Phil O’Reilly rips off the mask

I’ve never met Phil O’Reilly but he seems a decent sort of chap. He looks like everyone’s favourite uncle – warm and energetic with a way of speaking that suggests a good sense of humour.

He’s the spokesman for Business New Zealand which has replaced the Business Roundtable as the main advocate for business interests. The Roundtable’s reputation for hard-line ideology and support for the cruel policies associated with former Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas meant it was unable to relate to New Zealanders and their families.

Enter Phil O’Reilly. It was a successful PR initiative from our business barons. Here was a moderate voice able to connect with people when the beady delivery of the Roundtable’s Chief Executive Roger Kerr turned people off.

These last few years O’Reilly has sounded sensible talking about business desires to work with the Labour government and the community to promote growth and development to get pay levels of New Zealand workers and their families back onto a par with Australian incomes. Business has been everyone’s friend with Phil O’Reilly. He has been Santa to Kerr’s Grinch.

All this has changed since the election. O’Reilly has lost his common touch. The mask has come off. Seeing the opportunity for a power grab Business New Zealand is now striving for major policy changes to advantage business owners at the expense of wage and salary earners.

Not satisfied with National’s draconian no-workplace-rights-for-90-days bill in the pipeline, last week O’Reilly released a list of employment law changes Business New Zealand would like the National-led government to invoke. They say business “requires changes to employment relations policies to allow for improved productivity, growth, flexibility and freedom in the workplace”. They say our employment law is rigid and a “barrier to nimbleness”.

For those unfamiliar with employment practices many of the proposed changes seem innocuous but in fact they represent a determined attack on the rights of New Zealand workers to organise and improve their working conditions.

For example Business New Zealand wants the government to remove the preference for unions to negotiate collective employment agreements. This means going back to the 1990s when employers themselves paid consultants to come in and form company unions, known as yellow unions, and negotiate collective agreements. These consultants would sign sweetheart deals with the employers and thereby prevent real unions from becoming involved. Employers often did this before they planned major restructurings which they knew their employees would resist. However being tied to a yellow union deal signed for them meant the workers were disarmed before they had the chance to object.

Measures such as this would seriously weaken the ability of unions to organise to improve wages and conditions.

The Business NZ proposals are worded to imply unions have far too much clout and what’s needed is a more balanced approach to industrial relations.

The facts tell a very different story. Across all private sector businesses only 10% of workers are covered by collective employment agreements negotiated by unions. The simple reality is that unions have never recovered from the decimation of National’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act.

Despite nine years of Labour-led governments most of the large unions have in fact decreased in size in recent years. The only bright spot is Unite Union which has successfully begun to organise the most marginalised low-paid workers in industries notorious for exploitative labour practices.

Business NZ’s opposition to unions is ideological. They don’t like workers organising together to get a better share of the wealth the workers themselves produce. They’d also like employers to have the chance to tie up their worksites ahead of the coming recession to prevent workers resisting job cuts and pay cuts.

Certainly this has nothing to do with reducing the wage gap with Australia. The Business NZ proposals will have the opposite effect.

The factor most responsible for the increase in the wage gap with Australia these past 17 years were National’s employment laws. They undermined unions and their ability to negotiate better pay and conditions. Australia forged ahead while New Zealand workers stagnated and fell behind.

During the 1990s businesses did well, not because they were innovative or invested in new technologies, but because they were able to drive down pay and conditions of employment. Australia never followed the same route.

Reducing the wage gap with Australia requires worker-friendly policies and a strong union movement. This is anathema to Business New Zealand members who are itching to put the boot into workers again.

Will John Key oblige?