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.”
“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.
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.