On the picket line outside Stagecoachs Wiri depot in south Auckland, Tramways Union shop steward Brian Webb told the Militant the company is offering to increase wages to $16 an hour by 2007, but insists on the workers paying for the increase by giving up some allowances. Their attitude, and actions like firing drivers for trivial offences, has made us stronger in our resolve to stand together, Webb said.
A particular bone of contention is Stagecoachs system of broken shifts, several pickets said. The system obliges them to take a long unpaid break in the middle of the day between driving during the morning and evening peak passenger periods. Those drivers are really at work for 12 hours, but get paid for eight, said Webb.
The company reentered negotiations April 11, averting a series of rolling stoppages planned to start the same day.
The drivers strike took place alongside actions in support of the Fair ShareFive in 05 campaign launched by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). Pointing to the current economic upturn, the union, the largest in the country with 50,000 members, has said it will not settle for wage increases below 5 percent. Stopwork ralliesattended by 3,000 workers in Auckland on April 5 and more than 2,000 in Christchurch on April 6have been organized in support of the campaign.
Among the EPMU members who have taken action are 60 workers at Morgan Furniture in Auckland, who picketed the factory on the day of the rally. Sixty-five workers at the Colgate-Palmolive plant in Wellington held 24-hour strikes on March 30 and April 4. A picket line outside the plant attracted solidarity from other workers. A Maritime Union member told the Militant that he supports the 5 percent campaign because weve had two or three years of boom time, but theres been nothing for workerstrickle-down doesnt work.
While the New Zealand capitalist economy is in a period of upturn, workers living standards have not kept pace. Although economic growth has added up to 20 percent over the past five years, during the same period the consumer price index has risen 13 percent2 percent more than wages.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is below 4 percent, an 18-year low. One recent survey says that two-thirds of employers are experiencing difficulties finding skilled staff.
Writing in the New Zealand Herald on February 9, business columnist Brian Fallow commented on news reports that wage growth had begun to accelerate, rising 2.5 percent during the fiscal year that ended in September 2004. The surprising thing about the data, Fallow said, is not that wage growth is accelerating, but that it hasnt done so sooner or more strongly. A 2.5 percent average increase in wage rates when inflation is running at 2.7 percent represents a pretty lousy growth dividend.
Wages are still on average 25 percent lower than in Australia, Fallow said in his column, which was titled Employers have had it good.
The Council of Trade Unions, the national union federation, has noted that workers are also facing longer hours. Officials cited a survey last year that found that 52 percent of New Zealand companies had increased overtime in the previous 12 months.
Christine Beresford in Wellington contributed to this article.
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