Pay freeze is bad policy and unions are fighting it

June 1, 2021

Lead organiser and former Labour minister Iain Lees-Galloway shares insights on how the Government shapes policy and laws – and its recent pay-freeze mistake.

Iain Lees-Galloway
Iain Lees-Galloway

When the Government announced the pay freeze for public sector workers, a lot of people asked me if I felt conflicted, given my current role with NZNO and my previous role as a minister in Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet.

My answer: Not at all!

The pay freeze wasn’t just bad politics. It was a slap in the face for thousands of nurses, teachers, doctors, police officers and others who have slogged their guts out helping the Government navigate not just the COVID-19 pandemic but also the March 15 terror attack, and the eruption of Whakaari/White Island.

New Zealand’s Government and our Prime Minister are rightly lauded for the extraordinary way they have guided our nation through a profusion of crises. But as brilliant as our politicians have been at those key moments, we wouldn’t be basking in the world’s admiration without the efforts of frontline public sector workers like NZNO members who make sure the political decisions have a real and positive effect on people’s lives.

The pay freeze was a slap in the face for thousands of nurses, teachers, doctors, police officers and others who have slogged their guts out helping the Government navigate a profusion of crises.

People don’t want to be “rewarded” for their efforts through the pandemic. People want their professions to be valued and to know that future generations will want to follow them into jobs like nursing and policing so our communities will get the benefit of their contribution to everyone’s wellbeing. So no, I’m not at all conflicted. I know exactly what I think and now I have the freedom to say it out loud.

Nevertheless, having been a decision-maker in government, I do understand the constant balancing act that they perform. When it comes to Budget time, you can guarantee that ministers will submit proposals worth about eight times as much as there is available to spend. When it comes to passing legislation, there are only so many people available to support the enormous amount of work that goes into developing the policy and drafting the legislation. There are only so many hours of parliamentary time available to debate bills through to completion.

No government ever has the resources to do everything that it wants to. What actually gets done comes down to priorities.

Unions play a vital role in making sure the Government prioritises the things that matter to their members. When I was Minister for Workplace Relations & Safety, Immigration and ACC, unions took great interest in the work I was doing. I met at least monthly with the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and regularly with specific unions.

For me, it was an opportunity to let unions know what progress the Government was making on the issues that mattered to them. For the unions, it was a chance to make sure their members’ interests stayed firmly on my radar and to prod me when they thought the Government was moving too slowly or not prioritising the right things.

I took those meetings very seriously. Unions represent more than 375,000 New Zealanders and that number is now increasing. Politicians pay attention to that. Unions aren’t the only groups that meet regularly with ministers. I saw as much of Business New Zealand and industry sector groups as I did of the CTU and unions. Part of the value of belonging to your union if you’re a worker or to your industry council if you’re a business is that you get that representation at the table and your voice is heard, no matter who is in government.

This Government has delivered a lot of things that are helpful to unions and our members. Union action influenced the prioritisation of improving the Employment Relations Act, establishing the process for achieving pay equity, introducing fair pay agreements and a host of other changes for the better.

When the Government got it wrong with the pay freeze, unions stood up for our members. A delegation including NZNO met ministers to deliver the message that we wouldn’t accept a freeze and to remind them of their obligations to bargain in good faith.

Union membership is about so much more than collective bargaining and assistance with disputes. It’s about influence and using our collective power to help our politicians of all political stripes to steer the country in the right direction.

Together, we make a tremendous difference to the society we live in. Our collective power is greater than we sometimes think. Let’s use it.