Wednesday, 15 April 2009

UNITYblog EDITORIAL: The question for NZ unionists: stick with Labour or start building a political alternative?

In many ways there are similarities between the political situation in Britain and New Zealand. For years there’s been widespread dissatisfaction with the British Labour Party from grassroots union members. British Labour, like its New Zealand counterpart, has in government accepted the neo-liberal orthodoxy that’s the root cause of the global economic implosion. They’ve put the profits of the finance capitalists and the “bubble economy” before the interests of workers. For unionists in Britain the question has been: to stick with Labour, knowing that this “market liberal” party is not going to come out decisively on the side of workers, or accept that the union movement has to be part of building a new political alternative, one that fights enthusiastically, and without qualifications, for workers. Some British unionists, both leaders and rank-and-file members, have already taken the alternative route. Unionists have been active in broad left formations like Respect, which has been campaigning for pro-people policies that seek to roll-back the market. Now the leader of Britain’s biggest transport union, the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), is fronting a broad left electoral platform to contest elections to the European Parliament. Bob Crow explains in the article below why he decided to take up a leading role in “No2EU - Yes to Democracy” (see Britain: New left alliance for EU elections) The key reason he gives is opposition to the EU’s continued push to privatise public services, which is enshrined in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, a proposed new EU constitution. He writes: “The treaty forces governments to hand public services over to private corporations. That means handing fat cats control of railways, schools, postal services, energy and even social services across Europe. According to the EU constitution, "A European framework law shall establish measures to achieve the liberalisation of a specific service." That provision remains in the Lisbon Treaty. The current economic crisis was created by this right-wing economic dogma, yet, under the Lisbon Treaty, these policies become constitutional goals.” The economic crisis that’s being severely felt by grassroots people in Britain is producing mass anger, but also a growing awareness of the need for fundamental change, which the British Labour Party certainly won't deliver. Unionists like Bob Crow understand that there's an urgent need to unite with other left forces and organise political platforms to the left of the pro-market Labour Party. As the economic crisis really starts to bite in New Zealand the same political choices will be in front of unionists here. Helen Clark’s Labour government (1999-2008) implemented some very modest measures like Working for Families and minimum wage increases that have been of some benefit to workers. The top leadership of many NZ unions and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) have continued to point to these policy examples as why workers should stick with Labour. Most recently in CTU president Helen Kelly’s press release Helen Clark a Good Friend to Workers (8 April). But Labour in government and Labour today under the leadership of Phil Goff remains wedded to core neo-liberal policies like unregulated financial markets, GST tax, public-private partnerships, free trade, an independent Reserve Bank, and harsh restrictions on workers’ right to strike. To bring about fundamental change that will protect people from the economic crisis means getting rid of these anti-worker policies, and more. The bosses will, of course, fight tooth and nail. The banks and international finance speculators will cry foul and use their power over the economy to try and quash any threat. The only way change can possibly be achieved is if a mass movement of grassroots people demands it. The question then for unionists in New Zealand is this: does the Labour Party have the political will or capacity to lead such a struggle? If the answer is no, then it follows that we need to be urgently considering how the union movement is going to organise itself to protect people from the effects of the worst economic meltdown since the 1930s Great Depression. Unity in action, like the whole union movement responding in solidarity with workers when they're locked out (see Lockouts need to be smashed) will be a must. But there's also the need for unions and union leaders to give political leadership to the fightback against the market. The example of Bob Crow in Britain is a good one. Building a mass alternative to the corporate market will be a bloody difficult task, but it's a challenge that unionists can rise to. We can look to the traditions of solidarity, organisation, fairness and leadership which are part of the union movement's history in New Zealand. Those fighting qualities are sorely needed today. See also

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