A real alternative would be a break with the anti-working class Labour Party

A real alternative would be a break with the anti-working class Labour Party

by Phil Duncan

In the article on left factions within Labour parties, I noted that only a few unions are still affiliated to the NZ Labour Party. Since the demise of the Alliance, and in the context of historic lows in the class struggle here, two small unions with more left credentials – MUNZ and the RMT – have joined the right-wing EPMU and SFWU in being affiliated to Labour. The other affiiated union is the small Dairy Workers Union.

Starting point

A starting point would be for activists within unions affiliated to Labour to begin a disaffiliation campaign. Such a campaign would make the political case for a new workers’ movement, one based on class-struggle principles and politics, and link with activists across the wider union movement to begin the task of building the movement that is so desperately needed and start the process of galvanising workers into understanding that if they don’t struggle they lose.

Over the past thirty years workers have suffered defeat after defeat. Indeed, the assault on workers began in earnest under the brief third Labour government of 1972-75. The reason was that the long post-WW2 boom came to an end during this government, putting capitalist austerity on the political and economic agenda. Since the main function of the NZ Labour Party is to provide a management team for capital, it was inevitable that this regime would attack workers. And it sure did.

Having been swept into power with a (in NZ terms) massive majority of seats in 1972, Labour was swept up in 1975, with the seat numbers going exactly the opposite way. While Muldoon and the National Party used anti-communist and anti-trade union propaganda in the 1975 election campaign, and threatened the end of compulsory unionism, in power Muldoon proved far more pragmatic.

The last Keynesian

The last Keynesian prime minister, Muldoon resorted to massive pump-priming economics, pouring huge amounts of money into the economy to stimulate demand, increasing state involvement in the economy and launching a series of massive infrastructural and energy projects. Indeed, if anything, Muldoon was more Keynesian than his immeidate Labour predecessor, Bill Rowling. And after a few relatively minor thrusts against the unions, Muldoon largely maintained the industrial status quo.

At the same time, Muldoon also maintained the dominant social conservatism, holding the line against liberalisation of laws on abortion and homosexuality – in fact he substantially tightened the laws on abortion – and crushing the historic Maori land occupation at Bastion Point.

Muldoon’s social conservatism drove the new liberal middle class into the shell that was the Labour Party. This new layer became the dominant social element in Labour. When the ruling class decided to dump Muldoon because he hadn’t taken the industrial-economic measures they favoured to overcome their crisis of profitability, Labour was only too happy to do the dirty work of the ruling class. The fourth Labour government began a ruthless slash-and-burn set of economic policies to shore up the now crisis-ridden economy. They devalued the NZ dollar, attacked the unions and workers’ rights and living standards more viciously than any government since the Depression era Forbes-Coates regime. They broke up large parts of the old government departments, replacing them with new capitalist corporations, some of which were operated by the state and some of which were flogged off at bargain prices to the private sector.

Labour’s union hacks disorganise and demoralise the working class

Large chunks of the working class turned against this government, although the trade union leaders in the main faithfully toed the Labour line and helped disorganise and demoralise workers and prevent much resistance. In 1989 a large chunk of Labour activists who had been opposing the government’s economic policies left the party and founded the NLP and, subsequently, the Alliance. This included a layer of unionists, albeit mainly younger organisers, rather than top trade union figures. There was also a split in the main trade union federation, with a small, left union federation, TUF, being formed and tending to be closer to the Alliance.

The viciously anti-worker policies of Labour, the break with Labour by a large section of working class voters, and the emergence of the Alliance, created an atmosphere in which a section of the top trade union bureaucrats simply could not justify their unions remaining affiliated to Labour. At one point Labour was left with only three union affiliations, although this also partly reflected mergers reducing the total number of unions. Some unions also collapsed in the wake of the ECA of 1991, a reflection of the weakness of a layer of unions dependent on compulsory unionism.

The collapse of the Alliance in the early 2000s meant that several unions, most particularly MUNZ and the RMT drifted back to Labour.

Rationalising reaffiliation 

The unions which have reaffiliated rationalise this with arguments which are very much defensive. They can’t summon up positive arguments for being affiliated because Labour is so clearly hostile to working class organisation and activity outside the most narrow of bounds. Moreover, it was Labour that banned secondary strikes and political strikes. So the key argument used to rationalise reaffiliation is the “It’s better to be in the tent, pissing out. . .” But is it? Given what is in the tent – a thoroughly anti-worker party that has shown itself again and again utterly committed to doing whatever is necessary at any point in time to shore up capitalism – wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to be outside the tent, pissing into it?

The “inside, pissing out” argument is also an admission that those making the argument have no alternative to Labour. After all this, after all the betrayals and attacks by Labour, those making these arguments have no political project by which their unions and workers more widely might advance. Moreover, union affiliations clearly are not mechanisms for taking even radical trade unionist politics into Labour; they are mechanisms for imposing Labour’s capitalist politics on the unions. This was proven decisively during the fourth Labour government. Affiliated union leader after affiliated union leader capitulated to Labour, prostrating themselves before that government’s brutal offensive against the working class. Isn’t it time for the obsequiousness, which has delivered nothing but defeat and demoralisation, to end?

Working class barely exists as a class

Today, the working class in this country barely exists as a class. There is a great mass of people who can only live by selling their capacity to work, and therefore the working class exists in a technical sense. But if the working class lacks class consciousness, or even rudimentary union consciousness for that matter, it cannot and will not act as a class. It is just a mass of individualised, atomised wage-labourers, not a class.

A swathe of the top union leaders linked to the Labour Party got in the way of the working class fighting back. They did everything they could to block workers resisting the attacks of the fourth Labour government and then sabotaged the fight against the ECA because they were worried the struggle would break through bounds acceptable to the Labour Party.

Labour continues to act to keep workers’ expectations down.  It’s no surprise that the first time welfare benefits were raised here in 43 years, it was National which raised them.  Nor should it be a surprise that Key has kept the retirement age at 65, while Labour campaigned to raise it, ie for workers to work even more years.

Labour is a key institution of the class enemy

One of the first, most basic, steps to any serious radical political culture in this country is the understanding that Labour is a party of the class enemy. The Labour establishment are not mistaken or misguided, or just need a few things pointed out to them, or a simple change of leadership. They are an integral part of the capitalist system, utterly dedicated to maintaining that system no matter what. Anyone on the left who doesn’t understand this is not really a radical. They are just playing-acting. Moreover, their play-acting is not harmless, because they are protecting a crucial part of the overall apparatus of the capitalist system.

The logical corrollary of a serious left analysis of the NZ Labour Party and the function it performs in the system is to give Labour no support. No money, no votes, no calls on workers in affiliated unions to vote for this or that candidate in Labour Party leadership contests, no calls for workers to vote Labour, no calls for Labour-led governments, no absurd illusions.

Serious leftists, leftists who mean business, need to call for progressives in affiliated unions to campaign for disaffiliation and to provide practical support for such a campaign for disaffiliation. A campaign in unions like the EPMU, SFWU, MUNZ, the RMT and the Dairy Workers Union could help educate workers in those unions about the nature of the system that explits and oppresses them and the political forces which manage this system. They can argue that instead of helping prop up the rotten edifice of Labour, workers should take hold of their own affairs and their own future, counterposing class-struggle politics to the class-collaborationist politics that is involved in propping up any of the parties that are integrally involved in NZ Capitalism Ltd.

Campaign for disaffiliation

One place to start would be leafleting meetings of members of such unions and also their conferences, linking up with any class-oriented activists within such unions, leafleting union conferences and organising fringe meetings at them, working to get disaffiliation motions on the agendas of membership meetings and conferences of such unions.

Serious leftists belonging to unions not affiliated to Labour could also take up this campaign. Just because a uniopn isn’t officially affiliated to a political party of the capitalists doesn’t mean it isn’t hooked in in some other way. Being organisationally independent of Labour doesn’t mean being politically independent of them. So campaigns for real – ie political – independence from Labour is therefore important across the union movement.

Political independence from Labour is also vital to recruiting workers to unions. It shows new, younger generations of workers that if they sign up to unions, they will not be sold down the river because such unions and, especially, their leaders subordinate workers’ interests to this loathsome party of capitalist managers.

A campaign for the disaffiliation of existing union affiliates and for the independence of all workers’ organisations from the Labour Party is an essential part of the horizons of workers being raised. And it’s an essential part of building a movement through which workers can fight for their rights without the big impediment of a union apparatus wedded to Labour and thus subordinate to the interests of capital.

Further reading:

Workers, unions and the Labour Party – unravelling the myths

What are anti-capitalist politics?


  1. Although I would prefer it was otherwise, I don’t believe New Zealand unions have it in them to become genuinely independent of Labour and take an anti capitalist class stand.

    Unions exist as legal entities, within strict constraints, enforced by law.

    They are able to take industrial action over a small range of issues, at certain restricted times. Crucially, industrial action may not be taken as acts of solidarity.

    The whole structure of legal union organisation amounts to a denial of workers power, in principle and in fact.

    This situation is readily accepted by those who have made union organising their career. There is intermitant grumbling about leg irons on labour in union offices and in union official frequented taverns, but it leads nowhere and reduces to virtual silence when a Labour government is in power.

    On the rare occasions when union leaders defied legal convention, they were taken out. The Boilermakers union showed contempt for the bosses laws and was deregistered, an act of the state which was generally accepted by the rest of the union movement.

    Examined closely, unions are very conservative organisations, timid, narrow, fearful of debate. Look at their response to Talley’s recent derailing of the meatworkers strike. Nothing.

    The standard communist solution has been to try and rouse rank and file workers from below. Put pressure on your union officials, rebel against them if need be, elect militants to positions of leadership. There have been fleeting moments of success, in the timber industry, at sea, in some factories, in the service industry. Nothing of lasting significance.

    Most workers today most of the time accept the limitations of unionism. There are complaints on occasion, sometimes bitter, such as in recent protests over workplace deaths. Even here, the union response has been to seek legal remedies, and this has been basically accepted.

    It is a worrying thing that workers expectations and sense of entitlement has fallen to its present low ebb. The only long term solution is a revolutionary workers movement against the capitalist system. That system is the cause of workers exploitation and the various legal and physical chains keeping that exploitation in place.

    I believe such a movement is necessary and possible, but it cannot come via organisations such as unions. Unions have radical origins, over time they have turned into their opposite.

    There have been heroic efforts made by many unionists and will be more, but overall, unions today are a handy and relatively cheap form of marshaling capitalism’s army of labour.

    So what do we do? I don’t know.

    I do think it’s past time for revolutionary socialists to re examine some of our old assumptions.

  2. Peter says:

    I agree, I do find it difficult to see how some of the incredibly conservative unions will ever escape the legalist, Labour-first, mindset. My time as a union delegate taught me that the leadership, organisers, and even fellow delegates, were completely without racial intention, content with winning an extra day holiday and NEVER willing to take industrial action.

    The union model isn’t dead however. I think UNITE has shown it can have some success, though again I think they are too focused on short-term material gains (not to be sniffed at), rather than dismantling an oppressive system (which in of itself will lead to better conditions). It is the latter which should be primary focus, while giving due consideration to the material needs of all members.

    • Thomas R says:

      UNITE has real difficulty in terms of turn over of workers in the areas they are unionising. Getting solid delegates in such a horrible work environment where people just don’t stay for any length of time makes the immediate short term improvements in conditions make sense to me strategically. But I think they will have (and have had) real problems transitioning from a union of radical paid organisers to a radical worker-led union.

  3. Phil says:

    It was different in Unite early-on, because they relied a lot on volunteer organisers. In WP, we used to turn our student members outwards to the working class through organising work via Unite. However, Unite has ended up as a professionalised union, not much different from any other other union but with a bunch of people who identify as revolutionaries as its full-time officials.

    I agree with Don (and Peter) about what unions have become. One year on the branch committee of a union was enough for me. Even the ‘radicals’ were aghast at any suggestion of strike action outside the very narrow limits allowed by the law – even though that particular union was particularly well-placed to take on the law.

    My suggestion for a campaign for disaffiliation is not because I think existing unions per se can become schools of class struggle, or even that the EPMU and SFWU could be won to disaffiliation. The point of it would be to create a mechanism for discussing the notion of working class *political* independence and a concrete form of activity to advance such political independence.

    Moreover, I think the lack of class struggle is a real impediment to any such campaign getting going, let alone having any momentum. I wrote it mainly as an agitational piece, to see if it would generate any discussion as dozens of union organisers follow the blog to varying extents.

    While I am not optimistic that much can be done right now, I think there is a small layer of people who are interested in discussing how revolutionaries can try to do some stuff around working class independence. Next week a few of us are getting together down here to throw around a few ideas.


    • Thomas R says:

      Yes good point Phil. I think the idea of independent working class politics is basically not on the table or on the horizon for the majority of people. It’s not talked about, the history of it is largely unknown – I think the LHP is useful for that kind of thing especially, but like the vast majority of left projects the LHP is mostly read by people who are already interested in these topics – and that’s a small milieu.

      A worthwhile project, though probably something comrades from redline have spent decades doing and may not themselves personally be too interested in, is a return to what some consider rather dry reading-group educational programmes. I think it is true that revolutionaries can be arrogant in their knowledge, but their is an inverted faux-arrogant attitude that exists among some of the left that “the working class don’t need none of this book learning!”. To which I have to say, a) who said anything about book learning, pedagogical approaches can be varied and still dealing with complex topics and b) i don’t think the attitude takes the task of building communism, or the enemies of that task seriously. Ideological hegemony is enormous – there’s a reason you’d find more people buying into Iluminati nonsense than class politics.

      One way it’s been put recently – anti-intellectual revolutionaries are often the most condescending people, because in their own spare time they will indeed be reading theory – coming to grips with capitalism – learning from history. But when they come to activism they throw that out the window, as though what’s good for a leftist (learning, analysis, discussion) isn’t good for The “ordinary” Workers. Utterly absurd.

      Anyway, I don’t think Redline have that attitude anyway. Just something that has been bothering me and I think ties into the unwillingness to put forward class politics, strategies towards dual power, hell – an explanation of what dual power is, for fear of being elitist or condescending. I suspect it’s more condescending to think the working class neither care nor could understand these topics. How patronising some of the activist left can be!

  4. Phil says:

    Yes, I agree with all this Thomas.

    It was an important part of the WP critique of most of the NZ left.

    I have been thinking for quite a while about a new study group.


    • Thomas R says:

      I’ve been considering deep-ending myself and arranging to run something over summer at the WEA up here, hopefully in collaboration with other leftists up here. I don’t pretend to be a brilliant community educator but it strikes me that even fairly basic reading groups in the ‘get together and take turns reading parts of a text then discussing it’ format would be a big improvement on the current nothing

      • John Kerr says:

        There’s plenty to discuss here but I’m sure many of the people who might contribute to that discussion are dissuaded from doing so given the public nature of the forum.

      • Phil says:

        I’m not sure what ‘deep-ending’ means (it sounds rather rude), but getting a serious reading group going would be good.

        Back in either early 1997 or late 1996, a small group of us began deep, systematic study of Capital, all three volumes. We spent several years on the study, at the same time producing revolution magazine, and organising about 20 educational talks a year, and a few seminars on Capital.

        We met most weeks. We’d read a chapter, sub-chapter, or couple of chapters, by ourselves during the week, then meet and methodically go over what we’d read. It was slow and took a long time, but well worth it.

        I must admit, I struggled to stay awake during the chapters on ground rent, but it didn’t matter because someone else stayed awake and ‘got it’ and so it was all shared. Similarly, someone else might struggle with something that I ‘got’ quickly.

        One of the seminars we did attracted about 35 people. We also ran an afternoon event on ‘The Closed University’, looking at the student occupations that were taking place at Canterbury at the time – there were three large occupations in 1999 – and the educational, economic and ideological functions of universities in late capitalist society. (I used to loath the term ‘late capitalism’, but over time I’ve come to accept that it has its uses.) We simply couldn’t have done that event if we hadn’t have studied Capital. (Well, we could have but it wouldn’t have told anyone anything they didn’t already know so it would have been pointless.)

        And, if you are going to study Capital, ignore Althusser; Marx started Capital with an exhaustive examination of the commodity for a very good reason – namely that it is the cell of capitalist society and in a commodity are embodied the core contradictions of a capitalist economy.

        The Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus-Value are also crucial, although I’ve never finished those, but plan to do so at some stage.

        In recent years I’ve run one seminar a year on Capital at the WEA. Each time they’ve had just enough enrolments to go ahead (I’ve done them as part of the WEA official programme).

        There is interest there, although if you have a weekly study group on Capital, be prepared for people to drop out. I think a dozen people took part in our study group but only about four or five of us were still there at the end.


  5. “I’m sure many of the people who might contribute to that discussion are dissuaded from doing so given the public nature of the forum.”
    Why on earth should they be so dissuaded?
    This is a discussion about the nature of the trade union movement, not a plot to assassinate the prime minister.

    • John Kerr says:

      Because any honest discussion requires a frank appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement’s institutions, its cadre, leadership, rank and file activists, level of education and training, degree of preparedness to fight industrially and so forth. You can be sure that some employers and those who hire themselves out as advocates for employers would love to read all about that. Secondly, there are people whose livelihood depends on working for unions that are not aligned with their own political views. They would, I suggest, be far more likely to be upfront in a private discussion than one taking place publicly. And I know they could hide behind the veil of a username but the NZ union movement is, sadly, a very small one and it isn’t hard for those of us who keep our ears open to figure out who is who reasonably accurately.

  6. To be honest, I don’t think employers or their advocates have any interest in political discussions on small marxist blogs. As long as there is no threat of a blue on their own site we can sing what we like.
    ” there are people whose livelihood depends on working for unions that are not aligned with their own political views”
    That sums up the anti socialist nature of union structure very neatly. It is an unspoken but real condition of employment as a union official to desist from revolutionary activity, even at the low level of discussion on a blog. The law demands this and union offices understandably comply, otherwise they would not be tolerated.
    Yes, there are times for private discussions, but for political ideas to grow they must come out unashamedly into the light. The structure of our unions stands firmly against emergence.

  7. When people feel they can’t join a free ranging debate for fear of retribution from their union job, they are surely working under oppressive conditions.
    I’ve spent a working life in the union movement and have been looking back on the experience.
    Since 1969 I have variously served as a rank and file member, job delegate, executive member, branch secretary and, briefly, as a paid official. I’ve been a delegate representing several hundred people on a militant site and a delegate representing a dozen on a ( mostly) very backward site. My experience has included numerous strikes, campaigns and two factory occupations. For most of my forty years in the union movement I’ve been trying to advance revolutionary socialist ideas.
    When I look back at these experiences I see trade union structure, at all levels, as being inherently hostile to anything outside legally sanctioned union activity.
    It is entirely understandable for a union official to shrink from any whiff of illegality. Illegal action is a very quick way for a union official to lose their livelyhood.
    The very few, like Con Devitt, who stand up to the system are quickly taken out, with virtually no support from other unionists.
    In an earlier case, when Bill Andersen was jailed there was rank and file resistance nationwide, but the response of the union structure was to defuse the situation at any cost. Bill himself was a party to this.
    On any issues of importance union offices are hopelessly compromised when challenged by the state.
    To a lesser extent, the same can be said of unionism at delegate level. It is just not possible to maintain an attitude of implacable militancy week after week, year after year. Workers, even militant well organised workers will not be roused to take industrial action every time there is a dispute. So deals are done with the management, compromises are made. And when it comes to the possibility of lay offs, the union inclination is to try and help keep the place running profitably, so that jobs might be kept. Yes, there is the possibility of occupation, I have been involved in two. When they come off they are a good tactic, but overwhelmingly the union response is to seek half a loaf rather than risk the bakery.
    For most of my time I’ve toiled away as a unionist feeling that by some sort of osmotic process any basic union action is somehow helping the working class grow stronger and therefore better prepared for revolution.
    Now, I’m not so sure.
    Over my lifetime workers conditions have fallen back, as have their expectations and class consciousness. Unions have continued to shrink, numerically and politically. For some years their approach has been to tell workers lies about Labour and make vague general appeals to the public sympathy, as in the present work safety campaign. Any idea of advancing militant class policies would mitigate against this.
    It has thus come to be that the culture of class struggle is alien to what unions are trying to achieve. In my view unions have become a barrier to revolutionary progress, an obstacle to socialism.
    Having said all that I still believe that in terms of day to day survival under capitalism its better for workers to have unions than not. If you aim to get rid of capitalism it is a different story.
    I think we need to think and discuss the question of unions and revolution. When I look back on my life the two appear as oil and water.

    • John Kerr says:

      Well said Comrade

    • daphna says:

      I pretty much agree Don, but I’m undecided whether unions are a barrier to revolutionary progress. Today unions seem so ineffectual that they are not a barrier to anything much. Where they exist with some strength – mainly among white-collar workers – they do help to maintain working conditions and basic rights, but little else.

      When I stopped working as an organizer for Unite union I was really surprised how few people had ever heard of the union when I told them where I’d been working. When I was in the midst of Unite campaigns it felt like we were making an impact, and the union activities were often reported in the mainstream media.

      However, those reports only meant something to the people involved directly, and some who were involved peripherally. For most of the public the stories about pickets or protests just didn’t register. They weren’t remembered. In the five years since I left Unite at new jobs when people asked what I’d done previously almost none had ever heard of Unite. It kind of shocked me.

      I do still think that there are times when there’s a serious strike, when people stand firm and are on a picket line for weeks, and where solidarity is mobilised, that it feels like we get a glimpse of a much better future for society.

      • “I do still think that there are times when there’s a serious strike, when people stand firm and are on a picket line for weeks, and where solidarity is mobilised, that it feels like we get a glimpse of a much better future for society.”

        Yes, so do I. One such experience I had when working at Fords was like that. We struck for over a month, trying ( and eventually succeeding) in reinstating a young guy who’d been sacked. Our strike committee set up food depots all over the Hutt Valley, workers went hunting and fishing and diving to get stuff and distribute it. We raised money and checked on the most needy. We worked very hard keeping our side going and had the company temporarily stuffed. One afternoon two of us were bowling along in a van taking supplies around depots and my mate said happily “there arn’t enough hours in the day are there” Although there was hardship we felt our power and felt good about it. Everything was temporarily upside down. Although we were union members taking action, we were taking action entirely on our own terms, actually in the form of a structure in no way dependent on the union we were in. Im not an expert on this but I suspect unions differ quite a lot from country to country. In some lands unions have long been intertwined with revolutionary parties. In New Zealand the influence of the state and the Labour party have cast long shadows over every heroic step of shop floor militancy. I think working people will eventually break the mold from activity outside the union structure.

  8. John Kerr says:

    Paul Mason’s latest book argues that one of the reasons capitalism successfully mutated in the four ‘long waves’ since the late 18 century was that working class resistance forced change other than that based on driving down wages and conditions, and thereby aggregate demand. He says the smashing of working class resistance i.e. unions has removed the incentive to achieve growth through opening up new markets (internally and externally) and deploying new technology. Consequently the need to create fiat money to both maintain and stimulate demand, an end game strategy if there ever was one. Which, I guess, is a way of expressing the old argument that unions prop up capitalism. Now working class resistance has been effectively broken, he argues the writing is on the wall for capitalism.

    I’m only half way through the book and will have to read it a couple of times before I fully understand the argument but it is well written. There’s a very elegant explanation of the labour theory of value in it for example. http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/postcapitalism/9781846147388/

  9. Phil F says:

    I’ve been working on a piece on workplace fatalities that I hope to get ready to go up at the start of next week. The stats are really interesting. Workplace fatalities are much lower – consistently so – under this National government than they were under Clark. About 60% lower!

    Another blow to the idea that it’s better for unions to be affiliated to Labour – inside the tent pissing out – than to not be affiliated.

    Woefully inadequate as National’s new legislation is, it remains a big improvement on Clark’s legislation – ie the legislation that was non-existent, although that government had nine years to do something.

    And if you take away the Pike River deaths – happened under Key but the mine was signed off on by the Labour government and by Little/EPMU – then the average under Key falls even further.

    All that union affiliations to Labour do is waste union money and lead to a ‘quietist’ attitude about workers’ rights when Labour is in power.

    Phil F

  10. […] Additional further reading: Which way forward for workers and unions  For a campaign for union disaffiliation from the Labour Party  […]