Tuesday 27 July 2010

Workers rights: what will it take to win?

By David

What will it take to defeat the government? Big, big protests for one thing. So the Fairness at Work protests called by the CTU for Augsut 21 are good next step. The 40,000-strong anti-mining march has shown that a big mobilisation can force National to back down.

However, there is more at stake for the government and the employers on this issue, so it is likely they will be more willing to endure protests. Their side knows that the long-term gains from beating the unions will out way short-term damage to National’s popularity. So it’s going to take more than one big rally.

We need a campaign of escalating mass protests until these plans are dropped. The starting point has to be educating and then mobilising the existing union membership, some 350,000 people. But the campaign must look to go beyond them and reach out and win over the unorganised majority.

If the ruling class fear this campaign is drawing in, politicising and organising previously unorganised workers, they will back down.

I’ve heard (and read) various people on the Marxist and anarchist left talk about the likely inadequacy of the response from the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and big unions, and the need for the socialist / anti-capitalist left to offer some sort of alternative. As Wellington unionist and Workers Party activist Don Franks put it in a comment here on my previous post on this issue, “Workers who really want this legislation stopped in its tracks will have to go beyond the politics of the CTU.”

I don’t see any point in counter-posing the two. Even if we all pull together, the socialist left is in no position to organise the mass mobilisation of union members that must be at the heart of this campaign. So we have to work with the CTU-led campaign, even as we seek to go beyond it.

What can the radical left achieve?

The question is what can we do to make this campaign more successful, to increase the chances, not only of beating the government, but of building a workers’ movement that is politically and organisationally stronger?

One way is for socialists who are union members or organisers to work together to push for a stronger response from their union.

Another is to work to involve those outside the union movement. Officials, necessarily, will be focussed on their own members, but I don’t believe we will win this campaign if it’s seen simply as a struggle between unions and the government. We need to convince the majority of the working class that this is a battle for their rights (and for their pay and conditions) against a government and an employing class that profits from grinding them down.

If currently non-unionised workers see the union movement successfully defending their rights, it could open the doors for a surge of union recruitment. So the more forward-looking union leaders should support this strategic approach.

What can socialists do to involve more non-union workers and to provide a more radical political and organisational lead for union and non-union members alike?

Here in Christchurch the Workers Rights Campaign was established as a coalition of radical left activists when the first Fire at Will law was passed last year. Now an enlarged group of leftists is organising against the new attacks. Following from the first protest the Sunday before last, a second protest has been called for August 8.

It sounds like similar radical coalitions are forming in other parts of the country.

Many within this group share the general desire to link this struggle with an anti-capitalist analysis of why these attacks are happening and what workers can do about it.

So a joint leaflet (and or posters and billboards) is one possibility. Let’s say we agreed on a leaflet combining an a notice about the upcoming actions with arguments against the attacks and an anti-capitalist analysis. We’d need to distribute a fair number to have any real impact on the political consciousness of the Christchurch working class. How many could we afford to print? How many could we distribute? Could we do 30,000? 30 people letter-boxing 1000 each? What would that cost $1000?

It seems to me that’s the sort of scale (on the upper limits of what’s possible) that we need to be looking at, if we’re serious both about reaching out to the working class and pushing the political boundaries of this campaign.


Grant said...

I attended the special meeting of Unions Wellington this week, where CTU president Helen Kelly fed back about the national campaign and where local unionists planned action in the capital.

Based on this, I think I can allay some of the concerns expressed in this article.

It seemed to me that union leaders already know "it's going to take more than one big rally" to make the government back down. There was also talk about "escalating" the action later on (although the feasibility of this will depend on how well activists manage to mobilise for August 21).

And all the Wellington unionists gathered at the meeting seemed keenly aware of the need to "look beyond the existing union membership". Lists were drawn up, of groups to approach and places to go to publicise the protest. People were allocated to approach various churches, to speak to marae, to do stalls at the Saturday morning markets, to leaflet commuters on the trains, and the buses, and so on.

As a socialist who is a union member, and given the ideas already in circulation about "escalating" the action, I'd be interested to hear what sort of "stronger response" we can promote.

One thing I think socialists or radicals can do is to link the government's attacks on workers' rights to a broader perspective of crisis in the global capitalist system. From this perspective, people might see the restriction on unions as part of a wider push to restore profits, including cutting taxes for the rich and raising GST to 15 percent.

This view calls forth the need for a comprehensive political alternative to neoliberalism. A start on this already exists in the (so far) sadly neglected CTU Alternative Economic Strategy.

Don Franks said...

Mostly neglected by the CTU themselves. It does not feature on their website, nor has there been any attempt to push it among the rank and file.
But, Grant, this is not an occasion for sadness.
The CTU Economic Strategy is an abstract call for "an economy that works for everyone", as if such a thing could exist under the capitalist system that you rightly accuse of being the source of our problems.
The CTU Economic Strategy is a turkey, soon to be a dodo.

Grant said...

Yes, so far neglected (or certainly under-promoted) by the CTU themselves, as Don points out.

And "an economy that works for everyone" certainly cannot exist under capitalism, in my view as well. But that's really the point. While some (including, perhaps, its originators) may use the Strategy to promote illusions in an oxymoronic "capitalism with a human face", there's enough in it to support an alternative vision. A starting point for a socialist vision, even.

Don may be right that the CTU Alternative Economic Strategy is soon to be a dodo, but that would be a set-back. I'm not one to sit on the sidelines and wait for what might happen. I think that the tussle for the soul of the CTU is something that socialists in the unions should engage in.

Don Franks said...

Grant,for a concrete analysis of the CTU's document, read:

“The unpalatable truth” : a critique of the Council of Trade Unions Alternative Economic Strategy
July 16, 2010 by Philip Fergusson. Available for view on the Workers Party website.

Happily, the choices for workers are not limited to sitting of the side lines or pushing a document which posits higher capitalist productivity as a social solution.

The CTU has been a husk ever since Angela Foukes and Ken Douglas disemboweled it by "The Review", which effectively destroyed the local affiliates councils as real organising entities. It is a romantic fantasy to take the CTU at face value. No amount of bragging about 300,000 members can disguise the real entity of the CTU as a bureaucrats lobby group welded to the hind tit of the Labour party. In my opinion the CTU is the least useful part of the union movement. Socialists would be better employed building on the job organisation and bringing workers marxist equipment to assist the process of their own liberation.

David said...

Don, you complain that the CTU is “welded to the hind tit of the Labour party”.

Yet the significance of the Council of Trade Unions Alternative Economic Strategy is that it breaks away from the Labour Party’s slavish commitment to neo-liberal economics.

Isn’t this a positive development, something that should be encouraged and promoted within the union movement? Don’t we want to see more union bodies criticising neo-liberalism and raising alternative policies that are to the left of the Labour Party?

Anonymous said...

The Council of Trade Unions Alternative Economic Strategy continues the CTU line of workers helping bosses raise productivity while raising vague requests for "fairness", wrapped in the fantasy of "an economy that works for everyone". That is only "positive" as a visiting card for union officials who want to cross over to a safe Labour seat sooner rather than later. CTU leaders are as loyal to Labour as they have ever been; if there was any sort of lurch to the left in that direction you may be sure there would be a very noticible clash. David, the whole of the CTU document reeks of class collaboration. And NZ nationalism for god sake. There is nothing anywhere in the Strategy that gives any sort of practical lead to workers organising for their own class interests.
I cannot for the life of me understand why you guys are excited by this abstract bureaucratic pap.