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.
I spent most of the 90's overseas and returned to NZ in 2000.
I joined a Crown Entity and managed a regional office.
After the first 6-12 months I noticed that union membership was at zero and wondered why.
Everyone was on individual 'contracts' and annual pay increases were at the discretion of your manager.
Over time speaking to other workers, I had the sense that unionism was hushed up and some workers had been passed over for pay rises a few years on the trot.
One younger worker told me that her manager told her that union membership would result in a round of redundancies and she would be first in the queue.
I and a colleague attempted to unionise the whole organisation and was met by stiff resistance - subtle and aggressive - by a range of means.
In the end it seemed that I was run out of the orgainsation ie I was given more and more work - work that required alot of travel and time to do reports etc and no time to seriously organise
Subtle or aggressive: my experience of Neo Liberal dominance in the workplace...
Here I agree totally with you. 1991 the trade union movement laid down and died. I had my job 'sold' under me. They compensated me for the loss of my job(South Pacific tyres) but at my age I didn't get another permanent job until 1995. In 1992 I worked part-time with the Stores Union for a few months, and saw the member poaching going on, particularly by the then Engineers Union. I was even threatened
(second hand news) by an Engineers delegate. Lucky for him it was second hand news. I was in my late 40's then, not the old codger I am now.
I well remember that arse Karl duFresne telling me that being made redundant was probably the best thing that could happen to me. Yeah right. When you are made redundant you very rarely get a job as good as the one you left. The only answer it seems to me, is compulsory unionism with an opt out clause for those who have moral objections – and ring fenced agreements.
I'm of the view that unions don't matter so much as market conditions. However unions were once conduits for the views of working people and in their absence the void was taken up by left-wing academics (Helen Clark and the crew).
Employment Contracts Bill and later ECA pusher–Bill Birch–admitted years later that cabinet had been prepared to make concessions on the Bill if faced with widespread action and were quite surprised by the official response from the CTU
I attended that 1991 special affiliates conference in Wellington as an executive member of the National Distribution Union (and along with Bill Andersen and Mike Jackson voted for a national stoppage in line with our members wishes) though the leaderships particularly of the Engineers and the PSA disgraced themselves given that their members were also highly visible in the streets of Auckland in particular, calling for a general strike–the affiliates vote was technical democracy only
Ken Douglas and others were basically revealed as “third wayers” seeking ‘positive engagement’ with reactionary forces that wanted nothing less than the total destruction of unionism in New Zealand, the ECA did not even include the word “union” and took its inspiration from dictator Augusto Pinochet’s first secretary of Labour’s punitive approach to Chilean unionists
I will never forget the treachery of KG Douglas and the state sector leaders, or the words of ’51 waterfront leader Jock Barnes when Jock publicly chastised Douglas at the last FOL President, Jim Knox, Auckland memorial service
but 25 years on what of the young people that know little of such things or penal rates and workplaces where there is a balance of power and people get some fairness and respect? well new things have to be tried I suppose in the time of precarious work–internships, contract and agency joblets–but new does not mean reject the basics of the relationship between capital and labour as much as the digital age attempts to obscure the exploitation
Helen Kelly bless her tried to move the struggle out of ‘members only’ onto a community footing with forestry, mining and Talleys etc. the living wage campaign has all the trappings of a middle class approach to sidestep low union density but may become an organising focus, UNITE and FIRST have had some very good results in fast food and logistics etc. So all that was lost must be rebuilt!
Its been about 25 years since the Employment Contracts Act came into being.
The trade unions in that time have not learned to organise working people, so Wagstaff who is a professional bureaucrat had to to organise a seminar so that they may learn.
The present leadership of the unions is controlled by so-called specialist officers who now all get to drive around in union supplied cars even when that is 95% of the time 'home to office to home'.
Their holiday entitlements are the highest in NZ.
These specialist officers and senior union secretaries and organisers all get top salaries and superannution as if they work in senior positions in government.
Most monies that are members fees keep these people in very comfortable lifestyles and there is very little inclination to tackle situations that require work and determination to look after those employees who are obviously being exploited.
These people pretend to support the Labour -party, some of them do but the hidden agenda is to get labour to bring in friendly (compulsory) trade-union legislation to perpetuate what they have now.
Trade unions since 1991 have slowly but surely become bureaucratese and tools of wealth for aristocratic leaders, but of course a trade union seminar on organising is all part of the deception.
Many trade-union leaders are wealthy with ownership of multiple properties in their portfolio's, ask the Secretary's of Etu or the meatworkers.
A very good article.
Their is no word in the English language violent enough to describe the titanium-wilting venom I feel towards the cowards who destroyed this country's union movement.
"I'm of the view that unions don't matter so much as market conditions."
All due respect, but you would be wrong. Everywhere that has retained a strong union presence, has also retained much of the working conditions that we used to have before all this neoliberal nonsense. You've only got to look at Australia or Germany. And then all those countries where the union movement has been gutted like New Zealand and the USA. Strong unions are essential for decent working conditions.
When coming to NZ in 1949 with no professional qualifications, I was a happy unionist for years, but I opposed militant unionism and told fellow workers that more than the modest income increases you "fight for" can be achieved - without confronting anyone, through saving and investment - and told them how my 20 pound investment in a bike was paid off in I believe it was 1 year.
So I saved capital, and when later my auntie arrived and was seriously disturbed by the lower rates of pay for females, she was determined to "achieve fairness" by becoming her own boss by buying a home cookery (she had no professional pastrycook qualifications)- and I was able to lend her the capital for that - without realizing, that this home cookery became eventually my own over 30 year long place of productive employment (and employer of up to 4) when again I had enough capital to buy it from my auntie when she was ripe for a less demanding job (after she had "taught me the ropes") and I was satisfied there was a steady and good demand for her bakery products at that time.
While I am not opposed to "enlightened trade unionism" which achieves best results through helping to maintain healthy employer profitability as the best security for jobs sustainability (as different from "class struggle" based militant trade unionism), I believe the most constructively successful way into a more fair and prosperous future for workers and all, is in unions and politicians uniting in initiating policies that lead towards at least adequate personal wealth (capital) ownership by all members of a community.
If that sounds good in principle, discussions can be started on the pros and cons about how to make it happen.
Thats why my union disaffliated from the Ctu in the early Nineties with other unions we created TUF the trade union federation the leadership of the CTU at that time were weak and did not listen to the rank and file to support a general strike bad memories
OMG I am so stealing this line.
Old syndicalists me looking on this lot, and never sure if I should cry, or laugh. I came back from Aussie after working with the Amalgamated workers and the I.W.W I was ready to go. The problem, was the trade unions and their anti-democratic ways. They loathed anything which smacked of workers control. Got right upset when actual taught people how to help themselves.
Fiefdom, bunch of diminishing fiefdoms - what we down to, two? Soon It will be our way, one big union - except with this lot at the wheel - one big fail.
Who would have thought it, unions in NZ - a sad joke that makes you cry in your beer.
You're most welcome to it, Sanctuary. With the horrific injustice in this laissez-faire capitalist society you're going to need it.
Just a brief comment Jens, I applaud your approval of moderate unionism. However don't expect to find an endorsement of it in the National Party. The Nats have consistently demonstrated that unionism, no matter how moderate, is something to be stamped out. As Chris Trotter would say, an unnecessary evil.
What the 1991 Employment Contract's Act did was to simply remove unions from the equation.
Back in the good old days of steadily increasing prosperity in the West, the right loved to say 'for God's sake, we're not opposed to honest bread-and-butter trade unionism, we are after all a democracy, what we don't like is those commies and radicals throwing a spanner in the works of this good and fair society.'
How they have changed their tune. When I debate with so called 'centre-right' national party supporters, out in the world or online, it is the principles of unionism that they attack.
Countries that have accepted the meaningful existence of unions as component part of their society are the most stable, fair and prosperous places on earth.
However all this is a load of PC tripe to the National party types. And not just their supporters, but the governing national party.
This is because Anglo-Saxon conservatism is not a set of principles, it is a machine for extracting the most wealth possible from everyone else and giving it to the already powerful. They change their 'messaging' and political positions with the times, but their purpose remains the same.
Working families living in cars while the leader of the CTU has dinner at a seafood restaurant. Talk about a Chardonnay Socialist. Does one of these lovely little get togethers at Ika do anything? Will it help change the government, or is it just an echo chamber?
Chris piece here has certainly been mentioned in dispatches in some other quarters, it may be helpful for those critics to let go of the “Trotter factor”, Chris Trotter has received opprobrium in spades from various in the workers movement since the mid 80s when he began writing for the National Business Review, and is the subject of residual resentment from the NZ Labour Party over his founding role in the New Labour and Alliance parties, and also from marxists for being a social democrat at all! he is imo at root a generalist freelancer, demonstrably sympathetic to the left, a long distance columnist rather than a propagandist that falls easily into others lines of the day
is there any credence to what he claims? well yes there is actually, careerism and right opportunism, subsuming dedication to the workers cause, are always present dangers for unions and no amount of “reframing” and digital communication can get around that
Good comment Tigef Mountain; Chris' contributions alternately inspire me and drive me insane. What better from a lefty journalist? Provocation and debate must be the nutrition of the Left!👍🏼
That was the most f*cking excellent encapsulation of Chris's contribution to NZ's living left wing tradition I have ever heard.
At the risk of inflating Chris's Presbyterian ego, let me just say this - a Prophet is never recognised in his own country.
Try being a teacher right now. We have a union but it works to assist the government in the main - enjoying the baubles of being in with the minister. A year ago, after consistently criticizing teachers for not being prepared to act, they ignored the fact that 93% of teacher voted against the Community of Learning and wider IES policy and worked with the Ministry to, just 9 months later, accept and promote the same policy wit the only change being in the name.
The big issue with the changes to the collective agreements is that the ECA meant that strike action out of the period of negotiating the contract became illegal. I would suggest under that basis that no collective should ever be agreed as the only real power workers have and had ever had is withholding their labour.
Of course the government worked this out and have now passed an amendment to the act that allows them to, after a period of time, simply enforce a new contract should negotiations take too long (I guess for them).
These were issues that needed widespread and committed opposition but of course neo liberalism has knocked the potential for that ever happening again and i worry increased the chance of one day instead resulting in revolution
In spite of what conservative newspaper editors and letter writers say, the teachers unions have always had a more radical rank and file than leadership. I remember that arse Frank wotsisface – long since dead but a columnist for the Sunday Times – explaining to the general public that teachers were led around by the nose by their union executive. Whereas I just come from a meeting where the executive had been excoriated in no uncertain terms by its membership for being woofters. Funny the fantasies that seem to grab hold of conservatives.
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