|Why You Lookin At Me? So, here we are. All out of charismatic and battle-hardened working-class guard-dogs. I’d wager that 99 New Zealanders out of 100 could not name of the Council of Trade Union’s current president.|
“IS THERE ANY OTHER POINT to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Asks Gregory, the Scotland Yard detective. “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”, replies Sherlock Holmes. “But, the dog did nothing in the night-time”, says Gregory. “That was the curious incident”, says Holmes.
Those lines, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Silver Blaze, are among the most frequently quoted words of the celebrated consulting detective of 221B Baker Street.
As the Labour Government’s popularity continues to evaporate (26 percent in the latest Roy Morgan poll!) I cannot help pondering, like Holmes, why the labour movement’s guard dog, the Council of Trade Unions, has done so little to dispel the night-time that has settled upon Labour’s hopes.
On the face of it, the CTU should be making the case for a just and more equitable New Zealand. It should have been “organised labour” that led the charge for a dramatic overhaul of this country’s taxation system. When it became clear that the private sector could not be relied upon to build the state houses so desperately needed to pare-back a waiting-list of 24,000 desperate Kiwis, it should have been the CTU demanding the creation of a state-owned construction company to make good the market failure.
But, when I talk about leading the charge and issuing demands, I have in mind a CTU led by somebody cast from the same mould as Helen Kelly. Think back to the campaign Helen waged for the health and safety of forestry workers. Think of her steadfast defence of the film industry workforce against Sir Peter Jackson’s and Warner Bros’ wrath. Remember how she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the maritime workers against the hard-nosed bosses of the Ports of Auckland. While Helen lived, so too did the CTU. In the glow of her lonely activism, other union “leaders” had to at least pretend to be in it for the working-class.
Now, as someone schooled in the heroic traditions of the American Socialist Party and the ideological bomb-throwers of the Industrial Workers of the World – “the Wobblies” – I can quote Eugene Victor Debs with the best of them: “I would not lead you into socialism even if I could”, he told his members. “Anyone who can lead you into socialism can lead you out again.” Even so, since 1984, the New Zealand working-class has had to endure more than its fair share of bad luck.
How different things might have been had Rob Campbell not been prevented, by a combination of illness and treachery, from being elected the CTU’s first president, and, after that, president of the Labour Party. Just think, New Zealand might have been blessed (cursed?) with its very own Bob Hawke and, as happened in Australia, the neoliberal revolution may well have been attenuated to a reform programme the working-class could learn to live with.
And then, thirty years later, Helen Kelly was elected president of the CTU. Once again, there was talk of a trade union leader wearing the double-crown of the labour movement. People dared to hope that a genuine leftist, the first since Big Norm Kirk, might exhort the Labour Party into, once again, making space on the political stage for the working people of New Zealand. Until, tragically, cancer cut her story short, and the traditional (as opposed to the woke) left could only contemplate the counterfactuals – the triumphs that might have been – through their tears.
So, here we are. All out of charismatic and battle-hardened working-class leaders. I’d wager that 99 New Zealanders out of 100 could not name of the CTU’s current president. Even fewer could cite the content of the turgid and timorous media statements it occasionally releases on matters economic, social and political. In the face of inflationary pressures unseen since the 1990s, buckling beneath the crushing weight of their household bills, working people have a right to expect their peak trade union organisation to be barking like a furious guard-dog in the night-time – not slumbering on a silk cushion like a pampered pup.
“The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” But not that curious, not really. Not when you consider that the modern trade union movement does not exist to guard, let alone lead, New Zealand’s workers. It exists to manage them.
To do nothing.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 August 2023.