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EXCLUSIVE: CTU Resolution Backs The Junior Doctors – Over Its President’s Strong Objections

By   /  March 4, 2019  /  16 Comments

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The carrying of the resolution thus represented a rare assertion of the interests of private sector workers within the CTU – as well as an important breaking-of-ranks within the usually dominant “Big Four” public sector unions. Together, Wagstaff’s opponents have delivered a stunning blow to his presidential mana, greatly reducing his chances of being re-elected to a second term as leader of the CTU.

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MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the upsurge in strike action across New Zealand since the Coalition Government assumed office. The National Party and its allies are insisting that this can only mean a return to the bad old days of the 1970s when, as National’s Workplace Relations spokesperson, Scott Simpson, told RNZ, unions would go on strike “at the drop of a hat”. What Simpson and his right-wing colleagues probably don’t know is how much worse things might have been had the Coalition Government not been able to rely on the moderating influence of the President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) Richard Wagstaff.

The CTU President, it is important to note, won his spurs as a senior official in the Public Service Association (PSA). Important, because the PSA has wielded a decisive influence over the CTU for more than 30 years. Crucially, that influence has been used to promote moderation, not radicalism. Both the PSA and the CTU have been consistent advocates of “partnership”, through “constructive engagement” with both the state and the private sector.

This is the jargon of the Wellington bureaucracy. The PSA is driven by the interests and priorities of the thousands of state-employed professionals and managers who make up its membership. These workers are deeply embedded in the governmental apparatus and their jobs very often entail monitoring, servicing and, in some cases, “sanctioning” the nation’s poorest and most marginalised citizens.

Work of this kind tends to encourage a high degree of identification with the administrative and political authorities on whose behalf public servants are required to act. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the PSA (with 70,000 members, New Zealand’s largest union) has, since the CTU’s inception in 1987, exerted a powerful restraining influence over the whole trade union movement.

Its influence has only grown stronger as the percentage of the private sector workforce belonging to a trade union has declined to the point where, today, fewer than 10 percent of private sector workers are unionised. Accordingly, for close to thirty years, trade unionism in New Zealand has largely been defined by the state sector unions: the PSA, the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI) and the NZ Nurses Organisation. Well-supplied with both members and money, these state unions have been willing to take a stand in defence of their own workers. Tragically, however, they have consistently declined to campaign for the rebuilding of trade unionism in the private sector.

The election of Helen Kelly to the presidency of the CTU changed its tone dramatically. She was much more willing to take a stand on behalf of workers in the private sector – winning significant moral victories against the logging industry and the Ports of Auckland. Her stand against Peter Jackson, while unsuccessful, was inspirational in its steadfast refusal to bend the knee to either Hollywood or the Beehive. The loss of Kelly, to lung cancer, robbed the CTU of its most inspirational leader ever. The New Zealand working class lost a true friend and champion.

Wagstaff, Kelly’s successor, has taken a very different leadership path. Not at all a street-fighting man, he prefers to work behind the scenes, taking full advantage of the capital city’s myriad power networks to neutralise enemies and cultivate friends. What Wagstaff lacks in charisma and rhetorical inspiration, he more than makes up for by his intimate knowledge of exactly which people are attached to what strings – and when they should be pulled.

The most recent example of Wagstaff’s leadership style was his handling of the prolonged and bitter dispute between the country’s District Health Boards (DHBs) and the Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA). One school of thought has it that Wagstaff, well aware of both the DHB’s and the Coalition Government’s desire to be rid of the Resident Doctors’ highly successful advocate, Deborah Powell, encouraged his old union, the PSA, to facilitate the formation of a rival union, which the DHBs could use to undermine the bargaining power of the RDA. Certainly, the almost total silence of the CTU on the increasingly vulnerable position of the RDA, vis-à-vis the DHBs, did little to encourage alternative explanations for Wagstaff’s unwillingness to become involved in the dispute. His explanation? The RDA were not affiliated to the CTU. What happened to the junior doctors and the troublesome advocate was not, according to its President, the CTU’s business.

Other affiliates, most particularly the two unions most closely associated with the RDA: the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) and the NZNO; begged to differ. Urged on by private sector unions anxious for the CTU to express its solidarity with the junior doctors, the ASMS and the NZNO took a resolution to the National Affiliate Council (NAC) of the CTU held in Wellington on Thursday, 28 February.

It read:

That the CTU expresses concern in the strongest possible terms to the district health boards for the collective bargaining strategy adopted in their MECA negotiations with the Resident Doctors’ Association which includes (a) the undermining of a union that is in bargaining with the potential effect of ‘union busting’ and (b) taking advantage of the vulnerability of resident doctors due to their dependence on changing DHB employment for their training.  Further, the CTU urges the Government to urgently require DHBs to discontinue this strategy forthwith and to communicate this resolution to the DHBs and Government.

The resolution was carried 9 votes to 4, with 2 abstentions.

Sources close to the NAC have stressed the importance of this vote. They have noted Wagstaff’s implacable opposition to its passage and the vehemence with which he argued against its adoption. They have also pointed out that while the PSA and its usual allies, the PPTA and the NZEI, stood with Wagstaff, at least two of his normally reliable allies, the E Tu union, servicing workers in the manufacturing and service industries, along with the Dairy Workers, chose to abstain.

Wagstaff is reported to have pressured the nurses into withdrawing their support for the junior doctors, but the latter, strongly supported by the “senior doctors” of the ASMS, held firm. Joining them in the vote were the First Union, covering transport, warehousing and retail workers, Unite, covering casino workers, security guards and fast-food workers, and the unions covering the maritime and railway industries.

The carrying of the resolution thus represented a rare assertion of the interests of private sector workers within the CTU – as well as an important breaking-of-ranks within the usually dominant “Big Four” public sector unions. Together, Wagstaff’s opponents have delivered a stunning blow to his presidential mana, greatly reducing his chances of being re-elected to a second term as leader of the CTU.

Wagstaff’s defeat is also a defeat for the Minister of Health, David Clark, as well as Labour’s ministers in the Coalition Government. The National Party may decry the upsurge in industrial action of the past 12 months, but if they’d realised how assertive the trade unions might become if the CTU is led by someone less steeped in the machinations of Wellington, they might have held their tongues. If Wagstaff and the PSA continue to be outvoted, both the Government and the Opposition should get ready for “trouble at mill”.

As Al Jolson puts in The Jazz Singer, the world’s first “talking picture”: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”


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  1. Richard Christie says:

    The National Party may decry the upsurge in industrial action of the past 12 months, but if they’d realised how assertive the trade unions might become if the CTU is led by someone less steeped in the machinations of Wellington, they might have held their tongues.

    If you think that then how little you know them. National would love an even greater upsurge in industrial unrest. Their loyalty is not to the nation but to themselves. They just want something they can use against their opponents, your assumption is 180deg wrong.

    Thank you for the reminder of legacy of one of the greatest of all NZers, Hellen Kelly.

    • Sam Sam says:

      I find the idea that The National Party of New Zealand would be manipulated into associating with Trade Unions to be absolutely hilarious and hypocritical on there part.

  2. Mjolnir says:

    What is it with this infighting?? I mean, its like the moment Labour is elected to govt, the Left fractures and starts cannibalising itself. National might as well sit back and munch on popcorn while we cut ourselves of at the knees.

    If its true that Wagstaf and the psa encouraged the rival faux-union to be set up, then those responsible should lose their jobs

    Jesus, i despair.

    Someone in the uniin movement missed sending out tge memo, ” an injury to one is an injury to all”

    • Pat O'Dea says:

      The old Labour Party mantra.

      National Government:

      “Don’t strike, just vote Labour”

      Labour Government:

      “Don’t strike, you’ll embarrass the Labour Government.”

      Thank God we are finally starting to stand up to this bullshit.

      To the health sector workers; Go hard.

      To the private sector workers; An injury to the public health sector workers is an injury to all of us.

      To the Government and employers; Beware

  3. Pat O'Dea says:

    This is tremendously good news. Chris.

    When I look overseas at similar health sector strikes, I see governments quite happy to let the public health sector be run down. Strikes by nurses and Drs have turned into lockouts, and lockouts have turned into mass sackings, in which public sector hospitals are permanently closed down. The rich business people and politicians are not concerned they fly overseas to get their health care. They can spend the money saved providing for public health, on the state forces of repression, police, army, and security services instead.

    Public health represents a cost to governments and employers, they don’t fear health sector strikes as much as they fear private sector strikes, they would much rather see the health sector privatised, and made into a money making concern.

    The basic truth is Public health sector strikes cannot hurt the profits and income of the government or employers.

    It is because they don’t cut into their profits and incomes that employers and governments don’t fear public health sector strikes as much as they fear private sector strikes.

    It is for this reason that when the health sector workers are joined in solidarity by private sector workers, ‘who can’ hurt the profits of employers and incomes of governments that the public health workers can win, and the run down of the public health service can be reversed and even strengthened and enlarged. Because when it comes to the public health service, truly an injury to one is an injury to all.

    Workers both private and public will be hurt if the public health service is left to run down. We will all suffer if the health workers are isolated and not supported by the workers in industry and transport and distribution, they are the ones who if they choose can really hold the employers and government to ransom.

    This is the most wonderful news on the Union front for a long time. I hope it puts a shiver of fear down the spine of the profit takers. And gives the government cause for thought.

    • Danyl Strype says:

      Totally agree Pat. I spend a lot of time in the USAmerican corners of the net, and I’m constantly reminded that workers there are totally dependent on health insurance and getting healthcare as part of their workplace compensation. But even USAmerica workers who do have health insurance are not guaranteed effective treatment, as Michael Moore revealed in his film Sicko. The USA spends more per capita on healthcare than any country in the world, and yet has some of the worst overall health outcomes in the “developed” world:

      This is a fundamentally broken model, designed to produce mega-profits, not improved human health. The calls for a “single-payer” health system in the US continue to grow. We have the advantage that we still have the skeleton of a publicly-funded healthcare system in Aotearoa, we just need to put the flesh back on it.

      I’d also support a campaign to include dental health care as part of the public system, as the NHS does in the UK. As it says on the website of the Canadian Dental Association:

      “Oral health is an important part of overall health. Good oral health contributes positively to your physical, mental and social well-being and to the enjoyment of life’s possibilities, by allowing you to speak, eat and socialize unhindered by pain, discomfort or embarrassment.”

  4. Tom says:

    Hi Chris
    An interesting piece, and it is good to see some of the moderation of the CTU being challenged by big players.

    I would like to point out that, while perhaps there is some identification with the state by PSA members it would be absurd to think that the thousands of clerical workers in the Health Sector – for example – see themselves as part of a bureaucratic apparatus that exists to harm the most marginalised of the working class.

    More than that, too, your broad brush of the PSA membership seems to ignore that the earliest public expression of disdain for the scab union SToNZ came from PSA members themselves with an open letter to the leadership of the PSA.


    Perhaps there is conservatism and moderation in the rank and file of the PSA – certainly it is present in the leadership. But some of us are delegates in that union trying to build a militant, democratic, rank and file based participatory union and articles that dismiss all our members as essentially reactionary are not helpful at all for those efforts.

    Furthermore, it is not often talked about in New Zealand but the most militant unions of the last couple years have been unions of “professionals”, craft unions in the most classical sense – doctors, nurses, teachers. You want to declare the PSA membership as being representative of professionals against a union whose entire membership is very hard to scab on since you do still need a very special sort of training to be a Doctor in New Zealand. This is kind of basic political analysis, and is not an attack on the RDA – but that is by any definition a craft union that wields power primarily on the basis of having a monopoly on a specialist skill.

    What I’m suggesting is that we avoid simplistic epithets against workers of various stripes, and encourage militant unionism where possible. If the PSA is getting a shake up – as a delegate for the PSA I say, good! And Wagstaff’s treatment of one of the signatories to the aforementioned open letter was enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth months ago. If he is to go, let’s hope for some serious political leadership to take his place.


  5. sean says:

    Why do we even have all this strike action? Where’s the funding for healthcare, schools, etc? Lots of talk but the money still “on its way”.

    Meantime more taxes on the way (CGT) and a massive surplus. In my view anyone voting for the main parties is wasting their time and doing themselves and the rest of us a disservice.

  6. John W says:

    Unions and workers have learned that National will use strikes to justify their actions to marginalise unions.

    Accusations of the terrible unions making life harder for the public becomes the image promoted by National and Act.

    The cause of strikes, industrial safety and health concerns, effectively falling wages, employer groups unfairness in negotiation, corporate attacks on conditions for workers and draconian marginalisation of small groups of employees; are all buried in the clamour for breaking strikes.

    History has given Unions some fear of their just action action bringing fierce reprisals from National.

    So a change of Govt lifts that fear enough for action to now address the past incremental accumulated losses and unjust unnecessary hardship for workers.

    Helen was a leader with clear insight to the class struggle that must be confronted not hidden out of fear of reprisals.
    Class struggle is the foundation of Union formation in the absence of little or no other protection from unfair exploitation of the work force who provide for society, a workforce that the value and wealth of a society is dependent on, and yet have little say under capitalist regime.

    The lost ground of past quashing of Unions along with neoliberal bullshit of trickle down, has to be openly explored with a better educated public.

    That education will not happen with quiet behind scenes negotiation alone.

    A vigorous public education needs to be present and mindful in all information releases from workers representatives including PSA and CTU.
    To do that they have to get their direction clearly identified and eject leadership that would compromise or minimise the purposes of unions.

  7. Tiger Mountain says:

    yes, good to see, although two “privates” still sitting on the fence…but better than sucking up to Mr PSA obviously…

    Wagstaff comes from a farming family background apparently and that world view sticks with some people, he was always an incongruous choice for leadership of a top organisation that should be representing working people in Class War–geddit–Class War, it is not a beach barbie…

    really the formation of the NZCTU was the biggest industrial misstep organisationally for the NZ working class since 1951, it took out the fighting FOL–Federation of Labour–under Jim Knox’ leadership, and the paramount NZ class collaborator, Mr KG Douglas was a major architect of that sell out

  8. SPC says:

    A problem of their own making.

    The 30% of GDP spending cap and related debt targets meant Labour would need 9 years to do what people wanted done in their first term for staffing and pay rates in the health and education sector (3 years free tertiary education over 3 terms, public health dental next term, better funded Pharmac … , more state houses as can be afforded maybe 1000 pa).

    Trying to use unionists loyal to/networked into the party to manage the health and education sector workers was possibly being too cynical ….

    Taking 9 years means that by the time it is finally realised it is then immediately being rolled back by the next National government – if people have just working conditions now they can be at peace at least until National returns.

  9. Darien Fenton says:

    Ok hope this gets through moderation. This is a mess. I don’t blame Richard, or the PSA, or the various unions, but the complete inability of unions to organise beyond their own self interest. I was at this meeting with MWU. I’ve been through years of the union movement eating itself; This is not the way to win. And btw who leaked to Chris Trotter? Feeling really deflated.

  10. DennyPaoa DennyPaoa says:

    In short. Wagstaff is useless and the PSA is the worst union in the country.

  11. Spoon says:

    Nice to hear that the Junior Doctors have been able to resist the undermining of their position

  12. Michal says:

    The loss of Kelly, to lung cancer, robbed the CTU of its most inspirational leader ever. The New Zealand working class lost a true friend and champion.

    NONSENSE Helen Kelly was only ever supportive if you supported Labour I know several stories about her dropping things when people did not adhere to the Labour line.

    I have never understood why the CTU is so dam wedded to Labour. It has never really supported the Greens what’s more every single bit of industrial legislation during Clark’s time would have been better for workers if the SOPs had been picked up by Labour it was not.

  13. BWK says:

    There is, I think, a real question over the formation of the CTU from FOL and CSU some 20 years ago. Was it really such a great idea to join together these two very organisations representing such diverse streams of the labour market?

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