Sunday, 21 June 2009

Trade unions and New Zealand’s economic crisis

by Grant Brookes from UNITY Journal May 2009 Comparisons now abound between the global economic crisis of 2009 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Naturally, there are similarities and differences. The following bleak assessment of the role of trade unions in the early 1930s comes from the best known book by one of New Zealand’s foremost social historians of the 20th century: When their interests were attacked in 1931, they [the trade unions] passed resolutions. In March 1932, after a sec­ond civil service wages cut, a 10 percent reduction in all Arbitration Court awards, and the abolition of compulsory arbitration to bring wages down more rapidly, a confer­ence of the Alliance of Labour, the Trades and Labour Councils, and the civil service again sidetracked a strike proposal and spent a good deal of time in discussing forms of organization. The unions had been wet-nursed by an anaemic Arbitration Court, and now that this had gone their weakness was apparent. Union secretaries had become advocates before a court rather than militant leaders in collective bargaining with the strike weapon in the background and the organization experience and rank and file discipline that this entails... Union membership dropped to lower levels, for trade unions seemed to offer little protection. First published in 1942, The Quest for Security in New Zealand by W. B. Sutch was still in use as a history textbook at my high school in the 1980s. The vital questions today are whether the role of unions in 2009 will be similar to its authoritative assessment or different, and what union and radical activists can do about it.

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