Surviving on the brink: New Zealand Workers, unions and employment relations, 1991-2008

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Journal Article
Labour History, 2018, (115), pp. 67 - 85
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© 2018 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Inc. New Zealand's Fourth Labour Government (1984-90) implemented a remarkably rapid process of economic privatisation, decentralisation and deregulation. However, it was only under the National Party Government (1990-99) that this process was extended comprehensively to employment relations, with its Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA). The ECA had devastating impacts on union membership, collective bargaining and employment conditions. The election of a Labour-led government in 1999, followed by its Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA), promised a less hostile climate for workers and unions. This paper examines employment relations in New Zealand under these two legislative regimes, from 1991 to 2008. First, it evaluates how the ECA's largely decentralised, deregulated environment transformed employment relations and how workers, unions and employers responded to it. Second, it assesses how the ERA contributed to a cultural change that encouraged workers, unions and employers to develop more strategic approaches to employment relations. It illustrates how this change, coupled with the introduction of important statutory entitlements for all workers, helped to prevent any resurgence of the right-wing politics that fuelled the ECA.
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