Redundancy - how do unions measure up?

Don Franks

The article “Who moved my job?” in the April issue of The Spark eloquently voices a worker’s experience of redundancy threats. How can workers fight back against this blight on their lives?

Organised workers threatened with redundancy look to the union they belong to. It would make sense for all the unions in the country to have an agreed overall strategy against redundancy.

Such a document does exist. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) policy book, copyright 2006, sets out an approach to redundancy for all unions.

Some parts of this book are good:
“The NZCTU defends the right to work of all New Zealanders irrespective of age, sex, religion, political belief, race, sexual orientation, marital or parental status, or disability”

and:

“Redundancies are unnecessary … unemployment is not a natural consequence of workers’ unwillingness to seek employment, but rather is a symptom of our political and economic system.”
Surely the next logical step is for opponents of redundancy to try and change this failed political and economic system to a better one.

But, inconsistently, the CTU book confines itself to seeking reforms inside the present political and economic system.

The book’s advice on how to do this is a mixed bag. There is much emphasising of discussions with employers making the redundancy threats.

However, there’s no mention of workers using their most potent weapons against redundancy - industrial action such as strikes or factory occupations.

It’s true that any such actions are illegal political strikes under the industrial legislation of the present Labour government. But if, as a union leader, you really believe in defending workers’ right to a job and believe redundancies are unnecessary, those principles should come before compliance with anti-worker laws.

The policy book suggests some good demands, such as that for a “reduced working day/week without loss of daily or weekly wage”.

It also puts forward some bad ideas, such as accepting “natural attrition allied with cessation in recruitment of additional workers”.

So-called “natural attrition” - not replacing any employees who move on from a job - is often put up as a soft option which hurts no-one, but the effect is anti-worker.

The “additional workers” who now don’t get hired become losers, as do the working class as a whole. The loss of every real job and its replacement with unemployed or casualised labour weakens the overall working class. That effect applies whether the job loss is forced or “voluntary”.

A working class with most of its members in regular, unionised jobs is a body of confident people able to assert and secure their interests.

A working class suffering widespread casualisation, unemployment and underemployment has less capacity to organise and make gains. A badly atomized, impoverished working class becomes demoralised and less able to defend itself.

Passages from the CTU policy book indicate some recognition of the need to struggle against unemployment by united action:
“The responsibly for fighting against unemployment and for full employment lies with the trade union movement, unemployed worker organisations, and sympathetic community organisations.

… to fight effectively, these groups must maintain and build the existing form of organisation and develop appropriate programmes and campaigns aimed at building up resources, conducting widely based educational programmes (which look at causes and possible alternatives), and exercise effective political pressures on those who presently make decisions.”
Unfortunately, the actual practice of CTU leaders in real-life redundancy situations seldom lives up to the words in their book. Below, in full, is one of the most recent CTU pronoucements on a major redundancy:
“Griffins’ proposal to close its manufacturing plant will be felt by both the workers there, and the wider Lower Hutt community,” CTU secretary Carol Beaumont said tonight.

“Lower Hutt is a strong centre of manufacturing, and has suffered a number of job losses in recent years.

“This announcement will be extremely distressing for the workers on site, who have very real concerns about the influence of private equity on their security of work.

“The food manufacturing industry is a vital part of the New Zealand economy. Ultimately it would be very upsetting to see these jobs go,” Carol Beaumont said.

What happened to: “Redundancies are unnecessary… unemployment is not a natural consequence of workers’ unwillingness to seek employment, but rather is a symptom of our political and economic system” - ?

Where is the campaign to defend all jobs?

One defiant struggle against plant closure would be worth a thousand unenacted policy books. It would send a powerful message out to all workers that we have the right to a job and that we don’t just have to lie down and be walked over. It may well be that such a badly needed initiative will come from rank and file workers on a threatened job, rather than a union office.

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