“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies … but the silence of our friends.”
─ Martin Luther King
THE COUNTRY’S DHBs have embarked on a dangerous and deeply cynical campaign to oust the Resident Doctors Association’s (RDA) long-time champion Deborah Powell. One of New Zealand’s most effective employment negotiators, Powell has become an intolerable hindrance to the DHB’s determination to roll back the gains of health professionals in the nation’s public hospitals.
The RDA represents roughly 3,500 of the 4,000 resident doctors working in New Zealand. In 2017 it was successful in securing significant improvements in its members working conditions – most particularly in relation to the number of hours, consecutive days, and night-shifts the DHBs could require them to work. The RDAs success did not come easily. Strike action was required before the DHBs reluctantly agreed to the changes demanded by the union’s members.
It is now clear, however, that the DHBs were not willing to let the RDA’s achievements stand.
Around the middle of 2018, a very small group of resident doctors, with logistical assistance from the Public Service Association (PSA) combined to form a new union: Specialty Trainees of New Zealand (StoNZ). The new union’s 400 members very swiftly negotiated their own multi-employer collective agreement with the DHBs. The improved conditions incorporated in the RDA’s national agreement were not included in the SToNZ document.
That achieved, all the DHBs had to do was wait for the RDA’s national agreement to expire. From 1 March 2019, the only collective agreement available for a resident doctor joining the staff of a public hospital would be the document negotiated by SToNZ – not the RDA. By running out the clock, the nation’s DHBs could wipe out all the RDA’s gains and fundamentally undermine Powell’s relationship with its members.
The strategy adopted by the DHBs’ negotiators bears an alarming similarity to that adopted 107 years ago by the Waihi Gold Mining Company. Step 1: Encourage the establishment of a small rival union. Step 2: Use it to undermine the position of the much larger union resisting the employer’s demands. It was a strategy which led directly to one of the most bitterly contested industrial disputes in New Zealand labour history. The Waihi Strike was only broken by a fatal explosion of state-sponsored violence.
Notwithstanding this alarming precedent, the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) has opted to make no comment on the tactics being employed against Powell and the RDA. Sources within the trade union movement attribute the CTU’s reticence to an ongoing and acrimonious row over membership recruitment. On one side stands the Association of Professional and Executive Employees (APEX) serviced (along with the RDA) by Contract Negotiation Services (CNS) Powell’s private company. On the other, the CTU’s largest and wealthiest affiliate, the PSA.
When it comes to Powell, the PSA National Secretary, Erin Polaczuk, pulls no punches. In an e-mail leaked to Stuff’s Stacey Kirk, Polaczuk writes: “The fact that workers are leaving CNS across the board should come as no surprise given their infamy, modus operandi and history. PSA strongly supports the CTU code of operating between affiliate unions and disagrees entirely with the approach that CNS organisations take, which is to poach organised labour”. Neither the RDA nor APEX belong to the CTU.
Curiously, Polaczuk’s e-mail makes no mention of the PSA’s role in helping SToNZ get established. “Poaching” from “organised labour” is clearly regarded as a much graver sin that facilitating the formation of a minority union which employers later use to break the industrial resistance of the union representing the overwhelming majority of workers in dispute. In the lexicon of the trade union movement there’s a very ugly word for that sort of behaviour.
It would be a tragedy if the CTU’s refusal to follow the example of the Nurses Organisation – the CTU affiliate which has proudly and publicly expressed its solidarity with the striking members of the RDA – has anything at all to do with the fact that the current CTU President, Richard Wagstaff, is a former National Secretary of the PSA. Union rivalries should not be allowed to obscure the very real threat posed to the New Zealand trade union movement by the DHBs’ divide-and-rule strategy. If Powell and her CNS negotiating team are beaten, and the RDA sustains a massive industrial defeat, then employers in other sectors of the economy will not be slow to follow the DHBs’ lead.
The precedent set at Waihi: establishing a “scab” union to facilitate the crushing of a real one; instantly became the template for the destruction of militant unionism in New Zealand. Has the CTU lost so much of its historical memory, is it so bereft of strategic acumen, that it is willing to see the DHBs strip the resident doctors of their hard-won conditions – and do nothing? Can it not appreciate how quickly the health sector bosses will move on from the resident doctors to their senior colleagues? And from them to the nurses?
If it is not appropriate for the CTU to draw a line in the sand on this issue, then when will it be appropriate? When the only union left standing is the PSA? And that only because the state sector bosses are holding it up.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 January 2019.