By David Famularo
For a man with a stressful job, Mark James has an upbeat personality, but also an intensity that comes with his conviction that Unions are good for workers – and employers.
I sat down for a coffee with him late last year to ask what it is like being a Lead Organiser for E Tu Union in the Wairarapa, which I would consider a fairly union-unfriendly region.
While based in Wellington, Mark regularly makes the journey over the Remutakas to connect with delegates in the workplaces in the Wairarapa that have members of E Tu which covers aviation, communications, community support, energy and mining, engineering and infrastructure, food manufacturing, public and commercial.
“I grew up in Titahi Bay and still live there. Fortunately, we own our house which we purchased 22 years ago. Mum lives just down the road from me. My parents split up when I was young and my father lives in Tawa. I went to St Pius Primary School in Titahi Bay. I chose not to follow the Catholic way and around ten or eleven and went to Titahi Bay Intermediate and Mana College.”
Do you think the Catholic focus on social justice has had any influence on you?
“I think it did actually, because it is about being kind to each other, and caring about each other, and understanding that greed is not a good thing – those are taught in Catholic teachings.”
Fifty years old, Mark is a qualified printer by trade.
“As soon as left college with Fifth Form Certificate in those days and a couple of subjects in University Entrance, I aspired to be like my father who was a printer at Government Print in Molesworth Street and went to work there too. I did a comprehensive apprenticeship and then wanted to go on to greener pastures and try other types of printing so worked for Bryce Francis in Marion street and then The Copy Shop, a small shop in central Wellington, then Graphic Print in Porirua which went into receivership.
I changed my lifestyle then and became a postie for 12 years and was a union delegate there for four years for EPMU (which has since been renamed E Tu). One day an organiser came through and tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would be interested in taking up this sort of job. I said ‘yes, of course’. My father had worked for the PSA so he taught be quite a bit, kept me grounded around working class people. I had already been doing extra mural studies – a diploma in business studies and diploma in industrial relations at the Open Polytechnic. I had found that very hard as I was working all day and studying with a family but it was very gratifying and worthwhile doing. So that gave me the grounding I needed to start working at EPMU. As a postie I could see it was going to be a very physically demanding job as I got older and wanted to go on to bigger and brighter things. My every intention at that stage was to be a manager for New Zealand Post but it was the union that had recognised my potential. I had a fully unionised workplace. I had managed to get everyone in the union. I impressed [to other workers] the benefits of the union and what we were trying to achieve.
I cover Wellington up to Levin and over to the Wairarapa. We have a number of organisers based in Wellington that come over to the Wairarapa but I am the principle organiser with E Tu sites in the Wairarapa. I cover approximately 900 members of E Tu. We have around 400 members that I look after in the Wairarapa. I visit sites, engaging members and non-members, management, advocating for our members for wage increase via the collective bargaining framework, disputes, disciplinary, ACC issues and holiday pay issues.”
How unionised is the Wairarapa?
“In my view pretty poorly unionised and I think that is reflected in lower wagers that are paid over here.”
Has it ever been a well unionised area?
“I imagine prior to 1991 when unions were compulsory it would have been a very unionised area.”
What are some of the businesses that have fairly strong union membership?
“Well certainly Wairarapa Hospital – cleaners, orderlies, the maintenance guys and all that. Nurses have own union, but they are still very well organised. Beehive Bacon, JNL, Webstar, Holmes Construction, Renalls Joinery, the Wairarapa Times Age.”
Are the employers will disposed toward you?
“New Zealand is signed up to ILO (International Labour Organisation) and we have the Employment Relations Act which recognises the right to collective bargaining. The Employer Relations Act 2000 promotes collective bargaining and also union membership. It is unlawful to discriminate against someone for being in the union along with sex, race etc.”
Are employers fairly pleasant to deal with?
“This is my own opinion, and it is reflected in the way the rich are getting richer in this country – businesses have a view that we are probably a hindrance to them because we are distributing income that they think they should have. Instead, we argue that the workers that created the income, should have a fair share of that income.
Generally, larger employers who would have to deal on a daily basis with employees knocking on the door, asking for a pay rise, do like unions because the union comes in and does the bargaining for them. But a lot of smaller employers still see us as an hindrance.
And also smaller businesses don’t have the money to pay for Human Resource Managers or Contractors and are wary that if you don’t follow process as to disciplinary outcomes or redundancies, there are ramifications. So they feel threatened by us because we hold them to account for their poor decisions. So there is a bit of animosity towards us because of that and they feel threatened by us. But we are only asking that a fair and reasonable process is undertaken when you are trying to deprive someone of their right to earn money. People need to understand that when you are dismissed from your employment you have a 13 week stand down at the WINZ office. You are depriving a work of any income for 13 weeks when you choose to dismiss them.”
Are they are nice to your face?
“I get mixed messages, to be quite honest. They may be accommodating to my face but say different things behind my back. And look, I didn’t come into this job to be popular. It is not about that. It is the social justice and rights, and also when you are delivering a good outcome to workers, you are delivering a good outcome for their families as well – that’s the social justice aspect of it.”
“Extremely stressful job.”
So how do you get away from your stress?
“Physical activity after work and obviously I have a very good employer that ensures that we are trained to de-esculate things, and who listen to your concerns about stress and workload. But I love mountain biking and physical activities, so that is how I destress myself.”
What are some of the things that have been going on in the Wairarapa?
“Sadly for me it’s the restructuring at Webstar. They have gone through a recent spate of restructuring because of the decline in phone books. They recently lost four staff and another six before that. There are around 100 staff there but there used to be more than that. We have around 85 members there.”
What about Beehive Bacon. What’s happening there?
“We had quite a difficult renewal of the collective employment agreement which went on for about three months of bargaining. There was quite an aggressive approach by the employers trying to a openingly negotiate directly with our union members who then had to resign from the union to get a pay rise so that was undermining the collective employment agreement. When you have desperate workers who are wanting a pay rise and they can see individuals achieve a pay rise, that does drive that behaviour. Members saw through this through my representations to them and stuck together and we achieved a fantastic outcome – 2-2.5 to 4.16 increase for 12 months. We had a 43 percent increase in one of the allowances and other increases in allowances ranging from 10 percent to 17 percent. An allowance is where staff work at unsociable hours – when you are at work during a night shift when your family is at home and you should be supporting and being with them, but you are not so the accommodation allowance is to compensate for that.
We have 151 members out of around 250 workers. 100 of the workers are contractors from Kiwi Labour and Reed who are contracted to work for Premier Beehive. They have precarious employment which can be finished with one day’s notice. They don’t know from week to week how many hours they are going to be working, for how many months or anything like that. That is why these sorts of relationships with contracting businesses are quite enticing to employers – tap on and tap off. The relationship is severed and there is nothing they have to pay that worker because they are not the employer. There is no redundancy, so all that would have to be paid is outstanding holiday pay, if any.”
Are union members the ones that have been there a long time?
“No, generally what happens is that good workers who came from Kiwi or Reed are swapped over but it is not a guarantee. You have to prove yourself. This is great for them but not as productive. Morale is down. How can you pay the rent or mortgage when you don’t know how many hours you have. How do you feed your kids and how do you pay your bills?”
To celebrate the collective agreement Beehive Bacon allowed Mark to organise a barbecue on site for E Tu members.
“It was to show our gratitude for staying together with us and achieving a great result. It could have turned really sour, and the only people who would have benefited out of that would have been the bosses, because people need to understand that you have no bargaining rights on an individual contract. It’s like it or lump it. Whereas as a collective we have the ability to say that is not good enough.”
A lot of younger people are not even aware what a union is.
“That is exactly right and this is upsetting for me because unions have done great things and a lot of terms and conditions and some of the long term conditions in the region and country have been negotiated by union members and yet now we have group of young people who don’t know what a union is or what their rights are at work.”
You were saying that unionism could be taught at schools.
“I think so. The education sector is very unionised and there is the opportunity to try to include the school boards by getting on the boards in your kids school and so then talk about covering it in the curriculum. Get voted on and then talk about the benefits of collective bargaining and international labour organisations and the rights of workers so schools can teach those sorts of things.”
Potentially schools can introduce those sorts of things?
“Yes. We have tried to set up union organiser visits to schools to talk to classes about unions. In Wellington , Kim Ellis, a colleague of mine on a number of occasions has gone to schools and presented to the class around what a union is, what the benefits of a union are and what our role in society is. You know, we are a public institution. We are here for the greater good of our membership and society in general. It is around trying to ensure workers have a voice at work and they are rewarded well for their labour. That goes back into the community through their families and then everyone benefits.”
We were talking about some of things people may not realise they benefit from by being in a collective. One of those is redundancies.
“Yes, redundancy isn’t legislated in law in New Zealand. It is there in a lot of employment agreements but it is not legislated.”
And sick leave.
“The minimum in this country is five days a year which can accrue up to a maximum of 20 days whereas many of our collectives have better entitlements. When you are quite crook with some of the flus these days, you could be off work for two or three weeks. If you are with the collective you have enough sick days available to you to take that time off and yet when you get back to work you still have some sick leave entitlement. Sick leave is not only about you, it is about using it for your spouse and your children, and five days a year for any family is a very tall ask. You would find many families would struggle, especially in winter. For example, a partner and two children and you only have five days sick leave a year, which means you are going without pay which puts more stress on your family.
The union collectives outline workers’ rights at work with respect to dispute resolution, parental leave, health and safety, what happens when a new employer takes over ownership of a business.”
Mark points out that 45 percent of New Zealanders last year didn’t get a pay rise.
“But 98 percent of E Tu collective employment agreements did. That shows you the benefit of collective bargaining – workers standing together in the workplace with a united voice. That figure has been the same since 2008. Almost half of New Zealanders have not gotten a pay rise each year. And yet the financial sector has had a rebound – the pay of CEOs has up in 10 percent levels but workers have not gotten a pay rise.
We have demonstrated many a time that when employers are under stress, we are not there to send them to the wall. We ask them to demonstrate that to us to substantiate their financial position. Collectives can do that, individuals cant. If an employer says they are broke and can’t afford a pay rise, then they have to demonstrate to the collective. That is required under the good faith bargaining provisions of the Employment Relations Act. Whereas people on individual contracts are told ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Go and get another job. And why should people have to change jobs to get a pay rise?”
You were also saying how unions can help with ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation) claims which is interesting.
“The ACC is making billions of dollars at the moment. That is not for silly no reason. They are denying New Zealanders coverage. If a union member is injured at work the union will represent them to ensure the right decision is made. Often the employer won’t argue the case on behalf of the worker.”
Health & safety is outlined in collective employment agreements
“You are twice as likely to get injured in New Zealand as Australia and three times as likely compared to England. So we need strong health & safety provisions in our collective employment agreements. But they need to be even more improved and enforced.”
Once the microphone had been switched off, I chatted with Mark some more and he recounted the battle he had with a landlord who had tried to charge him $3000 for supposed damage to the rental accommodation. Mark collected the necessary evidence and went through his old receipts etc to present a case that saw the landlord’s claim thrown out. That seemed to pretty well express the type of person Mark is.
“I’m a fighter. Most people can’t do that and that’s the benefit of having a union representative. People need to understand that your choice is either to stand up and fight – and if you are not in a union it is going to cost you a lot of money – or just move on. My view is, if my kids are being bullied at school, do I just pull them out of school and take them to a new school? No, we address the bullying at the school. It is the same as at a work place. If you have been unjustifiably dismissed and unfairly treated at your workplace, the answer is not just to get up and leave, because you are allowing that employer to do that to someone else, and it is just not fair, we need to be able to stand up for our rights.”
Mark also believes unions are good for employers too.
“People who feel respected, will treat you with respect, and reward you with their labour. But when you are not respected, when you are treated unfairly, you have a demoralised workplace that isn’t productive. It’s a lose/lose situation, and that is what employers need to start to understand, stop seeing people as just a number and that profit will actually grow. You may have to pay them a little bit more but it will grow and grow because people will feel valued.”