New Zealand unions demand return to school, mass layoffs and pay cuts
May 27, 2020
Schools across New Zealand have been open for the past week after the Labor-led government eased the COVID-19 shutdown and almost all businesses resumed operations.
The government began to ease restrictions on April 27, including a call for the reopening of schools. However, unwilling to risk their children’s health, parents largely ignored the move, and many schools were deserted for two weeks while teachers taught online.
Around the world, workers are told they must sacrifice their standard of living or risk their health by returning to work before it is safe.
In New Zealand, the return to work campaign is based on the false claim that COVID-19 has been discontinued. Although the number of new cases has decreased in the last fifteen days, the persistence of the risk was evidenced by the recent discovery of a new case in the Auckland Marist College group, bringing the total number of cases in 96 to 96 that school community.
Meanwhile, companies that have received billions in government grants are using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to dramatically cut jobs, wages, and conditions.
The principal of Aorere College in South Auckland, Aigagalefili Fepulea’i Tapua’i, posted on Instagram that the first day of returning to her school was marked by student dropouts in order to work to support parents who had lost their jobs or were in low-paying jobs.
“Money is tight and mouths have to eat,” he said. “It’s ironic how NZ wants to rebuild, but it’s on our backs.” Her Instagram post, which highlights the growing class divisions, has been shared more than 5,500 times.
Unions are blocking any organized resistance from the working class. The New Zealand Institute of Education (NZEI) and the Association for Post-Primary Teachers (PPTA), which opposed calls for school closings before the government shutdown in March, supported the reopening. The PPTA advised members who were “nervous” about going back to school to read their school’s health and safety plan and to speak to their peers to see “if they have any advice.”
The President of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), Richard Wagstaff, celebrated “the opening of our society”. He advised workers “to speak to their health and safety representatives … and to actively engage with their employer on health and safety issues.”
Speaking at the Rural on May 21, the national secretary of the Union of Workers in the Meat Industry (MWU), Daryl Carran, praised the companies for “complying with all the rules and taking the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of workers. “
In fact, the MWU ignored a petition signed by thousands of workers calling for factories to be closed due to unsafe working conditions. At least one worker at the Alliance Group’s Smithfield butcher shop contracted the coronavirus in April, but the factory was not closed. Internationally, meat packing plants are the main centers of spread of the virus.
The corporatist perspective of the unions is underlined by the campaign “Rebuild better” of the union E Tu, affiliated to the Labor Party. E Tu affirms that “workers (that is, the union bureaucracy) must be present as equal partners” in the “application of company decisions and policies” and in government initiatives.
In layman’s terms, as workers in all industries are forced to pay for the economic crisis, unions are playing a critical role in implementing wage cuts, mass layoffs and unsafe working conditions.
E Tu and the Association of Airline Pilots have accepted thousands of layoffs and pay cuts at Air New Zealand. The national airline, which is 52 percent government-owned and has received more than $ 70 million in wage subsidies, in addition to a $ 900 million government loan, confirmed on May 21 that it was laying off more than 1,300 cabin crew. E Tu called for a “better process,” while negotiating a document that will allow the company to fire staff for three years or more.
Fletcher Building, the country’s largest construction company, announced that it will cut 1,000 jobs in New Zealand and 500 in Australia after receiving $ 67.7 million from the government’s wage subsidy plan. Fletcher has implemented a 12-week pay cut, and staff who did not work or worked part-time received only 65 percent of their salary for two weeks. Wages then drop to 50 percent for one month, and to 70 percent the following month. The Amalgamated Workers Union stated that the workers were “nervous” about the future of their jobs, to justify their passive acceptance of the massive pay cuts.
The Unite union is also collaborating with companies that are using the COVID-19 crisis to reduce costs. For years, Unite has positioned itself as a “left”, “activist” union, covering workers in the hospitality and entertainment industries. Prominent figures include Joe Carolan, a leader of the pseudo-left Socialist group Aotearoa, and Unite director Mike Treen, a former leader of the now defunct Socialist Action League.
Auckland casino operator SkyCity recently announced 700 layoffs, in addition to the 200 confirmed last month, affecting one-third of its workforce. Carolan told the media that Unite had been involved in organizing the layoff package. He blamed the cuts in personnel on a “fall in international business”, on the demands for social distancing and on people having less money to spend.
Writing in the Daily Blog on May 12, Treen praised Unite’s new three-year union contract with McDonald’s as a victory, saying it would help workers who want to increase their hours. If a worker quits, McDonald’s must offer its hours to existing staff before hiring someone new. This mechanism may, in fact, be used to reduce hiring, despite reports that fast food stores have a chronic staff shortage.
Treen noted that “a disappointment” in the agreement is that the margin above the legal minimum wage for new employees is “cut” from 30 cents an hour to 10 cents. While this occurs in the context of a recent rise from $ 1.20 in the minimum wage to $ 18.90 an hour, it means that the wages of predominantly young workers remain tied to the minimum for at least three more years.
McDonald’s clearly appreciates Unite’s help in maximizing benefits at the expense of workers. The new company personnel app, used to organize lists and provide information to workers, includes a feature that allows workers to easily join the union.
Unions no longer even nominally represent the basic interests of workers. They are an upper-middle-class bureaucracy, with close ties to the Labor Party and corporations, whose objective is to defend the crisis benefit system and New Zealand capitalism in particular, to maintain their own privileged position. As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, these organizations play an increasingly naked role in defending the existing order.
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(Article originally published in English on May 23, 2020)