Other Options: If Labour fails to meet National's latest challenge to the right of workers to trade union protection, then other, less timid, political forces will step into the political space they have chosen to vacate. The dialectic does not sleep.
“YOU MAY NOT BE INTERESTED in the dialectic,” quipped Leon Trotsky, “but the dialectic is interested in you.” As the National Party prepares to introduce yet another tranche of employer-friendly changes to New Zealand’s labour relations law, Labour will be required to respond. What will that response be? Will it continue to promote policies that have hardly changed in 25 years? Will it go on behaving as if the charges laid against the trade union movement of the 1970s and 80s were true? Or, will it serve notice on the Employers that: if they persist in attacking and undermining the trade union movement legislatively, then Labour and the other parties of the Left will be forced to retaliate in kind?
Here’s a tip. If you expect the current leaders of the Labour Party to do anything more than mutter: “Tut, tut! Nasty National Party! Why are you being so mean to the poor little unions?” Well, you’re dreaming.
It’s the party’s labour relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, that I feel sorry for. Her instincts, as a former trade union secretary, are generally pretty reliable. I strongly suspect that, if her caucus colleagues would only let her, she’d come out strongly in favour of a full-scale counter-attack against National’s legislatively-driven union-busting. But, of course, her caucus colleagues won’t do that because, like the former SUP leader whose advice on industrial law Labour has followed consistently since 1987: “they would rather keep control of the losing side, than lose control of the winning side”.
To the middle-class professionals at the summit of the Labour Party the very idea of re-empowering working people in the workplace, and restoring a semblance of balance to the employment relationship, is anathema. Why? Because it would very quickly lead to a massive recovery of working-class confidence – and that is not something the current crop of Labour politicians are either personally or ideologically equipped to deal with.
The litmus test of a Labour politician's commitment to genuine labour relations reform is whether or not they support universal union membership. It was the introduction of universal membership by the First Labour Government in 1936 that instantly evened-up the balance of social forces in depression-ravaged New Zealand, and its re-introduction in 2014 would have exactly the same effect. For most Labour MPs, however, universal membership (or, as they insist on calling it, “compulsory unionism”) has become what the Americans call a “third-rail” issue: touch it and die.
“Far better,” they parrot, “to have members by conviction than compulsion.” The fact that we have had “members by conviction” for the past 20 years, during which private-sector union density in New Zealand has fallen from just under 50 percent in the mid-1980s to less than 10 percent currently, makes not the slightest impression on their thinking. It’s as though “voluntary unionism”, far from being a busted flush, is still a viable experiment in progress – and they’re just waiting to see how it turns out. Not even the Council of Trade Unions’ graph showing the inverse correlation between union density and the share of national income controlled by the “One Percent” has dented their absolute certainty that a restoration of universal membership is neither feasible nor desirable.
And yet, raising the age of eligibility for National Superannuation was once declared to be a “third-rail” issue, but that didn’t prevent Labour going into the last election with a policy of lifting the age of eligibility from 65 to 67. The same used to be said about the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax, but, once again, Labour (alongside the Greens) campaigned in 2011 for its introduction. Strange, isn’t it, that policies applauded by the Centre and the Right are deemed worthy of risking the electorate’s wrath, but those associated with the Left are not?
A genuine Labour Party would have little difficulty in both formulating and promoting a campaign for universal membership. Recent and current disputes have driven home to the public the considerable legal powers available to employers and the corresponding vulnerability of employees in the post-union workplace. Is the Labour Party of 2012 really so much less capable than the nineteenth century Liberal Party that it cannot draft a comprehensive set of progressive labour reforms? Is there no one in its ranks equal in eloquence to the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, whose famous sermon, “The Sin of Cheapness”, led to the setting up of the Sweating Commission and recruited even middle-class reformers to the unions’ cause?
Labour does not even seem to possess anyone with the political smarts to approach National quietly and say: “Listen you guys, if you’re stupid enough to introduce this latest round of anti-union legislation, we’ll be forced to announce a comprehensive reform package of our own – which, we assure you, your friends the employers will not like. Why don’t we both agree to simply let sleeping dogs lie?” It wouldn’t be a very courageous, or ethical, way of operating, but it would probably work. [The same strategy would, of course, succeed in relation to the Government’s plans for “partial” privatisation. A constantly re-stated pledge to take the assets back into 100 percent public ownership would seriously dampen investor enthusiasm. And yet, Mr Shearer insists on telling potential investors: “Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.” Such a helpful fellow.]
It is one the great ironies of recent political history that the Right has learned the lessons of effective left-wing propaganda more thoroughly than the Left itself. Groups like the Business Roundtable and the Maxim Institute have always understood the enormous power of ideas, and how an argument well-researched, well-presented, and then powerfully and consistently advocated, will almost always shift public opinion in the desired direction. Copious evidence of exploitation, poverty-level wage-rates and oppressive employer conduct is available to any Labour MP willing to sit down for an hour with any union organiser. And any employment lawyer will succinctly list for them the insurmountable legal barriers to effective union protection. The only thing preventing Labour from campaigning for the comprehensive restoration of fairness in the workplace is its own, selfish, disinclination to meaningfully empower the party’s electoral base.
Labour’s disinclination to lead effective action to assist working people will not, however, prevent such action being proposed and, ultimately, taken. National and its employer mates have need of these proposed reforms precisely because, in the current economic climate, the profitability of their firms cannot be preserved except at the expense of their employees. But workers barely earning enough to cover basic living expenses now, cannot afford to accept a future in which they are paid, in real terms, even less. Like the response of the Greeks and the French to the policies of austerity, low-paid New Zealanders’ response to falling living standards will be to turn to the political parties of the Left for support. If Labour wants to know what a future based on surrendering to the power of the bosses looks like, it need only consider the fate of PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party. In 2009 it won 44 percent of the popular vote. In 2012, after allowing itself to become the IMF’s, the ECB’s and the EU’s bailiff, it won just 13 percent.
As Trotsky knew only too well: the dialectic is never uninterested in human affairs, and it never sleeps.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.