WHERE HAVE THE UNIONS BEEN during the Covid-19 Pandemic? That the question can even be posed suggests that something is very wrong with the New Zealand labour movement. After all, the answer should be all around us.
At its high-point, under the late, and sorely missed, Helen Kelly, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) liked to present itself as the largest democratic organisation in New Zealand. With upwards of 300,000 affiliated members, that claim was no idle boast. As Kelly proved, the CTU has always possessed the potential to do an enormous amount of good.
So, where has it been? Why hasn’t its current president, Richard Wagstaff, become a household name during the pandemic? Up there with Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles? Where was the tireless advocacy for essential workers: the people who stood at the check-out counters, drove the trucks and operated the warehouses? When supermarket workers came under attack from the stupid and the selfish, why were they defended with more passion by their bosses, than by the CTU?
Which is not to imply that, down at the coalface, union organisers have not been fighting the good fight for their members. The “sergeants” and “corporals” of the movement have, indeed, been working tirelessly. Some of them have even managed to attract the attention of the news media. Unions like FIRST and Unite – affiliates of the CTU – have stood loyal right through this pandemic: speaking-up and fighting-back; making it very clear to anyone with ears to hear, exactly which side they are on.
But these are the “grunts”, the frontline fighters, the ones who, when the question arises: “Who ya gonna call?”, answer: “Us. You call us. You call your union.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day for these battlers to meet even half the need that’s out there. They certainly don’t have the time or the resources to plan and fund nationwide campaigns; issue media releases; and appear on programmes like AM, Breakfast, Newshub Nation and Q+A. That’s why they send money, collected from thousands of ordinary working people, to the CTU in Wellington.
This is where you might expect to find the “generals” and the “colonels” of the labour movement. The men and women who run the unions’ union. This is where you might expect to hear the national voice of organised labour in New Zealand – speaking up loud and proud for this country’s working-class.
So why haven’t we heard anything remotely like this coming from the CTU? All that money: taken from the pockets of ordinary working men and women so their voices can be heard and their interests defended; what has it been spent on?
This country has been subjected to a veritable blizzard of propaganda from those whose profits have been put at risk. The lobbying of the tourism and hospitality industries was so unrelenting they were gifted their precious Trans-Tasman Bubble – and workers ended up with the Delta variant.
Workers might have expected the CTU to lead the charge for “No Jab. No Job”. Because how else can employees be protected from the enormous risk posed by the stupid and the selfish? The great union motto has always been: “An injury to one is an injury to all!” Not, “The injury of all – by one.” What greater priority could the labour movement have than throwing its entire weight behind the drive for universal inoculation against Covid-19?
Well, according to the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the priority of the CTU has been ever-so-slightly different:
“Businesses are caught in a legal tangle if they try to enforce ‘no jab no job’ policies. Up until yesterday, business leaders were convinced the Government would not move on “no jab no job”, in part because it is opposed by the Combined Trade Unions.”
Yep, that’s what he said: “because it is opposed” by the CTU. Opposed!
Rather than defend the health of ordinary working people, the CTU has been slowing the vaccination roll-out by defending the “rights” of the stupid and the selfish. Permitting the injury of all – by anti-vaxxers.
How wonderful that, at last, Jacinda Ardern and her Labour colleagues have finally seen sense and set the “No Jab. No Job” ball rolling. But, how ironic, that they had to do it over the objections of the CTU.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 October 2021.