CTU class collaboration strategy fails workers

Posted: December 31, 2014 by Admin in At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Economics, New Zealand economy, Unemployment, Unions - NZ, Workers' rights

This article first appeared on Redline back in November 2013, but we’re reposting it as we face into the New Year and the desperate need for a fighting perspective among workers and in the unions.


Productivity ‘gains’: more exhausted workers, getting less share of total wealth produced


by Don Franks

I wrote “The CTU and the Chamber of Comics” in 2007, after attending a weird meeting.  As a socialist-minded trade unionist I was repelled by the idea of unions and bosses working together to raise productivity. But if that strategy delivers for workers, why knock it?

Let the CTU tell us the score on that one. May 2013 CTU report: “Wage rises are disappointingly slow given the economy now appears to be growing”, says CTU Economist Bill Rosenberg. “It is good to see wages rising faster than prices, but labour productivity growth is strong given slow growth in hours worked but a faster increase in GDP, yet this is not showing up enough in wages.” Average hourly earnings, which should reflect productivity growth, were up only 2.1 percent for the year or about 1.2 percent in real terms.”

October 2013 CTU report: “At least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are in insecure work. We believe it may well cover 50% of the workforce. 95,000 workers have no usual work time, 61,000 workers have no written employment agreement, 573,000 workers earn less than the Living Wage.”

Unsurprisingly, union membership rates in New Zealand continues to fall.  A 2011 copy of a union membership return report shows there were 157 registered unions with a total membership of almost 380,000 people. That compares to 159 unions in 2009 with a total membership of around 388,000 people. At present just 17.4 % of the workforce is unionised.  Such is the bitter fruit of persistent union office collaboration with the employers.

Over the last year, some political commentators have chided me for complaining; I am, apparently, “a reliable Eeyore of the left” and “indissolubly wed to utter negativity”.

Too bad.  Working in with the employers and trusting the Labour Party has just led us further into the shit.  It’s time to squarely face that fact and look around for another way.

The CTU and the Chamber of Comics

There are not a lot of union advertisments in the Dominion Post, so this one stood out: “Workplace Productivity Challenge: Explore productivity and high performance workplace issues.  A free educational workshop open to all employees offered jointly by the NZ Council of Trade unions and Wellington Chamber of Commerce that will focus on using 7 drivers of productivity.”

The venue was the Chamber of Commerce rooms atop the Majestic Centre.

There was nice stuff to eat and coffee and a glorious view of Wellington harbour. At the start time of 4.30pm there were five of us present. After another quarter of an hour the total, including the organisers and facilitator, was 10. That comprised a middle-aged PSA delegate from the Department of Health, a young manager and two of his young female staff, a young bloke from the Chamber of Commerce, Sandy O’Neil and Peter Conway from the CTU, a very recently-arrived British immigrant, the facilitator and myself.

We were briefly addressed by the chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce. He said that although our gathering was “modest” it was pretty good for the Thursday before Easter. His organisation took productivity very seriously and felt it was crucial to involve all staff in this real challenge. He was delighted to have us here and wished us well.
Then he left and the facilitator introduced herself. She was Jenny Breeze, with a “PSA background” from “Working Wisdom”, contracted on this occasion by the CTU.

Jenny told us the 7 Drivers material came from the Labour Department and produced some handouts for each session of the afternoon.  After that she got us all to introduce ourselves and say what we thought productivity was.

Some said it was “working to achieve a goal”, “working smarter”, “transformation of the workplace”, ” keeping busy in the workplace” and “utilising time and resources”.  The chap from the UK had the most impressive offering, saying “Productivity could be more for less, or more for the same or more plus for more”.  Everyone was respectfully silent for a minute after he delivered that.

Peter Conway said that productivity was a dirty word for many unionists, but nevertheless the CTU had persisted with promoting it for some time and this had produced a lot of good conversations. Peter concluded: “productivity could be a key for higher wages if unions got the benefit”.

Several people said they wanted to know more about the 7 Drivers of Productivity. Whenever the 7 Drivers phrase was used it was in a particular tone of respect, rather like the way that clergymen say Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

I said I thought productivity was “making stuff”. The facilitator repeated that back to me as though I’d said something particularly dumb, but she wrote it on the whiteboard with all the other slogans.

Then she got us together in pairs to talk about our specific interests in productivity. I was with the PSA delegate. She was very keen on job-sharing, flexibility, partnership for quality and wanted to see unions and management and government working together.  By the time she’d finished her bit it was time to regroup in our plenary of ten.

When our discussions were reported back, the facilitator said she found the ideas about partnership really exciting.  She noted that working together to create high performance workplaces could be a goer because it was on the government’s agenda.  She triumphantly intoned the old cliché about building a “high-wage high-skill economy” as if it was a sudden brilliant revelation that had just struck her.

Then she set out some figures showing that, in terms of productivity, New Zealand performs poorly compared to other OECD countries. New Zealand is high in employment and high in hours worked but low in productivity.

France, on the other hand, had high productivity but also high unemployment, so we needed to be a bit careful about copying France. “We have to use the technology and find ways to put more money into our economy,” she concluded.

I asked what particular New Zealand unemployment figures she was using, because if you take the official government figures that counts all sorts of part-time and casualised work as employment.  But by that stage I was ready to leave. The first hour and a half of the meeting had offered little but solid repetition of well-worn business guru slogans and management speak.  A sort of right-wing equivalent to university marxists’ abstract rehashing “revisionism” and “neo-colonialism” with no referrence to anything happening in the world outside.

In the Labour Department’s own words they describe the 7 Drivers as a: “Workplace productivity tool is designed for the owners/managers of small to medium businesses. It will not provide a ‘scientific’ analysis of your business’s performance but it will show where you can make improvements in your business practice. For in-depth analysis, a range of more sophisticated tools are available on the market.”

The 7 Drivers  are:

  •    Building Leadership and Management
  •    Creating Productive Workplace Cultures
  •    Encouraging Innovation and the Use of Technology
  •    Investing in People and Skills
  •    Organising Work
  •    Networking and Collaboration
  •    Measuring What Matters

Rather alarmingly, there is at least one other Magnificent Seven contending to be the key to business success.

That’s the study and survey of more than 300 organizational leaders from across Canada conducted by Warren Shepell, HR Reporter for Canada’s national journal of Human Resource management.  Warren’s ‘Top Seven’ Drivers of Employee Engagement and Retention to Improve Organizational Success are:

  1.    Trust senior management
  2.    Are asked for their ideas and opinions on important matters
  3.    Clearly understand the organization’s vision and strategic direction
  4.    Trust their supervisors
  5.    Receive recognition and praise for good work
  6.    Have a clear say in decisions that affect their work
  7.    Perceive their supervisors as caring and considerate of their well-being

The day after the seminar I emailed the CTU organiser that:  “I left early because I could not see anything in the workshop material that appeared to be even remotely relevant to my job as a cleaner/teamaker at Spartan Engineering.  We are not supposed to interfere in the running of the job but reliably work to process as directed.
I can’t see how the Seven Drivers could possibly apply to low paid process or service workers.  In terms of low paid hourly rated workers interests the material presented at the productivity workshop looked to me at best like a revamp of the cynical old Tory ‘trickle down theory’.”

I asked, did she think that is an unreasonable impression to take?

Sandy O’Neil replied that it was “a difficult thing to answer your points – there are no standard responses to the application of the 7 drivers as workplaces and jobs are all very different, along with the willingness / ability of management and workers to engage in the issues.  We do face challenges in making the course relevant to everyone and it is certainly that bit harder within the service sector and the types of workplaces that you describe.”

She suggested that if I went to a full-day course on the subject along with more union people I might get more out of it.

I doubt that very much.

At the moment the union movement is demonstrably incapable of responding to urgent workers’ problems like low wages, casualisation and layoffs.   Yet a proportion of union members’ fees are being wasted on university/ management speak fests of utter irrelevance to low-paid workers. The 7 Drivers theory ignores the central reality that any New Zealand workplace is the private property of its owner and will be treated as such.

The numeral seven has been used down the ages to evoke mystical power. This present use of it will pass, more likely sooner than later. In a month or so there will be some other solemn bit of academic tomfoolery in fashion.

There are only two drivers that matter. One is capitalism’s drive for profits. The other is the drive of organised workers to resist, rise up and conquer.

Some years ago, when he was secretary of the Wellington Drivers Union, still selling Tribune outside factories and not yet on the Federation of Labour executive, Ken Douglas jokingly dismissed  bosses as “the Chamber of comics”.  The overall union movement was stronger then.  The idea of using union money to help bosses become more productive would have been laughed down on any organised site.

Now, and until we come to our senses and remember who unions are supposed to be run by and serve, the laugh is on us.

  1. PhilF says:

    One of the things that’s interesting about the gap between (rising) productivity and (stagnant) real wages is that it’s the same under both National and Labour. What happens to workers in terms of real wages and more share of wealth produced is the result of the economic fortunes of capitalism (boom period or bust period) and workers’ fighting ability. Another factor, but this is as much the product of the two main ones, is capitalists’ desire and ability to buy class peace by making concessions.

    Who is in government is immaterial. Both National and Labour are totally committed to managing the system and therefore do whatever is necessary to shore it up,

    Since the end of the long post-WW2 boom, there has been no real and protracted boom in NZ, so what has been on offer to workers is minimal; in fact, most of the time the parlous state of capitalism has meant roll backs of wages, conditions, union rights and so on.

    As long as the working class, in its vast majority, refuses to fight, this situation will continue. At this point it is very hard to say what will be the tipping point, that will make significant layer of workers finally fight.


  2. Most of the historic gains in productivity have come as a result of improved machinery and technology. The capitalist pockets those gains, in part by needing to employ many fewer workers (thus the result in France you referenced). Indeed, unions working with bosses can only mean more for the boss, since it is the capitalist, and not the worker, who benefits from gains in productivity unless the workers organize themselves and fight back. Even then, they will only wrest for themselves at best a small share of the those gains under capitalism.

  3. PhilF says:

    When I was looking for some illustrations for Don’s piece, I came across some recent graphs of the US situation. They were in an article from 2011, so the latest stats they had were from 2009, but they were very interesting. Check out: http://gulzar05.blogspot.co.nz/2011/02/widening-income-productivity-growth-gap.html

    There are some very good people writing and analysing this sort of stuff out there. I was completely unaware of the urbanomics site before, but it’s got some really good stuff on it. Then you’ve got folks like Michael Roberts (whom I don’t know), Tony Norfield (with whom I’m friends ) does excellent stuff, several people involved in the Marxist-Humanist Initiative in the US, and a bunch of other people doing really helpful research and writing.

    Given that all the data indicates how productivity gains work for the bosses, it’s really quite extraordinary that there is such a high level of union buy-in on the issue. (Well, it’s not extraordinary really, but you know what I mean. . .)

    A lot of the movement has decided it can’t beat em, so it will join em and try to get a few crumbs that way. But cap in hand is never a very good approach. . .


  4. Phil Duncan says:

    Don wrote: “I wrote ‘The CTU and the Chamber of Comics’ in 2007, after attending a weird meeting.”

    Several years back when I was on the committee of my local union branch I attended a weird meeting. Especially weird because it was organised by the TEU (in those days, AUS). I’m on a general staff contract, part-time, employed in a university to teach pre-university international students and students who have left school without enough NCEA credits to go straight into university. How ‘productivity’ is relevant to me and my co-workers and many other general staff, or even the academics, is questionable anyway.

    Does it mean I should mark essays faster? Cram more content into the courses I teach? Does it mean campus librarians should issue books faster? Hang around outside the library, drumming up custom? Get returned books back on the shelves faster?

    This was also in the conext of the university doing stuff like continuous restructuring, so that we earned less money and people were made redundant, and the unversity was also cutting back substantially on the number of books it bought and academic journals it subscribed to.

    The person from the union head office who was sent down was an Alliance Party member and so you could tell that she knew what she was doing was fairly bullshit, and her heart wasn’t really in it, but it was part of her job.

    So we went through this exercise for a big chunk of the day, that really had no relevance for general staff – they had a separate one for academic staff – and that everyone, including the ‘facilitator’, was fairly cynical about. It would have been much more useful to have used the time to discuss how we as union activists could resist cutbacks and clawbacks.


  5. Daphna says:

    Proof that productivity gains have been benefiting capitalists not workers can be seen in OECD reports. From the early 1990s, when the labour share of national income was around 66% on average across the OECD countries, it is now 62%.

    In NZ the labour share of income went from 50% in 1990 to 48% in 2009 – not a huge decline, but workers’ share is definitely among the bottom two or three in the OECD.

    By 1990 NZ had suffered two terms of a neo-liberal Labour government and labor share of income had already fallen from 60% when Labour got in to office to 50% when they were kicked out in 1990. Not much changed under National and Labour governments since, apart from a worsening of the gap.

    Interestingly, Iceland’s workers have the highest share – at 80%.