Friday, 16 October 2009

Enemy At The Gates

Lockout! Watch out! They'll call the cops out: Economic recession creates the ideal conditions for employers to deploy their most devastating bargaining weapon: the lockout.

IT’S NOT OFTEN you encounter Classical Greek history in a trade union campaign.

World War I is about as far back as most unionists are willing to go. "Rallying the troops." "Pulling the pin." "Going over the top." They’re all expressions which entered the vocabulary of militant trade unionism in the 1920s and 30s – and can still be heard today.

But Unite, the union for young, low-paid and casualised workers led by Matt McCarten, is going back much further than the killing fields of Flanders for inspiration. All the way back, in fact, to the Battle of Thermopylae.

It’s a stirring story.

When the Persian King, Xerxes I, invaded Greece in 480BC, the Spartan King, Leonidas, undertook to buy his allies the time they needed to re-establish their defences by denying the invaders Thermopylae – "The Hot Gates". According to legend, just 300 Spartans held this strategic pass for two, crucial, days and nights – until, undone by treachery, they were over-run and slaughtered.

With economic recession and a National Government bearing down on low-paid workers, McCarten’s union hopes to defend their living standards by means of a Citizens Initiated Referendum seeking a $15 minimum wage.

In the words of the union’s publicity material:

"A small number of committed people can make a huge difference. The movie "300" immortalised 300 Spartan heroes who defied 200,000 Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The $15 an hour campaign needs 300 modern heroes who will commit to getting 1,000 signatures each by May 2010. We'll send you forms, badges, stickers and pamphlets. Once you send us 300 signatures we will send you the official $15 working class hero badge, T shirt and cap."

It’s yet another example of McCarten’s talent for lateral thinking. Unite’s campaign not only declines to engage an increasingly hostile and aggressive employing class, but it also seeks to mobilise an increasingly fractured and demoralised working class. McCarten is building an army. Those 300 "working class heroes" will be the nucleus of its officer corps.

Were such a "working-class army" already in existence, the scene outside Open Country Cheese’s sprawling Waharoa dairy factory would look very different. Instead of thirty to forty locked-out employees maintaining a desultory picket in the October rain, there would be thousands of baying trade unionists.

Unionism is all about mobilising workers in sufficient numbers to overcome employer resistance. If McCarten’s successful, the headlines won’t be about lockouts – they’ll be about strikes.

BUT, FOR THE MOMENT, the Unions simply don’t have the numbers. Eighteen years after the passage of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) in 1991, barely ten percent of the private sector workforce remains unionised. Even when the comparatively well-organised workers in the public sector are included, union density in New Zealand stubbornly refuses to rise above 25 percent of the total workforce.

The sharpest edges of the ECA may have been blunted by Labour’s Employment Relations Act (ERA) of 2000, but the political economy of trade unionism makes it exceedingly difficult to increase the percentage of unionised workers.

To remain economically viable, trade union organisers must devote themselves full-time to servicing the needs of their existing members. This makes the task of recruiting new members – on new sites – extremely difficult. Few unions possess the financial resources to hire "green-fields" staff – especially in a recession.

Economic recession and rising levels of unemployment have always made the unions’ job harder, but the severity of this latest down-turn could prove disastrous. Thousands of workers have been laid-off, and the unions’ membership base is shrinking. With the same number of sites to look after, but fewer workers contributing dues, more and more unions are struggling to maintain an adequate level of service to their members. Since the onset of the recession eighteen months ago, the membership base of the largest private-sector union, the EPMU, is reputed to have shrunk by three thousand – roughly six percent.

The most ruthless (or perhaps just the most desperate) of New Zealand’s employers are taking full advantage of this situation. They’re confident that, with a National Government in power, there’s zero chance of New Zealand’s industrial relations regime being changed in their employees’ favour. They also know that, for unions, weathering strikes and lockouts is an expensive business – especially if they’re prolonged.

While the boss at least saves on his wages bill, the union is obliged to dig deep into its dwindling reserves to prevent its members being starved back to work. Solidarity from other unions is there in spirit, but translating expressions of support into cold hard cash, in the midst of a recession, is hard work.

In short, it’s an ideal time for employers to wield the lockout weapon against both their staff and the unions which represent them – and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

At the time of writing, New Zealand Bus (owned by Infratil) has boldly locked-out 1,000 of its drivers; apparently relying on the pressure of 80,000 daily commuters, and their employees’ sub-$15 per hour wages, to drive them back to work on the company’s terms. Telecom has already manoeuvred some 900 telecommunications engineers into either becoming independent contractors or joining the ranks of the unemployed.

There are other, smaller, examples of the tactic at work, but the salutary effect of big operators like Telecom and Infratil – not to mention the sheer ruthlessness of Open Country Cheese’s principal shareholders, Nelson’s hard-nosed Talley brothers – is enough to make the rest of unionised labour think twice before asking for more.

IN McCARTEN’S brave new future, locked-out Dairy Workers would be able to call upon a much larger labour movement to bulk-up their modest picket-line. Reversing the path of Massey’s Cossack’s, thousands of Auckland workers might even decide to invade the Waikato. Enough to bring Open Country Cheese’s CEO, Mark Fankhauser, back to the negotiating table - pronto.

In the here and now, however, it’s a different story. Last week, when the call went out for a mass picket of Open Country Cheese, only a few dozen unionists and their officials turned up. With Waharoa’s gates assailed by such a rag-tag-and-bobtail crew, the company had scant incentive to negotiate. The financial reserves of the Dairy Workers Union might be substantial – but they’re not infinite. Subsidising locked-out workers’ week-in, week-out, isn’t cheap.

Unlike Xerxes at the "Hot Gates", Frankhauser and Open Country Cheese can afford to wait.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 15 October 2009. 


Sanctuary said...

It is all well and good to have a disciplined 300 who, according to their laws, will fight to the finish.

But where would the Spartans have been, but for the 700 Thespians - every Hoplite the city had - under Demophilus? The Thespians elected of their own free will not to leave the Spartans, and perished with them. The 300 Spartans only achieved what they did because 700 others CHOSE to stand with them.

Simon said...

..or the 7,000+ slaves of the Spartan empire that were also forced to participate.

To continue the analogy, those slaves represent us, the decent Kiwis, held to ransom by the Trades Union*

(*) "Organised Crime."

Sanctuary said...

Wow, good to see you turning 2500 years of Western tradition on it's head Simon. what next? A vigorous defense of Persian corporatism? A claim Xerxe's needs our sympathy and a tax cut?

Unknown said...


This was a very thoughtful perceptive column by Chris and you have contaminated it with your silly prejudice.

The Trade Union Movement has contributed hugely to the quality of life of ordinary people for hundreds of years. The ruling class wants to do away with TUs because they challenge the privilege that they enjoy.

Ordinary Kiwis are not held to ransom by the TUs. What an absurd comment.

Anonymous said...

A few points Chris:
1) Many groups (and flakey individuals) issue 'calls to arms' and impore workers to join in a 'massive strike' to force bosses to their knees - but for workers to respond they need to trust the person/group issuing the call (that it's not a waste of their time) and have some thought to how these workers can afford to support the rally.

2) EPMU numbers will suffer most in any recession, as manufacturing jobs in general are lost in such times (not helped by recent Labour govt free-trade deals). Perhaps a better analysis would be union : non-union ratio of workforce in each sector - that allows for fluctuations in total workforce size.

3) Unite's $15 minimum wage campaign calls for working class heroes to get signatures, not turn up at Open Country Cheese to help a strike. Bit if a leap there, though one Unite would happily make perhaps ;)

4) With greatest respect for Matt McCarten & Unite, Matt may be building an army, but the serfs/union members/activists who get thrust over the top (or be shot by their officers/union organisers) may not be so keen on endless battles & wars with bosses. This is why the masses slump back into 'passivity' whenever they get a few concessions that improve their life a bit. Exhaustion, and sometimes selfishness, sadly.

All this exposes is there is a need for the left to start thinking about what society without capitalism would look like, and enunciate ideas as to how we progress there. Lefties of all stripes seem terrified of this, as they may be labelled as '1 idea fits all' communists.

But without a realistic alternative to capitalism put in the public sphere, the workers can hardly be expected to go 'over the top' for mildly reformed capitalism.

Tauhei Notts said...

Your comments about Open Country Cheese are prescient.
If any of the Waharoa people were employable they would have a very very well paid job up the road at Fonterra's Waitoa. But the Talleys at Open Country Cheese considered it more cost effective to employ the unemployable and keep those unskilled people on $25 per hour. Anybody who has studied Talley's awful tactics at Horotiu would know that they are dreadful people to work for. That is why it is the unemployable who work (?) there. And by engaging that sort of scum Talleys must spend huge sums of money on private investigators trying to get to the bottom of the nasty damage done to the plant. Bolts removed from out of sight places and other nefarious activities. Behaviour that would never ever be contemplated by the Waharoa employees before the despised Talleys took over.
But people like Chris would have the union movement defend the indefensible.

Tiger Mountain said...

What is the point Tauhei of your rather confused post, are you one of the SCABs perchance at OCC or an associate of one of the SCABs?

Historical Accuracy Enemy at the Gates said...

Directly to the subject. I can only join your ideas.