Thursday 15 October 2009

Council of Trade Unions turning towards class struggle?

Could a column by Helen Kelly in last Monday's Dominion Post (below) signal a turning point for the union movement?
There's no doubt that the opinion piece by the Council of Trade Unions president is significant – both for what it says, and for what it doesn't say.
First of all, Helen Kelly's column connects three separate attacks on groups of workers and explains them in terms of wider economic and political forces.
Her analysis is correct. Of course the disputes at Telecom, at Open Country Cheese and on the Auckland buses are related.
But for decades now, it's been rare to hear union leaders to treat disputes this way.
Fundamentally, what Helen Kelly is talking about is a common cause shared by different groups of workers – and a common mindset among employers. She's talking, in other words, about a class struggle.
As she acknowledges, this is a shift in perspective from the leaders of the union movement. 
And yet, after announcing this shift in bold terms her concluding paragraph seems oddly out of place. It's an appeal for the employers (and the National-led government) to start "working cooperatively" with unions again.
The jarring inconsistency is because of what the column does not say. Having explained the forces leading employers to use bully boy tactics – forces which are not about to go away – the CTU president says nothing on what unions are going to do about it.
This much has not changed. For many years, the CTU has focused its energies on appeals to the government to solve the union movement's problems, rather than organising independent working class action to achieve the movement's goals through its own collective strength.
It might be argued that the business pages of a daily newspaper are not the place to lay out the strategy of the union movement, and that behind the scenes the CTU is doing a lot to organise opposition to bullying employers like Telecom, Open Country and NZ Bus.
But you can't rally workers, and the broader public, around a banner that's kept hidden behind the scenes. Class struggle demands mass organisation, which takes place out in the open.
Somewhere, sometime soon, union leaders will have to lead. The analysis contained in Helen Kelly's column calls for a strategy of coordinated, mass resistance by the union movement as a whole.
Employers quick to use bully tactics
Helen Kelly
INDUSTRIAL relations in New Zealand seem to have taken a turn for the worse in recent months. Bus drivers and dairy workers find themselves locked out by their employers and Telecom engineers have been made redundant en masse and are refusing to buy back their jobs while the network rapidly crumbles.
Until recently the reaction to the global downturn in New Zealand was characterised by a willingness on the part of workers, unions and employers to work together to mitigate the worst effects of the recession.
The jobs summit and the nine day fortnight are examples of that. Is there some reason why it has all gone sour?
Each of these disputes has different origins. Only one is straightforward, about pay and conditions. Another is about every worker's right to bargain collectively, and the last is about an attempt to shift cost and risk on to a workforce at the expense of their job security, livelihoods and bargaining power under the cloak of "contracting out" through a third party.
On the face of it the global crisis has nothing to do with any of these disputes. Significantly, none of the three employers – Telecom, Talley's and NZ Bus – is in any way struggling financially. But there is little doubt that the recession is a factor in the way they are handling the disputes.
Although redundancies are not being forced on any of these employers, there is an implication that workers should feel damned lucky to have a job in the current economic climate and should accept whatever wages and conditions are tossed their way.
There's a recession on, don't you know? Belts must be tightened.
I don't know how many holes Telecom boss Paul Reynolds has on his $5 million belt but I don't see much tightening going on there.
That's not boardroom bonus jealousy. I think it's legitimate to ask why these companies are taking such a hard line against the workers who are delivering their respectable profits in tough times.
The truth is that they are looking at the unemployment figures and thinking that now would be a good time to stamp on wages, hours, and workers' bargaining power. Workers will not put up a fight, they think, while fear of the lengthening dole queues prevails.
Unfortunately, the employers got it wrong. Workers are perfectly capable of understanding the situation of their employer and acting accordingly. Hence the many settlements that have been reached in recent months where unions have acted reasonably and responsibly and employers have offered fair and realistic terms.
Unemployment is a real fear for many New Zealanders. But there are plenty who know that their companies are doing well enough, and they are not about to bow down to employers who throw their toys out of the pram at the first sign of resistance to their plans. Both of the current lockouts are gross over-reactions.
The actions of Talley's-owned Open Country Cheese in particular, where a wholly disproportionate and illegal six-week lockout has been accompanied by intimidation of union members, use of strike breaking outside labour and misinformation, are reminiscent of the bad old days of industrial strife.
All this in response to the employees simply exercising their legal right to union representation and to bargain collectively. Someone is living in the past here, and it is not the Dairy Workers' Union.
The union has worked harmoniously with employers and has not been engaged in any serious industrial action for more than 20 years. It is sad and so unnecessary and you have to wonder why Open Country acted with such unwarranted ferocity.
Could last year's change of government be an influence? The Government wasted little time when it carne into office before forcing through its removal of unfair dismissal rights from new employees in small firms in the first 90 days of their contracts. There was no good economic reason for this move, but it immediately set a tone for its attitude to workers' rights. Cuts to public sector payrolls, moves to make the fourth week of annual leave sellable and other policies that have negative impacts on working people seem to confirm the impression of an administration more behind the cause of the employer than the employee.
None of these moves would have any positive effect on the country's productivity, its ability to pull out of recession or the length of the dole queues.
The Jobs Summit and support for the nine-day fortnight present a different face of the Government, albeit one which has had limited effect. We would all be better off if employers took their lead from this approach. What will be positive is employers dealing honestly and openly with unions and employees, working cooperatively in the best interests of each enterprise and not reaching for the factory keys as a negotiating tool.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I cant really see much change in attitude in what she has written.

Kellys main beef seems to be her perception that the employers have broken the understanding of the past 20 years of common interests between the bosses and unions and she regrets this change and wishes the bosses would return to it. Don't see much recognition of class struggle there.

Barrie (Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement- Personal Capacity)