Unions? - Please Explain: Grant Robertson subtitled his address to Labour's second "Future of Work" conference “Building Wealth from the Ground Up”. Any common sense reading of that title would predict a fulsome measure of worker participation in the exercise, which, to be effective, would have to involve the organisations dedicated to defining and articulating workers’ interests – the trade unions. Astonishingly, the term "trade union" did not appear anywhere in Robertson's 3,431-word speech.
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of the fact that Grant Robertson’s speech to Labour’s second “Future of Work” conference contains no reference to trade unions? Or that, in the entire 3,431-word text of the speech the word “union” appears only once? In a list of the groups involved in the “Commission External Reference Group” of Robertson’s Future of Work project. In addition to business people, academics and community representatives, Robertson admits to “union leaders” also being consulted.
That admission raises some pretty thorny problems of its own. If “union leaders” have indeed been involved in this flagship Labour Party exercise, then what do they make of Robertson’s very clear implication that their organisations, Labour’s founding fathers, will have no role to play in the future of work in New Zealand?
Robertson subtitled his speech “Building Wealth from the Ground Up”. Any common sense reading of that title would predict a fulsome measure of worker participation in the exercise, which, to be effective, would have to involve the organisations dedicated to defining and articulating workers’ interests – the trade unions.
But, if that is what Robertson and the union leaders advising him intend, then the absence of the slightest reference to organised labour helping to build New Zealand’s future wealth becomes even more puzzling. Either, New Zealand’s leading unionists all anticipate being made redundant in the near future; or, they do indeed see themselves playing a leading economic role, but have agreed, along with the party, to say nothing about it until Labour’s safely re-elected.
If it’s the latter, then the electorate will have every right to feel duped. Major changes – and a programme entitled “Building Wealth from the Ground Up” surely qualifies as such – should be signalled well in advance of a general election. Without prior notification, along with the discussion and debate such announcements inevitably provoke, political parties cannot claim a legitimate mandate for change. Lacking an electoral mandate, major policy reforms instantly become vulnerable to repeal by the Opposition. Refusing to share your plans with the voters isn’t just bad form, it’s bad politics.
So, why has Robertson been so careful to avoid referencing his party’s core constituency: the 300,000 New Zealanders who still belong to a trade union? The speech itself contains a number of hints.
The first of these is the warm welcome extended to David Coats, one of the Conference’s keynote speakers. Coats comes with an impressive CV, and is well-placed, as one of the UK’s leading commentators on trade union affairs, to assist Robertson in speaking out forthrightly on what organised labour must do to remain relevant to twenty-first century workers. Coats’ preference for a union movement that is focused on helping its members to “‘get on’, rather than ‘get even’” dovetails neatly with Robertson’s own ideas about employee aspiration. Sadly, any discussion of such matters appears to have remained strictly in-house.
Another pointer towards why Robertson kept the trade unions out of his speech was his reference to Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of the fact that Corbyn now stands at the heart of an intense political struggle to determine the future of the British Labour Party, and hence the future of work in the United Kingdom, Robertson mentioned his name only in relation to what was happening 18 months ago: “Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour backbencher was preparing to defy his party whip for the 489th time”.
The remark is vintage Robertson. In dismissing Corbyn as a disloyal back-bench pest, the MP for Wellington Central reveals how little he thinks of the British Labour leader’s left-wing ideas, and how much he values strictly-enforced political discipline. One can only speculate as to what all those “union leaders” allegedly involved in Robertson’s “Future of Work” project made of the remark.
After all, Corbyn recently announced his determination to re-arm the British Labour Movement by repealing the multitude of anti-union laws which, between them, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair either added to, or kept on, the UK statute books. With less than 10 percent of New Zealand’s private sector workforce involved in a trade union, our own “union leaders” must be hoping for something similar should Andrew Little win the 2017 election.
That’s unlikely. Especially when Robertson’s speech describes only one personal encounter with a living, breathing worker:
“At a public meeting in Albany earlier in the year after my presentation a man who had sat attentively at the front came forward and asked, with tears in his eyes, if I could do anything to help him get a job.”
It is difficult to imagine a more poignant depiction of the powerlessness of so many unemployed and precariously employed New Zealanders. If Robertson can’t make the case for empowering these workers and their unions now, relying upon him to do so after the election seems foolhardy in the extreme.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 August 2016.