Enemies like these

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.


53 thoughts on “Enemies like these

  1. You had me nodding in agreement for the first few sentences. Then you got onto the Marxist class struggle crap. I don’t have time to respond properly but suffice to say that a trade union exists for the benefit of its members in the same way as a company exists for the benefit of its shareholders. Good companies and good trade unions take a longer term view and can see the point of view of other stakeholders. When management start to confuse their short term benefits with benefits of the shareholders, companies go down. When trade unions are unrealistic, as with airline employees, they become uncompetitive. German auto sector trade unions represent their members and have the interests of German industry at heart, that is why German exports boom. It has realistic unions who recognise that attempting to keep all jobs in Germany simply makes German firms uncompetitive.

    When the public sector unions use the force of monopoly to entrench their position they may gain in the short term but they pull down the whole economy. That example is shown everywhere. And teacher unions are the most egregious.

  2. from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents

    To be clear about the cutoff point I mention above. Democratic representation is its ONLY source of moral authority. Witness the justified flak for the ozzie interloper who was prepared to screw up a hige industry on the basis of only 85 members. They had nothing at stake.

  3. Good elucidation Lew.

    Although you and I differ on the primacy of class versus identity, I agree with your view of the role and character of unions. Unfortunately, whether they acknowledge it or not, your detractors appear to subscribe to Michel’s iron law of oligarchy: the duty of the union is to itself (or put differently, defense of agents’ interests is more important than defense of principal’s interests). That, coupled with vanguardist notions of organizational principle (aka democratic centralism), allows union leaders to argue that their views are a hedge against the short-sighted vagaries of false consciousness amongst the rank and file (be it economism, susceptibility to populism or attraction to ethno-racial divide and conquer tactics, etc.). In that view it is not for the membership to decide what is in their best interests. That is for the union leadership to determine and then convey to the rank and file.

    Whatever the case, the AE and CTU scored a monster own goal in adopting the strategy that they did with respect to the Hobbit films, and given the political context in which they were playing wound up fulfilling the role of useful fools for their corporate opponents.

    When unions become the unwitting foil with which foreign corporations can successfully demand changes to domestic labour legislation, something about the union approach needs to be re-examined. Agent-principal relations, Leninist organisational schemes and party dominance over union strategising might be a place to start.

  4. Phil, I should have been clearer: while the job of union organisers in practice is to promote the class struggle (virtually by definition), the job of the union in principle is to enact the membership’s wishes, whether these are consistent with class struggle or not. So your view and mine are fundamentally pretty similar. But you seem to be trying to skip over the fact that unionism without class struggle is a bit like business without the profit motive. Because the final object of trade unionism in principle isn’t a middle-class lifestyle and a salary — it’s the end of alienation. It’s to parlay workers into the position where they don’t simply work for a business; they own it and control it in their own interests.

    So theoretically a union could exist without such a motive force behind it — but it would be a different beast to the sort of thing I’m talking about. Perhaps a “Guild” such as Greg Ellis is proposing as the alternative to AE (I’m a bit dubious about this but will reserve judgement until it’s got a few miles behind it).


  5. Pablo, thanks. Your explanation of the dynamics here is, as usual, much more technically and theoretically composed; particularly the point about hedging against workers’ wishes not reflecting their true needs. As you know, I don’t have awfully much time for this line of argument, but I could probably accept it on a limited basis as a pragmatic position of “tough-love” paternalism from a union which did generally hold and faithfully enact a mandate. If only that’s what they were arguing — but no, it’s “union right or wrong” (though, confusingly, they also claim it isn’t).


  6. Lew,

    I long thought you a sneering intellectual ivory tower leftist.

    But you’re just a deep thinker.

    Kia Kaha.

  7. From what I’ve read on the standard I haven’t seen uncritical support for AE at all. The focus there has been about debunking the spin coming from Jackson, Warners and the Government.

    Where they have mentioned AE it’s been along the lines of “they’ve made some errors in their campaign -> this is what they should be doing.”

    FWIW I agree with your analysis. AE has made a mess of this and the rest of the union movement is paying for it.

  8. It seems that the whole situation has been way over-analysed. The union wanted to negotiate for better conditions. The union made a number of errors in going about this and lost the PR battle. The CTU stepped in and the union did their best to mend the damage they caused (by withdrawing the boycott). So surely it boils down to this:

    1) Do you support the way the union handled the situation? I don’t think I’ve seen anyone, on the Standard or elsewhere, saying so. Everyone admits they could have handled it better and got comprehensively outplayed.

    2) Do you support the union’s original aim, that is, to negotiate better conditions? I do and most commentators on The Standard. Yes, the union screwed up, but they still deserve our support for this aim.

    Are you saying, “No, I don’t support this, because they screwed up in (1) so I can’t support (2)?” (I really can’t tell.) I cannot understand this point of view because they original aim was a just one, trying to ensure that certain minimum employment conditions were present. And that is worthy of support even if they made a hash of things trying to get there. It seems to that many commentators such as yourself are withdrawing your support for that cause because you think the union handled things badly – surely you are aware that this in itself causes the union movement harm?

  9. Lew – This could form an interesting debate into the role of a union. The purpose of a responsible company is not to promote capitalism, it is shareholder profits. The purpose of a responsible union is solely to represent the long term interests of the members in its industry. It should protect members and potential members from the short termist destructive behaviour of company management. I am mystified though as to why there is any place for ideology.

    So I will give some thought to your statement that a unions role is to prevent alienation. To me that is far more relevant than an archaic statement about class struggle. When Obama is President of the US that seems fatuous. Ongoing alienation is far more relevant.

    Your clarification of the job of a union organiser in practice to be class struggle that is simply to recognise how irrelevant and destructive they are in todays world, being so deeply mired in history.

    I admit that I have only recently come to the view that a union may have a place in raising income levels. I cannot yet clearly articulate anything other than a feeling that over the course of decades Australian and German unions have helped to raise the median wages in contrast to the destructive attitudes of unions in UK and New Zealand. I cannot explain the difference between Australia and New Zealand other than to suggest that large companies involved in extractive mining industry or heavy industry prevalent in Australia and Germany respectively contrast with the primarily individual farmer ownership of New Zealand’s main industries.

    I will post this comment now and give the subject more thought.

  10. Hi Lew,

    instead of boring you with a long rambling rejoinder I’ll quote a message the marvellously concise Tim Bowron, proprietor of the Fatal Paradox blog, left on Reading the Maps:

    ‘Lew, the basic problem with your argument that I can see is that in an industrial dispute there is no neutral, “third camp” position. Therefore whatever your subjective motivations may be (eg disapproval of the actions of the TU bureaucracy) if you oppose the action then objectively you place yourself in the camp of the bosses and their political representatives.

    By contrast, the socialist/Marxist position would be to criticise the mistakes of the leadership within the union movement and left press BUT maintain full solidarity with the union against external attacks from the boss class and corporate media.’

    I notice you haven’t addressed my examples of the 1951 and 1984-84 union struggles. Would you follow the logic of your argument and refrain from supporting the wharfies in ’51 and the miners in the mid-80s?

  11. Lew – I made a 3rd comment which seems to have disappeared. Has it hit your spam filter?

    I have now read the Scott Hamilton post and subsequent comments accusing you of being a class traitor etc etc.

    Perhaps what you and Russell have in common is a sense of fair mindedness as opposed to ideological purity. That is something to be proud of, whomever may denigrate you.

  12. ‘Lew, the basic problem with your argument that I can see is that in an industrial dispute there is no neutral, “third camp” position. Therefore whatever your subjective motivations may be (eg disapproval of the actions of the TU bureaucracy) if you oppose the action then objectively you place yourself in the camp of the bosses and their political representatives.

    Ah, the old ‘with us or against us’ argument – always the sign of an important and principled thinker . . .

  13. What you’re saying about a mandate makes sense if a union is negotiating on an established site that has employees.


    There were no AE members who had signed to the hobbit and if there had been they would not have been able to renegotiate.

    What tends to happen in industries that do project work, like construction or film, is the union negotiates a collective or minimum standards deal with the employer before the project starts.

    Usually this is negotiated on the basis the union has the moral authority to negotiate for all workers in the industry (and AE has more than 600 members) and usually it is based on an industry standard.

    If organising and bargaining is left until everyone is hired on a project like this then it is disruptive to the project and difficult for the union and its members.

    Project-based agreements for the oil and construction industries are regularly negotiated before the project starts or anyone is employed. And generally such negotiations begin with a do-not-sign notice as there is no union recommended agreement. Much as a union will recommend its members not sign an inferior individual agreement while they are negotiating a collective. Film is no different.

    Where AE went wrong was turning a do-not-sign into a boycott and in having no PR strategy and bugger all industrial strategy.

    this does not mean they were operating outside of the realm of ordinary industrial relations. It just means they weren’t doing a very good job of it.

  14. I’d also note that terms like “class traitor” are not particularly helpful in such a dispute. Nor are terms like “union bullies”. This is capital versus labour but only in the sense that they are two parties to a business negotiation (a very capitalist endeavour in my opinion).

  15. Phil:

    Your third comment was indeed caught in the spam filter. It is now up in the thread in the order in which it should properly appear.

  16. This is capital versus labour but only in the sense that they are two parties to a business negotiation (a very capitalist endeavour in my opinion).

    You’re touching on the core of the issue there Irish: if unions conduct themselves as negotiating parties in a capitalist system then the outcome might be very good for the workers – better pay, improved conditions and so on, depending on the breaks – but it isn’t much fun for Chris Trotter. Far more entertaining for him if such disputes are perceived as a class war, then he gets to write furious columns damning the employers, call anyone disagreeing with him a scab and a class-traitor, cheer as he watches police charge picket-lines on tv, write books praising their solidarity and mourning the death of their industries and so on.
    None of this would be that great for the workers losing their jobs, homes etc but that just illustrates the false conciousness and lack of solidarity shown by the workers towards the higher historic purpose of indulging Trotter and his fellow Marxist crackpots.

  17. A union is only the bargaining agent for employees who choose to join the union. The act of joining the union means the employee agrees to be part of a collective, unions generally don’t permit individual contracts for members.

    The simple role of a bargaining agent is to act on behalf of his client/members, and people on individual contracts can also use bargaining agents to negotiate, but could not have collective agreements – that may change. Unions are not the only mechanism of bargaining, and they’ve recently delivered poor value to many members, hence the rise in individual agreements and use of employment lawyers.

    The problem I have with the current stoush is that it’s more about trying to recruit more members so the union can obtain more revenue ( membership fees and administration of residuals ), rather than identify and subsequently negotiate the needs of members.

    I’d prefer unions and agents to be bargaining agents only, and other revenue ( such as residuals ) handled by somebody else, and going direct to actors etc.. 12-15% admin fee for distributing residuals to members, plus holding the money for up to several months in Union accounts, is usurious.

    Today many people prefer individual contracts because they are bespoke. Unions may still have a role, but if the law is changed to allow employees on individual contracts to collective, then maybe fresh competition ( eg trade guilds? ) will arise to deliver superior and better value services to their members than existing unions.

  18. Just as an aside, I’m intrigued by this phrase ‘orthodox Marxist’: what is such a creature, and how does he or she differ from an unorthodox Marxist? I would have thought that, on the basis of my scholarly work as well as a lot of the Marxological stuff on my blog (consider the couple of replies I made to Keri Hulme in the current discussion thread at RTM, for a recent example) I’d have to be a candidate for the title of unorthodox Marxist, if such a title is being bestowed. There aren’t many Marxists who consider the Communist Manifesto a severely limited text, who champion the great man’s fragmentary late works as a key to his oeuvre, and who point to the congruences between the Waikato Kingdom, Parihaka, the Mau movement, and Marx’s ideas. Here’s a post which explains where I stand on matters Marxological:

    I’m also tickled to see that Chris Trotter and I are now close comrades – both members, it seems, of the ‘orthodox Marxist’ camp, despite my apostasy over some of Marx’s canonised texts and Chris’ oft-expressed devotion to classical social democracy over Marxism. I seem to have been arguing – relatively amicably, admittedly – with Chris about New Zealand history and Maori politics for years. This critique of his view of the New Zealand Wars is probably representative of how he and I tend to bang heads:

    To be fair, I was probably stereotyping you a little in my post when I talked about the perfidy of the facebook generation. I’m a grumpy old technophobe and it comes out whenever I polemicise with anyone under 70…

  19. What a good comment thread — thanks for mostly keeping it civil.

    Selected responses in turn — likely the last until tonight/tomorrow.


    That has been IrishBill’s well-articulated argument, and before the thing got heat up, he gave the union some very sound advice which they failed to follow. But overall the tone is “if you don’t back AE to the hilt you’re a scab”, epitomised by one of the early comments to Russell Brown, to the effect of “this is class war and you’re fighting for your side”. I disagree with that, and like IrishBill, I don’t think it’s helpful.


    I disagree it’s been overanalysed — I think it’s crucial to conduct full analysis on the events leading to the most significant attack on workers’ rights since … well, last time the Nats were in government.

    I also think you’ve misunderstood me. I do disagree with AE’s course of action, but not because it was “weak” or contained “a few errors” — because it was actually counterproductive. For the reasons outlined in the OP, the actions taken by AE were considerably worse than doing nothing. So while I support their cause, by going off half-cocked, overplaying a weak hand, turning up to a knife-fight armed with a spoon (whatever metaphor you want to use) they’ve actually set workers’ rights back a long way, and that’s not something which should be rewarded. I’ve been clear: sort your shit out, get a mandate from your workers and conduct your advocacy with a modicum of competence and you’ll have my full support (for what that’s worth).


    In addition to Danyl’s observation about it, Fatal Paradox’s argument is vulnerable to a different critique, which is this: for any time-horizon longer than 24 hours, the pro-worker course of action in response to such a doomed campaign was to simply let it die, to try to limit the damage the government and its agents could do to workers’ rights on the pretext AE provided. I’m arguing that my position is not a “third camp” or a “fence-sitting” position, but an actively pro-worker position with a much more strategic focus than those taken by the old-school Marxists, who want a pyrrhic class-war more than a constructive, if uneasy, peace and the chance to fight another day.

    As to the 1951 Waterfront strike and 84/85 Miner strikes — my knowledge of these events is not deep, but based on what I know the grounds for refusing to become involved were much less clear in those cases than in this. As you say, despite the absence of a ballot it was generally acknowledged that there was broad support for the strikes among NUM, which is a very great deal more than what AE had. Similarly so in the Waterfront case. Film industry workers’ and left-wingers’ objections in this case were more than pretexts: AE genuinely lacked a mandate and any apparent willingness to collaborate with those whose careers it was using as bargaining chips. This is not to say that I really agreed with Scargill’s or Barnes’ leadership, but at least they actually had the workers in behind them. For that reason I would be more inclined to have supported those strikes.

    Also, re your latest about ‘orthodox Marxists’ — I’m often guilty of using this shorthand to lump ‘old’ Marxists in together, particularly when they attack my lack of ideological purity. It’s a bit lazy but saves me from getting into those Marxological discussions (in which I’m not generally that interested) for the purposes of defining what is usually just a passing matter. I’ve also been guilty of using the somewhat tautoloogical ‘economic Marxists’ when trying to distinguish between those (like myself) who employ Marxist critiques of power relations in the context of identity politics &c from those who basically argue that materialism is all, and everything else is just false-consciousness. At least they’re both better than ‘paleo-socialists’ (which I have also been known to use). I’m familiar with your and Chris’ ongoing disputes, and to an extent they’ve informed my own arguments with Chris, which have tended to be much less amicable.


    I’m not sure what you’re on about pointing to Australia as a model of “constructive” unionism, as opposed to the “destructive” kind you decry here. Australia’s unions are much more staunch, much more strongly supported, have far greater political and social power, and they exercise it much more readily than unions here. This isn’t true of all industries, of course, but it’s certainly the case on balance.


    My response to Phil about unionism & class struggle upthread suits your comment as well. What you’re talking about (‘bargaining agents’) might have value, but it isn’t a union in the sense we’re discussing it — it’s something else.

    One further thing, not in response to anyone in particular — despite all of my criticism of AE, I think the CTU, and particularly Helen Kelly, has done very well in this case. I’d have liked them to raise a stronger critique of AE’s actions, but fundamentally their role was to step in and steady the ship, to limit the damage and restore a measure of industrial competence to proceedings. That they did, and while they have probably suffered as a consequence, there was no avoiding that — and it could have been much worse.


  20. Incidentally, it’s heartening to hear Labour and the Greens trampling all over the government in the debate on this act in Parliament this morning. For what that’s worth.


  21. And Scott — one more thing. Would you care to answer my ‘union right or wrong’ question about whether we really shouldn’t assess the quality or justness of union actions before supporting them, posed in the comments on Bowalley Road?


  22. Scott:

    Your link to the 2007 post does not work. Not knowing how you define your “unorthodox” Marxism I am loathe to pidgeonhole you, and having written extensively in scholarly outlets as well as here about labour issues I am equally loathe to traverse old ground with regards to “proper” approaches to working class collective action.

    But I will take a punt and speculate that you are likely to be a neo-Marxist, most likely of the neo-Gramscian persuasion, perhaps influenced by the Frankfurt School. It may sound like an arrogant intellectual in-joke but it basically means that you parallel EuroMarxists in thought and practice (hopefully), which is of course a democratic form of Socialism far removed from the acquiescent politics of “New Labour” and their ilk in NZ and beyond.

    But if that is the case, then you should be attracted to, rather than repelled by, Lew’s critique of AE.

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  24. Cheers Lew,

    Great work. Thanks for saying it. Was beginning to feel like the whole left was imploding into craziness over this.

    As for the above:

    1)It’s not about how well they played it necessarily – it’s the fact that they’ve been caught constantly lying (either deliberately, or through ignorance of what the MEAA have gone about with their strike action), both the general public and their own members. Either way it’s a massive failure of leadership and dereliction of duty.

    2) Yes, support their aims. Can’t ever support them overall because their methods are destructive both to themselves and the cause overall.

    As we have seen.

    Surely that was obvious from Lew’s post?

    As for:

    “surely you are aware that this in itself causes the union movement harm?”
    It causes the kind of union that lies to and deceives its own members harm. If the rest of the union movement is stupid enough to defend that union, that’s their own stupid faults if they get caught in the crossfire for not checking their details first.

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  26. Hi Pablo,

    I’m a bit of a backwoods Marxist: I’m interested in digging round in the guy’s late and obscure work and figuring out ways it can be related to socialist projects outside the centres of capital. The Eurocommies don’t appeal to me so much: they seem a bit of a rerun of Kautsky. Here’s the link again to that 2007 post, which foreshadows the arguments in my forthcoming book on that rather unorthodox Marxist (and pioneering publisher of Gramsci) EP Thompson, who was one of the first to sense there was something important in Marx’s very late work:


  27. My response to Phil about unionism & class struggle upthread suits your comment as well. What you’re talking about (‘bargaining agents’) might have value, but it isn’t a union in the sense we’re discussing it — it’s something else.

    OK, but from my experience, union fees are the minimum energy path to bargaining, and currently not very good value at that. I suspect the majority of workers today prefer a personal good faith relationship with their employer.

    4 out of 5 workers are not union members, and they presumably cover all classes. Those workers obviously don’t feel the need for employment negotiations to be tainted by class struggle or collectivism considerations.


    There are a large number of small unions ( <100 members ), who use their size to obtain terms and conditions that match their members' needs. They are the lazy version of an individual employment contract, and may be beneficial for both employees and employers.

    I disagree about the comment elsewhere that the CTU has performed well in the MEAA/AE debacle. It's preferable to quench small fires with water, rather than wait and use petrol. However, I'm often wrong, and if the CTU have performed, I'd assume union membership will climb steeply over the next few years.

  28. By contrast, the socialist/Marxist position would be to criticise the mistakes of the leadership within the union movement and left press BUT maintain full solidarity with the union against external attacks from the boss class and corporate media.’

    Full solidarity with the Union? There is a nation-wide battle to stop minimum wage workers being turfed out of their jobs after two months and 29 days. A battle to ensure a livable minumum wage. A battle to ensure workplace access for all unions. And this is for people that make $12.75 an hour, people struggling to make ends meet, people that desperately need someone to fight for them.

    So when a tiny group of very middle-class actors, represented by a “union” of epic incompetence, manages to single-handedly turn all NZ’s public opinion against unions, and possibly destroy all that real unions are fighting for, to benefit the real working class, then **** *** with your solidarity.

    And **** *** with your academic Marxist wanking. You think the thousands of lowly-paid service workers in NZ really give a flying **** as to what sub-branch of Marxist intellectual tradition you claim to adhere to? I highly doubt it.

    Lew is right to be critical of AE when their actions will likely have a devestating effect on the welfare of NZ’s worst-off workers.

    >>Note to nic: you have been edited for vulgarity. Read the comments policy. Say it civily or do not say it at all. One can strongly disagree with being crass. Pablo<<

  29. 4 out of 5 workers are not union members, and they presumably cover all classes. Those workers obviously don’t feel the need for employment negotiations to be tainted by class struggle or collectivism considerations.

    More accurately, they obviously don’t feel the need to pay union fees when the employer gives them the union-negotiated conditions anyway. People are like that.

    …despite all of my criticism of AE, I think the CTU, and particularly Helen Kelly, has done very well in this case. I’d have liked them to raise a stronger critique of AE’s actions, but fundamentally their role was to step in and steady the ship, to limit the damage and restore a measure of industrial competence to proceedings. That they did…

    I agree, which is one reason I’ve spent half the week inviting right-wing mouth-frothers to explain exactly how “the unions” are to blame for what happened. None of them has an account of it that makes any sense – but I guess no-one here would be particularly surprised by that.

  30. Pabo –

    Sorry, wasn’t aware of the house rules. Of course, ignorance of the law…

  31. Australia’s unions are much more staunch, much more strongly supported, have far greater political and social power, and they exercise it much more readily than unions here. This isn’t true of all industries, of course, but it’s certainly the case on balance.

    Lew – That was part of the point. Perhaps Australia has better wages because of stronger unions. The extractive mining industry in South America is grossly exploitative as Pablo knows well. I wonder how far ahead New Zealand would be in wages per capita if South American trade rules had applied in Australia. There is a case that organised labour provides strategic value to a country by ensuring that short sighted management does not engage in a cheapest price race to the bottom based on lower and ever lower cost of labour.

    Germany has strong responsible unions and a strong manufacturing sector. Britain had strong manufacturing and irresponsible unions that have meant manufacturing hollowed out of the north. Current UK prosperity is based entirely on financial services and supporting that inthe South East. The money comes from Oil, Russia, and the old empire.

    Low skilled workers from the traditional industrial base of the Midlands and the North are net drains on the economy.

    I have not yet devised a plausible narrative for New Zealand but am interested in developing it. The circumstances around the mobility of The Hobbit are helpful in developing that. Gross union stupidity and a badly overplayed hand seem a reasonable consensus.

    The reason that the global AE boycott failed so miserably is because the production of the Hobbit is so mobile. The individual contractors seem to have already been rewarded with close to the maximum the market would bear. That is why the possibility of Warners moving away from the possibility of industrial strife was only bought off with a dollop of taxpayers money and legal clarity of status.

    The bargaining position of the union was poor to start with. Ireland and Hungary are both in desperate financial straits and would have welcomed The Hobbit with open arms and more money that NZ taxpayers would have provided. Instead of approbation Jackson should be congratulated for his role in keeping the industry here.

    The longer term points too take from this debacle is the recognition that the world has changed. Skilled workers take a short term view that they are better as contractors than employees. I speak from personal experience when I say that the rate is both higher and the tax impact more preferable for contractors vs employees. Knowledge work is mobile and organised labour must be more subtle. There is a substantial difference between movie workers and a fire brigade or wharf union. You cannot operate without the latter but the former can easily move.

    The sensible path from here for NZ AE would be to formally sever all links with the Australian union and push for the competition law to be changed so that individual company contractors are not bound by the same law that is intended to apply to monopolistic companies. That is the genuine iniquity.

  32. ni(c):

    No worries. We are just a bit precious about keeping the debate sharp but clean. Keeps away the trolls.

  33. The point is there is a class and generation warfare going on- but this is not where it is being fought.

    It seems there is a clear attack on the less cashed up and on the union movement from this government.

    By neglecting this wider context we are helping the Key government wage it.

    The despicable ‘noose around the neck of young New Zealanders” comment about teachers is a case in point.

    This has become a brush to attempt to tarnish the whole union movement prior to the introduction of reactionary employment measures and to derail the campaign against them.

    AND if we are going to complain about democratic institutions and process surely the first place to start is the National government and their lack of process in passing apallingly ignorant legislation.

    Not only in a moral sense, but in a basic understanding of how law works in this country.

  34. On 80% of workers are non-union members, PM wrote…

    More accurately, they obviously don’t feel the need to pay union fees when the employer gives them the union-negotiated conditions anyway. People are like that.

    Unions have been successfully negotiating “member only” rewards since individual contracts appeared. Most of such “benefits” haven’t motivated non-members to join, indicating the marginal nature of benefits offered by employers.

    Employers can’t automatically pass on such union benefits, and they agree to wait for employees to ask for the same or better and negotiate accordingly, most employees probably don’t bother.

    The German example is different, as they have a dual system, with sector-wide collective bargaining ( between unions and industry, rather than individual employers or sites ), combined with legally-powerful “works councils” for each site that address specific issues.

    From http://www.allbusiness.com/management/1039499-1.html

    “Works councils have legal responsibility for implementing sectoral agreements at workplace level and deal with a range of social issues there. They are bound to work with employers in a ‘spirit of co-operation’ and have rights of co-determination, consultation and information across a wide range of issues They must not initiate industrial action.”

    Some articles claim that US companies working in Germany have been trying to overturn the industrial relations model for several years, unsuccessfully so far. NZ employers are very likely to also have the US attitude to such dual systems.

  35. Unions have been successfully negotiating “member only” rewards since individual contracts appeared. Most of such “benefits” haven’t motivated non-members to join, indicating the marginal nature of benefits offered by employers.

    Sorry Bruce, you’re wrong. Most collective agreements are passed on to non-union members by their employers (it’s very hard to stop this happening). If this wasn’t the case a lot of non-union workers would have an incentive to sign up to the union for the better terms and conditions. That’s something very few employers want to happen.

    Lew, just because AE didn’t make a good job of their campaign is no reason not to support them (or to stand on the sidelines throwing rocks at them as some left commentators have done).

    Especially as the tactics they used have been used more adeptly to raise terms and conditions for workers on project work in other industries.

    One of the things that has concerned me about this whole dispute is how many people have been willing to make their minds up based on how the PR has been handled rather than on the main issue of the dispute itself.

    If your younger sibling foolishly takes on the school yard bully do you stand back, criticise your sibling’s stupidity and cheer on the bully or do you step in with support? I make this familial analogy because one of the fundamental aspects of unionism is fraternity.

  36. Uh, when the sibling takes on the school bully in a moronic fight they were never going to win, and you and all his mates beaten up in the process, then yeah… they deserve some criticism.

    Aside from that, your analogy is deceptive, because, in fact, the sibling is responsible for himself as an individual. Where as the Union leadership is actually responsible for the membership that they’re supposed to represent. One can criticise the leaders of Actor’s Equity for hurting the members they were supposed to protect and responsibly represent. It’s been a complete dereliction of duty.

    If the only way to stop them is to throw a few rocks. Then, yeah – rocks will be thrown, if only to protect the people they’re damaging in the process.

  37. IrishBill, one of the most tiresome aspects of the battle of words around this has been the hackneyed analogies deployed by people on either side to illustrate their case. The worst are those which riff on Tolkien, but this one is pretty bad as well.

    For another thing, you’ve missed my point: my objection is not mainly that their PR is bad; it is, but what’s worse is that their actions were bad — particularly pushing so hard without the backing of the wider industry, against a project which means so much to NZ economically and in terms of identity. (I’m quite prepared to accept that The Hobbit and PJ shouldn’t matter so much, but the fact is that they do). Moreover, these two failings — bad PR and a bad course of action — derive mainly from the same fundamental failing: the absence of a democratic mandate. Broader engagement and more robust internal systems would have ensured both a better course of action and greater public and industry support for those actions. I understand that there are many things which make this very difficult — entrenched apathy and individualistis alienation within the industry; an industrial relations regime which makes collective bargaining among contractors illegal at worst and questionable at best; and a generally hostile political environment. But these are not arguments in favour of the sort of Quixotic idiocy we’ve seen recently; they’re arguments in favour of continued preparation. Yes; a better deal for workers on The Hobbit would certainly have been off the cards — but (capital flight aside) The Hobbit is not going to be New Zealand’s last, or the biggest, film project.


  38. Sorry Bruce, you’re wrong. Most collective agreements are passed on to non-union members by their employers (it’s very hard to stop this happening).

    Evidence please for “most” collectives, and an example of an employer who does that would be valuable. That’s certainly not what happened with the collectives I’ve been party to involving good faith bargaining.

    Sure it would be easy for employers to transfer provisions, however such action would be a obvious breach of good faith if employers accepted such collective provisions and then breached them.

    As I noted above, unions can’t stop it happening, and the traditional process is for employers to also agree to not automatically offer such benefits in individual contracts, but wait until similar provisions are requested by employees on individual contracts during negotiations.

    I recall only one case – where a HR contractor decided to transfer a collective provision to new individual contracts, and the union complained to the employer within days of the new individual contracts appearing.

    An apology was forthcoming, and additional commitment made to ensure it didn’t happen again. Not deliberate malice or bad faith, but the unapproved actions of an HR contractor during management changes.

    I’ve found most management I’ve worked for supported good faith bargaining because it reinforces mutual respect. My experience, obviously different to yours. I’m awaiting your list of bad faith employers.

  39. Bruce:

    I do not know about anyone else’s list of bad faith employers, but I would start mine with Auckland University and doubt that any unionised employee there will disagree. The management’s objective, pure and simple, is to break the TEU presence on campus and to destroy the career of anyone who would challenge its self-annointed corporate prerogatives.

  40. Bruce, the “free rider problem”, as it’s known, is extremely well-documented in the specific context you dispute, in NZ, in recent times. It’s very well known indeed to anyone with experience of large-scale industrial negotiations, and indeed to anyone in certain industries who cares to pay attention; traditionally those with a generally weak union base which employ very large numbers of people in similar sorts of work. Bad faith can be avoided by tweaking the edges of the provisions slightly so they’re not exactly the same; and in any case, bad faith is extremely difficult to demonstrate absent egregious breaches.

    One specific example of which I’m fairly well aware is the banking industry, in which FINSEC was reduced to negotiating explicitly non-transferable benefits; those which, as a condition of agreement, employers are prohibited from extending to non-unionised workers. [Edit — since been corrected on this; in the case I’m thinking of FINSEC wasn’t actually in a strong enough position to even negotiate such non-transferable benefits; the rest of the reasoning below still holds.] This is bad for a few reasons — it divides the worker community, permitting the employer to argue that the union is trying to hold back “ordinary” workers; and the prohibition usually only lasts one bargaining round before the benefits are passed on wholesale. Paradoxically, [and this is why FINSEC couldn’t negotiate them] such non-transferable provisions command a higher bargaining ‘price’ than those which are more broadly applicable — in a nutshell, the opportunity to pass on a benefit whilst simultaneously weakening the union by making free-riding easy is worth more to the employer than passing on the benefit only to unionised workers.

    I have no doubt this same game is played out in many other industries. So, with respect, it seems that by asking IrishBill to substantiate such a well-known phenomenon, you’re really just asking him to plug a hole in your knowledge of the topic.


  41. I see I don’t really need to respond re the ‘free rider’ issue, but would like to add:

    1. In my workplace, the individual contract is always the collective contract minus any mention of the union.

    2. I’ve heard of unions attempting to negotiate member-only benefits, but haven’t heard of any successfully doing so.

    3. That lack of success is presumably because, as Lew points out, it’s absolutely not in the employer’s interest to make union membership more attractive.

  42. Lew, you are unlikely to get a satisfactory resolution to your enquiry about “union right or wrong”. Others have described some of the political history, theory and dialectics from their point of view on such a question. Which distills to ‘qualified support’, support (or at least not criticism) in public plus efforts behind the scenes to assist with miscalculated strategies and tactics. “Work with and struggle against” is another old maxim. Such support obviously cannot be unlimited.

    I want to go to the more subjective factor of class understanding and loyalty. Adults acquire ‘it’ or they don’t, and some older ones seem prone to discard it! For the “post class”, or those that recognise certain features of a class analysis but want to deal with the contradictions somehow within the parameters of the system this may not make sense.

    Your firm support for the Maori Party post election did not make much sense to me either. For all money it was obvious what was likely to happen based on the evidence of what tory governments do when in office. But you persisted on the ‘right’ of the MP and Maori generally to find out for themselves. An ‘own goal’? given that the MP does not represent and did not consult all Maori, similarly critics have leveled “own goal” (an unlovely term really) at AE during the ’Hobbit’ fiasco.

    Popular mandates are something corporates do not have either. They rely on enforcement of their position by legal means and state forces in the capitalist superstructure. So what mandate should a puny union require? The power imbalance vis-a-vis film industry and AE is something many commenters have applied insufficient weight to. The amount of non and never union people rifling around in Actors Equity affairs has been quite a spectacle. I notice a press release on the SPADA site 29 October:
    “This year’s SPADA conference kicks off with a hiss and a roar with the key plenary session on The Hobbit – What Really Happened. Chaired by Russell Brown, the panel will include Philippa Boyens (co-writer The Hobbit), SPADA’s CEO Penelope Borland and Executive Member Richard Fletcher.”
    How timely given the 2000 post significantly pro Sir Jackson ‘Hobbit’ threads at PAS.

    Kiwis do as Robyn Malcom says, a good line in passive aggression, not to mention the real thing when it comes to anti unionism.

    p.s. re ‘freeloaders’ the NZ Dairy Workers Union Te Runanga Wai U has had some sucess with member only benefits, as has the NDU.

  43. For PM…
    PSA and Healthcare NZ collective agreement,..
    ” The backpay is only for PSA members… PSA members will start getting the pay increases three months before non-members “. A simple Google search revealed others that I didn’t pursue, but I know of at least two, and I’ve not been a union member for years.

    Of course the collective may be used as the base of individual agreements. Many employers find that cost-effective, and the Union recognises that reality, hence the “members-only” provisions are often either a subsection of the agreement or, more commonly, a separate appendix / covering document that’s agreed to by both parties during negotiations.

    Your experiences with Auckland University are well documented, but I was specially asking for a bad faith example of an employer that agreed to “members-only” collective benefits, and then automatically offered those benefits to others. I’m not sure that applied in your situation.

    A quick look at the Finsec collective contract on the WWW suggest it doesn’t offer “members-only” benefits, so it does not relate to my challenge, unless there is a separate accompanying document with those provisions.

    “Free-riding” which can occur from both Collective and Individual Agreements does not relate to specific negotiated “member-only” benefits. It’s recognised that many employers find it more efficient to use Collective agreements as the base for individual agreements.

    “Free-riding” is transfer of general terms and conditions between Collectives and Individual agreements, and can go both ways, but most commonly from the Collective. However those benefits are not exclusively negotiated, so free-riding is not a breach of good faith.

    I haven’t seen a collective agreement that prevents transfer of all terms and conditions, just that additional negotiated benefits should not be offered automatically. Those agreements may exist, just I haven’t encountered them.

    That’s also why employers like to isolate any “member-only” benefits in documents, and union negotiators I’ve dealt with accept that reality.

    The challenge to Irish Bill, and now you, is to provide evidence of an employer who agreed to “collective-only”
    benefits ( as opposed to transferable collective terms and conditions ), and then breached that agreement by deliberately and/or automatically offering such benefits on individual contracts.

    There are bad faith employers and employees, but I’ve found the employment negotiations I’ve participated in were conducted in good faith. I’d like to know who doesn’t, so I can avoid them.

  44. TM, thanks for as good an answer as I’ll get. Better than the usual sort of “you just don’t get it (and you’re a fifth-columnist capitalist-scumbag by default)” response I tend to get when I fail to construct questions within the preferred dialectic framework.

    Re the māori party — it’s a poor equivalent. Regardless of how you thought the coalition deal would work out, you’re wrong about their mandate. They sought and gained constituency agreement to go into coalition with a series of dozens of hui between the election and the coalition agreement being signed. Every parliamentary recess they renew that mandate with more hui. These aren’t open only to māori party members or voters, but to anyone on the Māori electoral roll. So while, of course, they haven’t gained the assent of every Māori who their policy decisions impact upon, they’ve done a very great deal more than any other political party. This is simply not comparable to AE’s utter absence of a mandate, which included the refusal to gain any sort of assent from — or even coordinate with — other industry agencies such as those representing writers (who, as Peter Cox says, were working toward an Irish-style reform); or even the CTU until it was too late for them to do anything other than damage control. They had so little support that they couldn’t field a counter-protest — even a token one — on Labour Day for crying out loud.

    Moreover, my support for the māori party is quite clearly delineated. I disagree with a growing number of their policy decisions — private prisons, economic reforms beyond the minimum necessary to maintain the C&S agreement, Foreshore & Seabed — and I’ve said so here and elsewhere. But by the same token I recognise that their policies are not for me. So I defer to their public mandate, which I described above. I’m on record saying that if what they’re doing runs counter to the wishes of their constituency then they deserve to suffer for it. I read today that there’s an anti-māori party hÄ«koi planned regarding the Marine & Coastal Area Environment. I think this is wonderful, and far from whingeing about a lack of solidarity, I believe it demonstrates the vigorous debate happening within Māoridom about this topic. So yes — the coalition with National may be the māori party’s “own goal”, but it was an own goal which they had a mandate to make, and for which they will suffer the ultimate consequences (which may include going down in history as those who sold their people down the river). By contrast, AE’s actions were taken with almost nobody’s consent or agreement, and their consequences would be (and presently are being) felt by a huge number of others. To compare the two cases is simply disingenuous.


  45. Bruce: challenge away, but I don’t see any need to take it up. My original comment was as follows:

    …they obviously don’t feel the need to pay union fees when the employer gives them the union-negotiated conditions anyway.

    Those union-negotiated conditions generally aren’t “member-only” benefits, so there’s no suggestion employers are reneging on member-only agreements.

  46. Fair reply Lew, I had noted your change in position on the Maori Party and resulting qualifications over time. Various MP hui in Northland have been members only though, particularly the ones just after the election, and understandably the “Hone’s future’ ones, but good on the party for consulting.

    My comparison does not fit exactly, AE with MP, but is an example of the tendency for some people to support political causes and groups actions in a way that appears to non supporters, to defy logic and involves some sort of underlying loyalty-indeed ‘right or wrong’ support. But if people do not change tack in response to changed situations they will indeed have to wear the consequences. If the rest of the industry had been organised to stand by AE instead of being subject to diverse forms of disunity (entrenched over many years) the matter could have been over very quickly.

    My feeling is we have not heard the last of AE, and it is quite likely a Weta friendly ‘company’ union may be formed as well in the near future. For most unionists the days of tiny craft based guilds ended years ago.

    aside: I am generally a Hone supporter, and I support the Popata brothers led group (a bit of a militant Mutu sanctioned offshoot) from Ngati Kahu by turning up at their occupations (mainly Doubtless Bay) over a treaty settlement for one of the most marginalised iwi. They and many members got involved in a pakeha started battle with a developer in 05 and 07 and a shared leadership achieved a comprehensive victory. It is vital to pay attention to the land you live on if you want any credibility in my view.

  47. If the rest of the industry had been organised to stand by AE instead of being subject to diverse forms of disunity (entrenched over many years) the matter could have been over very quickly.

    The disunity had been caused by an Australian union organising a legally dubious international boycott, followed by a complete failure of AE to publicly justify that boycott (including, amongst other thing, the absurd strategy of refusing to admit the boycott even existed), potentially causing massive damage public perception damage to their fellow unions and the industry overall.

    Nothing bloody ‘entrenched over many years’ about it.

    Are you trying to suggest that the other directors/writers/techos unions are yellow/company unions and thus failed to support AE because of that? I’d suspect they might not be terribly thrilled the hear that.

  48. Get a grip James. Most of us gave up small unions years ago. The likes of the photo lithographers and printers and journos are now in the EPMU. That is what I would suggest the writers and crew people do too, find a suitable professional home with adequate resources. They are not yellow unions at all, but the rumoured ‘new’ union may well fit that description.

    The entrenched bit I refer to involves the precarious, face fitting nature of the entertainment industry which has long been a barrier to effective unionisation.

  49. I think you ought to blame the NZ legislation with regard to the unionisation of independent contractors rather than the entertainment industry or the “new” unions though.

    Writers or Directors joining the EPMU isn’t going to make a jot of difference to that. Crew maybe, but good luck after all this going down…

  50. Apologies though for the suggestion that you were calling them anything like company unions, though – accepted that’s not what you meant.

  51. Get a grip James. Most of us gave up small unions years ago. The likes of the photo lithographers and printers and journos are now in the EPMU.

    The ERS link I provided up thread was union returns, and you’ll find that, in 2009, there were about 150 registered unions. That data supports your perception.

    ” Of the registered unions that provided returns, 44.6% have less than 100 members. While the average number of members per union is 2621, the median is 137 members. The 10 largest unions account for 76.4% of the total union membership. More women (59.9%) than men are union members. ”

    From names alone, there appear to be a reasonable number of workplace unions, and I see that generally as advantageous to workers, as they can more focused and deal with important member and employer issues. I’m not sure that one size fits all situations today, as good faith can be easily dissolved by “outside” intervention.

    The obvious disadvantage of small unions is that they can only carry small sticks if they encounter anti-union employers.

    I’m not sure that larger unions would ration waving their bigger sticks to bad employers, who are by far the minority. Large unions tend to attract full-time staff that may have social justice agendas and polarised views of employers, so sector employers then all band together for protection and consistency of response.

    From my limited experience, large unions also appear much less willing to litigate/negotiate individual disputes, especially if they involve issues like a disputed redundancy – money spent isn’t going to be recovered in fees if the member moves on.

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