To Advance, Workers Must Break the Law: A Reply to John Kerr

Don Franks

Red Line | November 18, 2020

In response to my piece NZ union structure past its use by date John Kerr wrote:

Bit of a cop out of an article: some penetrating analysis of what’s wrong (echoed in other pieces by Trotter et al) but no concrete suggestions around possible solutions…

I agree that ‘if we really want to be addressing child poverty we would do so by lifting wages, decreasing rents and increasing benefits.’

And I agree the current union model ‘isn’t working’ in this regard, but there are no suggestions in this piece of an alternative that might…

Don complains about there being no structures where workers can get involved,

I understand Unions Wellington, in Don’s home town, has just elected a committee of eight and the majority are rank and file workers, including library staff, civil servants, hospo workers and a new start at the Ngauranga meatworks.

Unions Wellington has held meetings with dozens in attendance to support striking nurses and had a rally of a couple of hundred to support the bus drivers’ strike.

I was on a picket line with striking nurses last week in Christchurch together with port workers and Unions Canterbury frequently organises solidarity action of this type.

Both Unions Canterbury and Unions Wellington are convened by younger unionists who weren’t around at the time of the FOL.

When was the last time the author of this piece attended a Unions Wellington meeting, picket or rally? With all due respect to his previous union work, if the author doesn’t stay connected other than via on-line means he runs the risk of becoming out of touch and irrelevant.

John’s comments reflect a common attitude among New Zealand unionists. The view that, yes, there are problems in union organisation but we need practical suggestions rather than critique. Critics would be better employed participating in the union activity on offer at the moment. I used to think that way too, now I don’t. The formula hasn’t worked.  Numerous reports show worker’s conditions in New Zealand have deteriorated to a parlous state.

As the organisation Closer Together Whakatata Mai summarises:  “Over the last three decades in New Zealand there has been a step change in inequality — we’ve gone from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Over that time we’ve seen the top incomes double ( and) the bottom half of incomes barely changed. The current trend shows no sign that this ‘step change’ to inequality will be reversed.” Reversing a downward trend like this demands radical action. Qualitative change from the previous routine which has failed to deliver.

John wrote: ” Don complains about there being no structures where workers can get involved.

I said no such thing, because of course there are. What I did say was: “the central union movement structure has changed… There are no mass multiunion campaigns rallying marching and striking for working class demands”.

There’s never been a problem with workers being involved in unionism. The question is how we’re involved. As a central reason for worker’s poverty Closer Together Whakatata Mai  cites: “Changes to employment law weakened the bargaining power of low-paid workers so they found it harder to win pay increases”. With a succession of anti worker laws, National and Labour governments have restricted our freedom to strike. To the point where unions have become ineffectual and workers have consequently ceased to join them.

It has to be said that most of New Zealand union officialdom accepted the series of anti worker law changes. Most infamously in 1991, when top union officials derailed workers’ demand for a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act.  Passed into law, the bill had a devastating effect on the union movement. Membership almost halved between 1991 and 1995, with union density going from 41.5% to 21.7%. Union membership figures for 2019 are  11.6 percent, a slight decrease from 11.7 percent in 2018.

Whether a general strike would have been enough to kill the bill, we’ll never know, because CTU president Ken Douglas and others repressed the demands for action. What we do know, only too well, is the role union leaders played in creating the ECA’s replacement. Leaders of the NZCTU actually helped draft the Workplace Relations Bill, which retained the anti strike laws of the National Party’s ECA.

At the time I wrote to  Douglas arguing: “It’s incomprehensible to me how an experienced union leadership can put up a proposal to a future government which allows workers to be jailed, sued and fined, and yet that’s what the ERB unambiguously calls for. It’s bewildering to read a proposal for a labour law restricting the right to strike, when that proposal is put up by the union side.” Douglas replied, describing his WRB as “alternative legislation that builds on the core conventions of the ILO” and simply ignored all my points about the right to strike. To this day, the same anti-strike restrictions remain law in the Labour Party’s Employment Relations Act, which Douglas also supported.

This sell-out style of leadership provoked increasing union discontent. In 1998 the Service Workers Union complained: “The CTU has continued to seek to influence policy in government forums rather than adopt an active campaigning role with a diverting of resources towards this. There is a perceived reluctance on the part of the CTU to participate in large scale campaigns which could change the climate, be catalytic events and lead to the downfall of the government.”

In response to this and other criticism, CTU leaders commissioned a ‘review’ by professor Nigel Haworth, which claimed the CTU possessed “a powerful and respected public presence… the work by its officers attracts high regard from across the political spectrum and from external organisations”.  CTU leaders then pushed divisive contestable funding through the CTU. All its 14 district councils were dissolved, along with their rights to retain a proportion of capitation fees. All CTU money was now controlled by a finance committee of 6. Outlying districts that required funding for any campaign now relied entirely on approval by the new central committee.

To my mind, this action did more lasting damage than the deflection of a general strike.

The  structure dismantled was a national body with local district councils in main centres across the country. District councils’ strength was variable, but larger councils in the main centres had real influence in industry and society. Operation of the councils revolved around regular meetings. In Wellington, between forty and sixty unionists delegated to the council met monthly in Trades Hall. These delegates connected shop-floor unionists with the national union organisation – and with each other.

The more active and militant unions made the strongest connections. For example, waterside worker delegates to the Trades Council were elected from mass meetings, sometimes after keenly-fought contests. They were bound to regularly report back on outcomes of Trades Council meetings. Other council delegates were appointed by the executives of the unions they belonged to. The more complacent unions were represented on the Trades Council solely by their paid officials and some unions seldom participated at all.

Most administrative work of the local trades council was done by its elected secretary, who was also a full-time union functionary in another capacity. Council funding came from capitation fees paid by each union affiliated to the FoL. Part of the capitation fee went to the national office and part was retained in the district. Rank and file workers had opportunity for input into their local FoL councils, by means of a clear formal procedure. A shop-floor item of concern had to find acceptance with a union, who then sent a formal letter to the local council’s monthly meeting. All such correspondence was read out, debated and voted on. A letter calling on the council to campaign on an issue could thus become agreed council policy. The cutting edge of this process was that a motion, if passed, became the policy of all unions. In this fashion, decisions were democratically taken for masses of workers to campaign on a wide range of issues. Along with wages and working conditions, councils debated a wide range of social issues, including abortion rights, action against apartheid and nuclear weapons. Trades councils could and did call special meetings when demanded by sufficient numbers of affiliates

I am not about romanticising the previous Trades council structure. It was uneven and had many flaws. It also served as an instrument where workers could exercise some real control over their elected representatives. Present local union gatherings don’t afford that degree of workers’ control. They lack the accountability of the previous union organisation and are also constrained by much tighter anti strike laws. Today, in New Zealand, workers strikes outside of very narrow restrictions can be punished by fines or imprisonment.

Its not possible to recreate the structures of a past era. But more of the same, however well intentioned, will only see workers sink further into homeless poverty.

We should reconsider the union movement’s origins. Unions were first formed by downtrodden people, in defiance of the law. These new organisations were controlled by the working people who created them. Today, New Zealand Unions are a service model, run and controlled by law abiding professional operatives. As this state monitored model has become the norm, workers’ share of society’s good things has declined. At some stage, I believe low paid workers wanting a better life will have to do what our forbears did, unite to break the law and create their own organisation.


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