New Zealand's conservatives tackle long tradition of unionism

New Zealand Labor unions say they are fighting for their lives. The conservative National Party government says it is time the country grew up. The issue - whether a worker's membership in a union should be compulsory - is dividing this South Pacific nation of 3 million people, including its 1.2 million workers.

The unions want to preserve a system that has lasted more or less since 1936, after the election of New Zealand's first Labor (socialist) government. Effectively the system meant most employers could not hire anyone who was not a member of a union.

Now the National Party government, which has ruled for 20 of the last 23 years, is trying to break this union hold on the organized workforce, citing years of industrial disruption by militant unionists as its justification.

A bill just presented to Parliament would outlaw compulsory unionism and substitute right-to-work laws like those of more than half of the states in America.

It is the most controversial bill in New Zealand history. A record 1,200 submissions have been received by a parliamentary committee, which will report to Parliament with recommendations on any changes by about the end of November.

Tony Neary, secretary of the electricians' union and a recognized union moderate, predicts total chaos and confrontation if the bill passes. It will turn the clock back 50 years, he says.

But Labor Minister James Bolger says it is a necessary step in making the unions modernize. The unions have not fulfilled their side of a bargain made 50 years ago, he says.

''Why after 50 years,'' he asked, ''is the union movement not confident of its ability to persuade the overwhelming majority of New Zealand workers of the value and worth of union membership?''

The unions, which represent about 40 percent of the workforce, have found unexpected support in their battle against the bill from some of the country's biggest employers. Major employer organizations and some of the nation's largest companies have made it clear they prefer the status quo to the risk of massive industrial strife if the bill goes through.

New Zealand's 253 unions, which cover about 520,000 workers, have predictably risen in opposition to the move. Many unions recognize that they will lose many of their members if the compulsion to join is removed.

Ernie Ball, secretary of the engineers' union - with 55,000 members the nation's largest industrial union - foresees losing up to 30 percent of his members. He notes that 20,000 of them are employed as attendants at gas stations , which have only two or three workers.

Another controversial aspect of the bill is a clause legalizing low wages for teen-agers. With one-third of the country's 70,000 unemployed under age 20, the government wants to make it economic for employers to hire youths at cheap rates.

The unions say it is exploitation of the young and would lead to unskilled workers over 40 being sacked and their jobs being taken by lower-paid school-leavers.

The bill is also upsetting professionals such as lawyers and architects. The government's move to abolish compulsory unionism would also end mandatory membership in professional associations.

Many unionists believe Prime Minister Robert Muldoon is looking for an excuse to call an early election, which must be held by November 1984. They say Muldoon probably thinks the issue of the power of the unions is a vote catcher.

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