This week in “A View from Afar” Selwyn Manning and I try to provide a conceptual/analytic backdrop to the protests in the PRC and Iran. The thrust is that although there are similarities as well as differences between them, each confrontation involves a strategic game between the protestors and regime elites, who in turn can be respectively divided into different camps based on their objectives and approaches (ideological versus material goals on the part of militants and moderates in the Opposition, reforms or repression on the part of soft-liners versus hard-liners in the regime). Hybrid strategies involving carrot and stick approaches and immediate versus longer-term objectives are also considered. The episode is here.
For the bulk of my academic career I worked on issues of regime change and interest group intermediation, with a particular interest in Latin America. I wrote a couple of books (one co-authored) about state-labour relations in several South American countries and a fair number of articles that included discussion of how labour engaged in collective action under different regime types. The comparative study of state-labour relations remains an abiding interest of mine.
One of the axioms of comparative democratic labour relations is that unions will engage in more cooperative labour relations strategies and therefore strike less under Left governments than they will under Right governments. The presumption is that since Left governments are working class based or supported, and because they are sympathetic to working class concerns in their policy platforms, there is less incentive for unions to take strong collective action against them, particularly with respect to strikes and Â other forms of labour service withdrawal. This is especially so because such direct action could undermine the Left government in question and leave it vulnerable at the next election.
Because unions presumably prefer to have Left governments over Right governments in office, resorting to labour service withdrawals would be a counterproductive union political strategy over the medium term even if economically productive over the short term. That is true of public sector strikes in particular (since strikes, even when focused on economic issues, are inherently political when they involve the state as employer), but private sector strikes are also seen as electorally injurious to Left governments (after all, if a Left government cannot â€œcontrolâ€ unions then what is the point of having them?).
In terms of so-called political strikes as well as economic strikes, Labour governments are generally thought to offer a better prospect for labour peace.
Conversely, unions supposedly dislike Right governments and therefore engage in more confrontational approaches to labour relations, particularly if there perceive that there has been a rollback of union legal and economic gains under those or previous Right governments. Both economically and politically, unions have reason to adopt more militant strategies underÂ Right governments.
The subtleties embedded in this dichotomy are found in the strategies of public sector versus private sector unions against a backdrop of relative union density and the legal frameworks governing wage-setting. This assumes that union leaders and members share the same ideological orientation and that union leaders accurately transmit the material demands of the rank and file during negotiations with the State and employers (i.e. the principal/agent relationship is tight and coordinated). At that point employer characteristics at the level of the firm as well as productive sector come into play, set against a backdrop of relative business sectorial organisation (both as producers and employers) and the labour relations framework operative at the time. A collective action and strategic interaction is framed by macroeconomic conditions and government budgets, with sectorial growth and Treasury surpluses being determinants of the latitude for negotiation in any particular instance.
For the last three decades all of this occurs in the context of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange under market-oriented macroeconomic policies developed and implemented by public sector technocrats that seek to outsource public sector service provision and downsize the legal authority and managerial and regulatory functions of the State as part of government mandated, market-oriented ideological agendas.
In the era of market-oriented economic reform, changes in labour relationsâ€™ legal frameworks have tended to favour employers and business associations over labour unions under both Left and Right democratic governments, with the degree of favouritism seen in the approaches towards collective bargaining adopted by each. Overall, although Left governments have mitigated much market-oriented labour reform while Right governments have sought to accentuate and exploit them in order to weaken the labour movement and atomise working class representation and collective strength, the trend has seen a weakening of union power across the democratic capitalist world as measured in union density, membership numbers and the collective rights and legal authority governing working class representation in production. This has been acutely felt in the private sector where individual worker rights and contracts predominate over collective rights and representation. With their relative collective strength, public sector unions remain as the diminished core of most contemporary labour movements in capitalist democracies.
A key factor in determining the propensity to strike is wage-setting institutions. Generally speaking, the more centralised the bargaining nexus and more monopolistic the bargaining agents doing the negotiating, the more likely that unions will prosper in their demands without having to resort to strikes. In contrast, the more decentralised the bargaining forum and the more disparate the bargaining agents, the more likely it is that employers will have the upper hand in bilateral negotiations with employees, thereby increasing the possibility of strikes. For example, tripartite (labour, state, capital) wage boards governing wage negotiations in specific economic sectors tend to push compromises that trade incremental wage gains for productivity, job security and reinvestment guarantees. Conversely, enterprise level bargaining between employers and various employee bargaining agents tends to fix or depress wage bills in exchange for non-wage guarantees. In New Zealand collective bargaining is more closely based on the latter model rather than the former and yet overall strike levels have remained low.
The way in which the union movement is incorporated and inserted in the political system matters in this regard. The form of initial incorporation (that is, the way in which unions are initially integrated into the national political system), may be more of historical rather than practical import for well-established unions created in the previous century and whose insertion in the political system today was consolidated some time ago. But initial incorporation matters much to recently organised contemporary unions without long political histories. That is because the terms of their political incorporation and subsequent political insertion in the political system are still being determined and sometimes disputed, including by older or more established unions as well as the State and employers. These may not echo or even resemble the conflicts surrounding initial labour incorporation and political insertion in the past, but they nevertheless condition the way these newer collective agents are allowed to exercise economic and political representation in the present context.
There are three main forms of labour political insertion. In some liberal democracies organised labour is inserted in the political system in Left party dominant fashion, e.g., the party dominates the union in both leadership selection as well as member political affiliation. In other liberal democracies unions dominate or control the party, with union representatives holding key Party positions down to grassroots organising and regularly running for office. In still others unions are independent of Left political parties although nominally sympathetic to them, with union leaders and members displaying a broader range of party affiliations than under the first two types. In illiberal democracies so-called â€œyellowâ€ unions (factory or business unions and â€œprofessional associationsâ€) exist that are independent or affiliate with Right parties. In the main these are not considered to be authentic representatives of working class collective interests because they are created by or at the behest of employers in lieu of them.
This brings up the subject at hand. There currently is the possibility of nurses, public servants and teacherâ€™s strikes in the next few weeks. Conservative commentators have claimed that this is to take advantage of the Labour-led coalitionâ€™s â€œweaknessâ€ and to seize the moment of opportunity provided by Labourâ€™s unwillingness to confront the unions in question. That runs against the conventional wisdom about Left governments and unions. So the question is: why are the nurses, public sector and post-primary teacherâ€™s unions threatening to strike?
One answer may lie in that all of these collective agents are public sector unions that are independent of the Labour Party and its coalition partners. Membership density is high but the sociological demographic in each is changing, with younger members being more ethnically diverse and less identified with the traditional class structures of the industrial era (since those under 30 are of the post-industrial, post-modern age). This may have led to a rejigging of agent/principal relations within the respective unions that might make them more prone to challenge the labour relations orthodoxies of the past, to include being more cooperative when Left governments are in power.
Another answer may lie in the fact that Labour, for all of its â€œprogressiveâ€ policy pronouncements and initiatives, still clings to market-driven logics of production that, even when cushioned along the margins, reinforce the collective bargaining dominance of capitalists. Seen in labour legislation and the role of national labour administration as an interlocutor between labour and capital, this includes cost-cutting managerial rationales in the public sector, where modern Taylorist principles have been borrowed from the private sector and applied to public sector service provision.
That bureaucratic orientation could be partially due to the fact that most Labour leaders are career politicians with few backgrounds â€œgroundedâ€ in the realities of working class activism, and/or because the partyâ€™s focus has recently concentrated more on identity rather than class politics. This has caused Labour to accept market logics in principle and market-oriented solutions to employment relations in fact. The NZ Labour Party is less a working class party than a coalition of post-industrial causes joined by antipathy to conservative (read: Anglo-Saxon Christian capitalist heterosexual and patriarchal) mores. Seeing the situation in this light could well disincline nurses, teachers and bureaucrats from continuing to toe the â€œcooperativeâ€ line, especially if the union demographic traits outlined above prove to be correct.
It is worth noting that the long-established unions affiliated with the Labour Party have not uttered a peep about strikes, to include not offering solidarity with the nurses and teachers. Newly created unions like UNITE in the private sector have engaged in strikes regularly against private employers under the previous Right government and are supportive of the action. But in general the union movement in New Zealand has remained out of the conflict between the State (as manager and employer via the civil service, DHBs and Education Ministry) and the nurses, bureaucrats and teachers unions.
Another question is why did these unions (or most others, for that matter) not strike regularly when the National government was in office? Was it a matter of contracts being in force? Or was it the limits placed on strike action both legally and practically? On the face of it, it seems odd that civil servants, nurses, teachers and other productive groups would wait to strike until Labour was in office if they were out of contract towards the end of the National government. Did they think that striking in an election year would lessen Labourâ€™s chances of winning a plurality and forming a government or, put more appropriately, strengthen Nationalâ€™s arguments that they needed to continue to hold a tight reign on labour market dynamics less the economy lose momentum? This is true for private sector unions but particularly so in the case of public sector unions. Or are the conservative commentators correct and non-Left party affiliated public sector unions simply more willing to exploit Labourâ€™s perceived â€œweaknessâ€ on collective bargaining matters?
If so, then the Labour-led coalition has a problem that is more political than economic.
I am still working through the logics at play because I do not know the internal dynamics of the unions in question nor the Labour-led government’s strategy for handling the strike threat. But if any readers would like to join the discussion and illuminate me on the details of each position, that would be welcome.
The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.
Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.
Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?
I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).
Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.
Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.
Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.
And a Broad Front can be made from that.
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-backedÂ 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, Â 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). Â 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 Â 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?
Education minister Anne Tolley has tacitly threatened to go nuclear on primary principals who refuse to comply with National Standards directives, or who speak out against them. In a speech to the Principals’ Federation conference in Queenstown today, she said:
Itâ€™s much quicker [contacting me with concerns] and you will get results, rather than going to the media and making threats, which is just politicking, and achieves little.
And while weâ€™re on that subject, you are pretty unique among public servants who can speak freely in the media. May I remind you that I made representations to make sure that continues.
However â€“ no public servants have ever been granted the privilege of picking and choosing which Government laws they choose to administer. Lawyers, accountants and all the other professionals working in Ministries can offer opinions. But itâ€™s the Government that makes policy decisions.
Now, there’s an implication here that the minister might retract her “representations” to make sure that the rights of teachers to speak freely are preserved, but there’s nothing to this. Any move to constrain teachers’ views or their expression would immediately draw furious and justified denunciations of the government for politicising and propagandising the education system, such as no liberal political movement could withstand.
In the final analysis she’s 100% correct about the government setting policy and the sector implementing it. By way of remedy, the ministry can take over the running of a school which fails to implement education policies adequately, and Trevor Mallard suggests the ERO has already started heavying truculent schools to set an example to others.
But it is an empty threat. For one thing, you can’t play the bossy schoolmarm with schoolteachers and principals — they wrote the book on it, and know all the tricks of the game, having put up with them from students for their entire professional lives. Not to mention that, as career educators they have far more invested in the quality of their education system than a minister who’s only been in the job two years and could be gone in the next cabinet reshuffle.
More crucially, though, the minister is up against old-fashioned collective action: a heavily unionised workforce which knows it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So what happens if it’s not just one school? What happens if it’s a dozen, or a hundred, or almost all the primary schools in the greater Auckland area, or the schools of two National heartland electorate regions at either end of the country, or as much as 94% of the sector overall?
Later in the speech, Tolley said:
Iâ€™ll say it again â€“ we are going to get this right, for the students, and for their parents.
But when push comes to shove, National Standards simply cannot be implemented by fiat. Teachers, directed by principals, are those who must undertake the implementation of the policy. While I cite them reluctantly because I don’t entirely agree, it’s somewhat like what the Randians are saying about Obama’s response to the BP oil spill: no amount of threat or bluster can provide any additional incentive to progress a cleanup whose failure or undue delay will spell a certain end to the company. No matter how you slice it, there are not enough Ministry of Education staff members, non-unionised part-time relievers or teachers who are happy with National Standards as proposed to do the complex and important work of assessing all the students who need to be assessed; cataloguing, moderating and communicating those assessments to parents and the ministry in a coherent manner. This is ignoring the fact that you can’t simply parachute a compliant teacher or apparatchik into an unfamiliar classroom and have them do it with any legitimacy. The teachers who stand up in front of that class of kids day-in and day-out are the only ones who can properly assess them, and they know it.
The sector also knows it’s in the right. Educators’ opposition to National Standards is neither ideological nor capricious, and they have have consistently levelled principled and pragmatic arguments against only the proposed implementation of the policy, backed by the best local and international experts in the field. They support assessment standards in principle, and have repeatedly suggested reasonable alternatives to the proposed implementation. The problem isn’t with their willingness to work with the minister; it’s that the minister isn’t interested in working with the sector.
So ultimately one of two things will happen: one side or the other will compromise sufficiently for the issue to progress, or the minister will be faced either with backing down in abject failure or sacking a significant proportion of the education workforce, with the consequent failure of the policy by default, not to mention a massive outcry from parents who’re forced to take time off work because their kids can’t go to school (and from their bosses, and bank managers, and almost everyone else). There’s no better way to bring the country to its knees.
Tangentially, this situation illustrates a branding risk I’ve been meaning to post on for a while: if you name a policy initiative after your party or some other core bit of your identity, you had better be damned sure you can get it through to full implementation without a hitch, lest its failure tarnish your good brand. Quite apart from any concerns with the policy, his National government has failed to do so with its National Standards. Not only is the policy programme and its attempted implementation against the wishes of the only people who can implement it a catastrophic mistake, but its naming looks like a spectacular failure as well. If it’s not pulled out of the fire soon, in future, all National’s political enemies will have to do to score a point is recount some of the more embarrassing events of this episode and say “these are National’s Standards”. It’s already happening — I’ve seen that very sentence used at Red Alert, for instance, regarding something unrelated to education reform. Instant conversion of a wonkish policy criticism to a gut-level identity observation which will resonate with the folk who just wanted their kids to go to school, those who wanted nothing more than to teach them as best they could, and ultimately the kids themselves. For this reason, my instinct is that the long-term damage to National’s brand and electability on this matter will become too high a price to pay for the perceived win over the sector, and those with a more strategic view of National’s situation will require that the wound be cauterised. Although it’s a backdown, over the long term this will be good for the party. More importantly, it will be good for the country.