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.
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!”