Wharfies’ fight shows futility of unions giving money to Labour

by Philip Ferguson

A topic that has come up during the Ports of Auckland dispute has been the relationship of unions, in this case MUNZ, to the Labour Party.  A number of left commentators have noted that MUNZ gave several thousand dollars to Labourite Len Brown’s successful campaign for the Auckland supercity mayoralty, yet Brown has sided with the Ports of Auckland employer against the wharfies.  The Labour Party has provided absolutely no meaningful support to the wharfies, despite MUNZ being affiliated to the party and giving it $18,500 last year.

I’d go a bit further and say that any union being affiliated to Labour, giving it money and helping it in any way is shooting itself in the foot.

The general argument made by progressive/leftish people for unions to be affiliated and give money is that it gains the unions influence in Labour.  This is a game that unions can never win, because only serious money can buy serious influence.

For instance, since 1984 Labour has received millions in donations from corporates, far, far more than unions could ever provide.  In the lead-up to the 1999 election and its aftermath, Labour was receiving more money from corporates than National.

However, the money received by Labour from business interests and wealthy individuals is totally dwarfed by the key source of Labour – and all parliamentary party – funding.  Namely, the state.  And since we live in a capitalist society, we’re talking about the capitalist state – the state that maintains the best possible conditions for the accumulation of capital at the top end of society.

In the past year, six unions – five of them affiliates – gave $120,500 to Labour.  But in the 2011 budget the Labourites received well over $6 million “for Labour parliamentary party to support its Leader’s office, research operations, Whips’ office, members’ and, during the immediate post election period, electoral candidates’ and former members’ parliamentary operations as allowed under directions given by the Speaker.”  For the coming year, Labour will get a further sum of just over $6 million.  In addition to this, millions and millions of dollars are paid out by parliamentary services in Labour MPs’ salaries, travel allowances and other perks and many millions more to secretarial and administrative support.

In exchange, Labour is absolutely dedicated to managing the existing system – a system in which they have such a powerful vested interest.

Meanwhile, when economic times are good, there is some jam for Labour – or that matter, National – to put on the workers’ bread and butter and when capitalism enters recession the jam gets taken away.  It’s immaterial which of these sibling parties of capital is in power.  Indeed, the differences are so small that even back before the 1996 election, National Party prime minister Jim Bolger said he could see no reason why they couldn’t form “a grand coalition”.

The cash that unions give is such a tiny part of the overall funding of the Labour Party that they can never have any influence in upsetting that state of affairs.  But what is chump change, literally, for Labour is quite significant for unions.  The $18,500 MUNZ put into topping up the millions that Labour gets from the capitalist state could produce a huge number of leaflets explaining the wharfies’ case to wider sections of workers across Auckland.

Of course, Labour MPs in Auckland, aware that about 80% of the city’s population oppose privatisation of the Ports of Auckland, will give the nod and wink to wharfies and MUNZ officials in private.  But the Labourites’ twitches mean nothing – and are certainly of less use to the workers than retaining the $18,500 and using it to fight for their own interests.

Union donations to the Labour Party are  not money well-spent.  The brutal truth is they’re workers’ money thrown down the toilet.

Our arguments are developed in more depth in the following pieces:                                                             Workers, unions and Labour: unravelling the myths                                                                                         The Truth About Labour: a bosses party

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