Friday 20 November 2009

CTU Conference 2009: Can unions create an alternative?

by Grant Brookes

I recently read a review of the new album from radical art-rockers Manic Street Preachers. After producing a string of masterpieces in the early nineties, said the reviewer, the band became "rudderless after 1998". But you could tell they were returning to form by 2007, he observed astutely, by the re-appearance of the backward "Я's" on their album covers.

I was reminded of this when I picked up my registration pack at the 2009 CTU Biennial Conference in Wellington in October. From the pop art graphics of the Conference logo to the backward "Я" in the title – "UNIONS CREATING ALTEЯNATIVES" – something new was afoot.

A CTU conference held less than a year after the election of a National government, in the midst of rising unemployment and employer attacks, might have been a gloomy affair.

Under similar conditions during the National governments of the 1990s, unions pulled up the drawbridges. Competition for a shrinking pool of union members fuelled infighting and recriminations between union leaders. Sights were progressively lowered as radical visions gave way to narrow horizons. Self-confidence and self-activity were replaced by dependence on politicians.

By contrast, the lead-up to the 2009 CTU conference was marked by fighting talk from president Helen Kelly. At the conference itself, the thinking was outward-looking. Political party leaders came and went, without swaying the agenda.

The centre-pieces were two Conference Papers, on Union Change and on an Alternative Economic Strategy.

The Union Change paper, presented by Helen Kelly, started from the brute fact that nine years after the repeal of National's hated Employment Contracts Act (ECA), unions have not regained their relevance in the lives of most workers.

Although union membership is up – most dramatically in the NZ Nurses Organisation and Unite Union – growth has only just kept pace with the expanding workforce. So today, nearly four fifths of workers still aren't in any union. In the private sector, 90 percent are non-union.

Helen Kelly invited the conference to "consider the worker in a small shop in Kaitaia". What do unions mean for her? The answer is, very little. The Union Change agenda is about CTU leaders trying to make unions relevant to the huge numbers of workers outside the well-organised bastions, mainly in long-established, large workplaces in the cities.

It has two main elements. First, setting up "a new central all-comers" union organisation, with low fees, run by the CTU, to allow people outside the reach of conventional unions to participate in the union movement.

Second, to push for law changes to allow the conditions negotiated in large collective agreements to be extended to other firms across the industry, a bit like the old "awards system" that existed before the ECA.

Despite some hesitation, the majority of conference delegates saw these as innovative attempts to tackle real problems. Trying something new might fail. But on the other hand, carrying on with the same old methods that have failed so far is very likely to produce failure again.

Unfortunately, the National government won't be supporting law changes which extend gains in pay and conditions any time soon.

The real key to extending conditions from one or two flagship collectives across an entire industry was mentioned on the conference floor only once. Reporting back from the workshop she facilitated, NDU Retail Sector Secretary Maxine Gay said this would require workers taking action in support of others covered by a different collective agreement, or by none. In other words, a return to solidarity strikes – banned by the ECA and by Labour's Employment Relations Act – if necessary, in defiance of the law.

The Alternative Economic Strategy discussion, led by CTU economist Bill Rosenberg, started from the current crisis of "deregulated finance capitalism".

The "global financial crisis" of the last 18 months is working like global warming on Antarctic ice sheets. "Stimulus packages", introduced by governments worldwide, represent a trickle of change below the surface. But as the process continues, chunks can start falling off and the entire edifice of neoliberal, "more market" orthodoxy is vulnerable to collapse.

Even before the financial crisis, he said, "the economy did not work for everyone" and was "unsustainable". "At the rate we are going, we will need several planets".

The Powerpoint slide which made the biggest impression was one which showed how the economy "hasn't worked for everyone" for decades. Given all the government's current talk about the need for pay rises to be tied to productivity gains, the graph below showed how high wages would be if they really were tied to the large growth in productivity since 1980. It wasn't lost on delegates that National's productivity talk is really about restraining wages so profits can keep growing.

Specific policies contained in the Strategy (download link above) included nationalisation of telecommunications and power networks; encouraging worker-owned cooperatives; financial regulation and currency controls; a financial transactions tax (Tobin Tax) on cross-border capital flows; higher taxes for those on over $150,000; a "Green New Deal" and "just transitions" for workers affected; a minimum wage of $16.87; cheap home loans from the Reserve Bank; freeing up immigration controls in the spirit of "a new internationalism"; and elected worker representatives involved with management and workplace meetings for democratic input into local community issues.

The problem for the Strategy, addressed in a workshop led by Rosenberg himself, is how to popularise and win support for these policies, and thereby turn them from words on paper into real change.

Since its formation in 1987, the CTU has traditionally looked to the Labour Party to implement its macro-economic policy suggestions. But this time round, there was an acknowledgement in the Strategy paper that the neoliberal consensus being targeted – "established in this country from 1984-99 and remaining significantly intact" after nine years of Labour government – is Labour's as much as National's. As one workshop participant put it, we're unlikely to ever break Labour from its neoliberal shackles.

There was a groping acknowledgement that the way forward was through independent, grassroots campaigning. Making the policies more than words on paper will depend on how well they are woven into the campaigns of the unions affiliated to the CTU.

An example of this came three weeks later, when the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union responded to the closure of Irwin Industrial Tools by calling for "a major overhaul of New Zealand's financial system", including reforming the Reserve Bank Act and introducing currency controls to regulate the value of the New Zealand dollar. Their media release was widely reported and forced a response from prime minister John Key.

Unionists from the left and right will agree, for different reasons, that top union leaders will never spearhead revolutionary change. Those of us in the small socialist wing of the union movement acknowledge that it would be impossible, at present, for those at the head of the CTU to cohere and unify the 350,000 affiliated union members around an explicitly anti-capitalist programme. Spearheading that break with capitalism is the task of a socialist political organisation.

Bill Rosenberg told the workshop that the Strategy was not about moving beyond capitalism. But it didn't seem quite so clear cut to me. If unions do change, rebuild and reconnect with working people, and if they do mobilise large numbers of members around an Alternative Economic Strategy like this one, it could end up feeding into more fundamental change.

CTU conferences give a snapshot of the thinking of union leaders. Much of the real horse-trading, of course, takes place behind closed doors before and after. The two Conference Papers will be subject to ongoing revision (gutting?) in other committees before they get the stamp of official approval (though the Alternative Economic Strategy is also open for discussion and feedback from union members, and other grassroots activists). Nonetheless, I found encouraging signs at the 2009 CTU Biennial Conference that unions can be part of creating an alternative to the National-Labour capitalist regime.

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