Who wouldn’t want ambulance drivers to be safe and healthy at work?

St John ambulance drivers aren’t asking for much: regular breaks, fair pay, and not being sent out on their own to deal with dangerous or violent patients.

But that’s apparently too much for St John – a charitable organisation whose values include “doing the right thing” and being “straight up” – who have not only taken legal steps to close down collective bargaining, but docked workers’ pay 10% for taking industrial action.

Let’s be really crystal clear here – we’re not talking about strike action. Ambulance drivers who are members of FIRST Union are still showing up to work on time and getting the job done. They’re just wearing a t-shirt that says “Healthy ambos save lives” while they do it.

Side note: what is with some employers and a kneejerk hatred of cool union t-shirts?

What’s struck me is the number of comments I see from people – “ordinary” New Zealanders, if you like; people who don’t spend nearly as much time as you or I nerding out about politics – asking how this is legal. This can’t be okay, surely? How can the boss take 10% of your pay just because you’re wearing a silly t-shirt?

Well … no one likes to hear “I told you so.” But here we are.

In 2013 the National-led government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Among other things, it included:

  • docking pay 10% for industrial action – if an employer couldn’t be bothered figuring out the proportion of work being affected by, say, an overtime ban (or, perhaps, just punishing workers for wearing t-shirts!)
  • making it easier for employers to walk away from collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements, which maintain basic standards of pay and conditions and stop cowboy operators undercutting everyone else by paying poverty wages
  • removing mandatory minimum rest breaks and giving almost all the power to the employer to decide what a “reasonable” break would look like
  • weakening protections for workers like cleaning and catering staff, whose jobs might get taken over by new contractors who want to pay them less
  • tightening the rules around strikes so bosses’ lawyers can tie unions up in legal action for months over a typo.

The law weakened the position of workers and their unions, and strengthened the ability for dirtbag employers to be dirtbags. That’s precisely what it was designed to do.

And of course there was resistance. Thousands of people rallied in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the bill. There were submissions, and op eds, and public speak-outs.

And National did what they have done so well for eight years: they dodged the issues. When unions pointed out that this law would remove the right to a rest break, Simon Bridges said “It’s about flexibility, we can’t have teachers and air traffic controllers just walking off the job to have a cup of tea, can we?” – as though this answered the question, as though this would ever happen. When unions pointed out people could be disadvantaged by not being on the collective agreement for the first 30 days in their new job, Michael Woodhouse said “It’s about fairness!” – as though it’s fair to expect someone new to the job and new to the company to know what to expect, what to negotiate for. As though 90% of employers bother to genuinely negotiate individual agreements with workers who don’t join the union.

Maybe unions could have done a better job talking about these issues. Maybe the media could have done a better job getting government ministers to actually answer the questions put to them (instead of, say, using a workers’ rally to attack Grant Robertson for being gay, as occurred in one particularly shameless piece).

The point now is that the industrial action being taken by people who do an incredibly important job, driving bloody ambulances, is making many people realise how broken employment relations are in New Zealand. Yes, folks: your employer can dock your pay 10% because you and your coworkers stand together and wear union t-shirts while doing your jobs. That’s not fair. That’s not about flexibility. That’s not something we like to think of happening in our country.

So tell St John. Tell every employer who tries to walk away from the bargaining table when they don’t like people taking a stand for health and safety and decent work: it’s not on. It’s not how we do things. And tell the politicians, too. Because laws change when we make them change.

How we talk about industrial action

There’s a problem with the way we talk about working people who take industrial action. The problem is we don’t talk about them at all.

Check out the framing of industrial action on the front page of Radio NZ – hardly NZ’s equivalent of Fox News – a couple of weeks ago.

rnz strike

“Auckland hit by bus strike” – as though a strike is a natural weather event which comes out of nowhere, and definitely isn’t about people taking action. Where are the people? “Auckland commuters left stranded” – there they are. Stranded! Because this strike came out of nowhere, and definitely didn’t involve any warning or notice. Much like a tornado.

There’s another interesting conversation to have about flexible working arrangements and how for many people working from home isn’t an option – usually people in lower-paid jobs, doing service work, providing “essential services” which aren’t compensated as such. But that’s not really what we’re saying when we talk about “commuters left stranded”, is it?

The blurb does get around to mentioning the people taking action – “bus drivers walked off the job.” As though a strike is just about a bunch of layabouts getting bored and wandering away, for no good reason at all!

It’s fair to point out that this is just the headline, and that the article behind it may well go into more detail – about the fact that the people who take responsibility for operating large, complex machines which transport hundreds of other human beings are overworked, underpaid, and being bullied when they dare to stand together in union.

But … it’s also the headline. This is the side of the story which gets the attention. Not the very real concerns faced by the people who drive buses full of other people and who are asking for totally unreasonable things like not driving for 5.5 hours straight without a break.

And so it is reinforced that strikes are random and unfair, that people who take strike action are doing it for no good reason, and that the real victims here are the white-collar workers who got inconvenienced on the way to work.

Which might be how we end up in situations like this:

Because we’ve lost sight of the people in the story and let the conversation about public transport, like so many other vital public services, become about money.

Speaking of which, here’s how yesterday’s announced industrial action was reported:

auckland dhb strike

loki sigh

There are real issues here. Our health system is missing at least $1.7 billion thanks to eight years of penny-pinching public-service-eroding National government. People who do absolutely vital work like managing pharmacies, providing occupational therapy and mental health support, and much less vital work like administering anaesthesia during surgery have been expected to keep on keeping on while their wages and work conditions have been eroded and outright cut.

The government has chosen to starve our health system, and DHBs have chosen – perhaps with little choice given their squeezed finances, but some nevertheless – to put pay and conditions for staff last on the list of priorities (except possibly for their chief executives.)

They’re not storming off in a huff because Daddy won’t buy them another pony. They are people being pushed to the limits who see no other way to get the message through.

Let’s remember that next time we see headlines about Cyclone Industrial Action Strikes Innocent Commuters as Faceless Robots Walk Off The Job.