Growing In The Open Ground: When universal membership made trade unions the most representative institutions in New Zealand society, their affiliation to the Labour Party was an important part of our progressive and democratic political traditions. But the dramatic reduction in union density and the trend towards oligarchical control in union organisations renders their continuing attachment to a similarly reduced Labour Party highly problematic. The rejuvenation of the labour movement requires trade unions without electoral attachments. Affiliation has had its day.
WHAT MUST LABOUR DO to be welcomed back by ordinary Kiwis? What are the things it has to find, and what must it lose?
The first thing it has to lose is trade union affiliation. The big private sector unions still associated with the Labour Party: the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) and the Service and Food Workers Union; must be cut loose – and soon.
I write those words with a heavy heart, because it was the affiliated union vote that elected me to the New Zealand Council of the Labour Party way back in 1987. In those grim years unionists were the backbone of the opposition to Rogernomics. They kept the flame of the true Labour faith flickering through the party’s darkest days. And it was the block-votes of the trade union affiliates which kept Helen Clark’s political machine ticking over so reliably for the 15 long years it controlled the party.
Even so, it’s time for them to go.
Back in 1987, universal union membership meant that the labour movement was one of the most representative institutions in the country. The Trades Councils in the main centres functioned as embryonic workers’ parliaments where everything from fiscal reform to foreign policy was argued out – often passionately – by delegates representing tens of thousands of working people. The Auckland Trades Council (referred to by some as “The Auckland Soviet”) regularly assembled more than 200 delegates to its sometimes stormy debates.
Direct intervention in the economic life of the country – through widespread strike action – periodically reminded New Zealanders that unions and unionists exercised genuine power. To become a union leader in those days it was necessary to win the support of a majority of the union’s rank-and-file membership. Thousands of postal ballots would be cast and counted to determine the winning candidate. Workers were players in the great game of politics – and so was their political party.
But the days when unions constituted a genuinely representative social, economic and political force are long gone – and with their democratic credentials has gone the rationale for the role they continue to play in the Labour Party. In the private sector workforce barely one worker in ten is unionised. The constitution of the public sector-dominated Council of Trade Unions swept away the democratic traditions which had animated the local trades councils and concentrated all power in the hands of a gaggle of union officials at the very summit of the organisation.
What’s more, the “electorate” responsible for electing these top officials has shrunk alarmingly. In more and more unions leaders are elected not by a postal ballot of the rank-and-file, but by a few score of hand-picked delegates at the union’s annual conference. What were formerly the powerhouses of working-class democracy; and the generators of workers’ power; have become self-selecting oligarchies, against which all dissent crashes and burns.
If Labour wants to do the working-class a big favour it will purge its party of these oligarchs and welcome workers into the party as ordinary rank-and-file members. Who knows, if enough of them join up, they might even be able to persuade Labour’s MPs (including those who owe their positions on the Party List to the machinations of the Affiliates Council’s wise old heads) to rebuild New Zealand’s trade unions to Twenty-First Century specifications – most particularly by requiring them to operate, from bottom to top, as inclusive, transparent and recognisably democratic institutions.
A democratic trade union movement, with members in every workplace and abundant opportunities for them to learn and practice the art of politics, might then be persuaded to re-examine the question of whether or not unions should be affiliated to the Labour Party. But, my suspicion is that a truly democratic trade union movement would run a mile from such a proposition. As the poet, A.R. D. Fairburn, so wisely put it:
The mushroom grows in the open ground,
The toadstool under a tree.
Labour must rebuild itself in plain sight: by reaching outwards, not turning inwards. There are many in the party who cling to the illusion that the affiliates are the guardians of the party’s heart and soul. They are not.
Ordinary Kiwis built the labour movement; and ordinary Kiwis must rebuild it.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 December 2011.