Sunday 16 October 2016

Giving Workers What They Want: Honouring The Legacy Of Helen Kelly.

Helen Kelly - A Twenty-First Century Union Leader: The truth of the matter is that restoring equality in the workplace will not be accomplished by top-down, bureaucratic, institutional solutions. To enjoy the confidence and active support of ordinary working people, a fit-for-purpose, twenty-first century system of employment relations would need to have emerged from a consultative exercise of unprecedented size and thoroughness. In the simplest terms: it would need to be the product of the workers themselves.
WHAT BETTER TIME could there be to talk about Kiwi workers’ rights than in the days following Helen Kelly’s death? Who has contributed more to this discussion than the NZ Council of Trade Unions’ (CTU) first female President? And what other contemporary New Zealand trade unionist’s passing could have left such large and stylish shoes to fill?
Few would dispute that Kelly was by far the best leader that the CTU has so far produced. The way she was able to combine rock-solid principle with PR smarts made her the labour movement’s most effective twenty-first century union boss. Though she couldn’t quite match the Unite union’s Matt McCarten at street-level campaigning, Kelly’s keen intellect and her winning ways with the news media allowed her to keep the ideals of trade unionism alive in an era notoriously hostile to the claims of collectivism.

Had she not succumbed to lung cancer, it is likely that well before the end of this decade she would have made the transition from the trade union movement to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Once in Parliament, her rise to the top would have been inexorable. In relatively short order New Zealand would have had its second Labour Prime Minister called Helen.
All of which makes it one the great counterfactual questions of our history: “How different would New Zealand have been if Helen Kelly had not died of cancer at the tragically young age of fifty-two?” It is only when we attempt to answer that question that the true magnitude of the nation’s loss is brought home to us.
Labour has made great play of its current Future of Work exercise, but it has been much less enthusiastic about discussing the future of workplace relations. Indeed, Grant Robertson seems much more comfortable discussing how vital it is that workers are made ready for the challenges of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. We hear a great deal about the importance of continuous upskilling and labour flexibility, but nothing like as much about ensuring employees have a genuine say in how much they are paid and under what conditions they work.
For a party calling itself “Labour”, this is a critical deficiency. The power relationships of the workplace have a huge impact on people’s well-being. How much we earn and how we work continue to dominate our existence in much the same way that they have done since the first industrial revolution. More so in the first quarter of the twenty-first century than in the second half of the twentieth, because the effective destruction of mass trade union membership in the 1980s and 90s swung the balance-of-power decisively in the employers’ favour.
Anyone raising these issues, however, will be told that they are living in the past, and that the world has changed too much for any social-democratic party to contemplate a return to the industrial relations regime of the 1970s. And it’s true, times have changed: although not enough, apparently, to destroy the master/servant relationship, or eliminate the commercial necessity of legally limited liability; but certainly enough to make joining a union a career-threatening move for 90 percent of private sector employees.
The most important challenge facing today’s Labour Party is how to render workplace power relationships more equal without mobilising the entire neoliberal establishment against it. Simply legislating for the restoration of compulsory unionism and industry-wide contracts is not the answer, because a change of government would instantly bring about their legal demise.
The truth of the matter is that restoring equality in the workplace will not be accomplished by top-down, bureaucratic, institutional solutions. To enjoy the confidence and active support of ordinary working people, a fit-for-purpose, twenty-first century system of employment relations would need to have emerged from a consultative exercise of unprecedented size and thoroughness. In the simplest terms: it would need to be the product of the workers themselves.
Such an exercise would need to be established and protected by legislation. The body responsible – let’s call it WorkRight NZ – would aim to, and be empowered to, approach as many working people as possible in their workplaces and have them fill in a comprehensive questionnaire intended to identify both the good and bad aspects of working life in twenty-first century New Zealand. The survey would also ask workers how their rights, as citizens and employees, might best be protected and exercised within the workplace.
The WorkRight NZ legislation would also establish a second investigative unit, dedicated to drawing upon the knowledge and experience of existing trade union and employer organisations; the experiences of employers, unions and working people in other countries; and the research and insights of New Zealand and overseas academic employment relations specialists. The goal of this investigative unit would be to establish local and international best practice in relation to collective bargaining.
The results of the consultative exercise would then be collated, analysed and written up in the form of a comprehensive report by WorkRight NZ. Contained within the report would be a draft bill, incorporating the participants principal recommendations, for presentation to Parliament.
Interestingly, a similar exercise in mass inquiry was undertaken by the First Labour Government. The Social Survey Bureau was set up in 1937 to discover the actual conditions prevailing in New Zealand’s farms, factories, shops, offices and homes. Its first major inquiry – into the living conditions of dairy farmers – produced such shocking findings, however, that the responsible cabinet minister, Peter Fraser, tried to suppress the research report and, when that failed, shut the Bureau down.
Asking the right questions has always been the essence of political radicalism. It’s what made Helen Kelly such an effective trade union leader. If the CTU and the Labour Party are looking for a way to honour her legacy, then finding out what workers want from their employers and their workplaces – and giving it to them – would be a great place to start.
This essay was jointly posted by The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Sunday, 16 October 2016.


Dennis Frank said...

Yes, but. To achieve that requires a new paradigm for employment; re-inventing the old paradigm does little beyond ensuring worker dependency on employers for another century. The whole point of the Mondragon model was to prove that workers could indeed become their own employers.

Why take it for granted that employees must retain that childish dependency relation forever? This tacit assumption implies that there are really two kinds of humans: those capable of maturing and those incapable. Helen Kelly never showed any sign of learning that the political left continue ad nauseum to labour under that handicap, did she? A great leader would have sussed the situation out early in adult life.

With technology inexorably reducing the job pool, the law of supply & demand will keep ramping up the power imbalance in the favour of employers, and your other assumption that voters will empower leftist governments to level the playing field via legislation seems too much of a hope & wish. The only viable way forward for the left is to spit the dependency dummy, admit that ignoring the positive alternatives for an entire half century is a demonstration of mass idiocy, acknowledge that their ideological bankruptcy has become sociopathic, uproot it and dump it into Trotsky's rubbish bin of history, and invent that new paradigm for employment that we have been anticipating for so long.

RedLogix said...

In just my lifetime, Norm Kirk, Rod Donald and now Helen Kelly. We really have had a run of very shitty luck on this. But however deep our losses, the answer is this. We must transform ourselves into a hundred, or a thousand more of these inspirational souls.

Each of them would doubtless scorns our eulogising of them; all they would ask of us is action. We have the knowledge but too often lack the courage to turn it into action.

Cracker said...

It's true, Helen Kelly was Labour Prime Minister material.

Little is not.


Brendan said...

Many years ago I had (attempted) a discussion with Sonia Davies. Her union represented the workforce in a manufacturing company in the Wairarapa that had just gone into liquidation. The business had been closed and the liquidator was selling the assets to meet some of the debts that were outstanding. I suggested to Sonia that if her union was to purchase these assets at their "fire sale" price, the industry could continue to produce. All her union members could keep their jobs and the business could be run with union people in charge. Such an enterprise could set a benchmark for how workers could benefit from profit sharing with no greedy employers to take advantage of their honest toiling. It could have been a shining example of how worker participation in management could succeed where existing workplaces could not. The discussion very quickly petered out. It seemed that the worker/boss model, however unpalatable for the workforce, was still the only viable option in the 20th century. An opportunity lost.

Jack Scrivano said...

@ Brendan

I had a similar experience about 30 years ago. I was working for a firm that was trying to rescue a business that had pretty much outlived its viability. New technology was killing it. The union guy disagreed. He reckoned that the business’s owners were just ‘taking the chicken route’.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Buy it. Right now, this business can be had for next to nothing. Keep your people in work. Show the world how it can be done.’

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ the union man said. ‘We’re not falling for that shit.’

Almost 100 people lost their jobs.

I don’t think that Helen Kelly’s contribution was to keep jobs that were no longer jobs, but to help ensure that jobs that were real jobs were also safe and fair. I think she made a serious contribution to New Zealand society.

Galeandra said...

" that childish dependency relation " is a very demeaning way of describing the relationships that adults are involved in the workplace. Perhaps a more useful way of envisaging work would be to foreground the social relationship and to reduce importance of the 'economic' metric.
Helen kelly's efforts were in my view mostly on behalf of workers whose managers/employers had lost all sense of social relation. She showed a great deal of 'learning' in that critical area, which is more than can be said for most of the glib (and arrogant) commentariat, with or without their narcissistic messianic complexes.

Jens Meder said...

Yes, the opportunity neglected (to follow the Mondragon model) as described by Brendan, is evidence of a still widespread attitude, primitive or "out of date"(?) in its opposition or reluctance of personal participation in the wealth (ownership) and jobs creative responsibilities of capitalism - while eagerly demanding to share all the benefits and wealth created by and through it.

Before anyone credibly dismissing the above statement as "crap", just one practical or theoretical example should be given of anything on the material level beside "hand-to-mouth" consumption created without capitalism.

If that is not done, then is it not obvious or at least arguable, that a more progressive future for all those without any wealth beside their own labour power - and for society as a whole - is in direct participation in capital creation and ownership, such as e.g. partially initiated already through the "Cullen" NZ Super Fund, and potentially "perfected" through the $1000.- Kiwi Saver kick-start to all "from cradle to grave", including those who missed out receiving it so far ?
(As can be done out of capital saved already, without an extra cost to govt. or taxpayer.)

jh said...

Helen who? A unionist and progressive. It takes an executive of the year to say:

The high rate of immigration is a national disaster. It is lowering the present and future living standards of New Zealanders by serious adverse economic, social and environmental consequences.

The critical criterion for policy is impact on the living standards of New Zealand residents. The impact on the immigrants is irrelevant. But, the political view is a simple and misleading “quantity” based one – more immigrants means population growth and more jobs, houses and infrastructure spending, so GDP increases. This suggests a strong, well-managed economy - which is a nonsense in New Zealand’s case with an export dependent economy.

Dennis Frank said...

Actually, Jens, it was me who referred to Mondragon. Again. Failure to learn the lesson in the early '70s has been repeated every decade since. Seems like nothing will get that penny to drop in the heads of leftists. Must be jammed in there!

And yes, you obviously get the point because everything you wrote implies that. So the left, having switched to neoliberalism after the death of socialism, are now confronted with the death of the latter too. But, eight years after the gfc, do you see any sign of them taking advantage of this opportunity? I don't. Some people live & learn but leftists just live. If you consider yourself a leftist, perhaps I should add that there's an exception to every rule!

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Did I screw up sending my comment to this post ? Or was I moderated ? No wish to cause offence.
Cheers D J S

Chris Trotter said...


Nothing came through, David. Please re-post.