by Phil Duncan
Already quite ground down enough, the New Zealand working class is about to blessed with yet another obstacle to its self-emancipation. The two biggest unions affiliated to the capitalist Labour Party – the EPMU and SFWU – are merging. The new union formed by the merger is to be announced tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. It will be the largest private sector union, with about 50,000 members.
While the merger is dressed up in the language of how campaigning for workers’ rights will be assisted by the ‘economies of scale’ of the new union, the real reason for the merger is simple necessity in terms of the bureaucrats sitting atop the apparatus. Both unions have been hemorrhaging members in recent years, making life a bit less comfortable for the people at the top. Less union dues, less power and so on.
Incapable of enthusing workers about joining these two unions, the leaderships have opted for the easier path of simply merging them. Size will protect their positions and perks and size may even impress currently non-unionised workers to sign up to the new behemoth.
Moreover, one of the ways that the union brass try to lure people into fairly conservative unions these days is by offering them a range of services on the cheap, including services provided by capitalist enterprises. A union with 50,000 members is going to be more attractive to capitalists to sponsor stuff than a union with far fewer members.
The union leaders have really got themselves in a pickle of their own making. When the workers wanted to fight – most famously at the time of the Employment Contracts Act – the bureaucrats running the Council of Trade Unions did everything they could to prevent a fightback. But by blocking workers’ resistance in the context of a government determined to push back union organisation dramatically, they simply helped ensure the demoralisation of much of the organised union movement and wider working class.
Then they found that the government weren’t interested in offering them concessions which would allow them to retain some shred of credibility in the eyes of ordinary workers. Workers began turning their backs on the unions, especially ones that operated like the EPMU and SFWU have been operating for many years. But the decline of the unions also meant the decline of the union bureaucracy. Now fearful for their own position and privileges and incapable of growing the movement, the bureaucrats atop the two unions are huddling together to protect their own interests and their own survival. It has nothing to do with strengthening the working class and building a movement which will really fight for workers’ rights.
Anti-capitalists, of course, are not opposed to union mergers in principle. It makes sense, for instance, for two militant unions to merge. In fact, many anti-capitalists have championed the idea of ‘One Big Union’. The qualifier, however, is that the prime consideration is the forward movement of the working class.
A merger of two conservative unions – which is what the EPMU and SFWU are – simply creates more machinery for managing the working class in the interests of capital and capital’s second political party (Labour). More such machinery makes it harder for workers to fight for their own independent class interests.
A useful article on all this was written over 100 years by the great Irish revolutionary workers and union leader James Connolly. Connolly was a union organiser in both Ireland and the USA. For the several years before he was executed by a British firing squad, he was the key leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the most important union in Ireland at the time. He argued that hat was most important in a union was not its sheer size or the perfecting of the union machinery but its revolutionary spirit. Did it work as a school of class struggle, helping educate and prepare workers for achieving their own emancipation from wage-slavery or did it operate to reconcile workers to ongoing wage-slavery as their lot in life. We ran the article in May 2014 and you can read it by clicking on here.
Additional further reading:
Which way forward for workers and unions
For a campaign for union disaffiliation from the Labour Party