New Zealand Labour Party

Andrew Little Speech to CTU Conference

Hello and thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you today.

It is an honour to address the CTU for the first time as the Leader of the Labour Party.

Of course, it’s not only as Leader of the Labour Party but as a delegate many times to CTU conferences.

It’s great to be here.

Can I acknowledge Kiwhare Mihaka, Katarina Davis, Helen Kelly, Syd Keepa, and Sam Huggard.

Can I acknowledge Richard Wagstaff and congratulate him on his imminent elevation to the presidency of the CTU.

I also want to congratulate Richard on the excellent work the PSA has done with Jenny Goodman and in the in-between travel agreement.

The union movement is constantly changing, and I want to acknowledge all the effort that has gone into welcoming the new union on the block – E tū.– a merger of the SFWU and the EPMU.

I also want to take the time to acknowledge that this is the first CTU conference to be held without Peter Conway. Peter brought a fierce intelligence and a decency to the union movement and we are much the poorer for his passing.

Today, I want to talk about what we can do together to ensure that working New Zealanders have security and dignity at work, and the opportunity to get ahead.

Decent work, decent living standards and a sense of security have always sat at the heart of the mission of the Labour Party and the labour movement.

Our party was born of this movement.

As the party enters its hundredth year, we celebrate a period where together we have fought for a fairer and more just society.

A society built on the values all New Zealanders hold dear.

A society with genuine equality of opportunity.

A society where working people can have the security of a good job that pays a decent wage, and the knowledge they will be treated justly and fairly at work.

Where their right to have a say on the decisions that affect them at work is real.

And workplaces where workers are treated not just as employees but as citizens too.

Where new parents are unquestionably afforded time with their babies without being rushed back to work. 

Workplaces where people can work hours that let them see their children, and have holiday times that let them spend decent amounts of time with loved ones.

We stand for a society where everyone who wants to work can, where everyone has the opportunity to get ahead, and where no one is left out or left behind because of who they are or where they were born.

Ultimately, as the labour movement, we are motivated by our sense of humanity and human dignity.

But today the security – the fairness – the decency that we believe in is under threat.

The opportunities available to New Zealanders are slipping away.

Over the last thirty years, our economy has become increasingly out of kilter – weighted in favour of those who are already doing well.

And more barriers have been thrown up that make it harder for working people to earn a decent, secure living.

We can see the impact this is having today.

Between 2008 and 2013, the average wage for the bottom half of earners increased by just $43 a week while the income of the top 10% increased by $520 a week.

Unbalanced gains like this mean the incomes of the top 10 percent of New Zealanders are now nine times the income of the bottom 10 per cent.

According to the OECD, New Zealand’s level of inequality is now holding back economic growth.

One of the reasons is that it inhibits social mobility.

It makes it harder for people on lower incomes to work their way into a comfortable life.

It’s getting harder to buy a home, harder to afford to start a family or even to retire.

And this isn’t just a problem for the low paid.

More New Zealanders on good, mid-level incomes, are finding it harder to save, harder to pay the rent or the mortgage, harder to get ahead.

Families are feeling the squeeze, even though they are working their guts out.

And the current economic downturn is only going to make things worse, with unemployment forecast to hit 7% by the end of the year.

The National Party won’t get us out of this mess. They don’t care about it.

They didn’t see the downturn coming and they’ve got no plan to fix it.

They are arrogant, out of touch – we’ve seen this on everything from asset sales to refugees to their total failure to address the housing crisis.

And while they’ve been in office they’ve done whatever they can – whenever they can – to remove rights for New Zealand workers.

My commitment is that a government I lead will restore fairness, will ensure the freedom to belong to a union, the freedom to organise.

The right to have a voice will be properly protected. And that means the choice to negotiate collectively will be properly protected as well as our international obligation to promote collective bargaining.

I see this as part of our plan for economic recovery.

An economic plan can’t just generate new wealth for the sake of it.

It must restore security to New Zealand families, and restore fairer treatment for working people.

Workers, whether they are employees or contractors or something else, are the basis of successful businesses and industries.

They need laws that reflect that status.

But we cannot make change alone.

Our party has always worked closely with the union movement.

I want that bond to continue and to grow stronger under the government I lead.

The relationship between the union movement and the government needs to be respectful and inclusive – while allowing for the differences and disagreements we may have.

I intend to build a better, more open and equal relationship so that together we can tackle the problems facing Kiwi workers and their families.

That starts with restoring New Zealanders’ rights at work.

What we do in employment law affects workplace relationships; whether workers and their unions are treated with respect; what their share of the nation’s income is; and whether or not they will be safe at work.

Having good employment law and institutions is essential to a decent society.

But under John Key’s government virtually every change to employment law has eroded workers’ rights.

Let’s look at the facts.

There have been 25 changes to employment law in the 7 years this government has been in office.

And nearly every single one of them has been about stripping people of their rights and protections.

They’ve rewarded the worst, most obstructive employers by giving them the power to refuse to negotiate a collective agreement with their employees.

They’ve taken away the right for workers to get at least the union rate and the union conditions when you start a new job.

They’ve made it harder to find secure work by allowing the rapid expansion of the use of unfair zero hour contracts

And in what is the most petty but perhaps most symbolic move of all, they removed people’s right to have a tea break.

Even when they set out to protect workers, they can’t help themselves – they make things worse.

Just take their shambles of a health and safety law.

After 29 men died at Pike River, the Prime Minister looked their families in the eye and made a solemn promise.

“Never again.”

We had a royal commission, and all parties came together and agreed on a way forward.

There was consensus from unions, from employers, from political parties.

We’d agreed on sensible changes that would have kept more people safe and would have brought down the shamefully high number of Kiwis killed at work.

But then John Key got worried about the hard right of his caucus.

And we all saw what happened next.

We should have had a powerful statement that when New Zealanders start work each day their government would make sure they came home safely.

We should have had a law that honoured and respected the memories of all those who have been lost at work – at Pike River, in our forests, on our farms and in far too many workplaces up and down this country.

Instead, what we saw was a national joke.

We had a Minister deliberately – and against advice – carving out exemptions in agriculture – one of our most dangerous industries - while insisting that mini-golf and lavender picking were high risk activities.

It was a classic lesson in what happens when governments put politics ahead of principles.

I’ll make you a commitment right now.

If John Key won’t honour his promise at Pike River, I will.

My government will ensure our health and safety laws put people first.

And we will do the same with laws around employment relations.

We’ll end zero hour contracts once and for all.

We’ll restore the basic rights National has taken away.

That means:

  • Proper collective bargaining rights
  • Fair access rights for workers to see their union organiser
  • For goodness sake, the right to a tea break.

But we all know this alone won’t fundamentally turn around the issues facing our country today.

Sooner or later, New Zealand needs to have a conversation about the fact that over the last 30 years so much of the gains of economic growth have gone only to the few at the top.

About the fact that the majority of working families have seen their wages either stay static or go backwards, while their jobs have become increasingly insecure.

We can’t simply tinker around the edges and expect a different result.

It’s about building an economy that delivers security and opportunity for all New Zealanders. That is the project of the next Labour government and it’s one I want to work with you to make a reality.

Central to delivering greater security and opportunity is getting our approach right on the future of work.

There is a tsunami of change on its way.

The digital revolution we are in the midst of today will be as world changing as the industrial revolution was 200 years ago.

This has huge implications for how we work, and the opportunities we have for work.

According to a recent study, a full 40% of the jobs we rely on today could be gone within the next couple of decades as technology changes.

We live in a world where the largest taxi company – Uber – doesn’t actually own any of their cars.

The largest media company – Facebook – doesn’t actually produce any of their own content.

As a lawyer, I was amazed to learn that software being developed today will largely automate the process of discovery in court proceedings.

Don’t get me wrong, that could have saved me many late nights as a young lawyer but it shows how widely felt these changes are going to be.

Your members need us to get our response right.

As work changes, more people will be moving into working arrangements far different than what we have today – more people working as contractors, more people choosing to be self-employed, or earning a living through multiple jobs.

We need to be showing leadership now – making the right decisions now – to ensure people can still enjoy security and opportunity in the future.

That is why I am very proud of the Future of Work Commission we have set up, and which Grant Robertson is leading.

There are few governments, and even fewer opposition parties, grappling with these changes now.

I want New Zealand to lead the world on these issues.

When we take Government I want us to be ready to hit the ground running.

The Commission’s already begun generating new ideas.

For example, the next Labour Government will make sure we have an education system, from early childhood to tertiary, that equips young people with the sense of curiosity, creativity and sense of personal endeavour that will see them succeed.

Learning how to learn and where to go to learn will be crucial. So will practical skills, such as financial literacy education.

We also think it’s time to get serious about fixing our skill shortage. A recent global survey found that 73% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of the key skills they need in their industry.

That’s why a Labour Government will consult closely with businesses and unions to identify skill shortages, and then increase vocational training in the areas we need to improve on.
A Labour Government will also grapple with how we adapt to a world in which people are spending more of their life not in work, or changing careers more frequently.

We’ll do more to find better ways to reward people for unpaid work which still provides huge benefits to society.

But we can’t do any of this alone.

If we want to continue the work of making New Zealanders more secure, the labour movement needs to be bold.

We need to update our thinking if we are going to be a strong voice for change in the 21st century.

Because the importance of unions goes beyond just negotiating this deal or winning that right for its members.

The vital historic role of the union movement has been to provide a countervailing voice to the powerful interests which claim that the economy is an end in itself.

It’s not that.

It’s just one dimension of complex human lives that do not survive on bread alone but which need peace, physical security, a clean environment, artistic expression and yes – love and beauty.

It’s the union voice that acts as a counter to those who want to put their own economic interests ahead of the dignity of working people.

It’s the union voice that says loud and clear we will not tolerate people being exploited or put in harm’s way for profit.

It’s the union angel on our shoulder that says this can be a more equal and a more just country.

And not just to say these things, but to organise for them and fight for them and make them a reality through collective endeavour.

No matter how much work changes, the need to stand up for workers will not.

I want to be clear here.

There is no future in the constant erosions of workers’ rights.

There is no future in making our people less secure and making their aspirations harder to achieve.

So our challenge is how to ensure we have a modern, relevant, forceful labour movement fit for the 21st century.

This is confronting stuff. Just as the dawn of the industrial revolution created great wealth but also great insecurity and great injustice, so too is the digital revolution.

Working people need an effective voice for their interests. They need a union movement as much now as they ever have.

Because even when unions are doing the hard, complex stuff like high performance work, workers are entitled to know that doing that is not at the employer’s grace and favour.

Unions need to be a movement that recognises that as the nature of work changes, so too must our definition of working people.

A movement that recognises that the way working people associate with institutions and what they expect from them is changing and we have to change with it.

A movement that adapts, that modernises and is in tune with the aspirations of working people today.

Because the blunt truth is if the labour movement does not adapt to the coming wave of change, we will be swept away by it.

It gives me great confidence to see the work the Council of Trade Unions is doing in this area already. The inspiring work the CTU has done with forestry workers on health and safety is a tribute to Helen Kelly’s leadership.

I think we can also look to advances won by groups like the Living Wage movement, with its strong links in the community and its compelling advocacy, as a model for the future.

A strong, relevant labour movement is the primary means through which working people have built security and opportunity. It is our historic mission as a movement.

Our challenge is to show we have what it takes to continue that mission in the 21st century.

It will be hard, it will be challenging.

But we can do it.

And I believe we can do it together.


[Personal tribute from Andrew Little to Helen Kelly]