“Nothing Without A Demand” The Need For A New Union Movement

By   /   September 11, 2018  /   11 Comments

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The rights of working people will thus be traded back and forth like chips on the political poker table. Neither National nor Labour are really interested in hearing how workers themselves would prefer the modern workplace to be organised, or in ways that the twenty-first century economy, with all its technological miracles, might be so regulated as to ensure that the benefits of robotics and artificial intelligence accrue to the whole population – and not just the shareholders of the transnational corporations who own the patents.

FOR 27 YEARS wage workers in New Zealand have been forced to endure “labour market flexibility”. In the guise of, first, the Employment Contracts Act (1991) and then, the Employment Relations Act (2000) a workplace regime specifically designed to advantage employers has steadily whittled away workers’ collective economic security.

Their legal power to act as a class, by striking in solidarity with other workers engaged in industrial action, has been nullified by the legislative strategies of both the National and Labour parties. The consequent engorgement of employer power has fundamentally redrawn the contours of class relations in New Zealand. Until they are redrawn again – this time in the workers’ favour – New Zealand society will continue its long, slow slide into narcissism and cruelty.

So entrenched has the employers’ advantage in the workplace become that the Labour-NZF coalition government’s promised restoration of the core content of the Employment Relations Act: those rights steadily whittled away during nine years of National Party rule under John Key and Bill English; is being represented by the employers as an example of how “ideology rather than solid public policy [is] driving decisions”.

The bare-faced affrontery of this assertion is stunning. As if the Employment Contracts Act wasn’t the product of the most clear and uncompromising ideological calculation. The Act was widely regarded as a legislative marvel, celebrated by right-wingers around the world as the most effective means of taming the unions (short of deploying tanks and guns) which the promoters of “free markets” had yet devised.

Its successor, the Employment Relations Act was, if anything, even more ideological. Its Labour Party sponsors took care to give just enough – but no more – to the battered trade union bureaucracies. The changes contained in the Act permitted what remained of the New Zealand trade union movement to survive – but not thrive. What it most emphatically did not do was encourage the mass re-unionisation of the workforce, with all that implied about bringing ordinary working people back onto the country’s political stage.

Not that the surviving union bureaucracies would have been at all keen to see such a decisive shift in power relations. Prior to the Employment Contracts Act, the “electorates” of the major trade unions ran into the tens-of-thousands. To become a union secretary (the equivalent of a CEO) one had first to be elected by the rank-and-file membership. This could involve anything up to 35,000 union electors being eligible to cast a postal ballot. Today, union leaders are elected by a few dozen hand-picked conference delegates.

The annual conferences of the old Federation of Labour (1936-1989) which attracted hundreds of delegates have been replaced by the profoundly undemocratic Council of Trade Unions’ biennial get togethers. Gatherings that seldom attract more than fifty souls – most of them paid union officials.

It’s facts like these that make the National Party’s claim that the Labour-NZF Government’s reforms will “return us to 1970s-style adversarial union activity” so utterly nonsensical. The “Fair Pay Agreements” which, of all the reforms, comes closest to resurrecting the bargaining structures of the 1970s, cannot be secured by industry-wide strike action. The employers have the Prime Minister’s word on that.

What’s more, the National Party’s Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson, Scott Simpson, has stated bluntly that: “The Employment Relations Amendment Bill will go down as one of this Government’s biggest economic mistakes and a future National-led Government will repeal the provisions”.

The rights of working people will thus be traded back and forth like chips on the political poker table. Neither National nor Labour are really interested in hearing how workers themselves would prefer the modern workplace to be organised, or in ways that the twenty-first century economy, with all its technological miracles, might be so regulated as to ensure that the benefits of robotics and artificial intelligence accrue to the whole population – and not just the shareholders of the transnational corporations who own the patents.

What will it take for that to happen? Well, it will take a lot more than simply voting for the Labour Party, the Greens or NZ First. The first step must be to learn from the past. To grasp the key historical fact that the trade unions were not the creation of the Labour Party; the Labour Party was the creation of the trade unions. That only a broad-based and independent workers’ movement can generate the necessary industrial and political heft to ensure that the interests of working people are not simply shunted aside by the bosses and their enablers.

Such movements have happened before in New Zealand history. Massive waves of unionisation, often followed by militant industrial struggle, during which the employing class was given good reason to fear the power of organised labour. In place of strife, the employers were moved to search for some way of living in peace with the trade unions: an arrangement that was capable of benefitting both parties to the employment relationship. Absent that fear; absent that independent organisation; neither of the major political parties will feel under the slightest obligation to address the interests of working-class New Zealanders. National will look after its own, and Labour will look after itself.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) the freed African-American slave and tireless toiler in the anti-slavery cause, wrote movingly of the unavoidable nature of struggle:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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  1. DennyPaoa DennyPaoa says:

    Agree Chris. The current model is past its use by date. The union is a business, let’s face it. It has the same restraints, competition in the market place, unionised & un-unionised, employers contract v union contract. Overheads, policy and the biggest drag on unions is the affiliation to a political party ffs! This year we’ve seen some great campaigns. However, when came to the punch line ….. it all turned to shite. They chickened out and took the crumbs and swallowed the bs, again. The officials are still the same type of monster who talk up a good fight, but when push comes to shove, they fall into line, as if the order from above has been sent down?
    I think, just by unhitch’n the wagon from the political party could/would have a massive impact on the workers ability to make a decent living and live a healthy, reasonably comfortable life too.

  2. Ada says:

    Good luck forming a new union movement.

    People don’t identify themselves as a particular class, and their work doesn’t define them anymore because there are no longer the jobs/employers/careers for life that enable such an identity to be built.

    And they simply have too many other distractions that are more entertaining than organising the revolution.

    Plus the robots/AI will replace them if they demand too much management time.

    • Your analysis, Ada, may well hold true for young graduates in quasi-managerial roles, but I think you’ll find that warehouse workers, process workers, cleaners, labourers and check-out operators are still perfectly capable of grasping the advantages of collective bargaining.

      What’s more, a nation without cleaners and labourers would be in trouble a lot sooner than a nation without quasi-managers. 🙂

      • Ada says:

        Warehouse workers, process workers, checkout operators and labourers are already being replaced by AI married to robots.

        The union movement has a new and different class of enemy: technology.

    • Keepcalmcarryon says:

      Or the cheap immigrant labour as is done already.

    • Sam Sam says:

      Nah, the John Key lead National Government got New Zealand into risky wars to get more oil. So let’s give National the benefit of the doubt. They’d just been involved in some epic campaign winning economic strategy and hooking up with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is an opportunistic effort at a fourth term. National may not even be the dominate party in New Zealand which would explain their abysmal set ups. John Key wasn’t worthy of a fourth term so I guess we’ll never know. Maybe we should show them where the Treaty is or what happens when you make war on New Zealand soil because there’s way more election victories in New Zealand than on some revenge hit job. Sure there maybe simple terrorists in third world countries but sure, go ahead and send them all back to the third world. And the rest of us can go ahead and turn a blind eye to civilian casualties and we can have every drop of oil with out ever deploying a single grunt.

      But nah John Key and his social media love children, Farrar and the rest, turned New Zealand culture into a snivelling pack of profit fiends. In the National Party we see a future where New Zealand has not only failed to discard it’s selfish ways but have some how got much more stupid. Profit is The National Parties only motivation, what sort of civilisations motivation is only profit and now National are desperate for that sweet crude under New Zealand that hasn’t been found for the last 100 years, still looking. It’s doubtful pakeha could of survived if they’d embraced the worst behaviours of the National Party to this degree. Despite being completely in love with profit National Party MPs find time to completely ignore the myriad of other opportunities that exist in New Zealand. New Zealand has some of the highest levels of rainfalls and in the world. There are pharmaceutical and military applications aplenty if only they’d slow down and stop to smell the trees. I’m sure Māori would be happy to share some of the bounty but I’m guessing treaty settlements have blown any chance of long term diplomacy. And if there are no decent oil deposits in New Zealand then no doubt they can go negotiate a price for access instead of occupying and subjugating land and people. Why not go and find a rock to mine where they don’t have to commit genocide.

      There’s simply no way New Zealand could survive a full blown National Party ideology if we whole heartedly embrace the profit motive to the degree shown by National Party MPs. National Party MPs are so woefully immature as a party they’re stuck in a feed back loop where they have to spend oil to get more. So there’s proof that right wing ideology never change there behaviour and there fore can never curve climate change. At worst National would deplete every resource available and at best a full National Party civilisation would be a bunker dwelling people that only comes out at night to shank every one for oil. There’s just so many important factors forcing Marx’s theories to evolve.

      Militarily The National Party are cheapskates and reckless. So here we are aggressively attacking another country and the majority of our military capability are operating on a non violent footing. Wonderful. We have discovered that climate change is real and National want nothing more than to drill for oil. Wonderful. But as for economic development and trade foes, NZ inc is a corporate mino in globalisation. We know nothing about the geopolitical landscape. For all we know Chinese interests have an alliance with our largest trade partner Australia and we’re about to get our golden gooses cooked considering National Party MPs are acting so aggressively for Chinese money and interests. How about we drop the cash for access routine and instead deploy our vast intellects on turning New Zealand’s vast water wealth into energy independence. And coffee, ice cream and marijuana because dairy is queen. There’s no need to deploy NZDF with woefully inadequate kit or grunts in armoured Toyotas on the front line. Humans today deal destruction from the comfort of there video game consoles. It’s no wonder the west are getting beat by technological inferior forces.

      And the good Labour, NZFirst, Greens coalition people are still stupid. Right, so National Party MPs have decide to betray New Zealand and suck up to Chinese money and the coalition government defeat these shills in an election. Don’t even tell me they’re just going to let them limp home to another election with oil and dairy contracts, the very stuff that will allow them to return. We needed to be straight ending oil right their. They better set a zero Carbon target and steal all the mining technology and brains and skilled labourers for a renewable energy future.

      Profit loss is the only language these rock lickers understand. And after the coalition government has finished ruthlessly running down foreign interests in New Zealand you’re going to be running media drills until the Titanic is re floated. New Zealand should be energy independent before those limp dicks even figure out what happened.

  3. LOLBAGZ says:

    Hey Chris. Did you like the way Leighton Smith said you used to be an idiot and he never would have talked to you? And that bit where he said you had really grown up! How do like the taste? Does it fill your heart with gladness and take away all your sadness?


  4. David Stone says:

    Irrespective of the employment contracts act, the employment relations act, or compulsory unionism, I think the main factors affecting employment conditions and remuneration are related to globalisation and the macroeconomic policies of government in respect thereof.
    While a policy of targeting a base level of unemployment is pursued the bargaining position of workers is destroyed, unionised or not. While employers can simply shift their operation to China and pay a quarter of a living wage in NZ dollars , and then bring the product back here to sell at the warehouse , those employers that can do so mostly will. Like collecting water in a colander .
    D J S

  5. Olwyn says:

    The thrust of the neo-liberal revolution, or Washington Consensus, or whatever you want to call it, has been in large part to curb the ability of the working class to act as a class in their own interests. They seem to want “middle class” to function as the default, so that when the middle class act according to class interests, it is not seen as the defence of a class, but as mere common sense. Look at the way “working class” is largely removed from public language – the “vulnerable” or “the underclass” are now the standard terms, and both terms effectively mean “the defeated.” When middle class people take it upon themselves to chide the working class for not being sufficiently exercised about authoritarian regimes abroad, they forget that the western working class has been living under an authoritarian regime for quite some time, with the most privileged part of middle class as its primary enforcer.

    What is needed to counter this I think is a broad movement based in substantive human rights – the right to housing, the right to earn a living, and the right to collective bargaining. For the reasons outlined by Ada and David Stone, the unions cannot do it alone. Human rights are one of the covers they used for their revolution – we need to deploy the part of human rights about which they are the most coy, for ours.

  6. Mike the Lefty says:

    For me, it is strange how our country has changed so much over the past three or four decades – technologically, ethnically, socially – and yet things in most NZ workplaces have barely changed at all.
    There is such an “us and them” attitude between workers and employers.
    We have always been told that it was because of “those bloody unions….”
    Yes folks, the unions have been responsible for everything bad that happens in the work place, so is the populist myth.
    Not really such a credible answer in the days where union coverage in a lot of workplaces and industries is next to nothing, but our media and National Party have never let the truth get in the way of a myth.
    I wonder when NZ employers are going to start treating their workers as real people – as individuals with ideas, opinions and loyalty.
    When I think back over my personal work industry there has been only one job I have ever had where I wasn’t treated as an assembly line android with half a brain expected to keep chanting the mantra “I will work harder” (Boxer, from Animal Farm)
    I wonder how many other people are like me, I find it hard to believe I would be the only one?
    If New Zealand employers try treating their workers like real people who also have a vested interest in the business too (a job is a vested interest, isn’t it?) then they would likely find a raft of good practical ideas that would get their enterprises moving and ahead of their competition.
    Those few (mainly smaller) businesses who do are usually very happy with the results
    That needs to happen across the whole business sector.
    But with so many businesses owned and/or operated by multi-nationals with ant farm mentalities, the odds are not good.
    Another good article, Chris.

  7. Marc says:

    Someone has woken up, it seems, problem is, most idiots out there are so brainwashed by Fakebook, Google, and other idiot self serving social media, they all thing they are Prince Charming, and do not need to humble themselves to share their sweat with that of others, by belonging to a ‘union’.

    We need a total social collapse, before it may sink in that things have to change, most live in deluded territory, are totally idiotically brainwashed and conditioned, and take NO action at all.

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