Friday 23 September 2011

Failed Experiment (A Short Story)

Unity Is Strength: Unionism doesn't work with some in and some out. If one worker deserves the protection of trade union membership, then all workers do. After twenty years of voluntary membership and the collapse of effective workplace representation, surely it is time to acknowledge that the experiment has failed - and bring back compulsory unionism? 

 “WHAT YOU GOT there, Blue?”, said Harry, as his oldest friend eased himself into the chair by the window.

“This, my friend, is called an Old Speckled Hen - and it’s bloody delicious. Have a sip.”

Harry took the pint glass and sipped. “Hmmm,” he said smacking his lips, “that’s not bad.”

“About the only good thing you can say for Rogernomics”, said Blue, reclaiming his glass. “The choice of beer has improved out of sight.”

“Yep. It’s been a while since there was only DB and Lion.”

“They weren’t all bad though, were they?”, mused Blue, setting down his glass. "Those days before Labour went troppo and started out-Natting the Nats?”

“Nope. Not by a long chalk. I was talking to my grandson the other day. He’s just started his first job - a barista, of all things.”

“A what?”

“Makes coffee.”

“Oh. I thought he was at varsity?”

“He is. But my daughter and her husband can’t afford to pay his fees, so he has to work and study.

“Anyway, I was telling him about my first job. It was way back in the 1930s - just before Labour was elected for its second term. I told him about compulsory unionism: about how everyone - even the office girls - were getting organised. I recalled the pride in our union delegate’s eyes as he handed us a copy of our Award.

“‘No individual contracts back then, my boy‘, I said. ‘Didn’t matter where you worked, or who you worked for. If you did the job, you were paid the rate. You could be paid more if the Boss was willing but, by God, you couldn’t be paid less.’”

“What did he say to that?”

“Well, he wasn’t too sure about compulsion.

“‘Shouldn’t joining a union be a matter of choice, Gramps?’, he says.

“That’s when Len, my son-in-law, joins the conversation. He’s a good union man - member of the Service Workers.

“‘Unionism doesn’t work with some people in and some out, son,’ he says. ‘All that does is let the employers divide and rule - and it encourages people to free-ride on the guts and sacrifice of others. I’ve always argued that if it’s alright for the bosses to be protected by limited liability, it’s alright for workers to be protected by compulsory union membership.”

“Too bloody true!”, said Blue, taking another sip of his Old Speckled Hen.

“And you should have seen his face when Len rattled off what bar-staff were entitled to under the award negotiated by the old Hotel, Hospital and Restaurant Workers Union. Travel allowances, clothing allowances, penal rates, time-and-a-half, double-time, triple-time.

“‘In real terms, son,’ he said, ‘you’re earning less than I was back in 1973.’”

“What did he say to that?” Blue inquired, gazing through the window at the windswept gaggle of university students hurrying over the pedestrian crossing.

Harry laughed. “He said, if compulsory union membership and national awards were so good for workers, why isn’t the Labour Party promising to bring them back?”

“Bloody good question!” snorted Blue, distributing a fine spray of Old Speckled Hen across the table.

“I heard that Darien Fenton woman talking on the radio the other day - Labour’s industrial relations spokesperson. You know what she says?”

“What did she say?”

“She says: ‘Nobody on the Left is calling for the reintroduction of compulsory unionism and national wards.’”

“Never asked us”, said Harry.

“No, she bloody didn’t”, muttered Blue. “But I know what I’d like to ask Darien Fenton. I’d like to ask her how much longer Labour’s going to let this wretched experiment in voluntary union membership go on before declaring it a failure?

“Ninety-one out of a hundred, Harry. Ninety-bloody-one! That how many private sector workers lack union protection. Hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary Kiwis stripped of the ability to negotiate with their employers on equal terms. To look the boss in the eye and say ‘no deal’, without being sent down the road.

“Mate, you’ve known me for fifty years. You know I used to rave on about wanting union members by conviction - not compulsion. But after 20 years it’s painfully clear that your son-in-law’s absolutely right: unions don’t work with some in and some out.”

“You’ll get no argument from me”, said Harry, picking up Blue’s empty glass.

“Same again?”

This short story was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 23 September 2011.


Madison said...

Compulsory Unionism, the blight that had my former neighbor run out of his career because the boss's girlfriend married him instead. Yes, that's about right. Unionism, where it's safe to argue that a person's nation of birth can preclude them from recieving equal wages.

I despise the treatment I've had by Unions, but I'll give you a slot, you can bring back compulsory Unionism if the Unions lose the power to dispose of people they don't like. I've seen them abuse this power and know personally of 2 cases (US and NZ) where they had people either out of a job for BS reasons (US) or ran them out of the entire industry. Fix this and I actually wouldn't be able to bitch much.

Sb said...

The problem you have Chris is that there are too many old ex-union members (me!)who remember what it was actually like under compulsory union membership, rather than the rose colored version you are presenting here.

In my day the unions had become abusive of the membership, regarding them as peasants to be told what to do without any reference to the actual needs and desires of the membership.

Compulsory union membership,no, no, no, over my dead cold body.

Brendan McNeill said...

Well, at least the 'good ol boys' can still afford a beer, and good on them.

I recall Bob Jones once saying that if you had to sit down in the middle of the road to block traffic in order to get your point across, it probably wasn't a very compelling argument to begin with.

I guess that's why, when given the choice, most of todays 'Blues and Harrys' elect not to join unions?

Chris Trotter said...

There's no doubt that compulsory membership made a great many unions very complacent.

This failing would be easily avoided, however, by requiring the most democratic union structures devisable in the legislation restoring compulsory membership.

It is also important to remember the role played by Cold War anti-communism in the way union leaders felt obliged to conduct themselves and their organisations from 1946 to 1991.

It often resulted in young and idealistic unionists being heavy-handedly silenced by union bosses anxious to keep their reputations untainted by the faintest suggestion of militancy.

Failure to account for this historical context will cause the critics of unionism to blame the institutions of collective bargaining unjustly for the sins of right-wing politicians.

And to Madison I say: it makes as much sense to blame trade unionism in general for the bully-boy behaviour of a handful of unions and/or unionists, as it does to blame private enterprise for the exploitative behaviour of a handful of bad bosses.

Dave Kennedy said...

A useful step forward would be to actively support the right to be in a union and allow unions to organise. Being in a union is actively discouraged and I know of many worksites where union organisers can't access their members. Actors have had their rights eroded even further recently and John Key has made it public that unions won't be happy if they are returned to government, slave labour here we come...

- said...

The main difference between Australian pay and New Zealand pay is that in Australia minimum pay rates for industries and occupations are set by the Australian industrial relations body Fair Work Australia. There are still union negotiated collective agreements and individual employment agreements but they can’t make the employee worse off than they would be under their industry or occupation award.

Robert Winter said...

Important issue - I've a different slant, which I've laid out at length elsewhere, but this is a debate to be had.

Madison said...

Chris, I have to thank you for acknowledging both sides of the abusive argument. But as I'd pointed out, to fix what I viewed as the most hateful point to me leaves me with very little reason to argue.

Paul from Liverpool said...

A very rose tinted view of unionism I must agree. My dad was a factory worker all his life and a very hard working one too. I still remember his comments that unions prevented him from being paid more no matter how good he was at his job and that the unions were 'mainly ran by the lazy b***ds who used the unions to ensure that they couldn't be sacked'. These comments were pretty much repeated verbatim by my 15+ uncles and aunts who are working class. It got to the point they just kept closing factories in Liverpool as in practise one couldn't be sacked for incompetence or skiving off or ... etc as it caused a strike plus some of the awards were ludicrous - 3 days pay for turning up for 20 minutes on a Sunday. This pretty much meant many forms of overtime were uneconomic no matter whether the worker wanted it or not. The practise of slow working to force overtime to hit delivery deadlines was rife and the factory owners just shipped the machines offshore often to Germany as often as not where the adversarial approach to employers from unions is not the norm.

Liverpool never was exactly a hive of jobs but it's now a wasteland with the unionist approach being a significant contributor.

Above aside in lower paying jobs or effective monopoly employers where the balance of power is with the employer unions can be a force for good - it's sad that's not what unions have been about for decades.

I reckon compulsory unionism means other people free ride on me as I am very good at my job and want to be paid more for that ability. Unionised environments lead to a lowest common denominator approach and we call get paid the average so the crappy, lazy workers (of which there are many) get paid more on the back of my sweat.

I live in NZ now and find the lack of left wing bullies in the workplace refreshing. Compulsory unionism would bring that back and please don't spin the line about a fully democratic process would fix it - that's so naive.

Finally, unionism means a compulsory tax for labour against my wages. Political contributions should not be extracted from me by force.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if we made it illegal to pass on union won wages/conditions to non union members?

Brendan McNeill said...

@Paul from Liverpool.

Well, who would have though that compulsory 'anything' would have lead to those outcomes?

Your dad's experience would echo many I'm sure. Protect the jobs with unsustainable wages and conditions and kill the industry, all in the name of solidarity for the workers.

We live in a global economy where we can only expect to be rewarded for our contribution. No amount of collective bullying will be sustainable in the long run.

It's a hard lesson but the sooner we wake up to it, the more equipped we become to up skill, compete and prosper. At least Margaret Thatcher understood this and attempted to save the British workers from themselves and their unions. It's a great pity that the gains she made have been squandered by a succession of spineless pretenders.

Thank you for sharing your dad's story.

Welcome to New Zealand, we need more like you.

Andy C said...

And let us not forget the Unions seedy attempt to show some sort of democratic process. The block vote. Even as we speak Miliband has had his desire to cut the Union share of the block vote. He knows its a scam and so does everyone else.
It serves only those who would serve themselves.

Sanctuary said...

"...Thatcher understood this and attempted to save the British workers from themselves and their unions..."

This statement hardly needs commenting on, but there it is in all it's bovine glory to admire.

Unions only really thrive where the circumstances that saw their peak exist - large scale blue collar factory environments. The middle class like to label any job they have as white collar and they like to spend their time in pissing contests about how much they earn, something secret IEA's allow and published awards do not.

It seems to me new compulsory workplace organisation needs to take account of the nature of the modern workplace and the psychology of the modern worker. The modern workplace is much more likely to be in a service industry. They are more David Brent than dark satanic mill, with micro-management by middle managers who little else to do now that so much decision making is centralised. NZ workers, for all the complaints of declining living standards, have still got it sweet compared to the match girls 0f 1888. New Zealand workers seem to prefer lifestyle improvements in their workplace - lazy or laid back - to red in tooth and claw wage battles. And it hardly needs pointing out that the reintroduction of compulsory unionism by the Labour Party would be political suicide, since such a policy would be regarded as a declaration of war by the media and business establishment.

So it seems to me quite pointless to even discuss the compulsory unionism, except perhaps as a part of a bait & switch strategy for other, ways to re-introduce meaningful worker participation.

So then, what does work? Forget about the USA and the UK, they are fucked up and on the way out of the social democratic world now. They are irrelevant for an aspirational nation like NZ. Who are the most productive, highly paid workers in successful social democracies? It is clearly the middle Europeans, the Germans and Austrians in particular. Why don't we model our labour relations on their way of doing things? We've already signalled our admiration of Germany's democracy by adopting their electoral system and that has worked out well. Let’s look at what the Germans do and introduce that!

I think we could adopt the German "works councils" idea into our labour relations. Works councils exist in Germany to ensure that some of the key decisions at the workplace are not taken by the employer alone but involve representatives of the workforce. Crucially, they DO NOT negotiate pay rises and ARE NOT trade union organisations - these exist under separate legislation. Work council's rights are strongest in the social area, health and safety, organisation of hours of work, holidays, methods of payment and so on, and weakest in the area of economic issues (wages, redundancy). They must be consulted on training issues, staffing levels and workplace privacy. The German model is well discussed here - - and I think it provides a really robust model for taking a lot of decision making power away from our incompetent and floundering managerial class who are holding back and damaging our economy and for getting workers back involved in running their own workplace and, crucially, raising workplace productivity and with it wages. And of course, once workers have a taste of proper, inclusive power in a works council, it seems to me that'll stimulate the taste for organised labour to negotiate pay.

I think that works councils are a good way to get more real democratic participation back into a system of governance that is hollowed out and driven by elites - and that can only be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Mmm.The idea that unions stopped people earning more dosh. Interesting. In fact almost all awards and 2nd tier agreements under compulsory unionism were minimum rate documents meaning your boss could pay you whatever they wanted above that. Certainly in the factory situations mentioned above that would have been the case. So, all respect to the elderly fathers, aunts etc but they fell for a common line put about to sully unions. Not that unions were perfect.But keeping wages down? Nope.