NZ's union bureaucracy today

Auckland's largest union protest in a generation. At first socialists who called for it were ridiculed.
"We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feelings of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file."

This statement by the Scottish Clyde Workers’ Committee in November 1915 is a guide to the role of socialists within the trade union movement. The Clyde Workers' Committee was a rank and file organisation composed of hundreds of delegates who led struggles and met weekly in Glasgow to represent workers interests in the factories and mines and co-ordinate solidarity actions. In 1919 it was these rank and file committees that led the British general strike, won major increases in wages and conditions for workers and took Britain to the edge of social revolution.

The Glaswegian workers' statement is worth revisiting nearly one hundred years on. The current state of the trade union movement in New Zealand is weak and getting weaker.
  • Between 2009 and 2011 the union movement shed 8000 members.
  • A recent Department of Labour survey found more than 1000 employers have used the 90 day fire at will law. 400 out of 2000 employers have dismissed an employee using the law.
  • The CTU's failed "Together" union has recruited less than a hundred members despite a mass of money spent on it.
  • Large public and private sector unions continue to negotiate and recommend below inflation wage "increases" to members.
  • The CTU supports cuts to workers living standards and raising youth unemployment by supporting Labour Party policy of raising the retirement age.
  • There remains little to no real democracy within the trade union movement. Many unions are staffed with pensioners and bureaucrats with no energy or commitment to organising drives.
  • The 'Fairness at work' campaign against National's cuts to workers' rights has all but disappeared.
  • Auckland,Wellington and Christchurch have surged to new levels of unaffordability and working class people are homeless in Christchurch.
The working class on the whole is paralysed by a lack of confidence and combativity. Strikes are at an all time low, where industrial disputes have broken out they are primarily defensive in character - the AFFCO lockout, the Ports of Auckland conflict, the claw back of conditions at the University of Auckland and the teachers dispute over class sizes. 

The union bureaucracy closes its eyes and writes off its membership losses and the reduction in living standards when it loses a conflict. When employers fail to get their way, union leaders breath a sigh of relief and pray for peace. No one admits that as long as workers remain on the back foot the next attack remains just around the corner.

As more and more sections of workers are smashed and deunionised or left passive the employing class grows in confidence and becomes increasingly restless looking for fresh targets and concessions.

The trade union movement has become almost marginal in the imagination of most workers. Tragically most often when the working class is in the news it is when mines are exploding, forestry workers being decapitated, road workers being runover, or when jobs are being off shored.

Militant and rebellious groups of workers or small bands of dedicated and hardworking union delegates and officials are too isolated and quickly ground down in this environment. Workers consciousness is always uneven but when there is no movement within the union movement even the most resilient activists are left disillusioned by a lack of progress. 

The wages and conditions of New Zealand workers are at the crossroads. The ruling class is desperately trying to drive down the wages and conditions towards those of the developing world. The siphoning off of vast numbers of skilled workers from New Zealand to Australia and beyond each year runs down the experience and consciousness of the local working class. Maori workers, traditionally the backbone of the union movement in Aotearoa, have flocked to the mines and construction industry of Australia and their places have been filled in New Zealand workplaces with new migrants subject to restrictive immigration controls that make them vulnerable to victimisation, bullying and less confident to organise against employers. These new migrants also come from sections of the world where working class, trade union and egalitarian traditions are not as developed. They may see themselves not connected and reliant upon their workmates to improve their condition but see themselves as aspiring managers, temporarily forced to work on the lower wrung of the workforce. 

As Chris Harman in A Peoples' History of the World described the situation,
There is nothing magical about workers under capitalism which enables them to follow some royal road to class consciousness. The society around them is permeated by capitalist values, and they take these values for granted. Even their exploitation is organised through a labour market, where they compete with each other for jobs. As well as the pressure which again and again causes them to combine together against the subordination of their lives to the inhuman logic of capital accumulation, there are also the factors which can all too easily break apart that unity – unemployment, which makes each individual despair of any way of making a livelihood except at the expense of others, or defeats for their organisations which break their sense of solidarity and make them feel that no amount of unity and struggle will ever change things for the better.
As our comrades in the Workers Party have noted, "In Kaikohe, an impoverished town in the far North with a population of 4100, one in every six people have signed up to work in Australian mines." The ruling class frequently speaks of a "brain drain" - the loss of intelligence and skills overseas, the working class can equally lament the "brain drain" of class consciousness to Australia in an age when it is easier to buy a plane ticket to 30% higher wages in Australia than to win a wage increase in New Zealand. With Maori and Pacific unemployment and casualised employment sky high, more and more use of temporary immigrant workers from the Pacific and Asia and increasing numbers of wage relationships transformed into sham employment contractor relationships we can lament a situation where in Aotearoa where Maori, Pakeha and Pacific Islanders once were workers.

There is an alternative route to the current one being taken by the trade union movement. It is not a short cut to renewed strength but a long hike of slowly rebuilding the numerical strength, the collective energy and the political power of the working class in Aotearoa.

In the middle of recession and faced with a hostile government the odds are against working people but with the right strategy and new tactics workers can restore their strength which is won in struggle. In Britain the trade union federation and student association are preparing for a 'hot autumn' of strikes and mobilising national demonstrations against austerity and the attacks on working people. Members in unions like Unite (UK) are leading both defensive strikes against job losses and offensive strikes for Olympic bonuses for bus drivers. The union leadership in Unite has set out a clear plan to grow their union and it is already reaping the rewards in increased membership (up 25,000) and media focus on workers conditions.

The left wing union leaders in Britain are leading a fightback dragged forward by the militancy of the rank and file, not the other way around. Australia had a similar experience where socialists and leftist workers forced the ACTU to organise the Your Rights at Work campaign against John Howard's attacks on workers agreements. Rebuilding the trade union movement in Aotearoa means building a rank and file organisation conscious and combative enough to lead and win struggles alongside the union leaders when they will fight but also on their own when union leaders won't fight. 

-Socialist Aotearoa


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