Not by “Bread And Butter” Alone: Making the case for a more inclusive Left



STEPHANIE RODGERS IS RIGHT. It is impossible to build a mass movement for progressive change by ignoring or rejecting, “issues faced by the majority of people in society.”  In fact, a movement in which demands for action on these issues are not thrust forward constantly is, almost certainly, not a progressive movement at all.

The longing for emancipation, like lightning, cannot be caught in a bottle. It is as wild and dangerous as it is beautiful and brilliant – and it will not be gainsaid. Nor should it be, because the quest for social progress is about nothing if it is not about creating a world in which an ever-increasing number of people are free to live happy, rewarding and fulfilling lives.

The past successes of the Left owe almost everything to honouring the emancipatory impulse, and its failures are almost all attributable to the fear generated by emancipation’s disruptive effects. Where this fear takes hold, it typically manifests itself in attempts to narrow the movement’s objectives; manage its members’ expectations; and strictly control their conduct.

Nowhere is this narrowing, managing and controlling strategy more in evidence than in the trade union movement. Even in “the glory days of compulsory unionism” it was, more often than not, the standard operating procedure of organised labour.

It’s years ago now, back when I was a young union official, but I can still remember the extraordinary speech delivered by a regular rank-and-file delegate to his union’s annual wage negotiations. He passionately condemned year-upon-year of compromise and surrender by the union’s leadership, and ended by thumping his clenched fist on the bargaining table, and shouting: “I say we FIGHT!” The impact of his words on the other rank-and-filers was electric, and the union’s paid officials all looked to me, a fellow bureaucrat, to break the delegate’s spell, lower the members’ expectations, and generally calm the whole discussion down. When I said simply, “I have nothing to add to _____’s contribution”, my colleagues were aghast. The vote was to strike, and the strike was won, but I was never again invited to join the inner-sanctum of official union negotiators.

It was only when the unions were prevailed upon to widen the scope of their concerns that their enormous progressive potential was revealed. Not only did Sonja Davies’ championing of the Working Women’s Charter open up the whole issue of the role and status of women in the trade union movement, but it also forced male trade unionists to think about how women were treated in society generally.

In a movement peopled by “hard men” and “militants” this was a challenging proposition. Was the bloke so quick with his fists on the picket line equally pugilistic on the home front? What did it mean that his wife was more frightened of him than any scab? And why, when the bosses’ advocates told such awful sexist jokes in the hotel bar after a deal had been signed, did so many of the union delegates join in the laughter? When the debate was about working-class sexism and homophobia, that old union standard “Which Side Are You On?” took on a new and unsettling meaning.

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Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s the debates raged. More and more women began taking the lead in union affairs; more and more issues were making their way onto the agendas of union conferences. Over six years, the Fourth Labour Government’s Trade Union Education Authority trained thousands of union delegates. For decades the labour movement had limited its purview to “bread and butter issues” – no more. Workers needed little encouragement to begin thinking of their movement as something much more than simply a provider of “bread and butter”.

Just how ready they were to assert that wider view of workers’ – and human – rights was demonstrated at the end of 1990 when National’s Bill Birch introduced the Employment Contracts Bill. In a curious way, the ECB’s objectives weren’t that far removed from those of the old-style unionists: to narrow, manage and control. (All the legislation did was cut out the union middle men!) The Council of Trade Union’s affiliated members were having none of it. In the first four months of the following year scores of thousands of them marched and met and voted and declared: “I say we FIGHT!”

Would that their officials had learned as much about democracy and emancipation as they had! A union friend of mine once observed of the Moscow-aligned communists in the Socialist Unity Party: “They’d rather keep control of the losing side, than lose control of the winning side.” Never was that more true than in April 1991! Ignoring the wishes of their rank-and-file members, the leaders of the largest CTU affiliates voted down (by a narrow majority) the motion to call a General Strike against the ECB.

Narrowing, managing, controlling: isn’t that the story of the last thirty years? And isn’t the need for a movement driven by the emancipatory principle greater now than it has ever been? We have seen our lives narrowed, managed and controlled to the point where even the idea of rebellion now seems implausible, impossible, absurd. But an authentic human identity is only available to those who insist on being something more than the means to someone else’s end. Who we are now, and what we may yet become: both conditions drive us forward. In this respect, “progressive politics” and “identity politics” are one and the same.

If, in our “left-wing movement”, it’s become a sin to struggle for anything more than just “bread and butter”, then I, for one, range myself proudly on the side of the sinners.

“I say we FIGHT!”


  1. “If, in our “left-wing movement”, it’s become a sin to struggle for anything more than just “bread and butter”, then I, for one, range myself proudly on the side of the sinners.

    “I say we FIGHT!”

    Great fighting talk Chris…just tell us what you’ve done, what you are doing…as a part of the great fight…words of course are cheap…actions are a different matter… tell us, no better still, do something visible that we can all recognise…

  2. ” I sat we FIGHT !

    Exactly. That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

    Take their money by offering security to the farmers who earn our export generated funds.

    Take their authority by appealing to the intelligence of the police force and military.

    Take their popularity by having a real leader punch jonky up his hooked beak then walking out of the next parliamentary debate while refusing to spend another moment in the company of a crook, liar, swindler and clown/muppet already well documented to have played a significant part in causing deep and dangerous precedence within our society, namely that of poverty in a land of plenty.

    Create a fire brand pirate TV station that people can tune into. Because like it or not TV still rules.

    Just sayin’.

  3. “I say we FIGHT!”

    Some questions:

    Who are ‘we’?…The well to do and the reasonably well to do employees such as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, technicians, small/medium traders, bureaucrats etc or the less well off cleaners, the unemployed and the super market workers etc?

    ‘What’ do we fight for? Any specific causes?

    And ‘how’ do we fight?

    Can this ‘fight’ be done by everyone together and at the same time?

  4. Let’s get out and fight the TPPA! This deal will undermine the rights of workers and make it even more difficult to redress the inequality in our society. It will stop us taking the action we need to limit climate change and it is an insult to the Treaty of Waitangi!
    It’s not over – come on people – fight back!
    See It’s Our Future for info on what’s happening near you!

  5. “….Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes–
    Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses!…

    …As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
    Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
    Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
    Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too…”

    Bread and Roses, bread and roses…

  6. yes Chris a class struggle based approach demands we FIGHT, for reforms and for socialism which is different from the parties you typically write about like Labour that is founded on the ideology of “reformism”, taking parliamentary office from time to time but leaving the bourgeois capitalist system unmolested

    also, please back up the bus on your take on SUP and 1991, it was a split party, Auckland led by GH Andersen was pro a national stoppage over the Employment Contracts Bill and Wellington led by Ken Douglas was against, this led to the end of the Socialist Unity Party and a number of years of a weakened NZCTU and the formation of TUF

    at the 1991 CTU special affiliates meeting in Wellington Douglas got the PSA and Engineers Union tops on side and narrowly defeated the rest of the unions, but it was technical democracy at best as members of the PSA and Engineers Unions were out in numbers on the streets of Auckland and were sold out by their officials

    the fallout from Douglas cowardice haunts the movement still, but at least under Helen Kelly the CTU did get some things right like organising communities over various issues, moving on from the ‘members only’ approach

  7. You raise some good points here Chris, as you always do.
    Perhaps the success of the left over the last 70-80 years has made it complacent and over confident.
    Over confident in that the political left believe that the gains they have made in social welfare, working conditions and social justice are so set in concrete that they cannot be reversed or subverted. In medieval terms – a custom.
    If so, then we were very likely wrong.
    The reversals have not usually been dramatic, and when they were they failed miserably (Bolger government 1990s) so the political right have learned that to get things back to the way they want them they have to do it slowly, stealthily and duplicitously so that the majority don’t notice what is actually happening.
    What’s more the political right have spent much time, money and effort on taking control over the national watchdogs (the MSM) so they can carry out their “reforms” largely unchallenged.
    Also, isn’t it ironic that our MSM likes to perpetuate the myth that the National government is “progressive” whilst the left opposition is “reactive”?
    National’s law and order policies are similar to Victorian England and how this could legitimately be called progressive, I simply cannot understand.
    Your article sums up the problem for left wing parties in all the world’s democracies. “Where do we go from here?” with no obvious answers.

  8. I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t more action back in 1991. Does anyone know of a good book or online article?

    I recall reading somewhere in an article by a hard line academic socialist that in the compulsory days, unionists were way too cosy with employers – that hotel bar thing you mentioned.

    Voluntary unionism hasn’t stopped some still being way to cosy though.

    I wish I could remember his name now, he wrote good, if somewhat biased, articles on the history of the labour party and movement in NZ.

  9. Talk is cheap.
    When David Cunliffe was trying his best to open up and change the conversation as to what makes a more decent , fairer, healthier and ultimately a more productive society, you had your chance to to speak out on msm and support him.
    However, for some peculiar reason, you whimped out!
    Showing the courage of your convictions at every opportunity is a sign of someone who truly means what they say!
    Pulling your punches, or even worse , speaking in glowing terms about how wonderful the likes of Key and English are , so you can feel like you one of ‘the boys,’ shows me someone who, when push comes to shove, does not really want rattle any cages.
    Table thumping discussion makes people sit up and think.
    ‘Gravy train’ commentary is bland , boring and ultimately a ‘cop out’ !!

  10. Yes, Just looking at the folly off the 65 richest assholes huddling at the economic meeting at Davos acting like money hoarders, using record numbers of obscene security and their greedy forces manipulating the global economy for greed as we see this morning the global stock market is crashing again today and all the pundits are saying another recession is imminent.

    It is now a war against the rich we see attacking the masses of poor seeking ways to rob their last dollar.

    A new revolution is definitely in the wind Chris and very soon I feel.

  11. This could explain why my wages and conditions have dropped so much over the last 5 years even with a union negotiating for us. I rang the PSA line 3 weeks before xmas to ask about the transfer of public holiday days when that day is your permanent day(as most of our home management – and now personal care – hours are now being transferred to either the day before or day after the actual day and are being recorded – and paid – as ‘public holiday, not worked’ – and it just seems a bit wrong). The hotline guy said he couldn’t really tell me anything as he “might get it wrong” and passed me on to the local guys. Still haven’t heard from them. I mean, isn’t it just a simple question? Got the negotiation survey: what a load of rubbish – wimpy,wimpy – exactly how you described it. I’ve always been a strong advocate for unions but to be honest, I’m leaving the PSA this morning – I need the money more than their cap-twisting “help”.

  12. Yeah, FIGHT!

    But what for?

    As usual, this is the Left defining the methods but not clarifying the objectives.

    As a suggestion, why not tell us exactly what you want to fight for and present a rational argument for it?

    If we agree to your goals, then maybe we can discuss the best methods for getting there…rather than just fighting for the sake of it.

  13. I love the idea of reinventing pirate radios! The standard of journalism in the main stream media has plummeted and radio New Zealand is now on my list of no-listen, just as the newspapers are on my no-read list. But Pirate radio that is open to good ideas, left or right, could revitilise radio as blogs have revitilised journalism.
    I believe that as the world is going through massive change we need to look at all ideas, and use the good ones, wherever they have come from. and the extremely partisan media stops discussion and debate.

    Bring back Radio Hauraki!

    • Back in the late 90s/ 2000s there were a number of LPFM (low power FM) radio stations broadcasting a mix of political talks and music. Radio Chomsky in Auckland, Matrix and Critical Analysis in Welly, and StationFM in Hamilton, which I was peripherally involved with. Not sure how many of them are still going.

      It’s reasonably cheap to buy a low power FM transmitter (from memory $200 to $500). It’s even legal, if you don’t broadcast above 5 watts (as measured from the top of your aerial), and stick to unused frequencies in the “guard band” at either end of the FM spectrum. Hook up a cheap second-hand computer with a playlist of audio files (talk, music etc) on shuffle, and voila, you’ve got a “pirate” radio station.

      There’s also student radio and community access radio stations that are usually looking for people willing to produce shows, although you have to convince the former you will appeal to students and hipsters, and the latter usually require either you to obtain either money or advertising to cover the costs of airtime. Once your show is made though, it can be digitized, streamed, and made available to be replayed (online or on another station).

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