Posts Tagged ‘Unions’

Whither the class line?

datePosted on 10:58, November 20th, 2014 by Pablo

In 1995 I published a book that explored the interaction between the state, organised labor and capital in the transitions to democracy in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The book was theoretically rooted in neo-or post-Gramscian thought as well as the vast literature on collective action and the politics of the case studies. In it I explained how democratic transitions were facilitated by class compromises between labour and capital brokered by the state, which acted as an institutional mediator/arbitrator in resolving conflicts between the two sides of the labour process. I noted the importance of neo-corporatist, tripartite concentrative vehicles for the achievement of a durable class compromise in which current wage restraint was traded for increased productivity in pursuit of future wage gains under restrained rates of profit-taking, all within state-enforced workplace, health, safety and retirement frameworks negotiated between the principles. That way the relations in and of production were peaceably maintained.

One of the things I discovered is that labour or working class-based parties were served best when they had union representation in the leadership. That is because, unlike career politicians, union leaders were closest to the rank and file when it came to issues pertinent to those relations in and of production. As a result, they translated the needs of the rank and file into political imperatives that determined working class political praxis under democratic (read non-revolutionary) conditions.

In contrast,Left politicians tended to be drawn from the intelligentsia and were prone to compromise on matters of principle in pursuit of strategic or tactical gain. Many did not have working class backgrounds, and some spent their entire careers, if not adult lives, currying favour in the pursuit of office and the power that comes with it. More than a few have never held a job outside of the political sphere, which led them to hold an insular view of how working class politics should be conducted. As a result, they were often disinclined to put the material or political interests of the working classes first, preferring instead to pursue incremental gains around the margins of the social division of labour within the system as given.

For those reasons, I found that working class interests were best represented when the union movement dominated the working class party, not the other way around.

But there was a caveat to this discovery: unionists only served as legitimate and honest agents of working class interests if they adhered to a class line. In other words, they had to be genuine Marxists or socialists who put the working class interest first when it came to the pursuit of politics in competition with the political agents of capital. “Class line” was broadly interpreted to include all wage labour–blue and white collar, temporary and permanent, unionised or not. That made them honest interlocutors of the people they represented (the ultimate producers of wealth), since otherwise they would be conceding the primacy of capital and business interests (the appropriators of surplus) in the first instance.

Since the system is already stacked in favour of capital in liberal democracies, it was imperative that the agents of the working class in post-auhoritarian contexts wholeheartedly and honestly embraced ideologies that a minimum rejected the unquestioning acceptance of market directives as a given, much less the idea that capitalism as a social construct was the best means by which societal resources were organised and distributed. The post-transitional moment was an opportune time to press the critique of capitalism, as the authoritarian experiments had demonstrated quite vividly the connection between political oppression and economic exploitation. It was a moment in time (the mid to late 1980s) when unions could impose working class preferences on the political parties that purported to represent the rank and file, and where working class parties could genuinely speak truth to power.

As it turns out, the record in the Southern Cone was mixed. Where there was a Marxist-dominated national labour confederation that dominated Left political representation (Uruguay), the political Left prospered and the working class benefitted the most. In fact, after two decades of failed pro-business government by the centre-right Colorado Party, the union-backed Frente Amplio coalition has now ruled for over a decade with great success and Uruguay remains Latin America’s strongest democracy.

On the other hand, where the union movement was controlled by sold-out opportunists and co-opted bureaucrats (Argentina), who in turn dominated the majority Left political party (the Peronists), corruption and concession were the norm and the working classes benefited the least. In fact, in a twist on the New Zealand story, it was a corrupt, sold-out and union-backed Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who used the coercively-imposed market driven economic reforms of the military dictatorship as the basis for the neoliberal agenda he implemented, by executive decree, in Argentina in accordance with the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

In Brazil the union movement was divided at the time of the transition between a Marxist-dominated militant confederation (the CUT), led by Luis Inganicio da Silva or “Lula”as he was better known,  and a cooped confederation (the CGT) that had emerged during the military dictatorship and which was favoured by business elites as the employee agent of choice. The CUT dominated the politics of the Workers Party (PT), whereas the CGT was subordinated to the logics of the political leadership of the right-center PMDB.

As things turned out, although the PMDB won control of the national government in the first two post-authoritarian elections, and the subsequent governments of social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a number of social welfare projects designed to reduce income inequality and enforce basic human rights, working class interests did not fully proposer until the PT under Lula’s leadership was elected in 2002 (the PT just won re-election for the fourth consecutive time under the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff).  In the PT Marxist unionists have dominant positions. In the PMDB and Cardoso’s PSDB, the sold-out unionists did not.

That brings me to the the election of Andrew Little as Labour Party Leader. Leaving aside the different context of contemporary New Zealand relative to the subject of my book and the question as to whether the union movement truly dominates the Labour Party, consider his union credentials. His background is with the EPMU, arguably the most conservative and sold-out union federation in the country. In fact, he has no record of “militancy” to speak of, and certainly is not a Marxist. Instead, his record is that of a co-opted union bureaucrat who likes to work with the Man rather than against Him. The fact that business leaders–the same people who work incessantly to strip workers of collective and individual rights under the  guise of employment “flexibilization”– find him “reasonable” and “thoughtful” attests not only to his powers of persuasion but also to the extent of his co-optation.

But maybe that was just what he had to do in order to achieve his true calling and show his true self as a politician. So what about his credentials as a politician? If winning elections is a measure to go by, Mr. Little is not much of one, having never won an election outside his unions. Nor has his tenure as a list MP in parliament been a highlight reel of championing working class causes and promoting their interests. As others have said, he smacks of grey.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Does he have a class line?

Accumulation versus Distribution.

datePosted on 17:42, March 9th, 2012 by Pablo

The bottom line of any political economy resolves around the question of accumulation versus distribution. Productive activity that generates surpluses (profits) can be accumulated by those who control the means of production (workers or capitalists), or can be distributed throughout the larger community in which production is located. In capitalist system decisions about accumulation and distribution are done by capitalists. Workers organizations fight or bargain for better distribution of profits. Capitalists would prefer to accumulate for their own consumption. Because production is essential for the material standards of everyone, in democracies capitalists and workers negotiate the proper ratio of profits saved to profits distributed. Once distribution has occurred (via wages, benefits and the like) the saved part of profit is re-invested or “taken” by capitalists (owners) for personal use. Both sides adopt minimax negotiating strategies by making maximum claims on the preferred ratio, then settling for a mutually acceptable minimum. By doing so neither wages or profit-taking rise too recklessly or out of proportion to productive gains or inflation, as that would lead to inefficiencies and potential social unrest.

Or so the system is supposed to work. Depending on relative political balances and the specific location of a given productive sector in the capitalist world cycle at any specific moment, workers or capitalists may have structural and political advantages to play in their favor. Workers will attempt to maximize distribution in the form of job security and wage and benefit gains; capitalists will attempt to maximize accumulation by rolling back worker’s redistributive gains.

For the last twenty-five years logics of accumulation and profit-taking have dominated macroeconomic thought. Workers have steadily seen their distributive gains eliminated. As the process has deepened capitalists have pushed not only to reduce the material aspects of the distributive process. Sensing a favorable economic and political environment in places like New Zealand, they are launching attacks on the rights to collectively organize in defense of distributive stakes or goals. Capitalists well understand that for people to have economic rights they must have political rights.  The right to organize collectively is a political right. Reduce that right and previously held economic rights are more easily curtailed or eliminated. The more the concept of economic rights based on distribution is pushed towards a minimalist definition (encapsulated in the saying “you are lucky to have a job”), the more workers will limit their distributive demands in the quest for basic subsistence. The more that they do so the more working class internal competition will further push down the overall wage bill and increase job insecurity. The process of “casualisation” is the result of that trend, with “labor flexibilisation” being the managerial jargon used to describe employment precariousness.

Today in New Zealand the scales are tipped in favor of accumulation over distribution. The political and economic elite (including many in the Labour Party leadership) overtly side with the logics of accumulation argued by capitalists. They accept the reasoning that in the current global economic moment distribution to workers is contrary to future growth. Thus they accept that not only worker’s distributive demands but their political rights must be curtailed in order for economic benefit to occur. Of course, that benefit accrues to capitalists rather than workers, and if the low rates of re-investment in many productive sectors is anything to go by, profit-taking out of accumulated surpluses have been very good for capitalists indeed.

None of this is particularly new or surprising, even if recent labor conflicts had led to commentary about an impending class war in New Zealand, among other places. What is happening today is just the logical conclusion of a process of market-driven accumulation that began in the 1980s and which is reaching deep into the foundations of modern political economies today. The purpose is to forever privilege accumulation over distribution, and to ensure the political conditions in which workers can no longer challenge that logic or have a say in fixing the “equilibrium” ratio of accumulation to distribution.

Such a system has long been noticed and understood by the materialist school of class conflict. It is called the Asiatic Mode of Production, which relies on super-exploitation of human labor for accumulation gains. Given that New Zealand’s original market ideologues borrowed some of their policy prescriptions from the Chicago School of monetarist economics (later conceptually distorted in the word neoliberalism) as widely applied by capitalist authoritarians in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems  that their heirs have borrowed from the Chinese or Singaporean models, which are also heavily reliant on authoritarian political and social controls. This shift in preferred macroeconomic models makes perfect sense when we consider the move, shared by both major parties, to focus NZ’s diplomatic and trade relations on Asia and the Middle East, where democratic “niceties” are in short supply and where capitalists are largely unencumbered by human rights, much less labor rights or worker’s substantive rights to a share of the benefits of production.

The modern Asiatic model is as ruthlessly efficient as its predecessors, but is also based on a downwards redefinition of the concepts of economic and political rights that is generally considered anathema to democratic values (which in the labor market are enshrined in International Labor Organization conventions, now under siege in NZ and elsewhere). It would seem that in this particular market-driven moment, authoritarian capitalist reasoning prevails, accumulation is the sine qua non of macroeconomic policy, and the notion of egalitarianism as the basis for stable social order reflected in a fair ratio of accumulation to distribution has been abandoned in favor of the all-mightly profit-taking “bottom line.”

That is the state of play in New Zealand today.

Enough rope

datePosted on 10:34, June 23rd, 2011 by Lew

On Mike Hosking’s Newstalk ZB show this morning, a discussion of the gender pay gap and Catherine Delahunty’s bill on the topic — and an object lesson in not believing your own hype:

Alasdair Thompson [Employers & Manufacturers' Association CEO]: “Let me get down to tin tacks here. It is unfortunate, if you like, that men and women are different –”
Helen Kelly [Council of Trade Unions President]: [incredulous laughter]
AT: “– they are. The fact is, women have babies, they take time out of their careers to have babies. Women have — look, I don’t like saying this, this is how contentious this is, but here’s a fact of life. If you really want to keep some statistics, look at who takes the most sick leave. Why do they take the most sick leave? Women do in general. Why? Because, ah, you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do. They have children that they have to take time off to go home and take leave of. Therefore their productivity — not their fault, it’s … it may be because they haven’t got it sorted out with their partners, where the partners take more responsibility for what happens outside work. There are all of these issues, and none of this is covered in these statistics that this bill wants to sort out. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t like saying these things because it sounds like I’m sexist, but it’s a fact of life.”
HK: “Sure does, Alasdair, I’m glad you said them, it’s fantastic. I let you go on that one.”

(Audio)

Helen Kelly played Alasdair Thompson like a harp here. For a start, his argument is bogus — as Kelly says, the figures don’t back it up in the general case, and where they do back it up there’s a host of confounding variables. (For just one of many possible objections, since women already earn less than men for the same work, there’s an advantage at the margin where they retain the primary childcare responsibility, all else being equal. On the basis of this Thompson says they should be further penalised.)

But quite apart from the standard of the argument, Thompson ended up defending the indefensible in indefensible terms. It’s one thing to defend the indefensible in terms that seem reasonable, quite another to do so in terms that are repugnant. Rather than arguing the difference of interpretation and retaining the dignity of a Captain of Industry, a benevolent leader of men (and women) who cares about their wellbeing, he slipped into the worst sort of boss-man-splaining. This might work just fine in boardrooms where the interests of those present are aligned, but it’s not much good in the public sphere. He clearly realised this, but only once he had committed to it: his delivery was garbled and disjointed, clearly ad-hoc, and so heavily caveated that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

But that’s what we must do. This guy is an experienced representative of New Zealand’s employers, speaking in his official capacity on a topic for which he had (or ought to have) prepared, in a mainstream media outlet. We are entitled to take him at his word, and we should thank him for telling us what he really thinks. And we should thank Helen Kelly for giving him such a plum opportunity to do so.

Update: Not one to do things by halves, Thompson has doubled — or, tripled down, with a press release arguing that women are paid less because they’re just not worth as much, and statements to the Herald blaming “socialists”, “Labour” and “unions” and claiming 90% support for his position. That number has now mysteriously vanished from the Herald’s story, and comments by readers of the National Business Review — Thompson’s natural constituency — are running 80-20 against him at the time of writing this update.

You could say he’s quadrupled down, even, since he’s now taken to twitter, responding to criticism and barbed quips with cut & pasted lines from his press release. A more epic fail is hard to envisage.

L

The Road to Academic Taylorism.

datePosted on 20:57, March 11th, 2011 by Pablo

The labour dispute involving the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) is the culmination of more than a decade of escalating conflict between the university management and its employees that began during the tenure of former Vice Chancellor John Hood. If Hood, who was VC from 1998 to 2004, was a scalpel designed to eviscerate the union, then his successor Stuart McCutcheon is a sledgehammer focused on bludgeoning the staff into submission. The root of both VC’s hostility to the union lies in their adherence to the so-called “new management” theories that are popular in the private sector (Hood had no academic background prior to his appointment, while McCutcheon was a physiologist prior to being appointed Head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Massey University before holding higher administration positions at that university and later VC of Victoria University). Before arriving at Auckland both men cultivated reputations for being anti-union and ruthless when it came to staff cuts in pursuit of cost savings.

The application of “new management” techniques is nothing more than corporate-speak for imposing modern Taylorist practices on the academe (On Taylorism, see here). The idea is to turn all staff into regulated production units with as little independence and autonomy as possible, in a system where they discharge responsibilities allocated them by the non-academic central management (which has grown significantly at Auckland while the teaching staff has diminished), and in which their “output” is evaluated on spreadsheets and so-called performance based reviews (PBRFs) administered by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) rather than by disciplinary peer reviewers. In this scheme Deans, Associate Deans and department heads become “line managers” for the VC rather than as representatives of their faculties or departments, and staff are made to log in their hours, leave time and generally operate as if they were on an assembly line or phone bank service centre. The primary goal of academic Taylorism is to generate revenue by securing research funding, increasing full time (and increasingly foreign) student enrollments (EFTS) while maintaining or cutting staff levels (thereby increasing staff workloads), and making the university more “corporate-friendly” by encouraging business-related disciplines while eliminating those that are not. Under these schemes, the bottom line of the university is no longer to serve as critic and conscience of society and as a generator of creative talent and broad-based knowledge. It is to pursue the bottom line.

As a result, quality of education and scholarly contribution have now given way as the basis for individual and collective advancement and recognition to quantity of enrollments and research outputs regardless of merit. Be it in admitting unqualified foreign students, lowering academic standards to increase passing rates, publishing shallow edited volumes based upon academic crony conferences or listing magazine articles and media commentary as evidence of “research,” the university has forsaken its charter.

The problem is that the “new management” approach has no understanding of the intellectual enterprise or the nature of academic life. Ideas are not merely “outputs” and are not generated in a cubicle farm setting. New ideas and the resolution of complex problems can be generated on a bus, or during a long run on a beach, or over a cup of coffee while gazing out the window at some pretty greenery. Lectures are not merely a means of conveying power point presentations. Intellectual worth is not reducible to its profit-making potential, and intellectual life is more than being at the service of business or focused on technical disciplines with commodified economic worth. Some creative ventures or disciplines, say modern dance or the Classics, are important not because of their money-making capabilities but because they are expressions and reaffirmations of the human spirit in all of its manifestations. That is what universities are for, and that cannot be quantified on a time clock or spreadsheet.

Because of this, the University of Auckland management and its staff have been locked in a morale-sapping struggle over the future of the university. While Mr. Hood approached the union (then known as AUS) in an adversarial manner, he was at least fairly transparent about his intentions and appeared to understand that there were limits to the imposition of Taylorist practices on academic life. Mr. McCutcheon and his senior team, on the other hand, have adopted an overtly hostile scorched earth approach to the academic staff and union, a stance that has seen management engage in extremely dubious and highly unethical practices such as the falsification and destruction of documents, the intimidation, constructive and unjustified dismissal of staff, and the litigation rather than mediation of employment disputes using vast sums of taxpayer funding to pay corporate legal defense fees (from Simpson-Grierson) and PR representation. The Human Resources department and individuals such as John Morrow (Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), who was brought by McCutcheon with him from Victoria), are notorious for their bullying and stand-over tactics, using techniques that often times would amount to serious misconduct and border on criminal behaviour if done by anyone else (note that I am only referring here to a limited range of questionable practices and have not delved into issues regarding management relationship with foreign governments that supply students, senior staff travel expenditures and personal misconduct that goes unpunished).

The reason why the Auckland University management has adopted this approach is three-fold: first, because its intention is to destroy the union, pure and simple. Second, because under the current employment climate and labor legislation, it can do so with impunity. And third, because the tertiary sector union has allowed it to do so by adopting mistaken and now possibly terminal negotiating strategies in the past.

Under the leadership of Helen Kelly, the then AUS preferred to emphasise wage increases in the face of inflation rather than working conditions and academic integrity and autonomy. Year after year the sole focus of union negotiators was on wages, for which the union was willing to incrementally give away staff prerogatives when it came to teaching loads, recruitment and retention, and even the elimination of entire disciplines (such as Russian and Indonesian language instruction). The problem with this strategy was first, it elicited little sympathy from the wider public because as things stand people believe that academics are overpaid and under-worked relative to the “real” world (when I left the university my salary was over NZ$102,000 as a Senior Lecturer 5, so I can see how the public would think that). Secondly, because the union only represents thirty-odd percent of the academic staff (the overall percentage of organized university staff increased after 2009 with amalgamation of the AUS and the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE), which covers university administrative staff, but still does not cover the majority of academic staff), the university management could undercut union negotiations by offering separate wage packages to unorganised staff on individual contracts, thereby forcing the union to eventually relent and accept the same deal as the unorganised staff in exchange for the university retaining the collective contract governing other aspects of the employment relationship not subject–yet–to managerial discretion. This process of stalled negotiations, threatened industrial action and on several occasions strikes themselves did not hinder management’s steady, yearly erosion of the basic terms of employment.

In fact, rather than trade wage restraint for a halt to managerial intrusions into workplace autonomy and research and teaching independence, the union stubbornly clung to the wage/inflation parity fixation. By the mid 2000s, every year it wound up settling for the wages unorganised staff had agreed to and slowly but steadily found itself subject to increased management control of basic working conditions regardless of the specifics of the academic discipline or the nature of research involved. As Taylor would have had it, academic synthesizing was in play.

Ms. Kelley’s mistake was that she sought to preserve the union’s agency by trading incremental wage gains for non-wage concessions when confronting an opponent that was most interested in destroying the union. This was evident in her approach to forced redundancies and constructive or unjustified dismissals, which was to seek monetary settlement rather than go to court even if this meant the end of the union member’s academic career. Since the university has money to burn for such things, this approach played neatly into its hands.

And so it happens that this year McCutcheon and his wrecking crew minions have made their boldest move. After gradually tightening leave requirements, increasing on-site hours and teaching and research (make) workloads, adding administrative chores (such as the endless paperwork associated with the PBRF and Annual Performance Reviews) loosening burden of proof standards in employment disputes and restricting opportunities for academic staff to work off-campus without penalty, the university has proposed to eliminate research and study leave and have disciplinary matters removed from from the collective contract (research leave is now guaranteed for one semester every three years subject to the submission of a viable research proposal estimating costs, itineraries etc., and disciplinary procedures–which have been repeatedly breached by the management anyway–are outlined in the collective contract) as well as remove a number of clauses in the contract governing the non-wage employment conditions of the staff (these include ongoing changes to promotion criteria and guidelines that make it easier for managers to deny or confirm promotions based on on non-standardised assessment measures). In exchange, the university has offered an increase in annual leave from four to five weeks for all staff along with a four percent pay increase. McCutcheon’s attitude is clear, as he has stated to the press that he believes that universities should not be encumbered by employment agreements that constrain management’s ability to dictate policy. Taylor would be proud.

Unlike Ms. Kelly, the new TEU president, Sandra Grey, is an academic who knows the inside of a classroom and the research requirements inherent in academic employment. Finally realizing the real stakes involved, the TEU has responded by asking Auckland members to refuse to engage in the annual PBRF exercises that help determine the amount of research funding that the university receives from the government. The PBRF, which is a glorious time and energy-consuming make-work exercise introduced the early 2000s as part of the new managerial approach to research funding, is considered to be the holy grail for the management bean counters in the Clock Tower and VC’s office, so naturally enough McCutcheon has shown his bully self by threatening that any reductions in PBRF funding caused by staff refusal to perform the exercise could result in dismissals (ignoring the fact that staff numbers are below those of the pre-PBRF days and that enrollments are up, which means that he would have to reduce course offerings and turn away students in the measure that he fires lecturers, or at a minimum replace them with less-qualified personnel). The union has responded with a PR and media campaign and promised more direct action if the VC’s proposal is not withdrawn. At the moment both sides are at an impasse. Truth be told, in the contemporary economic, political and social climate and given its member numbers as a percentage of the overall academic workforce, this is a very risky act of TEU brinkmanship.

It will be interesting to see what will happen if this confrontation continues. But one thing is sure: this is the TEU’s last stand in Auckland. If it loses this battle then it will be destroyed as a credible agent for the interests of the Auckland University staff. And once that domino has fallen, it will not be long before management in other NZ universities will follow suit and adopt the sledgehammer approach towards union branch-busting in the pursuit of academic Taylorism. At that point the notion of “the academe” will have ceased to exist in New Zealand.

PS: Less you think I am off track, check this out from someone who still works at Auckland University  (hence the diplomatic and deferential tone).

Enemies like these

datePosted on 22:04, October 28th, 2010 by Lew

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.

L

Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

datePosted on 17:59, October 22nd, 2010 by Lew

The Hobbit saga has been an ugly but edifying lesson in the realities of how industrial action interacts with political posturing and national identity. My own view is that Actor’s Equity did their industry and their country — I would say ‘their membership’, but when they set this ball rolling they didn’t have one — an enormous disservice. Lacking a mandate and any legal standing, they undertook almost the worst possible course of action of calling an international SAG boycott. They attempted to hold a national icon and his nationally-iconic production to ransom at the apparent behest of an Australian union (the MEAA) with a history of this sort of aggressive mismanagement and who stands to gain from any reputational damage suffered by the New Zealand film industry. Their cause is worthy, but they picked the wrong fight with the wrong person at the wrong time, on the wrong basis, employing the wrong tactics, and did so without the support of their industry. Almost everything they could do to lose this battle, they did.

But too much has already been written on that topic, and I won’t add to it any further. The point I’d rather make is that the incompetence shown by AE in this dispute would never have thrived in a more robust industrial relations culture: that is to say, one in which union membership and participation was the norm rather than the exception, in which more workers had an understanding of what their union was there for and the union in question understood their industry’s needs and agenda better.

Fundamentally, the entire problem here is AE’s lack of a mandate: even leaving aside the fact that they had no legal standing as a NZ union until this time last week, the trouble is that they represent a tiny fraction of the actors who form a tiny fraction of those responsible for the production of any film, and yet they have the apparent ability to blacklist that entire industry (whom they don’t represent). Even the most ardent trade unionist can surely see the moral hazard here. All those who we’ve seen fronting AE have been the best-respected and most-established actors; actors whose careers aren’t in material danger regardless of the outcome of The Hobbit. But what of those actors who are genuinely struggling, whose faces don’t appear in tens of thousands of living rooms every Tuesday night, and who don’t top “best-of” lists? And what of the silent legions of drivers, designers, artists, labourers, riggers, electricians, carpenters and caterers who are the real motive engine behind the film industry? Are their needs well-served by the actions of a few prima donnas who represent them without their consent? Apparently not, which is why a thousand of them turned out to protest the actions of that unelected few. Orcs, Chris Trotter called them; useful idiots said Idiot/Savant.

To an extent it’s their fault for not being adequately organised to mount a counter-insurgency against AE’s hijack of their industry. And that’s why my suggestion is for film industry workers to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their needs. Whether it’s in separate unions by sector or a single, unified screen workers’ union doesn’t much matter, as long as there is strong and robust organisation behind it which elects leaders who hold a genuine mandate to speak for the real needs of their industry. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and the only way that a handful of pretty faces and household names with little or no industrial relations experience and an Australian carpetbagger with a reputation for mischief-making get to speak for an entire industry is when the alternative is nothing. Conventional wisdom — particularly from the government — is to de-unionise, and already the veiled threats about the consequences of a general strike during the 2011 Rugby World Cup are beginning. But de-unionisation at a time like this simply cedes the field. Efforts must be redoubled — not only to negotiate the sorts of concessions gained by Irish actors for collective bargaining among independent contractors, but to ensure that whoever claims to have a union mandate in future has the crowd with the torches and pitchforks following them, rather than chasing them.

L

In the debates about the proposed labour law reforms there appears to be fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance by National and ACT of the purpose of unions in capitalism. The latter are seen by NACT as at best a source of inefficiency and profit loss; at worst parasitic wealth destroyers. They appear to misunderstand that capitalism left to its own devices, with no collective counter-weight provided to workers, is akin to a political regime without opposition parties. That is, it is inherently an authoritarian status quo in which owners rule and workers obey. Thus, if we hold it self-evident that democracy is a better form of regime than dictatorship precisely because it allows for the existence of a freely organised competitive political opposition that can contest power and times compete for it, then we must also recognise that capitalism needs unions in order to be representative and fair to the society at large. The trade off between democracy and capitalism is exactly that: a diminished rate of exploitation in direct proportion to the measure of voice exercised by workers in pursuit of a fair share for all.

That is why unions were organised in the first place: to bring a subordinate group vehicle of voice and redress to the economic system. Whatever their very evident flaws (Leninist organisation, iron law of oligarchy bureaucratic rationales), unions provide a democratic counter-weight to unfettered capitalist exploitation. Just as it is preferable not to have a closed, unaccountable (or at least vertically unaccountable) oligarchical elite run the affairs of state, so too is it undesirable, from a democratic perspective, to have a closed, vertically unaccountable economic elite determine the social relations of production. If one believes in democratic capitalism, one must believe in a central partnership role for unions within it.

This is true whether labour-based or capitalist-oriented parties are in power, since in capitalist societies the material welfare of all is dependent on the investment decisions of capitalists. But capitalists need workers to realise their investment, and workers need to be productive for profits to occur. There is consequently a structural bias in favour of providing the working conditions and larger social context in which profitable production can occur over the long term. For that to happen workers need to accept the system as given, which is a function of them perceiving a partnership stake in it. That means a modicum of voice and representation. Democratic capitalists consequently understand the need to exchange super-exploitation and authoritarian control of the workplace for increased working class representation in both politics and production. In turn workers (and their political representatives) accept the capitalist foundations of society and the dominant role of capitalists within it (in other words, they forego a move towards socialism). This exchange is at the heart of democratic capitalism. Although negotiating the margins of the democratic capitalist social contract can occur depending on the nature of the government in power, “touching the essential” aspects of it is not.

Authoritarian capitalism offers many short term advantages to business, but it does not guarantee long term gains. Unmitigated authoritarian exploitation, be it in the workplace, politics or both, breeds resentment. Born of a lack of consent to the dominant system, resentment can be manifest in everything from petty acts of social defiance to industrial sabotage to revolution. Short term acquiescence may be bought with material rewards, but the long-term picture remains clouded so long as workers do not buy in to the system as given and instead resent their subordinate status in it. Absent mass consent and given the inevitability of working class resentment, the resort to the “weapons of the weak” negatively impinges on profit, if for no other reason then that the costs of repression grow larger the longer authoritarian control is maintained. After all, you cannot repress the same amount of people in the same measure over time.  Since capitalists abhor uncertainty and seek stable rates of secure return, a peaceful, consent based socio-economic and political order is preferable to an imposed one. That gives economic utility to democratic capitalism.

In fact, where democratic capitalist systems work best (hegemonically, as it were), many if not most workers strive to become capitalists themselves (small businesspersons, at a minimum). They see themselves on a continuum of upward mobility based on workplace fair play and merit. Socialism is not their preferred option. The proof is in the mythos: is this not the Kiwi, Ozzie and American dream?

Here is where NACTs reforms and the demands of the employer class says much about their true orientation. They claim belief in freedom of choice and the benefits of market competition as the great levelers of social ambition. If that were true, then they would welcome workers to freely organise without legal constraint or negative repercussion because true market competition and workers freedom of choice would improve overall economic (labour) market efficiency. After all, according to their own logic, the market works best when all have equality of opportunity, and it clears best when all actors enter into the market exchange exercising their full potential as free agents involved in the mutual supply and demand of goods and services. So if workers exercising their free choice want unions, then more the better from a market perspective. Why put constraints on that freedom?

Yet in practice NACT seeks to place constraints on working class collective choice and voice so as to better exercise owner/manager prerogatives in the workplace. They are, in other words, hypocrites who do not really believe in the power of the free market or closet authoritarians out of ignorance (unlikely) or by design. Or both. No amount of political spinning can disguise that fact.

What is more, NACT does not appear to comprehend, from a cynical perspective, that allowing for unionisation, including union workplace access, while reducing limitations on the right to strike and collectively bargain across economic sectors can actually serve very usefully as an alienation device in which workers are led to believe that they are real partners in production in a system in which the fruits (surplus value) of their labour are appropriated by others (in a variant of Lenin’s “democracy as capitalism’s best possible political shell” argument). Although unfettered collective action has the potential to open the door to worker challenges to control of production, the reality is that in democratic capitalism private ownership is reified from birth to grave and most workers live with the dream of being bourgeois in culture and consumption if not employment. So whether cynically or sincerely committed to workplace democracy, enlightened capitalists understand the long-term political utility of union representation in democratic society. NACT and its business supporters appear to be anything but enlightened.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the matter (“The Blues Go Black”), the proposed reforms owe their inspiration to the Pinochet Labour Code. The question is whether NACT have the same view of unions as Pinochet and “Pepe” Pinera did, and if so, why do they make any pretense as to being democratic? Could it be that what we are seeing in NZ is the first attempts to turn the economic bases of the democratic social contract into something akin to unchecked elite imposition under manipulated electoral conditions?

The Blues go Black.

datePosted on 15:04, July 19th, 2010 by Pablo

The announcement that National will undertake labour legislation reform has revealed the dark side beneath its happy face veneer. Riding high in the polls and 14 months before having to call an election, the Key-led government has dropped its populist pretense and unveiled its anti-worker credentials with the thrust of its proposed reforms. It also violates a 2008 campaign promise not to substantially revise the Employment Relations Act (ERA). In fact, the reforms are a return to the old Employment Contracts Act (ECA), one of the most draconian, overtly authoritarian pieces of labour legislation seen in the modern liberal democratic world. Rather than address all of the proposals, to include making dismissals easier, narrowing the scope of personal grievance claims and extending the 90 day probationary period to all industries, I would like to focus here on just one: the proposal that unions must secure the permission of an employer before accessing a work site. 

Due to the asymmetric power relationship between employers and workers, collective action is the best way for the latter to secure rights and protections within the productive process. Collective action requires organisation, and the ability to organise is contingent on the ability of prospective agents to access workers in an effort to persuade them to act collectively in defense of their common interests. Access does not mean compulsory membership or even recruitment success. It just means that prospective collective agents have the ability  to approach workers at their work places in an effort to organise them collectively.

Under International Labour Organisation Convention 87 on freedoms of association, such access is defined as an absolute democratic right for both workers and agents. In fact, it is a cornerstone of most democratic labour legislation that employers not have the right to interfere with the right of workers to organise, including organisation efforts by collective agents such as unions. Thus National’s proposal that unions must secure employer consent before approaching employees on a work site, and that such consent must not be withheld “unreasonably” (with the definition of reasonable left purposefully vague), is a direct violation of one of the most cherished international labour standards.

There is a historical precedent for this move, and that is where National’s real darkness shows. The 1991 ECA entered into law by the Bolger government had exactly such provisions. In 1993 the ILO upheld a complaint that the ECA violated convention 87 on rights of association as well as convention 98 on freedom to bargain collectively. The Bolger government ignored it and it was not until 1999, after the 5th Labour government came into office, that the more egregious anti-worker sections of the ECA were eliminated in the revamped ERA.

National’s black side runs even deeper. The ECA explicitly borrowed many of its provisions directly from the 1979 Chilean Plan Laboral. The Plan Laboral was the Pinochet dictatorship’s labour code, and was championed by its then Labour Minister Jose “Pepe” Pinera, the father of the current Chilean president. Under the pretense of promoting “labour market flexibilisation,” the Plan Laboral was an outright assault on the Chilean union movement, using both structural as well as politically-focused clauses to atomise the Chilean working class and forever break union influence on economic decision-making. To a large extent, and even with subsequent reforms by successive post-Pinochet democratic governments, it largely succeeded in doing so.

Pepe Pinera, somewhat unsurprisingly, was a friend of Roger Douglas and made regular Business Round Table visits to NZ in the 1980s and 1990s before his death. Ruth Richardson, the main instigator behind the ECA, was also an admirer of Pinera. These two individuals, with their direct and immediate past dictatorial connections and coalition relationship with National, are believed to be the prime movers behind this attempt to return to the ECA as the framework in which the social relations of production are determined. In other words, National is proposing changes to the labour relations system that have their origins in the Pinochet dictatorship, and which were suggested by people with direct links to that dictatorship. Beyond the violations of ILO convention 87, that alone should give reason for concern.

Hence, while some of the other proposed reforms can be the topic of honest debate keeping in mind where the balance between efficiency and fairness in production should be located, the attempt to curtail union access to workplaces is an overt assault on working class collective rights. This proposed clause is not about getting unions to ring employers up in order to make an appointment to see employees. This is about shutting them out.

It remains to be seen if this time around the CTU and other mainstream unions will offer more than token resistance to these proposals (as was the case when the 90 day probation period was introduced). It also remains to be seen if the NZ working classes will do anything other than bow meekly to the powers that be. But if ever there was a moment to rise up against the resurgent union-busting, anti-worker tide, that time has come. Remember: the reforms embodied in the ERA where at best minor adjustments meant to “humanise” the ECA. But the thrust of NZ labour law under the ERA was by no means a bold step towards worker’s control of production, and in fact retained much of the pro-business biases of its predecessor. Thus the current labour reform proposals are very much about putting the boot into the working class, and the union movement in particular.

It may take defection from mainstream, Labour-affiliated union ranks to more independent and militant unions for any effective resistance to happen, but whatever the case, if the worker’s movement stands silent on this one, then further rollbacks of worker’s rights can be expected the longer National is in power. For workers, those will be dark days indeed.

A May Day Reminder.

datePosted on 20:31, May 1st, 2009 by Pablo

For workers around the world, May Day is not just a statutory holiday. It represents over a century of hard won rights, rights that in most cases were won in the face of considerable structural and political odds. It is also a reminder that without vigilance, solidarity and organisation, those rights can be lost in the blink of a legislative (if “democratic”)  or blinkered dictatorial eye.  New Zealand is an exemplary case in point, with the legacy of the Chilean-dictatorship inspired Employment Contracts Act still strongly felt in the labour market (and likely to be felt even more so if the National government is able to undertake its proposed reforms of current employment law).

Less people think I am exaggerating about the Chilean connection to the 1991 ECA, let it be noted that its inspiration was the 1979 Plan Laboral (Labour Plan) imposed by executive fiat on Chileans by the Pincohet regime. The author of the Plan, Jose “Pepe” Pineda, was a frequent guest of Roger Douglas and the Business Roundtable in the 1980s and 1990s, and his framework for acheiving what is known as “enforced” or “atomizing” pluralism in the labour market is the essence of the ECA (and one that was not completely undone by the 1999 Employment Relations Act). Atomizing pluralism is the forced decentralization of collective bargaining at the lowest productive levels. It mandates a mix of individual and collective contracts and the multiplication of bargaining agents on the shop floor. The stated intent is to achieve “labour market flexibility,” but the real intent is to destroy the union movement as an effective economic and political agent of the working classes by forcibly dividing worker representation. This has been achieved in New Zealand.

In a book co-authored with Kate Nicholls titled “Labour Markets in Small Open Democracies” (Palgrave MacMillan 2003) I compared labour movement responses to the double impact of globalization of production and market-oriented reforms (including labour market reform) in Australia, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay after 1990. We paired the cases based upon their similar location on the global production chain (Australia and Chile, New Zealand and Uruguay, with Ireland as an extra-regional outlier that served as a quasi-control variable). Among other things we found that the single most important factor that allowed the labour movement to resist attempts to reduce or break its collective power in the face of the dual threat posed by market globalization and neo-liberal inspired macroeconomic reform was ideological unity and independence from working class based political parties.

Let me rephrase that: ideological unity and independence  are the key to labour movement success in a market-driven age. Thus, Australian and Uruguayan unions, rooted in a strong blue collar ethos, ideologically unified and independent from Leftist parties, retained a considerable capacity to thwart the most noxious of labour market reform prescriptions such as enforced shopfloor pluralism. Conversely, Chilean and Kiwi unions, subordinate to the interests of Left parties and ideologically divided amongst themselves, were powerless to stop market-driven reforms, especially when those reforms were pushed by Left-centre governments they helped elect and in which former union bureaucrats held official positions. Successful betrayal of working class principles in favour of pro-capitalist reforms by the political Left in power was due, more than anything else, to the subordinate status of the union movement relative to the political Left. The political ambitions of professional politicians and union bureaucrats took precedence over the material interests of the rank and file, and the result was a relative decline in union fortunes.

There is more to the story, to include the impact of a working class debt culture and the role of popular diversions in eroding working class solidarity. But  the cautionary tale on this day is that workers need to remember that their political representatives on the Left should work for them, rather than the other way around. Contrary to Leninist principles of party vanguardism where the Party dominates the union movement, the union movement needs to control the Party if it is to be a genuine agent of working class interests. In this age of globalization in which the class “enemy” is diversified, flexible and fluid, social movement unionism and labour internationalism needs to be coupled with a reassertion of grassroots representation in union leaderships, which  in turn must lead to a reassertion of union authority within Left political parties. The stakes are simply too high for workers to allow union apparatchiks and party bosses to determine their fortunes for them.

UNITE is an example of such a new union. The NDU is known to retain a sense of responsibility to the rank and file, Beyond that, the New Zealand labour movement obeys the iron law of oligarchy, whereby the first duty of the organisation is to preserve itself, which means in practice that the interests of the agents rather than the principles is what comes first.

On this May Day, confronted by a Centre Right government after 8 years of sold-out Labour rule, it may be a time for the intellectual Left as well as workers to reflect on these issues in order to effectively confront (if not reverse) the adverse tide into which they have been headed for nearly twenty years. Or as Lenin put it: “What is to be Done?”

PS: I have previously made comments along these lines in the comment thread on Anita’s earlier post titled “Worker Organized Resistance.” For those who have read it my apologies for the overlap.

Worker organised resistance

datePosted on 10:10, March 1st, 2009 by Anita

Once again Indymedia is the only place providing coverage of worker organised resistance against the current government’s policies.

While the media, major political parties and even the left wing blogs have concentrated on  what was going on inside the Jobs Summit a good old fashioned protest was going on outside. Despite the great messages, the photo friendly images and reality of the protest the coverage we’ve seen has focussed only on the centre-left’s response.

Even the left wing commentary on the lack of men at the summit has been full of images of men (to show the absence of women) rather than images of strong women raising their own voices.

I also haven’t seen any mainstream coverage of the Christchurch picket against the 90 day sacking law which attracted a variety of workers groups and unions.

Sometime in the next few years the left needs to realise that we’re no longer part of the orthodoxy, it’s ok to protest (in fact it always was). We can take our banner and loudspeakers out on the street and tell the world that our voices and our rights are important.

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