Anti-Meca message a sophisticated dog whistle

Employment lawyer  Jock Lawrie responds to last week’s opinion piece from Otago Southland Employers’ Association chief executive Virginia Nicholls, which discussed multi-employer collective agreements (Mecas).

Jock Lawrie
Jock Lawrie
We've heard it before, right? "Dog-whistle politics". The preferred means by which politicians effectively sidestep the guardians of political correctness to send a coded message to their constituents. The subliminal messaging always strikes the same note of alarm, "Beware, your cherished way of life is under attack!"

Usually such tactics are favoured by politicians of a conservative hue, eager to set aside "politically correct" ideology by exploiting ethnic divisions or targeting minority groups. Surprisingly, the recent opinion piece by Otago Southland Employers’ Association chief executive Virginia Nicholls indicates some business lobby groups might now be adopting similar strategies in order to activate their own "political base".

The immediate context for such chicanery is the Government’s proposed changes to the Employment Relations Act 2000. This is the law that governs how employees (that’s you) negotiate employment terms (that’s your income) with employers (that’s your boss).

Virginia Nicholls claims that the Government’s Bill, currently before Parliament, may limit an employer’s ability to opt out of collective agreements that cover more than one employer — otherwise known as Mecas (multi-employer collective agreements). Nicholls decries these changes as a harbinger of reduced innovation and productivity. In fact, the main effect of the Government’s proposals is simply to reinstate the same rules that applied in the years before the global financial crisis. Yet, for Nicholls, such change suggests that — barring the last-minute appearance of the Lone Ranger to rescue the situation — unions are now primed and poised to "hold entire employment sectors to ransom".

Ostensibly, it’s all about these "pesky" Mecas. Nicholls somehow conflates the reinstatement of pre-existing statutory requirements with "a draconian retraction of employer rights". As proof, Nicholls boldly cites the example of the road transport sector — conveniently overlooking that freight companies have long since introduced a "dependent contractor" model, effectively ensuring the marginalisation of the few remaining employees in that sector. The fact that the Drivers’ Union ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity decades ago simply underscores the air of unreality attaching to Nicholls’ claims.

But let’s put aside the familiar anti-union bluster for a moment. After all, many employer advocates will happily admit to the important role unions play in facilitating successful resolutions for employment relationship issues. Nicholls knows that an appeal to the purse strings is always the most effective way to mobilise business against proposed changes.


Herein lies the dog whistle. Nicholls’ warning that employers may lose control "of their ability to pay according to what they think is right" is effectively a coded message, warning that unless the business sector takes action quickly, it might have to listen more attentively to the legitimate concerns of staff.

It will be interesting to see if Nicholls’ message succeeds in fomenting a sense of panic among Otago’s business community. Most experienced practitioners would say that all employment relationships require negotiation and, at times, compromise — just like many of the other human relationships people enter into, including sometimes those with family and loved ones.

One can only hope that Nicholls’ response to any future policy initiatives will not involve sending coded messages based on fear of change, but will instead offer positive prescriptions for how the benefits of economic growth might best be shared by both employers and employees alike.

- Jock Lawrie  is a New Zealand Nurses Organisation employment lawyer.

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