Don't Mention The Surrender! Richard Wagstaff, CTU President. The betrayal of 1991 is not something the CTU ever talks about. Like the Fourth Labour Government’s betrayal of its core beliefs in the late-1980s, the CTU’s not unrelated betrayal of New Zealand’s trade unionists over the Employment Contracts Act remains both unacknowledged and unexamined. That being the case, all the organising conferences in the world will not avail a trade union leadership that has internalised the logic – and the language – of defeat.
WHEN A TRADE UNION organising conference advises participants to avoid using such words and phrases as: “Workers”, “Inequality”, “Collective Bargaining”, “Strikes”, “Lockouts”, and even, God help us, “The Union”; it’s a reasonably safe bet that trade unionism is in trouble.
When New Zealand’s trade union “density” – i.e. “the proportion of paid workers who are union members” – falls from 50 percent to 18 percent in the space of just 25 years, “trouble” seems a pathetically inadequate description.
And, when only 9 percent of private sector workers belong to a trade union, the only appropriate word to describe the condition in which New Zealand unionism finds itself is “crisis”.
“Crisis” is not, however, a word which the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) likes to use. Certainly its President, Richard Wagstaff, did not use it in his address to the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill “Salon” on Thursday night (18/8/16). Called “From Strike To Like” (an exceptionally appropriate title as it turned out) this latest dinner-and-discussion featured, in addition to Wagstaff, two Australian speakers: Mark Chenery from “Common Cause” and Madeline Holme from the service sector union, “United Voice”. Taking their cue from Wagstaff, their addresses were also resolutely upbeat.
The CTU was formed in October 1987 (on the same day the NZ sharemarket crashed). It brought together the hitherto separate peak organisations of the private and public sector unions, the Federation of Labour (FOL) and the Combined State Unions (CSU). Tellingly, the union leaders responsible for drawing-up the constitution of the new body decided to get rid of nearly all the democratic traditions built up over more than a century of trade unionism in New Zealand. The regional “worker parliaments” – known as the Trades Councils – were abolished, as was the tradition of holding large, delegate-based, annual conferences. Decision-making in the new organisation was instead placed in the hands of the leaders of the largest trade unions – about twenty individuals. They, and they alone, would decide the fate of the nearly half-a-million unionists affiliated to the CTU.
That it has taken the CTU nearly 30 years to hold its first organising conference (the reason why Wagstaff and the Australians were in Auckland this week) might strike some as a little strange. The passage of the draconian Employment Contracts Act in 1991 and the precipitate decline in union density that followed, must have suggested to at least some union leaders that a coming together of union organisers from across the country, to discuss what is, and isn’t, working at the shop-floor level, might be a useful exercise.
The sad truth of the matter, however, is that after 1991 many unions were only able to survive by gobbling-up the members of other unions. If they’d been corporations, the process would have been described as a ‘mergers and acquisitions frenzy’. In the grey bureaucratese of Kiwi unionism, however, the process was simply called ‘amalgamation’. It did not encourage co-operation.
That a coming together of organisers has finally happened bears testimony to just how parlous the position of New Zealand’s trade unions has become. Perhaps this is why keynote speakers to the organising conference – including Chenery and Holme – were received with such enthusiasm. The Aussie union movement has proved to be considerably more robust than its New Zealand counterpart and has happily embraced many of the techniques of political communication and persuasion coming out of the United States.
Coming up with suitable – i.e. less confronting – alternatives to the staunch phraseology of the picket-line is what inspired the list of “words to not use” with which this essay began. The research of American progressive Anat Shenker-Osorio, in particular, has been drawn on heavily by the Australian unions in an effort to “re-frame” the struggles in which their members are engaged. Holmes’ description of her own union’s fight to retain penal rates (oops, “weekend rates”) was particularly interesting in this regard.
The great risk here is that these purely tactical innovations will be mistaken for strategic imperatives. In its essence, trade unionism is an exercise in coercing a greater share of the surplus generated by a commercial enterprise than the owners of that enterprise, un-coerced, would feel inclined to distribute to their employees. There are ‘gentle’ ways to apply the coercive strength of a workforce, and there are not-so-gentle ways, but applied it must be if workers are to receive anything like their fair share of the wealth they create.
And it is here that we come to the matter which lies at the heart of the CTU’s weakness. In 1990, when the new National Government of Jim Bolger introduced the Employment Contracts Bill, the intention of the legislation was simple and clear: to legally eliminate the ability of workers to successfully coerce their employers.
Scores of thousands of New Zealand unionists marched and rallied against the Bill. At mass meetings across the country, resolution after resolution to stage a General Strike was carried overwhelmingly. At the summit of the CTU, however, the will to resist the bill by direct action was nowhere near as strong. Making full use of their power under the CTU’s undemocratic constitution, the union bosses voted 250,122 to 190,910 not to mount a nationwide stoppage.
At its first and most crucial test the CTU had failed its membership. It wasn’t just the National Party, or the employers, who were responsible for the collapse of unionism in New Zealand. The union leadership of 1991 must, itself, shoulder a very large share of the blame.
Not that any of this toxic historical legacy formed the slightest part of Wagstaff’s speech to the Ika audience. The betrayal of 1991 is not something the CTU ever talks about. Like the Fourth Labour Government’s betrayal of its core beliefs in the late-1980s, the CTU’s not unrelated betrayal of New Zealand’s trade unionists remains both unacknowledged and unexamined. That being the case, all the organising conferences in the world will not avail a trade union leadership that has internalised the logic – and the language – of defeat.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 20 August 2016.