Grant Bradley: Why a union veterans been appointed to Air New Zealand board

OPINION:

The appointment of a union veteran to the Air New Zealand board is a clear sign of its majority owner – the Government – flexing its muscles in overseeing the direction of the airline.

Paul Goulter has been involved with the union movement for four decades and will join the board at towards the end of the year.

Shareholding minister Grant Robertson has made in clear that he expects the Government to have a say in how Air New Zealand is run.An April ”letter of expectation” from Robertson was especially pointed but its content wasn’t a surprise to the airline.

As he later told Parliament, a 52 per cent shareholder in any company of any description is going to have a say in who’s on the board.

”It’s how it works,” said Robertson.

Two other new directors will join the board following the airline’s annual shareholding meeting; Alison Gerry is currently a director at ANZ Bank NZ and Infratil Limited, is the founding chair of Sharesies, and is a director at Suncorp NZ, and Claudia Batten, who is the chair of Serko, a director at Vista Group and the digital adviser to the Westpac NZboard.

The appointments fill the vacancies created by the retirement of long-serving directors Jan Dawson, Rob Jager and Linda Jenkinson.

Air New Zealand chairman Dame Therese Walsh said the new faces would provide further digital, strategic and employment relations expertise to support Air New Zealand’s revive phase and to support”objectives of prioritising people and customers and investing in digital solutions that empower customers”.

In his letter, Robertson said he expected Air New Zealand to enhance its role as a leader for best-practice workplace relations, given that it is one of New Zealand’s largest employers and that’s where Goulter fits in. The overwhelming majority of frontline staff, including cabin crew and pilots, are members of unions.

He’s is currently National Secretary of NZEI Te Riu Roa in New Zealand. He started working in unions as a field officer for the New Zealand Bank Officers Union and eventually became general secretary of Finsec, the New Zealand finance sector union.

He then worked as secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions followed by time in the bruising industrial scene of Sydney, working for the Australian Council of Trade Unions as director of the organising centre.He’s also a director of the Co-operative Bank.

During his time at the CTU he tangled with Air New Zealand almost 20 years ago as it set up short-lived budget carrier Freedom Air, when scores of jobs were lost, and he will join the board at a critical time for labour relations.

A third of its 12,500 staff have been laid off or left since Covid-19 devastated the airline last year. No matter how inevitable many of the cuts were, the damage to the industrial relationship will take some repairing.And unions worry that Air New Zealand could join arace to the bottom for worker pay and conditions in what’s shaping as a brutal operating environment as international networks are rebuilt.

Covid is dictating the one step forward, one step sideways move to restore some roles at Air NZ, which has consistently won awards as the best place to work in the country. Goulter will be one voice among many on the board but there’s no doubt the airline’s main owner will expect it to be heard.

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