Monday 7 August 2023

The Dog That Doesn’t Bark.

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.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

1.To be fair Chris, the union movement was gutted years ago. I remember – was it Ken Douglas? – saying that he thought the only effective unions in the country these days were the teachers and the police. He should have maybe added the doctors and to some extent the nurses, but as you say, union bosses these days are managers not leaders. And it fits in with the general tenor of managerialism and neoliberalism – although of course neoliberals and libertarians would probably like to get rid of unions altogether, if it wasn't for the fact that large companies like to be able to negotiate with corporate body rather than individual workers. Mind you I suspect many neoliberals and some libertarians would be happy with fiats being imposed by employers rather than negotiation.

2. Cue all the conservatives on this site saying "Do we really want to go back to the chaos of blah blah blah?" There are more than two alternatives people.

Tiger Mountain said...

Stating the obvious Chris, but it does not make it any more palatable. The NZCTU needs to be a fighting class left organisation, but of course with the small private sector membership, the public sector unions will decide who leads–and it will not be a marxist or left social democrat that is for sure. No, it will be Mr Wagstaff until his pension fund is suitably bulging.

During COVID for instance when the NZ petit bourgeoisie were wailing day in day out, the NZCTU should have been drawing attention to the plight of working class people stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide and calling for all COVID payments to be made through IRD not employers. But…silence. The CTU specialises in press releases beginning with…“we welcome…blah blah blah from the right wing Labour Caucus”… that and a few conferences is about it.

Very sad if you ever experienced earlier eras of union activism. Agree regarding Rob Campbell too.

Gary Peters said...

The current "Union movement" actively bred the mongrel of a government we have today so why on earth would they rock the boat, they launched it.

labour are a party and government of incompetent middle managers that will struggle to find gainful employment outside of government appointments after October and the Union movement is a reflection of that management mentality.

They are there for the ride, not the result. Maybe their tanks are empty as well!

ZTS said...

Trade Unionism like other principled roles - TU, Politicians, Local Govt Bodies, Charities and even the Clergy have all been captured by the PMC.

I had kind of forgotten about the TUC so long has it been since I heard anything at all about them. Then someone mentioned Wagstaff and I understood why. I also agree about Rod Campbell and as always want to remember Helen Kelly who was principled right to the end. NZ's own Iron Lady.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I knew 50 years ago - just out of my teens - that the Trade Union movement was becoming 'just another management.' Hands out for the subs, oh dear me yes, but offering less and less of real benefit to their members. The rot was only gradual until the Great Betrayal - as far as I am concerned it was nothing less - in the wake of Roger and Ruth's pig-ignorant vandalism of this country's socio-economic structures. 'We are out to preserve jobs', they wittered - and failed even to achieve that modest objective. Sod all has changed since, apart from occasional kicks from teachers and nurses.

So if we aren't hearing a peep out of the TUM in the face of further blows to the well-being of their members, that should come as no surprise.

Ion A. Dowman

larry said...

Perhaps the charisma transplant of the CTU's current factotems, might have something to do with their also current wet as p*ss performance.

Kelly et al in contrast had ..
the fire!

Taleb's Turkey said...

It's been my view for a while that the unions are a better fit with the Greens than Labour. They should switch allegiance. That would get labour's attention, especially since the unions have a role in selecting the leader of the Labour Party.

John Hurley said...

Darien Fenton
Read twitter and I would say we are on a track to Trumpism, fuelled by ACT, NZ First and the roaming roadshows. And a weak Nat response.

That's revealing (as many knew): National and Labour are having it off behind the bike sheds.

I mean John and Max Key discussed how to be obscenely rich back when John was telling us immigration only affected house prices "at the margin"; and you have export education (Spoonley)

International students devour “all new housing supply”

greywarbler said...

I must have a think before I add to the thoughtful and informed commenters here. But I do love the image Chris. Very cute and in a term that has cropped up in older fiction I have been reading - The dog has a 'speaking' eye. Looks a little coy and confused, as is the TUM these days I think.