"Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." - Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
IT COMFORTS ME, sometimes, to recall that when he wasn’t bludging off his wealthy mate Fred Engels, Karl Marx earned his living by writing political commentaries. His most celebrated journalistic effort is the lengthy article he penned during the winter of 1851-52 for a New York German-American magazine called The Revolution. Entitled "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" the article examines the combination of social and economic forces giving rise to the political phenomenon later known as fascism.
The article is well worth reading for its own sake – Marx was a brilliant stylist – but is principally remembered for the oft-quoted observation: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
Marx’s wry aside was constantly running through my head last Sunday morning as 300-400 trade unionists and their supporters gathered under Auckland’s soaring Skytower to protest the package of employment law "reforms" Prime Minister John Key was scheduled to announce to the National Party Conference (meeting fifty metres up the street at the Sky City Convention Centre) at 11 o’clock.
Certainly, there’s no disputing the fact that the National Party’s first great package of employment law "reforms" – The Employment Contracts Act – was an unmitigated tragedy for the New Zealand trade union movement.
In 1991, when the ECA came into force, there were roughly 675,000 unionised workers out of a labour force of just under 1.5 million – a union density rate of 45 percent. Significantly, most of those unionists worked in the private sector. Two decades on, union density has fallen to about 20 percent, most of it concentrated in the public sector. In the private sector, barely one in ten workers remain unionised.
But the dramatic fall in union density is only half the tragedy of 1991. The other half was the catastrophic failure of union leadership. To the utter consternation of the National Government, its draconian anti-worker legislation – modelled on the union-smashing laws of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet - was fastened around the neck of the New Zealand working-class without a fight.
The CTU’s leaders, backed by their public sector allies, bluntly refused to organise (let alone lead) the general strike demanded by an overwhelming majority of the private sector unions. Essentially, if a worker wasn’t lucky enough to have the state as his or her employer, or to work on a large, well-organised site, then he or she was just plain out of luck.
The CTU’s refusal to organise effective resistance to the ECA represents the most tragic and unconscionable failure of leadership in New Zealand trade union history. Hundreds of thousands of private sector workers were simply abandoned to the tender mercies of an employing class that could hardly believe its luck.
I think that’s why there were so many ex-unionists and activists at the Auckland rally on Sunday. We’d all lived through the tragedy of 1991, and now we were in need of some reassurance that the CTU’s 2010 response to National’s second great attack on workers’ rights wasn’t about to play out as farce.
We needn’t have worried.
The swing vote in the 1991 CTU "debate" on whether or not to call a general strike against the ECA had been cast by the Engineers Union. Twenty years later, the Engineers Union’s successor organisation, the EPMU, was among the first to lay down a challenge to the bosses.
Standing on the back of the radical Unite union’s flatbed truck, EPMU official, Bill Newson, declared: "If employers in this country want chaos – we can do chaos."
CTU President, Helen Kelly, reassured the protesters that she’d be seeing them all again soon – "on the streets".
John Key had done what all the militants couldn’t do: he’d left moderate leaders like Mr Newson and Ms Kelly with no other strategy except full-on resistance.
As I enveloped the startled CTU President in a congratulatory bear-hug, I recalled another great quote from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please ….. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living."
The CTU only just managed to survive its self-inflicted tragedy – it cannot survive a self-inflicted farce.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 23 July 2010.