Unions need to break the chains that bind them to Labour

In order to have an effective trade union movement, we need to break the chains that bind any unions to Labour
In order to have an effective trade union movement, we need to break the chains that bind any unions to Labour

Since we began this site in mid-2011 we have argued that Labour is a capitalist party.  Before this site, we argued the same position in the Anti-Capitalist Alliance/Workers Party and, before that, in the original WP and revolution groups which came together to form the ACA (subsequently the new WP).

Events since 2011 have simply confirmed our view.  For instance, the Ports struggle in Auckland where Labourite mayor Len Brown certainly proved to be no friend of the workers.  Yet, almost unbelievably, the port workers union, MUNZ, one of the more radical unions at that, had donated to Brown’s election fund.  They may as well have just gone to the board of directors of the Port company and handed them over the money directly!

As we think about MayDay and workers’ struggles of the past, we need to reflect on the state of the union movement and the working class in New Zealand today.  It’s not pretty.  And a big part of that is due to unions not seeing through Labour, although many individual workers have.

The political subordination of the unions, or certainly their leaderships to Labour, was a crucial factor in the massive defeats suffered by the working class during the fourth Labour government of 1984-1990.  Because Labour suffered a massive defeat in 1990, it was left to National to finish off the job and codify the defeat of the class in the Employment Contracts Act of 1991.

Today, a campaign to disaffiliate unions from Labour could serve as an indispensable part of recreating a movement of unions of, for and by workers.  One not subordinated to any party that manages capitalism, one that stands for the political independence of the working class as a class.

See the following pieces on unions and the Labour Party:

Union movement gathers for fairness at work, Labour gathers missionaries

Ports of Auckland fight shows futility of unions giving money to Labour

Workers, unions and Labour: unravelling the myths

Labour’s legal leg-irons

And our history of the Labour Party: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/the-truth-about-labour-a-bosses-party/


  1. I think UNITE remains a kind of exemplar for what other unions could be doing. Cause they’re actually willing to fight and have turned back the tide for their members with regards to Zero Hours.

    Not to mention that, if I remember correctly, they actually do explicitly go through a straight forward way of talking about important ideas like the LTV to workers – by relating it to their own workplaces too so it taps into what I think is actually quite a powerful part of Marx (the intuitiveness of a lot of the ideas, once explained clearly).

    I’ve heard that the EPMU are looking to merge with the servos potentially and become the “We ❤ Labour Team [also apparently a Union]"

    I suspect the CTU has just become very similar to the AFL-CIO, except instead of being 'card carrying members of the CPUSA' at the top, it's just Labour Party hacks not even trying to dress up their acquiescence to capitalism with scary words like 'communism'. (I suspect everyone on this blog would agree with the consensus of anti-capitalist activists in the USA that the CPUSA is basically a wing of the Democratic Party who like red flags)

  2. Even Unite is not immune from holding illusions in the Labour Party. Its secretary Matt McCarten left his post to work for the Labour Party last year, with the support of other leading figures in Unite. For instance, Mike Treen, Unite’s National Director, wrote he had his doubts about Matt working for Labour, but in the same breath he said “The left should welcome this appointment. It does mean there will be more opportunity for a united, collaborative campaign of the broader left to get rid of this government. It can make us a little more optimistic that the new government may make decisions a bit more favourable to working people and a little less favourable to big business. For Matt that will be a victory worth fighting for.” http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/02/28/the-mccarten-appointment/#sthash.tFuq2y6E.dpuf.
    That was over a year ago, and all that Matt’s move to Labour has achieved is that he no longer is a prominent critic of the capitalist classes’ B team. He’s now firmly ensconced inside it.

    • I suppose my point would be whether an immunity to those wrong politics is necessarily a nail in a coffin or not. The problem with most unions is not an idealistic ‘they believe in the Labour Party’ its their actual practice of not being militant, not really fighting for members, basically sitting idle. In that regard, Unite does stand out a lot of the time as a Union that is actually pushing things.

      • I agree, Unite (staff) are definitely fighting for their members. The real challenge the union faces is getting the members to wage battles. Most Unite strikes are short – lasting about an hour or so – with most members continuing to work while a picket is manned outside by activists. That is not sustainable, but it has been a useful tactic to raise publicity and win improved working conditions. The current Zero Hours campaign has shown that there is a public mood for better working conditions for the most marginalized workers, even if those workers are not in a position to do the fighting.

      • yeah i agree, mcdonalds is something like 10-15% density at the moment, and as you can imagine with extremely high turn over it’s hard to grow from there. improvements to working conditions, like more secure hours, may result in people being able to stick around longer and develop a union culture in stores. i’ve heard that after some demos they’ve had stores go from 15 to 50% unionised workers so it’s definitely a work in progress

  3. Daphna wrote:
    “That was over a year ago, and all that Matt’s move to Labour has achieved is that he no longer is a prominent critic of the capitalist classes’ B team. He’s now firmly ensconced inside it.”

    Exactly. Labour took out Matt McCarten and Matt agreed to be taken out, and Matt’s friends in Unite, instead of doing all they could to stop this, just carried on as if it was all fine and dandy.

    There are two things wrong with this. One is that there is a layer of people on the left who, however committed to opposing injustice they might be, are equally committed to never learning any lessons. Mike T knows, deep down, that Labour is not on our side. He opposed the idea of Mana going into coalition with them, yet supports Matt McC being swallowed up by them.

    And here’s the second problem. Sections of the left here are wedded to buddy politics. If someone who is your buddy does something shite, like going to work for the enemy, or any number of other things, you don’t call them on it because they’re your buddy. And the buddy culture comes before political principles.

    In other contexts, your buddy can lie, steal, do pretty much anything but must be defended because of buddy culture.

    Unfortunately, without serious motion in the class it’s very difficult to do anything than put forward arguments about Labour and about buddy culture that are largely lost on much of the existing left, This is part of why I think a whole new far left is needed.


    • I think the call for a “new far left” is just vague navel gazing though. It’s unlikely. Even if there is a resurgence in class politics it’s more likely it’ll blow the cobwebs off existing left groups ideas, which would be welcomed. Gesturing towards a whole new far left strikes me as saying all existing leftists are completely irredeemable reformists or something similar – which is patently absurd, purity politics to be honest. There are no groups with perfect politics on all issues, just as there will not be any working class momentum that doesn’t contain a lot of politics much more openly reactionary than not shouting about Matt McCarten moving to Labour.

      I suppose the argument is that ‘they should know better!’ but I kind of want to ask Why? Why should they know better? How is consciousness determined by material circumstances, and how much of it can be shaped with ideological relearning/unlearning through Marxism or anti-capitalism? I actually think the pessimism of the left is based largely on the expectation that our Cadre are going to be so far above the working class in terms of having the true revolutionary politics. That in itself is a really concerning idea to me, one that can lead to all sorts of problems (activists basically behaving as separate from the class as whole, for example).

      Do I think the ISO, Fightback, Socialist Aotearoa, any of the Australian trotskyist organisations of various stripes have perfect politics? Of course not – and no doubt all would say the same about me, I’m probably wrong on many things. But I suspect all of us will have some role to play, on the ‘right side of the barricade’ if struggle does actually intensify. At which point I suspect Labour will be so utterly absurd they’ll have a hard time coopting anything, even with what I suspect is the suspicion that some on the far left will put their weight behind Labour. When struggle actually picks up again, if it has any hope of being sustained significantly, it’ll be in a context where the influence of these organisations is negligible compared to the movement of the class as a whole. So that’s kinda my position which could be summed up as ‘not really too worried about the speck of dust in the eyes of other leftists’.

      As a side note, while I think emphasis on students is always a double edged sword, there are many far left students coming through younger than me who are totally disinterested in the organised left as it exists, but about as hostile towards academia as you can imagine. Assuming they are not coopted by either of these possible outlets I think it could be the basis of new struggles being brought to the fore.

      One place I definitely agree, though, is that being a bit flip-flop about Labour depending on the way the wind is blowing could constitute a kinda of deceitfulness. Lie to cops, lie to the state, but it’s not a great idea to lie to each other or to people reading blog posts etc.

      • Thomas wrote: “I think the call for a “new far left” is just vague navel gazing though.”

        In the current conditions, it could be argued that anything but the most minimal reformism is. . . “navel-gazing”.

        But the thing is that we need both to take into account the existing conditions *and* look beyond them to *what is necessary*.

        And such a new left is certainly necessary.

        Calling for a new left is not at all saying that all existing leftists are irredeemable. It’s saying that the far left as presently constituted, organisationally and politically, is not what we need. It doesn’t include or preclude anything about any particular individuals.

        Moreover, we’re fairly scrupulous about giving credit to people – I gave quite a bit of credit to ISO, for instance, for openly debating the Mana-Dotcom hook-up and then changing their position and admitting their error. (Although I haven’t yet seen any reciprocity on their part!!!)

        Later you seem to contradict yourself re the existing left because you say there is a whole rake of radical young students who are totally uninterested in the existing left – well, in that case, they *might* possibly be an important component of the human material for a new left.

        You ask Why should the left groups know better? They should know better for two reasons. One is that this is not new stuff. The left has been through this over and over, and the same people keep making the same mistakes over and over. Lots of leftists love to make speeches about the past in which they declare the lessons of this or that must not be lost, then blithely continue on ignoring all kinds of lessons about all kinds of issues, lessons that are staring them right in the face. Critical reflection is not one of their strong points. They’re more interested in rationalising and/or simply ignoring their mistakes and why they’ve made them. ISO has recently been a welcome exception.

        The second reason is that the tools of Marxism don’t provide all-seeing, all-knowing powers, but they do provide the opportunity for those that use them to be right rather more often than wrong. But the tools of Marxism are not popular with the ‘Marxist’ left. They tend to find all kinds of reasons for not using them and for continually approximating revolutionary Marxism to some form of liberalism or reformism. And those that resist this are inevitably dubbed ‘ultraleft’ or ‘sectarian’ etc etc.

        In relation to your point about when the working class moves this will kinda get sorted. Well, experience suggests that when the working class moves, all kinds of ideas will be in play. There will be a massive battle of ideas. Better to be forearmed ideologically than try to find the political arms in the course of the battle.


  4. Actually, I was just thinking about Mike T’s comment re Matt McC going over to the Labour Party, “It does mean there will be more opportunity for a united, collaborative campaign of the broader left to get rid of this government.”

    It’s hard to see this comment of Mike’s as anything but the view that Labour is part of the “broader left”. And as for “a united collaborative campaign”, well, like in Te Tai Tokerau where Labour went all-out to unseat Hone Harawira???

    Given that Mike has been involved in anti-capitalist politics for 45 years, what could possibly explain such naivete re Labour and re Matt McC going over to them? And where were the dissenting voices within Unite?

    Certainly, all the Unite organisers who belong to ostensibly revolutionary groups kept their mouths shut.


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