Just when the Nurses have mobilized their ranks to stand firm on the demands that they have made to meet their urgent needs, The Daily Blog (TDB) is producing posts that attack them for failing to strike against National when in government, and for exposing the Coalition to right wing charges that it cannot control the unions.
Martyn Bradbury and Chris Trotter are both taking this line. Trotter is a long-time defender of socialist ‘realism’ which boils down to workers taking only what bosses can afford to pay. They both seem to be suffering from historical amnesia in demanding that Nurses should settle and wait for the Council of Trades Unions (CTU) to organize a deal with the Coalition that benefits all workers. Strikes are off dear.
The ranks of all the public sector unions are due massive wage increases to catch up with the deficit of the last few decades at least since the 1980s. The union leadership that holds back workers to serve the bosses are the problem, not the workers. Throughout modern history the union leadership has acted as the agents of the bosses in the union movement.
It was the most radical unions, such as Martyn lauds, with strong rank and file democracy – the miners, wharfies (dockers), railway workers, construction workers etc., that challenged the union bureaucracy and broke with the state arbitration courts in 1908 to form the Red Federation.
That led to a showdown at Waihi and the general strike in 1913 smashed by Massey’s Cossacks (farmers as special cops) and the military. The infamous Labour Party was formed in 1916 to steer the now tamed labour movement onto the parliamentary road to avoid future open class warfare.
But workers and poor farmers were still a force and their protests and struggles during the depression forced the first Labour Govt in 1936 to enact a reform program to insulate the economy and provide social security. Of course that didn’t stop Empire-loyalist Labour from turning on the unions during the war and after the war when workers fought for better conditions. Labour’s colors changed from pink to puce (dragging the red flag in the mud) with the mood of the bosses. It sent workers to the imperialist war and subordinated labor to the Cold War falling in behind the US ‘new world order’.
Then it was the wharfies locked out in 1951, and their allied unions (mostly ex-Red Fed) strike action in support, which forced the Labour Party into a passive bloc with the National Govt which also used emergency regulations and the military to smash the lockout after 151 days. That split the labour movement with the breakaway Trades Union Council (TUC) under Jock Barnes outlawed from the Federation of Labour (FOL) under the sell-out rat FP Walsh.
One of the prominent wharfies victimized after the ’51 defeat, Bill Andersen, ended up a leader of the union movement in Auckland. He used to say that after ’51 the unions clung to the Labour Party because it was the only party able to help workers. The deal was better conditions for industrial peace. So strikes were OK against National but not Labour. He admitted after 1991, when National brought in the Employent Contracts Act (ECA) in a deal with CTU head Ken Douglas to block a general strike, that he had been mistaken in calling off the industrial action at Marsden Point in 1984 to help a Labour victory. The union pressure should have been maintained against what turned out to be an extreme right Labour Govt.
Relying on handouts from Labour by maintaining industrial peace weakened the unions, and turned them into beggars not fighters. To rub it in, Douglas’ justified his refusal to act on the majority union vote for a general strike in 1991 to stop the Act, saying “he could work with both Labour and National”.
Douglas later stated his rationale for the existence of unions – to increase labor- productivity so that it could then be fairly shared by labour and capital. In other words Douglas was echoing the philosophy of Labourism from the time of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (IC&A Act) of 1894, introduced to conciliate (class collaboration) and arbitrate (the Court made wage ‘awards’ provided the economy and the bosses could afford them) wages claims and disputes.
This philosophy of state arbitration has underpinned Labour’s approach to industrial relations from the start, and every Labour Govt has tried to keep it in place. It required a balancing act between labor and capital regulated by the state. It was broken by National for the first time in 1991 with the ECA deregulation of the labor market, and the abolition of compulsory unionism.
The Clark Labour Govt partially restored the key role of state intervention by amending the ECA with the Employment Relations Act (ERA) in the 2000s to shift the balance back slightly toward the unions. But membership remained voluntary and the unions never recovered their former influence.
National jerked that balance back towards the bosses under the Key regime, pushing individual contracts, excluding unions, 90 day fire at will etc. So while the Nurses who went on strike in 1991 against the NACTs ECA to defend their own pay and conditions, when the union movement was in a much better condition to mobilise for a general strike, doing the same against the Key Regime 17 years later had many barriers to overcome.
If TDB wants to blame Nurses for their failure to strike then, rather than now, and to stop being selfish and settle, the first to blame is the Labour Party that has used the union bureaucracy to maintain the historic deal that rewards labor only if capital can afford it.
Since this paternalist state regulated approach has repeatedly failed to meet the needs of workers, and prevented any real shift of power in favour of workers who produce the wealth, putting profits first and wages last, why should workers remain trapped in that antiquated industrial relations system?
What is being advocating is the same old state arbitration that serves the interests of capital that has been kept alive in some form since 1894. The Coalition is obviously going to rebore the Act in the form of new state conciliation and arbitration mechanisms.
If the nurses fall for the excuse that the Labour Coalition is contrained by fiscal responsibility to offer no more than the present offer, they may get something, but the unfair system of industrial relations will not be challenged. The class collaboration of the Labour Party to pacify workers in the interests of profits will not be challenged. The sell-out role of the labor bureaucracy in bed with the politicians will not be challenged. Fiscal responsibility which is being used by the Coalition to ration out spending that does not put pressure on profits will not be challenged.
Most of all, 100 years after the defeat of the Red Fed, the pacification of the labor movement by the formation of the Labour Party, will not be challenged. Its clear that whatever the Coalition wants to do it is surrounded by well established right wing institutions that will fight to the death to make workers pay for the failing of their capitalist system. No more so that climate change.
Climate change ‘changes everything’ as Naomi Klein put it. Sustainable economic growth, renewable energy, reversal of climate change is a precondition of social security. It will not come from any government with both feet in the camp of finance capital which speaks out of both corners of its mouth, while climate change dooms us all.
Moreover, as the global crisis hits and climate catastrophe comes closer, no capitalist govt is going to seriously challenge the status quo. A death sentence for the biosphere and our species.
Such radical change can only come from organized labor which has the power to challenge the death wish of capital. And the revival of the unions as the economic power house of labor is the means. That will not happen until workers fight for what they need now by striking for basic social reforms, rejecting state labor regulation, and uniting all strikes and struggles into one massive workers movement that takes power out of the hands of capitalists and puts it in the hands of working people.