The piece below was first written for The Spark newspaper back in 2006. We re-run it here as Douglas is speaking in Christchurch later this month on the relationship between trade unions and Labour and there has been some discussion of Douglas and this meeting on a union facebook page. The piece here was a review of the television programme Ken Douglas – Traitor or Visionary (TV1, Saturday, June 17th, 2006). I stand by the arguments in the 2006 article and am able to provide factual reports relating to all the struggles it refers to.
by Don Franks
In the words of its producers, this program “attempts to answer the question: did Douglas betray (his) socialist beliefs and trade union principles to kowtow to the employers; or is he a man of great integrity and vision, who understood how the world was changing in the 20th century?”
In fact, the programme was centred on the personal, at the expense of the politics. Much time was devoted to the doings of Ken’s alcoholic mother, his schooldays and his talents at ballroom dancing. Later in the show viewers learnt of Ken’s golf, his extra-marital affairs and his battles with obesity. The connecting theme was Ken’s rough diamond personality. The show presented a folksy image bolstered by interviews with Ken’s former union colleague Peter Harris and National MP (and former minister of Labour) Max Bradford. If this programme was to be their only source of information, viewers would see a hard-case battler, honest, realistic, getting what are probably the best possible deals for workers. Maybe not quite a visionary, but at the very least, an honest joker doing his best for the lads.
Such personal frames of reference don’t properly assess political people like Ken Douglas. An ambitious union functionary who rose to key positions of leadership, Douglas was also a lifelong self-described communist. In sum, a person who’s chosen to assume huge responsibilities to the working class.
To see how Douglas actually handled his chosen responsibilities requires more than an appraisal of his personality, although persona was always an important part of his manoeuvring. His presidential address to the 1997 Council of Trade Unions (CTU) conference was typical of his substituting that persona for class politics. Douglas began by thundering: “The CTU was born the day the sharemarket crashed. At the time the gut class instinct was to applaud it – the greedy bastards got what was coming to them.” Having set that militant tone, Douglas then advised unions to concern themselves with the creation of wealth as well as its distribution and to have “realistic expectations”. Douglas used this formula over and over again, because he could make it work.
Beneath his loud blustering, Ken Douglas invariably directed unions to move rightwards. Big issues during the Douglas years were the government/union “Compact” – which restricted wage growth; the Labour Relations Act, which restricted the ability to strike; Workplace Reform; and the National Party’s imposition of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA). In all those struggles, and in others, Douglas consistently compromised right up to the point of capitulation. Whether a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act would have been able to kill the bill, we’’ll never know, because Douglas successfully talked other union leaders out of taking action. What we do know, only too well, is the role Douglas played in creating the ECA’s replacement. His first attempt was the infamous Workplace Relations Bill, which retained the anti strike laws of the National Party’s ECA.
At the time I wrote to Douglas arguing: “It’s incomprehensible to me how an experienced union leadership can put up a proposal to a future government which allows workers to be jailed, sued and fined, and yet that’s what the ERB unambiguously calls for. It’s bewildering to read a proposal for a labour law restricting the right to strike, when that proposal is put up by the union side.” Douglas replied, describing his WRB as “alternative legislation that builds on the core conventions of the ILO” and simply ignored all my points about the right to strike. Today, 9 years later, the same anti-strike restrictions remain law in the Labour Party’s Employment Relations Act, which Douglas also supported.
This sell-out style of CTU leadership provoked increasing union discontent. In 1998 the Service Workers Union complained: “The CTU has continued to seek to influence policy in government forums rather than adopt an active campaigning role with a diverting of resources towards this. There is a perceived reluctance on the part of the CTU to participate in large scale campaigns which could change the climate, be catalytic events and lead to the downfall of the government.”
In response to this and other criticism, CTU leaders commissioned a ‘review” by professor Nigel Haworth, which found the CTU to posses “a powerful and respected public presence… the work by its officers attracts high regard from across the political spectrum and from external organisations”. CTU leaders then pushed divisive contestable funding through the CTU. All its 14 district councils were dissolved, along with their rights to retain a proportion of capitation fees. All CTU money was now controlled by a finance committee of 6. Outlying districts that required funding for any campaigned now relied entirely on approval by the new central committee.
The Traitor or Visionary TV programme skipped over all these struggles with barely a mention. Years of various counter-arguments against Douglas’s capitulations were represented by just two five-second soundbites from opposing unionists. Balanced journalism, capitalist style.
The programme did more justice to Douglas’s career as a jet-setting member of many boards and official bodies. Most revealing was his recent ILO-sponsored Mongolia junket, advising trade unions there how to cope with the privatisation of the Mongolian economy. Ken was shown telling Mongolian unionists, “There’s no point opposing the government because you can’t win… well, not unless you’re prepared to use rifles, ha ha.”
What kind of Marxist sees armed anti-government struggle as nothing but a joke? The answer is, those who broke away from the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) in 1965. It was then that Ken Douglas and some other CPNZ members left the party to set up the Socialist Unity Party (SUP). This political split was seen as a reflection of differences in the CPNZ – a majority identifying with Chinese socialism and a minority identifying with Russian socialism – but the underlying issue was revolution or reform.
From the day of its birth, up to its disintegration after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the SUP was a fire blanket on the union movement. They supported the Labour Party regardless of what the Labour Party did, kept to the law in all circumstances and counselled unions to cooperate with the bosses. The SUP always opposed union involvement in anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist struggles, saying that workers would only fight when their own pay was affected. This was communism in name, but with the heart, brains and guts removed. It is no wonder that a leader of these ‘communists’, Ken Douglas, was awarded the system’s highest possible award, The Order of New Zealand, not very long after playing a leading role in preventing a general strike against the ECA.
Traitor or Visionary? Enough raking over of old rubbish! More important to ask how activists today can build a revolutionary socialist workers’ movement that’s real and not a grotesque impersonation.