Don Franks and Jill Brasell

by Don Franks                                                   (the article below is the text of a talk given by Don at a meeting organised by the Canterbury Workers Educational Association last Thursday, December 5)

“Which way forward for workers and unions?”  Over my adult life I’ve attended many discussions with that sort of title. It’s a must-do part of any left group’s conference or annual public meeting.

Looking back over the past hui of three different socialist organisations, I notice a uniform approach. The talks almost all themed something like this:

“Times are getting worse for workers, workers need to launch a militant fight back. A major brake on workers fighting back is the collaborationist attitude of union leaders. Socialists need to build fighting unions and also propagandise for a socialist revolution.”

Nice sounding ideas, but most of that didn’t happen.  In fact, if anything, we’ve gone backwards in all departments.  So this time I’m going to change the record and come at it from a different angle.

First off, to get you interested, I’m going to indicate something of my conclusions.

At the previous leftist conferences I’ve mentioned, uncommitted union people we’d managed to get along would usually be ok with building fighting unions, but less interested in a socialist future. A few would come right out and say a future socialist revolution is impossible.

I must admit that the hard evidence supporting that opinion is pretty much overwhelming.

That still leaves us with the question, “Which way forward for workers and unions?”

Unions are groups of workers united in defence of their pay and conditions, groups formalised into some sort of ongoing structure.

Unions are relatively recent human inventions. Workers in the UK were important union pioneers.

If you visit the little village in Dorset you can, apparently, still see the stump of the tree under which the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834 swore their illegal oath of solidarity. For that crime, the men suffered seven years transportation to Australian penal colonies. (The good news is that they were eventually freed after a mass campaign.)

The harsh treatment of the Tolpuddle farm labourers illustrates the basic relationship between unions and the ruling class. The history of unionism is an unbroken history of punitive legislation.

In fact there were anti-union laws before there were unions.  Reduced numbers of workers following the Black Death forced up the price of labour. England’s rulers of 1349 responded with the Ordinance of Labourers, a law restricting wage increases and the mobility of labour. If workers left their job, seeking one with better pay, they could be imprisoned.

Pretty tough, but the same relationship continues to this day.

In New Zealand today, under the Labour Party-created Employment Relations Act, strikes over most issues are illegal and may be punished by imprisonment.

What is the source of this age-old antagonism?

The relationship between workers and employers is no partnership of equals.

Capitalists own the means of production and exchange, the exploitation of workers takes place at the point of production. Capitalism produces for profit rather than social need. So if an enterprise is not profitable, it will close, with no regard to the social consequences. If the quest for profit requires seizure of markets and materials by means of war, war will be declared. Effective unionism can threaten capitalist profits; if it appears to do that, the capitalists’ armed forces and judiciary will act.

In peacetime workers routinely suffer unemployment, low pay, dangerous conditions, casualisation and stress.

Union functionaries, who have to face capitalism’s ill effects every day, know better than most the system’s viciously anti-social nature.

Yet, union functionaries commonly act as if this was not the case. As if capitalists’ hearts could be softened with entreaties. As if the system could be made fair by amendment of legislation.

For example, look at this card I’ve got here.

It’s a form letter put out by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions in 2004. The letter is to The Hon Paul Swain, who was the Labour government’s Minister of Labour. The letter begins:

“Dear Minister

The Employment Relations Law Reform bill before Parliament will help ensure basic principles of fairness in the workplace, but it needs strengthening to:

  • effectively promote collective bargaining
  •  ensure meaningful good faith provisions
  •  end freeloading by non union members
  •  protect vulnerable workers in transfer situations
  •  prevent gender pay discrimination

The Bill will benefit everybody; secure, happy workers make for a stronger economy.

I urge you to actively support the Bill and the amendments proposed by the Council of Trade Unions.”

Then followed “yours sincerely” and space for people to put their name and address.

The flipside of this abject document bears the slogan “There’s work to be done, together.”  Above those words are depicted six adults and a girl in school uniform huddling together behind a New Zealand flag. One of the men wears a suit and tie, the rest are in overalls.

It wants only a soundtrack: “God of nations at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet…”

At the time the CTU issued this card the Socialist Workers Organisation was campaigning hard for workers’ right to strike over social and political issues, a right explicitly denied by Paul Swain’s Employment Relations Bill.

The CTU’s cringe-making card is not an extreme example either; it is representative.

Back home in Wellington I have desk draws overflowing with similar sorry souvenirs of dishonest union activity.

Why do so many union leaders carry on like this? Are they just deceitful villains?

Some are.

The union movement has spawned a large number of self-seeking careerists. Ambitious union leaders have used their members as stepping stones to reach cushy jobs in boardrooms and parliament.

But this doesn’t explain all of it. There are – and have always been – a few dedicated union officials who work honestly and hard under difficult circumstances.  That doesn’t mean they’re always militant, or can be even if they want to.

To a large extent, unionised workers have the unions they want. Contrary to the dreams of some leftists, workers are not in a permanent state of indignant anti-capitalist militancy. (Our campaign for the right to strike won a lot of signatures and a few stopwork meeting resolutions, but did not grow into a workers’ movement.)

There are many significant divisions in the working class. For example, between the relatively secure and the casual; the better paid and the lower-paid; the more highly-skilled and the unskilled.  These differences are reflected in unions.

Despite Mayday rhetoric about solidarity, unions are more like warring dukedoms than a united movement. In some areas there is more antagonism between unions than between unions and the boss. The relationship between the Postal Workers and the EPMU is just one such example.

New Zealand unions have their own special characteristics, formed by our material conditions. We have a lot of tiny work sites where the boss often works hard alongside his or her employees. We have the strange legacy of state-imposed compulsory unionism, gone now, but only after warping generations of class consciousness. We have a long union tradition of misrepresenting the capitalist Labour Party as worker-friendly.

I have seen many big union changes in my time.

When I first became active, the Federation of Labour was a partially state-supported organisation dominated by aging white men. On the plus side, we enjoyed a functioning national structure of Trades and Labour councils. These bodies were far more democratic and accountable than the CTU structure of today. Although union militancy was very uneven, there were quite a lot of strikes. All city newspapers had an industrial reporter and the annual FoL conference was significant front page news.

Compulsory unionism created a haven for some lazy unambitious people. The position of union secretary was a secure and easy lifetime job. All you were compelled to do was hold an AGM and negotiate an award once a year and some union leaders literally did very little more than that.

Today the equivalent of national awards is the minimum wage and the Holidays Act.

Yesterday’s union movement was unhealthy in many respects but more socially relevant than the small declining residue struggling along today.

There may well be some resurgence of unions in this country, but it does not look likely at the moment. Unite union has put incredible sustained effort into fostering union militancy for very little result. Unite has recruited a total of 35,000 members but the constant turnover of staff in most of the areas they organise leaves the union only 6,500-strong. Unite survives more because of dedicated activists rather than mass worker commitment.

Historically, union militancy has been mostly confined to certain sections of the movement, alongside other sections of class collaboration. Conservative unions have been almost as much of an enemy to militancy as the employers and the state.

As long as there is a class-divided society, there will always be some sort of attempts at unionisation.

Let me be clear, I have always supported unions and still do. Without them, workers’ lives would be much worse than they are now. All socialists of working age should belong to a union and, to the extent possible, be active in it.

But I also think New Zealand leftists, including myself, have long had very unrealistic political expectations of unions. It is impossible for a large united militant union movement to co-exist with capitalism for any length of time. Whenever unions have got too stroppy they have been destroyed, like the Carpenters Union in 1949, the Waterside Workers Union in 1951 and the Boilermakers Union in the late 1970s. When each of those unions were destroyed, some other unions were pleased and, in some cases, had assisted the destruction.

With its various serious inherent limitations, unionism cannot liberate workers from capitalism.

Is there any means that can?

What other options does the working class have?

Like union organisations, the working class is in a constant state of change. To give an example of social change I would like to look back to the first inhabitants of my Wellington home. Who the people were I don’t know, the city council records of the time were destroyed in a fire, but I can be fairly sure of some things.

Erected in 1886, our place was one of several purpose-built labourers’ cottages. The original building had two bedrooms, a front parlour, kitchen, and a small hall.  Jill and I added a bathroom and had to build an additional bach out the back, just to contain our stuff. We don’t have a vast amount of stuff, just the things people have come to feel the need of today. The first occupants had larger families, but needed less room, because they owned few possessions. Just some clothes, some cooking pots, very basic furniture, tin bath tub and a family bible. Probably some inherited family china, possibly a musical instrument. That would have been about it. No kitchen appliances apart from the coal range. No radio, tv, telephone, no computers, nothing electric. The children might have had a few cheap toys, more likely they improvised games in the street.  After a long day’s work, employed family members would return to a simple home-prepared meal, candlelight and a smoky coal fire.

I suggest that those conditions are about as remote from ours today as those of cave dwellers might have appeared to the workers of 1886.

Even in my lifetime there have been massive social changes affecting all classes of the population.

People not only have more possessions, we have more access to travel, more access to entertainment, a wide range of recreational drugs.

Today we live longer, a minority of people are fitter than their forbears, a growing number, mostly workers, are less fit.

Literacy has improved – although not necessarily literature.

Former certainties have faded. Church attendance and political party participation has fallen away. I believe this passing has left something of a spiritual vacuum.

Technology has brought people together. It has also massively atomised people.

New technology in the workplace reduces personal contact.  Commuter games, play stations, Ipods and the like provide lone individuals with ready diversion and apparent self sufficiency.

I will not speculate further on these changes but suggest that their effects are far reaching and profoundly influence people’s behaviour and expectations in all areas of life.

Although there have been many profound social changes they do not – cannot – cancel out class conflict.  Neither, I believe, will the future changes that we can’t yet even envisage.

Workers’ class relationship to capitalism today is essentially the same as it was for the first workers to occupy my old cottage.

Another thing is also the same. The fact of being a worker is just one facet of a human being. Other important facets of a human are being a parent, daughter, son, sportsperson, hobbyist, artist etc. For many of us, the class facet of our being is only dominant in times of economic or political struggle.

So when we talk about ‘what workers want’ or ‘what workers think’ we need to remember these attendant factors.

What workers want from unions is not always what leftists think they ought to want.

Workers are not only divided by the conditions of modern life, they are divided in other ways.

Despite the women’s liberation movement winning for women some top social and political positions, the mass of working women continue to suffer inequality and discrimination.

Despite a heroic and substantial cultural resurgence, and the success of a few individual small capitalists, the mass of working class Maori remain severely oppressed and deprived.

For some time, race and gender divisions have seemed much more important and real than class divisions.

All these factors impact heavily on workers’ unity and they cannot be wished away.

At the moment I think that workers mostly see their way forward as an individual or family struggle.

I expect this will continue for some time.

Returning to the point made at the beginning of my talk, a future socialist revolution in New Zealand appears an impossibility.

As well as the other impediments I mentioned, there is no inspirational model for a revolution as there appeared to be for my generation. Instead there is only a ghostly legacy of socialist failure.

But after having said all that, I do still believe that the contradictions of capitalism will bring about revolutionary change, which will include socialist revolution in this country.

For some decades we in New Zealand have been protected from capitalism’s worst excesses. Capitalism has demonstrated considerable flexibility, but it is at heart a brutal inhuman system which humans will not tolerate forever.

My guess is that serious revolutionary movement will begin overseas and spread, quite rapidly. In this country revolution is likely to be an urban movement, short and sharp in duration, catching many by surprise.

Socialist revolution requires revolutionary leadership. Some of that will appear at the time. Revolution can be substantially accelerated, defended and consolidated by established committed revolutionaries.

To younger people wanting to help make the international proletarian revolution I would suggest this.

Build yourself a political base in a large workplace while ceaselessly educating yourself in practical Marxist understanding of today’s local and international class struggle. Stick to principle and do not seek quick fix solutions.  Keep a consistent internationalist orientation. Make your own political decisions based on material from a variety of sources. Don’t expect any thanks for your efforts. Your reward will be knowing that you’ve done the right thing by the working class.