Less than two-thirds of workers in the public sector belong to a union in New Zealand. In the private sector, this drops down to one in 10 workers. Teuila Fuatai speaks to CTU’s Sam Huggard about how unions are coping with the changing nature of work, and whether they are still relevant.

Technological advances continue to change how we work, and what is expected of workers and the workplace. Non-traditional business models – which rely on and enable flexibility among workers, as well as things like contract work and gig-employment – present a very real challenge to the union movement, in New Zealand and internationally.

Sam Huggard, national secretary for the Council of Trade Unions, knows that maintaining, and even growing the 350,000 organised workers in New Zealand depends on what unions identify as their role, and strengths, in an increasingly precarious and technologically-dependent work landscape.

“Our model that we’ve inherited is 100 or so years old,” he tells Newsroom.

“It works really, really well for workers in large parts of health, education, services and manufacturing, but the changing nature of employment – we haven’t fully caught up yet in terms of the way we organise ourselves.”

At the end of the 1980s, union membership sat around 500,000. Over the past 35 years, membership has dwindled and far fewer New Zealanders seem to be aware of many of the fights unions have won for workers.

“If you look at the history of unions, some of the changes – which at the time would seem quite radical – are now really mainstream,” Huggard said.

“For example, before we had sick leave in New Zealand, it was the Drivers’ Union who went on strike for sick leave. Tangihanga leave – unions fought for it and won it, and now that’s in the law, and then there’s also parental leave.

“All that information isn’t particularly accessible,” he said.

If we have to design new models of unionism from the ashes of the old, we’re up for that challenge.

– Sam Huggard

And while workers’ rights are still at the heart of the union movement, updating a century-old model to suit all types of jobs and employees is no easy task.

“There’s not a particular group of the workforce we can point to and go: ‘Yes, that’s the future’,” Huggard says.

“We want to have lots and lots of different strategies for different workforces, because they’ll need different approaches.”

Recent successful test-cases included progress made with labour-hire workers who worked on a day-by-day contract basis.

“Our model didn’t particularly support them very well, and so we got a couple of unions who basically built informal worker-association models for [labour-hire] workers in those sectors.”

At the time, the best way to support day labourers on logistic sites was identified as bargaining for “conversion clauses”, which enabled temporary jobs to be converted to permanent ones, and allowed for better employment security. In a “double-strategy”, unions worked with both existing members and employers to negotiate those clauses.

“It helps build up good, proper secure jobs in that company … but it’s a massive task. You just sort of go through it methodically, bit-by-bit, in the companies that there is some union presence.”

Showing unions could match, and compete, with developing business models that adapted to different markets and industries was crucial, Huggard says.

“Take an issue like climate change, and climate justice – probably 10 years ago, it was a minority issue among workers in trade unions, and now it’s one of the key issues we’re about to organise around as we push for a just transition for workers affected by climate and other change.

“We are as relevant as ever, but the thing that we need to be doing is constantly upgrading and modernising our approach to supporting workers to collectivise,” he says.

Ultimately, the role of unions in lifting the wages of workers, particularly low-wage ones was about how, as a collective movement, it contributed to New Zealand’s debate around inequality.

“If we can fix low wages, that has massive impacts on the health and wellbeing of communities,” Huggard said.

“And while our model works well for some areas, it doesn’t in others – and if we have to design new models of unionism from the ashes of the old, we’re up for that challenge.”

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