union disquiet about the state of Fair Pay Agreements, with no obvious progress in the nine months since a working group led by former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger recommended the adoption of minimum employment conditions for all workers in specific industries.

Jacinda Ardern promised news soon on Fair Pay Agreements, but also gave a warning that meaningful change across the country would take time. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Ardern promised the crowd there would be news “very soon”, while Peters hinted at a shift towards regional agreements over nationwide deals in his comments about the provinces.

"The criteria that you'd apply in Invercargill is not the criteria that you'd apply in Auckland or Timaru and Oamaru. These differentials you've got to address early, otherwise there will be foreseeable consequences,” he said.

That message came after NZ Dairy Workers Union national secretary Chris Flatt asked Peters to think about the members of his union, many of whom lived in the regions and supported New Zealand First despite the perception that all unionists voted Labour.

While Peters trumpeted his party’s commitment to raise the minimum wage to $20 by 2021, Flatt said there were industry conditions beyond wages which were equally crucial.

“I understand the desire to work through this carefully and it involves the economy so you don’t want to misstep, but the union movement and the dairy workers union for example believes this is vital, this is vital.”

In her speech, Ardern acknowledged the “school of thought that we should be doing more, going faster and further”.

 “And I understand that, I’m impatient for change too. But we need change that lasts and we need change that brings people with us.”

“The purse strings are too tight...the state sector, health, education, public services are highly organised and unionised, and the feedback we get from those workforces is they’re stretched beyond their limit, and it’s been going on for more than a decade now.”

In the questions which followed her speech, it seemed many were not willing to wait: a New Zealand Nurses Organisation representative spoke about the “massive strain” on the health system, saying of Ardern’s remarks: “My colleagues and I are enrolled in that school.”

A mental health nurse and member of the Public Service Association weighed in, noting that many could not wait years for things to improve: “In the last month I’ve had to rescuscitate five patients from suicide attempts.”

That is a remark with no easy response, and one perhaps made difficult by the recent news of a $7.5 billion surplus in the last financial year (even if it is only on paper rather than sitting in a bank account ready to be spent).

Wagstaff said the CTU had “from day one” opposed the Government’s Budget Responsibility Rules, and nothing since then had led them to change their minds.

“The purse strings are too tight...the state sector, health, education, public services are highly organised and unionised, and the feedback we get from those workforces is they’re stretched beyond their limit, and it’s been going on for more than a decade now.”

There is still an awareness that the unions’ lot is better under Labour than nine years of a National-led government.

But the motto of this CTU conference - “Getting Our Fair Share” - would seem to serve as a warning shot to the Government as much as the business sector.

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