Chris Trotter has strong opinions, when I get the time to follow him – which isn’t often. But this short story, about Blue and Harry, stalwarts of the good old days of unionism, has turned up on my media monitoring, repeated in every little down-home country paper throughout the country. Blue says :
“I heard that Darien Fenton woman talking on the radio the other day – Labour’s industrial relations spokesperson. You know what she says?”
“What did she say?”
“She says: ‘Nobody on the Left is calling for the reintroduction of compulsory unionism and national awards.’”
“Never asked us”, said Harry.
“No, she bloody didn’t”, muttered Blue. “But I know what I’d like to ask Darien Fenton. I’d like to ask her how much longer Labour’s going to let this wretched experiment in voluntary union membership go on before declaring it a failure?
“Ninety-one out of a hundred, Harry. Ninety-bloody-one! That how many private sector workers lack union protection. Hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary Kiwis stripped of the ability to negotiate with their employers on equal terms. To look the boss in the eye and say ‘no deal’, without being sent down the road.”
Yep, well Blue and Harry (and Trotter) have got that right. There’s only 9% of private sector workers covered by unions and collective bargaining in NZ. It’s not a NZ only situation – and there’s plenty of international evidence mounting now, including from the IMF and the OECD, that the decline in unionism and collective bargaining has contributed to rising inequality and even the GFC.
I honour the commitment of the Blues and Harry’s and of those who followed them. I’ve worked in workplaces where there’s been strikes for weeks on end. I have my share of war stories, just like many Labour MPs (and they’re not all glorious). We worry about leaving the next generation much worse off than the one we inherited from their struggle. But the world has sadly changed. In Blue and Harry’s day, a casual worker would have been unheard of. Working the weekend for ordinary rates would be a strikeable offence. But women getting equal pay, paid parental leave, domestic leave and four weeks holiday were also just as unthinkable, so it’s not all about what happened yesterday.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t injustices, low pay and exploitation. There is plenty to go around.
But Blue and Harry would find today’s workplace unrecognisable and while we learn from our history, yesterday’s solutions aren’t the only solutions for today’s problems. Try, for instance, telling a young IT worker they should be compulsorily bound to a union.
So, Blue and Harry (and Chris Trotter) be patient. Talk with me if you want – anytime. Labour’s policy will be announced soon. We will be standing up for workers, and as we have always done, standing up for the poor and the lowest paid, and taking into account the fragmentation of the labour market, the huge inequalities that have developed, and the need to create a fairer society for everyone.