Keynote speech - Richard Wagstaff, CTU president

At PSA Congress 2016, Richard Wagstaff, the president of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, gave a keynote address.

Richard is very familiar to PSA members, having previously been one of the PSA's national secretaries from 1999 - 2015.

Richard Wagstaff, NZ Council of Trade Unions president

Richard Wagstaff, NZ Council of Trade Unions president

Kia ora Mike, Executive Board members, Erin, Glenn, Kiwhare, delegates and staff. It’s really nice to be here back amongst my friends at the PSA.

The thing I love most about the PSA – the CTU’s biggest affiliate – is the people – the people who make up the membership of the PSA across the sectors. The people you represent do a remarkable job keeping this country functioning – a brilliant job right across all the PSA sectors considering the lack of resources they have.

But PSA members aren’t just 62,000 individual people going about their individual existences – on IEAs (individual employment agreements).

No – The Public Service Association is where those 62k people ‘freely associate’ and create a collective expression of their existence – they join together in union. The PSA is where those 62k people bind together to advance their common cause together. 

That’s what happens when people join in union  and it’s this function of coming together collectively that is a fundamental building block, a fundamental prerequisite to a modern democratic society.

Because without it, working people would be without real representation in a world dominated by powerful vested interests.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that freedom of association – the freedom to form and join trade unions – is one of the fundamental human rights as established by the United Nations in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in the immediate post-WW2 environment.

In a world recovering from the atrocities of fascism and totalitarianism, international leaders set out the basic rights essential to preserve real democracy and human rights – rights designed to defeat those who want to control others and restrict basic freedoms.

The International Labour Organisaton (ILO) is part of the United Nations system – the UN agency for the world of work. It has established a set of 8 core international labour standards and none more core than the two relating to the Freedom of Association #87 and collective bargaining #98.

Freedom of Association – the right to form trade unions – in your case the right to form the public service association – remains a crucial and precious element of our free and democratic society.
We must cherish it, exercise it, be proud of it, promote it and increasingly PROTECT IT.

Because all around us there are people who see freedom of association – by that I mean trade unions – as threatening. These people portray us as somehow at odds with a modern democracy instead of an essential element.

Framed in this way, their undermining and destruction our unions – which should ring alarm bells to anyone who knows the history of oppressive political movements – has become almost acceptable. I think this is dangerous.

Earlier this year I was invited to visit Fiji as part of an ILO Special Mission to investigate the absence of basic democratic freedoms there – by that I mean freedom of association. The FTUC (their equivalent of our CTU) raised fundamental issues around breaches of freedom of association with the ILO that were preventing Fijian workers from exercising their rights as members of unions.

As you know Fiji has been claiming that it’s back to being a democracy after decades in the wilderness and a series of military coups. Now they’re seeking international – including and especially NZ’s – support and recognition for being a properly functioning democracy.

During my time there I was part of a small ILO team investigating what was going on and we had a series of meetings with Government, business and unions beginning with the Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

It soon became clear to me that while the Government was keen to portray themselves as reasonable, responsible and well-intentioned, the one thing that they really struggled with was Freedom of Association.

They didn’t mind elections, freedom of movement, public service, education, health care, etc, but the freedom to associate – especially working people in unions – really represented the most fundamental challenge to an establishment that ultimately didn’t really want to let go and share power with the people.

It was obvious that the freedom to associate and form trade unions represented in practice the very essence of democracy and those who didn’t agree with fundamental human rights didn’t like unions – a lesson we should all know from oppressive regimes the world over. Unions are the front line of democracy and the first target of dictators.

Our Mission got there in the end with the Fijian authorities and negotiations ensured that restored basic rights – union fee deductions, political rights, meeting rights, rights of entry etc. That was the price the Government had to pay to join the international club of democracy – restore the rights of unions.

I know there are still issues with civil rights – but that was not part of our mission. And I am very concerned that they seem to be slipping backwards yet again with recent arrests.

And I want to take my hat off to the Fijian unions – the courage and resilience they’ve shown in the midst of political opposition. And that includes your sisters and brothers in Fiji’s largest union the FPSA.

But what really struck me was the attitudes of Fijian business and employers – especially state sector employers. We met with the Fiji business and employer groups extensively.

In fact, these employers loved the Government's position – their laws and actions which undermined freedom of association, and couldn’t say enough about how good the restrictive policies were.

They kept telling me how much they cared about their staff, about how much they would never ever do anything against their staff’s interests because they were a big happy family and they listened to their staff. And that union rights weren’t good for the economy and we all know that the economy must be happy – and well unions are just a third party. Sure if people wanted to join them they were free to do so….

I thought ‘where have I heard all this before’ It sounded so familiar just like many employers back home in NZ who don’t support working people joining in union.

And as we dug deeper it turned out that many of the problems we raised with Government in terms of fundamental labour rights – should I say human rights violations – were things that the business lobby held dear and did not want their Government to budge on.

Because while the Government didn’t have laws that protected working people and freedom of association – their laws actually didn’t prevent employers from upholding them – they just allowed them to choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing and almost all of them – especially the state sector employers – took every opportunity to do the worst things they could within the law.

It was only in one industry – some of the international hotel chains actually still allowed their staff to join unions, and deducted fees as so on – because they had global commitments to ethical trading.

What I found chilling in all this was how it was employers who were the ones who really pushed against basic democratic freedoms who actually sounded so much like ours. Their talk of caring and concern for their staff, how the market wouldn’t allow them to treat workers badly, how Fiji needed to move beyond old ideas of unions and adopt modern HR practices. It sounded all too familiar. And it paralleled the Government – they didn’t want to share power, they didn’t want real dialogue and negotiation. They didn’t want democracy at work.

What I want to tell you today is that we shouldn’t smugly sit here and look down on Fiji like it is a world away from us. The threat to democracy is just more thinly veiled there, but make no mistake – there are plenty of people in NZ who would remove union structures (and by extension the freedom of association) given half a chance.

They might not know how fundamental we are to democracy. They probably don’t care because they’re more concerned with staying in control and profits. Remember the ECA. Look at our current Government’s reluctance to criticise Fiji when people are arrested – including union leaders – for attending meetings.

In NZ we pride ourselves as a nation that has always stood up for freedom, democracy and human rights. But is this really true when our leaders are so quick to make the environment for collective bargaining and unions so difficult, and when only 1 in 5 workers are in unions.

Maybe our commitment to democracy and freedom – like many western liberal nations – isn’t as strong as we pretend.

So – returning to the here and now –

Freedom of association – the right to come together in  union – in your case the right to form the public service association – remains a crucial and precious element of our free and democratic society. The PSA is, quite simply, it’s members.

And with the power of association comes the voice – use it!
Your job is to organise those members and give them voice – by voice I mean, make sure their views are aggregated and articulated and heard. Because without voice – there is no point in associating if you can’t express yourself.

That is why VOICE (as we call it) is such an important priority for our movement . Voice – having the right to have a say and be listened to – is the cornerstone of democracy, freedom and liberty – and without it we cannot live our lives the way we want to. We are forced to the will of others whose interests are not always the same as ours.

PSA members are significant in influence – there are so many of you to represent members is of critical importance to our democratic society. Find your voice if you haven’t already to express not just what you want to keep, but what you want to change, what you think the world should be and how together PSA members wants to be part of building a brighter future.

Too often voices are silenced – and we all know how public and community sector employers like to silence their staff under codes of conduct and threats of disciplinary action. But if we express ourselves in union, we can’t be silenced.

Having a voice for working people is a key priority for me as CTU president. And I believe freedom and voice go hand in hand and any form of social organisation that doesn’t have them is not conducive to humanity – family, community, workplace, and nation state.

Keep speaking out as you have been in the workplace, in your industries and across NZ. Because it’s our right and our responsibility to do so. And we need to now more than ever.

We have plenty of issues that have needed working people in union and the PSA has done a brilliant job alongside other unions in the movement on:

Equal pay – both the work on the principles and the care and support negotiations. This is very exciting but remember – as much as the Government will like to pretend it’s leading the way – it’s only because they have to. We all know they are only responding because they couldn’t win in court. The Government intervened in support of employers appealing against the Terranova case right through to the Supreme Court! So we must keep our foot on the pedal and keep the pressure on to achieve equal pay.

Employment standards – NZ union members have achieved something of a world first in banning zero hours through a shrewd campaign – led by Unite Union – followed up by the wider movement engaging in a great political process culminating in the passing of the Employment Standards Bill. This is very important in industries where union members  struggle to get a foothold like fast food, horticulture and retail.

IBT – turning assignment workers into a regular workforce is a remarkable achievement when much of the world of work seems to be going the other way. The PSA’s leadership in this area remains crucial to keep this on track.

There are many, many more examples of the everyday work you’re doing to give voice to the members of your association – your union.

Looking forward it doesn’t let up:

We have an election coming up which will have a huge impact on our ability to secure our goals.

At the CTU we have been pulling together some really good ideas of what a  government who values working people needs to adopt – especially in relation to employment law because the current ERA with all the changes National have made to it doesn’t work for any of us.

And we want to see a new Government become an exemplar of good practice – good employment practice / good democratic practice.

We also have some good ideas about international conventions to sign up to. I don’t mean the TPP – I mean ILO – conventions that need NZ’s signature to embed the rights of working people properly.

We also have to come to terms with the Future of Work. There are those who say we should hunker down and accept that new technology is going to sweep us all aside and leave us either in utopia or dystopia. We say don’t leave it to chance. Let’s seize the opportunity by planning and arranging a good future for work – and create work that looks like your transforming the workplace and less like Uber and precariousness. Let’s not sit back but instead engage Government, business and industry to be the authors of our own destiny.

We must do this, we must keep speaking up and push to be heard.

Because democracy is precious.

Thank you.