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 mÄori 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.