New Models of Worker Organisation and Power

By Sam Huggard

In the increasing debates on the ‘future of work’, unions are putting the issues of insecure and precarious work firmly on the table.1 Whether we call it casualisation, precarious work, temporary, or non-standard work—it means that workers have worse conditions, less security, less say and are more vulnerable. That may suit the boss—but it is unfair and does not work for workers. However,
in the view of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), it’s no good to just engage in talks on the future of work at a policy level, we need an organising response to major changes in the workplace too. If we want to retain and grow our movement as an influential voice for working people, we need to move resources into areas of growth in the workforce, not just look after those that have access to the union movement now.

It’s worth noting that collective bargaining remains our primary focus, and we aren’t about to cede the ground on this anytime soon. Unsurprisingly, the international literature backs up what unionists know to be the case, that collective bargaining remains a most effective way of building organisation and influence to achieve better working conditions and a better life. Collective bargaining continues to serve many workers well. But it is out of reach for many: in the private sector for example just one in ten workers are bargaining with their workmates in a union. Both in actual numbers and as a proportion of the workforce, unions are in a slow but steady decline.

In the spirit of trying new approaches, in this article I look at four different ways that unions today are building and exercising power in the workplace.

The first of these is broad-based organising. Its origins are in the community organising strands that emerged out of Chicago in the 1930s, most often associated with Saul Alinsky. Broad-based organising, as promulgated in the US and elsewhere by the Industrial Areas Foundation, sees three sectors coming together to build power: workers in unions, faith organisations and community organisations.

In New Zealand this approach has been adopted by the Living Wage Movement Aotearoa. It organises around a living wage which it describes as “the income that is necessary for workers and their families to have the basic necessities of life, to live with dignity and to participate in the community.” It was seeded by the then Service and Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota (now a part of E tū) because simply bargaining with service contract companies was doing little to move its members beyond the statutory minimum wage. A new approach was needed, and the Living Wage Movement Aotearoa came into being.

The Living Wage movement seeks to harness community, faith and worker power by focusing on the economic employers or rules setters—the decision makers up the chain who really influence the wages and conditions of low paid workers. The best example of this locally has been city councils. Rather than bargain with firms whose contract price is set up the chain by Council tender documents, the Living Wage movement focuses on the ultimate decision makers, Councillors themselves. The Living Wage Movement provides a structured methodology for lifting low-paid workers’ wages: community events, submissions, storytelling, negotiations, public commitments of politicians and accreditation processes. Five New Zealand City Councils are in various stages of formally adopting the Living Wage with Wellington City Council on track to become New Zealand’s first accredited Living Wage Council.

The second example is strategic litigation. In 2012, aged care worker and E tū member Kristine Bartlett brought an Equal Pay Act case against her employer, Terranova Homes. She argued she had spent 20 years on very low pay because aged care is largely performed by women. Kristine Bartlett’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court—with Courts agreeing with her that she had been underpaid because of gender discrimination. The case was referred to the Employment Court to set a fair rate for Kristine. Before this happened, the government intervened, asking E tū, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, the Public Service Association and the CTU to instead work on a negotiated settlement with them to avoid further court action, and extend coverage of the negotiations to include all care and support workers in aged care, disability and home support. This led to the historic $2 billion pay equity settlement for care and support workers that was announced on 18 April 2017 and came into force on 1 July.2

Collectively bargaining enterprise by enterprise, or even through multi-employer bargaining, could not have delivered this outcome. It was the unions looking at different ways to build power that did it. There are other excellent examples of strategic litigation that have delivered significant wins for working people—the Sleepover minimum wage case and In-between travel case chief among them.3

The third example speaks to the power of external leverage in resolving workplace issues. In this case—that of iwi and hapū in the Talleys AFFCO dispute. The Meat Workers Union does all it can to organise workers in Talleys, through the tried and true methods of building site leadership and delegate structures and bargaining collectively. However the union finds itself in an endless string of legal processes which frustrate any chance of genuine good faith bargaining. In 2012, Talley’s owned AFFCO Meat works locked out over 1,400 meat workers for 3 months in a brutal dispute over company demands for major concessions on hours of work and other conditions. This led to a strong reaction from across the union movement, and the late Helen Kelly, then CTU president, was actively involved in the dispute on behalf of the movement. Unions rallied behind these workers and their families with money, food, pickets, rallies, and logistical support.4

In the end the involvement of iwi leaders was critical to ending the lockout— the existing pressure points weren’t shifting the company.5 Iwi leaders such as Ngāpuhi’s Sonny Tau, a former freezing worker himself, described it as a proud achievement for iwi, and describes the substantial power they wielded. “We have a significant amount of stock going through Affco… we said to the company, if you don’t sit down [with the union] we’ll withhold our cattle or send them somewhere else,” he told the Northern Advocate newspaper: “People have to realise that they will go nowhere quickly without iwi. They ignore Maori at their peril.”6 The collective agreement reached wasn’t perfect by any standards—there were concessions made—but the involvement of iwi leaders ended the lockout and got the workers back on the job.

The fourth example, and perhaps the most critical in a publication such as this one themed on precarious work, is the informal associations of workers that FIRST Union are trialing, with some success. Among these is the Logistics Workers Network, which is an attempt to create a barrier-free network for labour hire workers who otherwise do not have access to union coverage. As FIRST
Union told a select committee in 2015, “(t)here are few industries where the issues of insecure hours are more severe and workers are more vulnerable than the ‘agency’ or labour hire industry, which we see as being tantamount to ‘zero hours on steroids’. Labour hire usage is rife throughout the logistics industry, and to address this issue FIRST Union has established a ‘Logistics Workers Network’ that provides a free, confidential networking system, access to advocates, education on workers’ rights and a voice for marginalised workers.”7

The union has methodically identified the barriers to labour hire workers organising collectively and has set out to eliminate them. Because cost is an issue, the network is free. Because the workers have little leverage, the union instead harnesses the leverage of directly-employed workers on site, to bargain for such things as conversion clauses—which turn temporary jobs into permanent ones. Because there is no work security if employment issues are raised during a workers’ assignment at a company, the issues are raised after they have finished.

The Logistics Workers’ Network is in early days, but like the migrant workers’ network Union Network of Migrants (UNEMIG), and networks for forestry and road transport workers, they represent an important attempt to broaden the union movement’s reach beyond those who it currently represents.

What unites each of these examples is that if unions had focused only on one tool —collective bargaining—their workplace issues wouldn’t have been satisfactorily resolved. Bargaining with contracted our service firms or aged care providers wasn’t delivering much more than the minimum wage, and so the living wage movement and pay equity litigation were respectively initiated. Business as usual unionism didn’t end the lockout of meat workers, it was the external leverage of iwi. Labour hire workers in the logistics industry had no chance of a collective voice, until FIRST Union approached things differently.

There are other examples too that are worth documenting. The work of New Zealand’s creative sector unions—Actors Equity and the New Zealand Writers Guild for example—gives excellent insight into organising freelance and contract workers, for whom a collective employment agreement isn’t how they exercise collective influence on their industry. Unite Union won an end to zero hour contracts through an aggressive media campaign that led to a law change. And there are more.

The challenge for trade unions is to consolidate around areas where it is strong, but direct resources, even just on a trial or pilot basis, to alternative forms of worker representation or new ways of building influence. Unions will need to back themselves to try some things differently, knowing of the 5 new ideas we try, 3 might fail. And that’s ok. We must continue to critique how we are doing, and if doing so means adapting, then we should rise to this challenge and adapt. If it means bringing to birth new models of worker organisation and power from the ashes of the old ones, then we need to be up for this too.

Sam Huggard is National Secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi.

1. The International Labour Organisation, the global tripartite body of workers, employers and government, has its centenary in 2019 focused on this issue.

2. This case is also explored in the review of Prue Hyman’s Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality in the Reviews section of this issue of the Bulletin.

3. See Sleepover Wages (Settlement) Act 2011, accessed 23 October 2017, and Home and Community Support (Payment for Travel Between Clients) Settlement Act 2016, accessed 23 October 2017,

4. Please read Ross Webb’s article, “Jobs the Count”: The Fight against Precarious Work at AFFCO Wairoa’ in this issue for a full account.

5. AFFCO, ‘AFFCO Dispute settles’, Scoop, 22 May 2012, accessed 23 October 2017,

6. Peter de Graaf, ‘Maori leaders proud of role ending AFFCO dispute’ Northern Adcocate, 15 June 2012, accessed 23 October 2017,

7. Accessed 23 October 2017,