Monday 14 May 2012

National Attacks Unions ... Again. How Will Labour Respond?

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.


Sanctuary said...

"...low-paid New Zealanders’ response to falling living standards will be to turn to the political parties of the Left for support..."

No it won't be. It'll be to join the exodus to Australia, where a battler still gets a fair go and where the safety valve of New Zealand politics has already blown off 400,000 plus of their fellow citizens.

Alex said...

So far there is no response on either The Standard or Red Alert, not even a knee-jerk 'National is bad' post. It is possible Labour's response will be, well, nothing. How long before the unions look for a political vehicle that will actually stand up for them?

Chris Trotter said...

You're right, of course, Sanctuary. But a day will come when Australia grows weary of soaking up all our unemployed.

And when that day comes ... KA-BOOM!

And, Alex, did you hear Mike Williams on the radio this morning questioning the accuracy of the Dominion Post story?

Kate Wilkinson's just released a statement which confirms the DomPost story in every detail.

Darien Fenton's contribution talks about everyone wanting to "get ahead" and warns against driving Kiwi workers to Australia.


Anonymous said...

wheres the labour, drinking wine bloody out of touch.The hiko on selling land is only part of it its the systimatic attack on the working class.

Brendan McNeill said...


I would have thought that if there was a need to compel people to join a union, or any organization by means of Government legislation, then there is no clear or obvious or compelling reason for that organization to exist.

If people don't believe there is sufficient benefit in joining a union voluntarily, then frankly, there is insufficient benefit.

Where will your compulsion end? Will Golf clubs begin to lobby Parliament for compulsory membership? I note that Church attendance is down, perhaps we could have compulsory attendance at Sunday morning services? (of your choice of course).

I remember Bob Jones once saying that if you had to sit down on a road and block traffic in order to get your point across, you didn't have a very compelling argument.

No one forces anyone to provide their labour to any employer in New Zealand. If employees don't like the terms and conditions on offer, they can always take their skills elsewhere.

Or start their own business in competition.

That is how a free society functions in the 21st century.

thegreatgonzo said...

Chris - I agree with your comments about the inability of the Labour party to stand up for those that it expects to vote for it. FFS Labour, stop trying to be National-lite and grow a spine. The current Labour party is a great advertisement - for the Greens!

I'm both a union member and on it's national executive, but I certainly do not support compulsory/ universal unionism. We recruit our members based on the services we offer and the support we provide.

mel said...

Yes Chris it is unbelievable.

The Labour leader comes out with a copy cat statement on same sex marriage, but has nothing to say about this Government's treatment of New Zealand's poor nor its proposed treatment of New Zealand's working class.

So many people in both of those groups these days. :(

Don Franks said...

"It’s the party’s labour relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, that I feel sorry for... 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"

My enduring memory of Darien Fenton is the interview i had with her and Don Swann, a few days after Socialist Worker's Organisation agitation had sparked annoying freedom to strike resolutions at Northern, Central and Southern SFWU delegates meetings. As one of the culprits I was summoned into her office and grilled about sensible industrial relations. Did I , for example, think that there should be no bounds to the right to strike ?
( yes) Did I not think ambulance drivers should renounce such action( no)
At the end of the stand off I was asked " would it make you happy if the CTU called on the Labour government to agree to strikes over social and political issues?"
I said that would help, next day the call was made, instantly dismissed and that was the end of the matter.
The only alternative Labour pose to National's union busting is their own very effective union blunting.

Jenny said...

Chris you might as well howl for the moon.

More than the end of universal' union membership the legal proscription against strikes in both the ECA and ERA in my opinion did much more harm to the union movement.

When Telco and Power board workers and rail workers were all terminated and their work outsourced to contractors as part of the wave of privatisation in the '90s their anger and frustration was palpable.

But because all this was done during terms of their collective agreements any industrial action would have meant huge fines and imprisonment for union officials and rank and file workers.

Without a fight-back, (apart from a few isolated pockets), these huge unions dissolved into a casualised mass of subcontractors and temps at the beck and call of their employers.

To halt the continuing retreat of the legally neutered unions, rather than universal union membership, better to demand the return of the right to strike.

With workers again able to join unions that are able to take action to defend them against employer attacks, the union movement will grow again. Maybe even to such a power, that universal membership will be on the political agenda again.

Are there any Labour MPs, even Darien Fenton, who dares argue for the return of the right to strike?

Why not?

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Don, that's a pretty depressing story. Certainly, it's enough to make me recall the benefit of my doubt in relation to Ms Fenton.

Jenny, you're quite right about the strike weapon. I simply believe it works better if everyone is in the union ;-)

Brendan, sigh, if you really believe there are no impediments to workers joining unions, and that it is all just a matter of free choice, then you're not really in this discussion.

As is so often the case with your comments, you come to the issues raised on Bowalley Road from an intellectual space utterly foreign to the thinking of my readers and myself.

We could explain to you why a union is not like a golf club, but it would do no good - you'd still not understand the difference.

Gerrit said...

Unionist tend to overlook the fact that compulsion to join a union will mean a potential explosion of new unions.

Existing unions may or may not get new members to join, in fact may instead face far greater competition for members.

Not will it be certain that the new unions will join the CTU.

Be interesting if complusion was legalised who would form new unions and who would gardener the greatest members.

Michael Herman said...

Brendan's (May 14, 2012 5:54 PM) patently false equivalence of golf clubs and unions neatly exposes the underlying cause of the shonky notions he and others of his kind propound - everyone is like me and if they're not then they should be. Regrettably, this is not extended to: everyone has the same access as I do and if they don't then they should.

Brendan is very successful in reminding us that class chauvinism is not only rife in New Zealand, the greed and injustice that informs it can't be defended coherently or with any deference to intellectual honesty.

Once again, thanks for providing a space for those who wish to engage in a meaningful dialogue and who yearn for a return to fairness as a primary shared value.

Anonymous said...

Labour's failure in government was in not setting up strong institutions of the left, including not strenghtening unions. The reality is unions spend hours dealing with petty personal cases, employer working groups and pointless consultation processes driven by the burgeoning HR industry, time that should be spent organising workers.

I am not sure universal membership is the way to go but I am sure that a bunch of ACC and other Government funded jobs in the CTU office is not the approach the union movement should take next time Labour is in Government.

Brendan McNeill said...

Chris said:

"Brendan, sigh, if you really believe there are no impediments to workers joining unions, and that it is all just a matter of free choice, then you're not really in this discussion."

Chris, fair enough, and I'm happy to be educated. If you think joining a union is difficult in the present legislative climate, then try abstaining from union membership under State compulsion and mandatory membership. You think that choice is easy? It's impossible.

Today you can chose to join or not, and that, in a free society is how it should be.

Michael, you need to grow up. Nothing in life is fair and if you expect a Government to mandate fairness, then you live on another planet.

Whose yardstick of 'fairness' do you expect them to implement? Well, yours of course.

As long as the left lives in a world of grievance and blame, then there is no hope for any of them in that spectrum. Adult New Zealanders recognize that we live in the most level playing field ever experienced by mankind on this planet. There are very few impediments to those who are prepared to start a business and risk being an employer in an uncertain world.

Oh sure, you can collectivize, and gang up on employers to obtain remuneration above and beyond the level that your individual skills demand, but its like defying gravity. Reality will surface sooner or later.

We live in a global economy, and the days of bullying employers are over. They will simply move their production to more friendly wage and labour markets.

This is the time to up skill, and compete on merit. All strength to those of you who take up the challenge. That is the future.

I'm happy to provide free consulting and support to anyone who takes up the challenge. Chris has my email address.

Forget looking to the Government, left or right, it's up to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

clare hargrave said...


"No one forces anyone to provide their labour to any employer in New Zealand. If employees don't like the terms and conditions on offer, they can always take their skills elsewhere."

this is where you are completely wrong. sure there is no person holding a gun to the worker's head and making them work in any particular place.

but haven't you heard of market forces? if there is nowhere else to "take their skills elsewhere" then there is no choice, the enforcement agent is the market. and if employers collude to keep wages and conditions down, (ably assisted by the national government) then there is nowhere else for the worker to take their skills.

and of course nobody is forced to take any particular job. nobody needs money to live, nobody has to earn a wage.

yeah right

Brendan McNeill said...


Look, if you have minimal education, no tradable skills, no employment, then I empathize with you.

Life is tough at the bottom of the heap.

You can be thankful however that your fellow Kiwi's are prepared to pay for a welfare state that provides you with an income that is unprecedented in other parts of the world.

Very thankful.

Ultimately the word does not owe you a living. You need to make something of your life. Take the opportunity afforded to you by the welfare state to up skill, obtain employment and work your way up the food chain.

Employers are always looking for people who:

a) have tradable skills.

b) who are honest.

c) who are prepared to work a full day for a full days pay.

d) who are reliable, consistent, and show initiative.

We would even settle for three of the above four, provided honesty is one of them, such is the labour market presently in New Zealand.

Don't sit around complaining, get up and make a difference. You have no idea how much the market will reward those basic skills.

All strength to you.

Kind regards

Anonymous said...

What disturbs me from the right. Is when they pull out 'the world isn't fair, nor should our society be' line. It is a complete fallacy.

It flies in the face of Judaeo-Christian, Islamic and most of the morality we have inherited from human history.

You are basically saying that a fair society isn't even desirable.

This is a very convenient cop out.

Unfortunately for you and the ever diminishing amount of right wing extremists who can't see the writing on the wall, we live in a democratic society.

Compassionate people do not accept that the 30% of people are suffering from lack of full employment (which only a strong and healthy social democratic state can provide), they are living in crime ridden suburbs in run down houses often far away from jobs. And even if they get these jobs, they rely on a pathetic public transportation system where they have to travel for hours.

Remember working people can vote, Brendan. You may be uncomfortable with that, lip service notwithstanding.

A government which burns your hated regulation and allows cities to sprawl, dislocating society and civilisation in the process, hurts poor people and many middle income earners. Eventually the poor will look to tried and true social democratic policies of effective city planning. Policies which have created beautiful and harmonious cosmopolitan cities in Europe where they have been tried.

And you constantly voice your grievances about beneficiaries but you fail to recognise the elephant in the room; that dead end welfarism is a trade off that right wing social democrats and conservatives have chosen for these people.

To truly tackle the problem muscular socialist policies are needed. Policies which saved western countries which chose them from fascism and stalinism. Policies like massive full employment public works progammes.

Now if the right really want to put their money where their mouth is when they harass the hopeless beneficiaries, then make war on unemployment using all the democratically mandated might the sovereign and free people have entrusted to them.

Cutting and hoping is not going to cut it.