Rod Oram’s CEO interview - Richard Wagstaff, CTU

In the latest of the Newsroom CEO interview series on responses to the economic crisis, the country's leading unionist Richard Wagstaff tells Rod Oram the CTU has become a key part of the social support structure during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Three and a half hours before New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown at midnight on March 25, BusinessNZ and the Council of Trade Unions put out a joint press release. They called “on all Kiwi businesses to do the right thing and do everything possible they can to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus and simultaneously maintain jobs as best we can through this very disruptive period.”

An expression of solidarity between employers and employees, it came about through “a huge step up in dialogue with business,” says Richard Wagstaff, the CTU’s president.

“We've succeeded in creating a positive tripartite relationship. We're working with businesses and government to make progress on very significant decisions and processes in a short time. There’s not a paint by numbers guide to that. We’re working it out as we go.”

For example, in some companies unions and employers are working together to access and implement government support programmes. Dialogue and negotiations between employers and employees can help them better make wrenching decisions about staffing levels and pay, Wagstaff says.

They don’t agree on everything. While the CTU applauded the government’s decision to stick with the planned increase of the minimum wage from $17.70 to $18.90 on April 1, some business leaders such as Katie Milne, president of Federated Farmers, said the government should put the rise on hold.

The CTU has also stepped up its advocacy for workers through a new website to enable people, unionised or not, to log their concerns and to seek help in addressing them.

Within days of the launch some 1,500 complaints were reported across categories such as redundancies, dismissals, safety breaches and pressure to use up paid holiday time during the lockdown when their employer had accepted the government’s wage subsidy. The complaints investigated so far have proved to be a mix of valid and not.

“In a way we've become more of an enforcement agency, we’ve become a key part of the social support structure,” Wagstaff says.

While the virus crisis is bringing greater engagement between business, unions and government on urgent and practical issues, their formal collaboration was launched in 2018 as the Future of Work Tripartite Forum. This is building on Labour’s Future of Work Commission led by Grant Robertson which published its report in 2016. Now the Finance Minister, Robertson is the government’s lead advocate on the issues.

How other countries are driving industry transformation had been the topic scheduled for the Forum’s next meeting. But when the Covid crisis broke, the physical get together of some 30 Forum members was postponed. Instead, the ministers of Finance and Economic Development (Robertson and Phil Twyford) had a video call with Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ and Wagstaff.

“The pandemic has truncated the scale of the Forum but has intensified the conversations,” Wagstaff says. The four are planning to keep up regular video meetings in the meantime.

“We’re committed to thinking about the future of work, which also means the future of industry and the future of the economy. I think mainstream thinking was already changing, here and overseas.”

One example he cites is the OECD’s report Negotiating Our Way Up. Published last November, it is a guide to developed countries’ policies and practices with collective bargaining as a mechanism to help drive transformations in work, industries and economies.

“I've been very impressed with CEOs of a number of large companies I've been talking to. On one hand, they’re on to this in terms of crisis management. But on the other hand, they are already really sure that the future is not a return to the past. They are already devoting a little bit of thinking to what that future might be.”

Meanwhile, there are immense virus crisis problems to solve, including massive labour market dislocations. Many people have lost their jobs, temporarily or permanently, or can’t work because they are not in essential businesses and services; many essential employers need more staff; and the heavy flow of temporary workers from overseas won’t resume soon.

“We are keen to play our part deploying and matching skills to help address such imbalances in the labour market,” Wagstaff says.

Even when the lockdown ends, the economic shocks will continue with more layoffs and higher unemployment “and all the distress that will come with that.”

Government support packages will keep evolving to help businesses and their staff rebuild. Big challenges will include training more people so they can do jobs vacated by temporary workers from overseas; increasing skills and jobs here so we can reduce some of our dependence on long overseas supply chains, and thereby shorten some supply chains and increase our economic resilience.

“We don’t want to go back to the past three or four decades of short-termism. Economic orthodoxy has been severely undermined by these circumstances. We need a high wage, low carbon, high productivity economy. And this time around, people such as front line workers want a fair go.”

Like many others across the country, union leaders are already practising new ways of working. For example, Wagstaff is hosting from his home regular video meetings with representatives from the CTU’s affiliated unions. With up to 40 or 50 people online in a session, they’re learning how to briskly and effectively share their knowledge and keep each other informed.

“Paradoxically, now that we're all isolated, everyone's much closer,” Wagstaff says.

He feels the country’s also coming together too.

“But how do we structure that conversation? How do we build a consensus around what we want and how we’re going to get there? It sounds basic but it’s a process that we don’t often have.”

For example, “workers need an opportunity to express themselves. They can’t do that by getting an email saying ‘tell us your best ideas’. We need the opportunity to have a proper conversation. I feel that New Zealand is often a rushed place. We don’t often invest the time and effort.

“We do want business to do well. We want government to do well. We want this to be a successful country. It sounds obvious. But for too long we've all been described as not being on the same side – of business somehow being the enemy of government and vice versa. That just a nonsense and we’ve never fallen for that. We’d really like to change it.”

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