Friday 2 December 2011

Rebuilding Labour - Without The Unions

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.


jh said...

Is it unions or is it worker identity? The left has been busy during full employment snuffing out the worker: he is 'redneck" and he should just payout for the DPB life-styler and shut up?

Anonymous said...

A very good post, Chris. I agree with what you say.
As well as the unions that you mentioned, I think that Labour should cut its ties with the teacher unions. As soon as you mention the word "teacher" in this country, the word "union" *automatically* pops up into your head, with all of the negative connotations.
It *shouldn't* be like that. Teaching is a hugely-important job and if pay-for-performance were introduced across all schools, that would go a long way to rehabilitating its image. At present, the word "teacher" has the "union" word attached to it like a leech.

jh said...

The TEU looks to be more aligned with Mana or the Maori Party.

Mark Wilson said...

Look we need to have none of this intelligent debate - keeping the left in their place only requires the Labour Party to go on doing what it has been doing since Clark got control - allowing corrupt unions to select who gets to be an MP, allowing the Party to become the personal play thing of far leftists and the Rainbow brigade and suppress any dissent. This makes the core support of the Party very unhappy which is why they vote for Winston or stay home.
Us right wing nutters are greatly appreciative of the unions support of our philosophy - lets not make changes that will upset our control of the teeming masses.

Olwyn said...

I do not agree with you Chris. While there might be room for change in the relationship between Labour and the unions, and between the unions and their members, most especially the representation of casualised, I do not think that a severance of the relationship altogether would do anyone any good, but would rather leave a gap through which our neo-liberal masters could drive a truck.

I know that you think that Labour has lost all but the stalwarts and the marginalised, because you have said so a couple of times, but I think that assessment offers an incomplete picture of the election just gone.

For one thing, we are not looking at a left-right shift, but Labour's diminished proportion of the left vote - a 3% shift in the other direction would have seen the left, rather than National, with a wafer-thin majority, which may have been worse for them in the long-term had they achieved it. It may not have been seen as adequate to legitimise new policy.

Labour's diminished percentage was at least partly due to a failure to gain momentum until it was too late to turn things around. This was partly due to National's highly effective PR machine, and partly due to their being slow to find their feet in opposition.

While the Greens have done well, at least some of their increased vote came from the fear that Labour would not make it, and this is also the case with NZ First.

The right-wing PR machine is still going strong, to the point where it is presently trying to exert influence over the choice of Labour's next leader. If they were to destroy Labour and co-opt the Greens into becoming the "nice" face of their own team they would consider that they had done their job well. Severing Labour from the union movement would offer them a field day.

Anonymous said...

Slightly perplexed by Chris's stance here. As one of the disaffected "culturally conservative" working class of whom Chris so often writes, I would have thought Labour's association with Unions was one of its few remaining redeeming features. If there are links in need of severing, it is surely the usual culprits with their narrow "identity politics" agendas and the smugly supercilious liberal elite class. For what it's worth I only voted Labour because I thought Winston wouldn't make it.

Anonymous said...

Seeing Olwyn's post warmed the cockles of my heart.

The biggest gift that Labour can give the National Party is to retain its union connections.

TM said...

You are right in saying the unions have lost their relevance and touch with the working class.

Both my parents belonged to the PSA. And now my partner could do, but chooses not to.

Labour's issue is that the working class now vote for National or NZ first, and the left middle class (including many PSA members) are voting for the Greens.

I don't think unions should be cut out completely, but the amount of say they have should be limited.

Anonymous said...

Voluntary unionism is as intellecually valid, and has been as successful, as voluntary taxation was. Consequently, our young people chase the remnants of civilisation abroad as minor swine pick over the remaining bones and thor42 flies buzz around the NACT pig's arse.
Decay in action. To the neolithic soundtrack of droning insects and morons.

Keeping Stock said...

Kudos to you for starting the debate Chris. Whether Labour is ready for the debate is another story, but if the party is serious about regeneration it must look forwards and not backwards.

Brendan McNeill said...

Far from repudiating their roots, Labour need to re-connect with the spirit of Helen Clark, the most successful Labour Prime Minister of recent years.

Stronger Union participation, more identity politics, the promotion of Gay Marriage and adoption as 'human rights', decriminalization of abortion and euthanasia, and finally a good clean out of MP's like Damian O'Conner who represent the past.

That should do it.

Anonymous said...

Wow …. if Chris Trotter can make such comments, then something must be fundamentally wrong within Labour. If the party apparatchiks are deaf to this call (which is coming from many other sources) …. more fool them! Labour will keep bleeding its support to the Greens, Maori, Mana et al. until this issue is faced.

If these affiliated Unions are as undemocratic as Chris believes, then what sort of candidates are they grooming as Labour MPs? We see the result. Many Union affiliated MPs are clearly products of the Unions’ oligarchical system. As a consequence, such MPs are often incapable of truly representing Labour’s historical core constituency.

As someone who represents workers in employment disputes – my clients regularly have received no help from their unions. If unions were genuinely representing their workers – then they would have no problem attracting members.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Since when has Labour been the plaything of the far left? Since 1981 I think it's been the plaything of the far right and the centre right. Only its social legislation has been progressive. As it is the teacher unions are some of the few organisations left that can provide a proper opposition th the rightist agenda. It's a sign of the times though when a veteran of '51 can praise them for this. And not to say that they're the most effective unions around. We must give that accolade to the police and the doctors.

pete said...

Nice dog whistle Brendan- but you forgot the bit about lightbulbs & the dykes forcing 'us' to speak maaari.

Thor42 (really macho name big guy!), I don't know if you know much about teachers- when I hear 'teacher' I think 'school' or 'kids'. Of course I don't have your agenda...which seems to be to turn NZ's world class education system into something based on a failed North American model. How will you rate teacher 'performance'? If it's students grades then stand by for them to achieve AMAZING results with shonky assessments! BTW I've 3 kids in low-decile schools and I'm blown away by their teachers dedication & performance. Of course you can't measure that on a league table.

Anonymous said...

Unions are the voice of the working class.
Let's face it, NZ barely has a working class anymore.
Our 'workers' reside in China and India now.
True unionists should, accordingly, relocate to China and India to represent those workers they claim to be so concerned about.
Maybe the Labour should go with them?

Tiger Mountain said...

This post has really cleared out the s-bend going on the comments.
Labour and the unions concerned which do not include FIRST or UNITE by the way, can sort all these matters out for themselves without the assistance of not just non, but anti unionists.
Union membership has been voluntary for a long time now and workers organisations generally do their best in a hostile environment. 90 Day ‘Fire at Will’, high unemployment, Mcjobs and legislation undermining ILO freedom of association tennents makes for the steepest of playing fields.

Congratulations to those that do belong and make an effort rather than cowardly comments on blogs, like actoid #42.

Susie Brown said...

Labour's usually formidable election-day machine was missing or moribund this year. As a scrutineer I am in a polling booth for most or all of the day and have been impressed by the efficiency of the Labour method for ensuring every known Labour supporter is helped to get to vote. Was it Mike William's absence as the head organizer of this that was also a factor in Labour's poor polling?

Anonymous said...

Columns like this fill me with despair at the seeming inability of anyone to do the right thing. What is wrong with you people? Given approaching political and economic realities, the place of the unions in the Labour Party is an irrelevance, as are concerns about the current mindset of the voting public. Wayne Gretzky is supposed to have said that he did not skate to where the puck was, but to where it was going to be. The Labour Party needs to be doing that rather than worrying about electability.

It’s apparent that the current political settlement is radically unsustainable, no matter how many people would like it to stay. This has happened before: notable examples in New Zealand being 1935 and 1984. The winners in these cases were people who had long prepared for the change back when it was unpopular, and who subsequently delivered a fait accompli to the voters – this means playing a waiting game, but there is no alternative. Under normal political conditions in a democracy, you have to be electable to enact policy, but that is not always the case. Sometimes it’s better to be unpopular and right. Labour actually made a good start at this in the last campaign. New Zealand needs a capital gains tax, and it needs to raise the retirement age – there is no reasonable argument against either position, yet the voting public didn’t like it and the policies contributed to Labour’s poor result. Similarly, it is clear to anyone who cares to look that neoliberalism has a very limited future, and that we simply can’t go on with lowering taxes and increasing deficits to mask its deficiencies. The future belongs to the party that can come up with a decent alternative, and the burden of incumbency means that this will not be the National Party.

Labour needs to come up with a decent alternative, even if this means losing in the short term. That means more focus on ideas and less on popularity – of course this means that they will have to think, and we know how much they hate that. New Zealanders will eventually have to accept higher taxes and more interventionist government, because there is no alternative. If Labour wants to be that government, it will have to come up with a better pitch than a smiling Mr Shearer or a frowning Mr Cunliffe.

Anonymous said...

"Labour needs to come up with a decent alternative, even if this means losing in the short term. That means more focus on ideas and less on popularity – of course this means that they will have to think, and we know how much they hate that. "

Nah, Fcuk that, that voters are stupid and soon they will come around to the correct way of thinking and anybody who thinks otherwise is a RWNJ astroturfer

Skyler said...

Somehow Labour has lost touch with its constituency. They need to reconnect with them through the unions and other community organisations and community meetings. They need to encourage people to join the Labour Party by understanding what issues will motivate them to become active party members. I also think most people don't see the point in joining most political parties (including Labour) because they don't believe their voices will be heard. Labour needs to become a truly democratic organisation and members should be the ones who vote in a new leader. A new leader should have transparent policies and ones that reflect and appeal to grassroots party members. I've heard nothing but waffle from both Davids to date. Also, Labour’s caucus does not reflect who they represent – where are the ordinary working people...they are all technocrats who have been to Harvard etc I think the ordinary worker would have a hard time relating to people like Cunliffe and Shearer.

Anonymous said...

There's something about this that smells odd - so current union members aren't real workers -real kiwis - and so unions aren't relevant any more.... Is this because most union members are now women? We're not all middle-class lovies working for pin money you know.Get with the 21st century! Successive governments and business have radically altered the nature of industry and our workforce is now largely fragmented - it's this that has impacted on union membership. The public sector is still organised because it can be. And the public sector is increasingly feminised.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Labour would miss that crazy looking shower in the photo

mpledger said...

Pete said
"when I hear 'teacher' I think 'school' or 'kids'. Of course I don't have your agenda...which seems to be to turn NZ's world class education system into something based on a failed North American model. "


The North American education sector appears to be all about getting public money into private sector hands and, in the process, turning it into a bloated, inefficient monster - just like the American health system.

mpledger said...

And look what turns up....

Confidence and Supply Agreement with ACT New Zealand

"With respect to education, the parties have, in particular, agreed to implement a system, ... whereby school charters can be allocated in areas where educational underachievement is most entrenched."

All that will happen is that kids with poor parents who are motivated will go to charters, the other poor kids will stay in a public school and both groups will suffer.

Very few charters in America outperform their local Public School but they suck out the motivated parents and "counsel out" (i.e. expel ) kids who don't perform who end up back in public schools.

Noone wins but private beneficeries get to suck up tax dollar.

Anonymous said...

Oligarchical power structures seldom give up their powers voluntarily and rarely see anything wrong with them. They are strongly self-perpetuating and are seldom reformed from within.

In an oligarchy it becomes less about what you know and more about who you know, less about personal ingenuity and more about personal compliancy.

In enviornments where decisions are made in an unpacitatory way, advancement and membership risks becoming the preserve of the self-serving and the zealot who either do not mind or are too self-deluded to mind.

mpledger: I half wonder if National had this planned all along and used National Standards to entice the unions to first discredit themselves in the eyes of the public by fighting against public opinion over something minor.

It is very hard to imagine Labour changing. Labour is the unions, and the unions are Labour. There are surprisingly large numbers in high positions of Labour who are directly or indirectly associated with the union movement. Labour has a very small and probably shrinking non-union membership.

sandfly said...

The problem that needs solving here is not how to detach Labour from its connection to the labour movement (ie, unions), but how to re-energise and up the membership rate of the unions. Frankly, in an environment in which people can be fired at will for the 1st 3 months, the unemployment rate is high, most have no significant bargaining power about pay or conditions and other attacks like youth wages are on their way, joining together to bargain basic conditions and pay scales is completely rational and socially responsible.

If some unions are electing their representatives at their annual conferences, they are doing so because it gives the deciding power to their activist members. Presumably any member can become an activist. Personally, I don't think this is the right approach (and it's not the approach used by my union), but I understand the thinking. Hold off on the incendiary terms like 'oligarchy' .

britbunkley said...

What a betrayal of all we value!! I just looked this up to support my arguments towards reinventing unions and saw this article that parrots the right wing mantra and clich√© that unions are run by big cigar smoking oligarchs and mafia thugs. This has been part and parcel of the anti-union spin crusade since unions became a power to contend with in the 50’s. It is not wholly inaccurate, but it is greatly exaggerated…mostly for propaganda purposes (like the myth of the welfare queens on the benefit driving Cadillacs in the USA). Those nations that still have high unionization such as in northern Europe have retained the lowed Gini Coefficient… the highest equality measures and the strongest middle class. Thay said Europe too is in the troughs of new right revisionism particularly those hit by the inane “anti-austerity” measures of “crisis capitalism” see: and see Roger Strassburg’s comment ). Ever since the ECA, which like the Orwellian “right to work” l laws in the USA, wages have declined and continue to do with the declining union representation. It is my opinion that it has been the highly successful propaganda move by the media in tandem with these laws that bring NZ back to the 20’s that have caused this crisis… and you seem to be contributing??? WHY?

Chris Trotter said...

This is a long-time after the play, John!

If you would learn more about the way in which the NZ trade union movement was stripped of its democratic elements, may I modestly suggest you read my book "No Left Turn" - particularly those pages dealing with the formation of the CTU and its betrayal of the NZ working-class in April 1991.

And, just to remind you, it's not unionism per se that I oppose in this column - but union affiliation to the NZ labour Party.