From The Spark December 2007.
Don Franks reviews the 2007 Bruce Jesson Memorial lecture “Union relevance in Aotearoa in the 21st century”, presented by National Distribution Union national secretary Laila Harre on November 9.
Laila Harre begins her lecture by sourcing the origins of low union membership (currently 22%) to National’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act. That law continued National and Labour’s restriction of workers’ rights to organise in an extreme form. The result was mass deunionisation and wholesale devastation of wages and conditions. Laila comments:
In the face of this assault on its most fundamental job – collective bargaining – the union movement at this point failed to recognise the strategic choices available to it.
The monumental blunder of the Council of Trade Unions in failing to organise industrially and politically against the ECA foreclosed on the opportunity to unify a labour movement wracked by the divisions that had been driven into it through the term of the fourth Labour Government. Instead of taking this chance to heal and empower the movement through collective action, the CTU’s inaction entrenched those divisions.
Laila contrasts that inaction with a different type of unionism: militant mass organising campaigns driven by wage justice issues – low pay, gender-based pay, and youth wage discrimination.
She gives inspiring descriptions of struggles like the Unite Supersizemypay.com, the Nurses’ 2003–04 pay dispute, the SFWU Healthy Pay for Healthy Hospitals campaign, and in particular the NDU lockout resistance.
Laila celebrates the positive part that public support played in these campaigns. However, she doesn’t follow some union officials’ opportunist inclination to replace class struggle with public relations gimmicks. Laila recognises the primacy of rank and file workers’ self-activity:
…most importantly, [the campaign] demonstrated the resilience and resources of workers in battle. Communities were established on the picket lines, which became the centre of solidarity, welfare and activism. Leadership in building these communities came from the workers themselves, their partners and social networks.
Running counter to this class stand, Laila elsewhere makes unsubstantiated claims that we need higher wages for the good of local business.
New Zealand’s low wages have discouraged investment in capital and skill…
Finally, the costs of this catastrophe extend beyond the workers themselves to the economic, social and democratic spheres – damaging our prospects to preserve national values like social solidarity and justice under threat from globalisation and market forces…
The short-term approach of individual firms to maximise profit through cutting or holding labour costs down should be subservient to a national interest in raising wages, skills and job quality.
These vague generalisations about a supposed “national interest” sit oddly with the constantly clashing class interests that Laila describes so well in other parts of her lecture.
She is similarly unconvincing in her uncritical praise of Labour’s ECA replacement legislation, the Employment Relations Act (ERA), as an aid in reviving union organisation.
Labour gained many votes by vowing to scrap the ECA, but when back in office did no such thing. Labour retained nearly all the ECA anti-strike and penalty clauses in the ERA. NDU president Robert Reid succinctly summed up Labour’s new law as “the ECA with right of entry”.
The nearest Laila Harre comes to a criticism of the Labour government is when she says:
If the right to organise in unions is a fundamental human right recognised by this government, then it needs to be given greater practical support. The situation we face is a bit like offering everyone free health care and then closing 80% of the hospitals.
In theory, Labour could give unions “greater practical support” instantly by legalising the vital workers’ weapon of solidarity strikes, currently banned by the ERA. But Labour will not do any such thing, because it is a capitalist party in the service of the rich. As Laila’s own lecture research notes:
Whereas in 2000 a CEO could expect to earn eight times as much as the pay of the average worker, by 2006, the average CEO pay-packet was 19 times the average wage.
The answer to defeating that sort of injustice is not to be found in appeals to the cynical capitalist careerists of Labour or National. The only sure way forward for the working class is their own united independent action.
A step in that direction is indicated in the parts of Laila’s lecture that come alive with a solid ring of truth, as in her description of the NDU’s successful struggle against Progressive Enterprises lockout:
For me, inclusion in this community was a privilege beyond description. As the campaign built public and union support, workers who had mostly never taken action before realised that they were at the centre of a struggle that had much wider ramifications. Their involvement in industrial action not only brought about self-consciousness but also created new meanings and awareness of unionism as a social movement. The workers realised that they could make a difference by bringing about social change through collective action.
The full text of Laila Harre’s lecture is available here If you’d like a printed copy, post a large stamped addressed envelope to the Workers Party and we’ll send you one.