One of the major issues that unions have been concerned with in recent years is work-life balance. Many workers face problems balancing their work with the other demands in their lives, such as parenting, caregiving, fulfilling responsibilities in the community, and having adequate time for leisure. In this essay, I will be writing on behalf of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU).
I will outline a policy that the NZCTU believes will help in this area, namely legislation making it easier for workers to achieve more flexible hours; discuss the various methods that the NZCTU can use to ensure this policy is adopted; and finally, assess the NZCTU’s chances of success, given the balance of power between trade unions and other interest groups. What is the policy? The NZCTU believes that there are a number of changes that can be made to employment legislation that would make it easier for employees to achieve greater work-life balance.
One such law currently going through Parliament is Sue Kedgley’s Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Bill. The bill aims to implement a number of processes that workers and employers can go through while negotiating flexible working hours. Firstly, the bill gives workers a clear right to request more flexible hours. Secondly, it gives employers the right to turn down such requests, but only for certain reasons, such as an inability to reorganise working hours with existing staff (Beaumont 2007).
The NZCTU supports the current bill, although there are a number of areas in which we would like to see it go further. Firstly, the scope of the bill is currently restricted to workers who are caring for a child under five years of age, a disabled child, or an elderly parent. Although the NZCTU believes that this is an important first step, we would eventually like to see all workers given the right to negotiate flexible working hours, since workers have a wide range of commitments beyond caregiving (Beaumont 2007). There are a number of reasons why the NZCTU believes that this legislation is necessary.
Firstly, in today’s society a strict nine to five work schedule is inconvenient for many people, and causes clashes between work and personal or family commitments. A survey by the Department of Labour, for instance, showed that 46% of workers currently experience work-life conflict. Many workers feel that they have little control over their hours, and little ability to negotiate different hours with their employer (Beaumont 2007). Secondly, in recent years there has been a clear trend towards people working longer hours.
Many workers put in extensive overtime, and one in five workers in New Zealand currently works more than fifty hours a week (NZCTU 2004: 12). Thirdly, the current situation in employment disadvantages women. Women currently perform far more unpaid and domestic work, such as caregiving, cleaning and cooking. Currently, it is difficult for women to balance paid work with these other commitments, which prevents women from contributing fully to the workforce and helps add to the pay gap between men and women (NZCTU 2004: 14).
The proposed legislation would make it easier for women to stay in paid work rather than leaving altogether in order to carry out other commitments. Fourthly, the NZCTU argues that the proposed legislation will in fact be useful to businesses. It will help employers to attract and retain skilled workers, which is a particularly important issue in the current tight labour market (Beaumont 2007). How will the NZCTU push for the legislation? The NZCTU has a number of strategies it can use to achieve its aims.
Firstly, it can lobby the government and members of Parliament to change employment laws and implement legislation such as the flexible working hours bill. Trade unions are known as “insider groups” because they tend to have direct access to ministers and other members of Parliament. This is particularly so for the NZCTU, which represents 39 affiliated unions (NZCTU 2006a). In this way, union leaders are able to lobby politicians directly. Other strategies that trade unions can use include strikes and protests, and advertising campaigns to attract public support.
Trade unions can also make submissions to select committees. Although anyone can submit to a select committee, submissions from unions are likely to carry more weight, because of the large size of unions. The NZCTU has made a submission on this bill to the select committee, which was strongly supportive of workers’ rights to flexible work but which also argued that the bill needed to go further in some areas (NZCTU 2006b). The NZCTU is also part of the Coalition for Quality Flexible Work, a lobby group formed to support the flexible work bill.
The coalition includes more than 20 other groups, including the Parenting Council of New Zealand, Grey Power, and the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women, as well as several of NZCTU’s affiliated unions. The coalition asks members to contact their local MPs and ask them to support the bill. It also provides a number of campaigning resources, such as flyers, fact sheets and postcards, which contain information on why flexible work legislation is necessary (Coalition for Quality Flexible Work 2007). What are the chances of success?
The NZCTU believes that the chances of the proposed bill succeeding are good. There are a number of reasons for this – firstly, the strength of the NZCTU, based mainly upon its large membership; and secondly, the widespread public support for such a move. However, the bill has also attracted opposition from business groups, who have traditionally had more power than unions, and from the National Party. An important aspect in favour of the legislation is the strength of the Council of Trade Unions. According to Bramble and Heal (1997: 119), “trade unions are the single most significant mass institution in New Zealand society”.
Although fewer workers are members of trade unions nowadays than in past decades, unions still represent a significant proportion of New Zealand’s work force. The NZCTU represents more than 350,000 workers in 39 affiliated unions, making it the largest democratic organisation in New Zealand (NZCTU 2006a). Although individual workers possess little power, collective organisations of workers have a great deal of power. Employers rely on workers to keep businesses running, and thus workers are located at the core of the economic system (Roper 2005: 92).
In addition to the lobbying power of trade unions, the NZCTU believes that widespread public support will assist the proposed bill. A number of surveys have shown that the public overwhelmingly supports more flexible working hours. According to one such survey, 84% of respondents supported legislation making it easier for employees to secure more flexible working hours. In another recent survey of over 4000 parents, 93% of respondents identified more flexible working arrangements as the change that they most wanted to see in their workplaces (Beaumont 2007).
Work-life conflict has been shown to be a significant concern for many workers – 46% of respondents in a recent survey identified it as a problem in their lives (Beaumont 2007). However, the bill faces opposition from business associations and from the National Party (Beaumont 2007). Although business associations are much smaller than trade unions in terms of membership, they have significant power over government policy. Business associations have significant financial resources available to them, allowing them to carry out lobbying campaigns to achieve their aims.
These include advertising campaigns to generate public support, donations to political parties, funding for academic research, and the ownership of the media. In addition, the government is largely financially dependent on business. Tax on business forms a significant part of the state’s revenue, and businesses can threaten to transfer overseas if conditions in New Zealand are unfavourable (Roper 2005: 89). This disproportionate power of business associations, given their small membership, is an argument against the notion that interest groups compete on a “level playing field” (Roper 1993: 148). Conclusion
The NZCTU believes that legislation making it easier for workers to achieve flexible working hours is an essential step towards greater work-life balance. There are a number of means that the NZCTU can use to ensure that this bill is passed, including lobbying of ministers and other MPs, select committee submissions, and publicity campaigns as part of the Coalition for Quality Flexible Work. Despite the opposition from businesses and the National Party, the NZCTU believes that the proposed bill has a good prospect of success, given the strong support that it attracts from unions, parents, and the general public.
Beaumont, C (2007) “Rigidity a puzzle as NZ workers seek flexibility”. The Dominion Post, 10th September 2007. Retrieved 23rd September 2007 from http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4196836a1865.html
Bramble, T., and Heal, S. (1997) “Trade Unions”, in Roper, B., and Rudd, C., The Political Economy of New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
Coalition for Quality Flexible Work (2007) “Coalition for Quality Flexible Work”. Retrieved 23rd September 2007 from http://flexihoursnow.wordpress.com/
New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (2006a) “About NZCTU”. Retrieved 23rd September 2007 from http://union.org.nz/about/index.html
New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (2006b) “Get a Life”. Retrieved 23rd September 2007 from http://union.org.nz/campaigns/getalife.html
New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (2007) It’s About Time! A Union Guide to Work-Life Balance. http://union.org.nz/policy/its-about-time-union-guide-to-work-life-balance
Mulgan, R (1993) “A pluralist analysis of the New Zealand state”, in Roper, B, and Rudd, C. (eds) State and Economy in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
Roper, B (1993) “A level playing field?”, in Roper, B, and Rudd, C. (eds) State and Economy in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
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