Delta puts workers’ power under the spotlight

by Don Franks

Foremost fighting the Delta virus are workers, especially in health, distribution, service and education sectors. Unionised members of these groups are centrally represented by the New Zealand Council of trade unions ( NZCTU).

Political journalist Richard Harman recently noted:“Businesses are caught in a legal tangle if they try to enforce ‘no jab no job’ policies. Up until yesterday, business leaders were convinced the Government would not move on “no jab no job”, in part because it is opposed by the Combined Trade Unions.”

Harman’s comment prompted columnist Chris Trotter to complain:

Workers might have expected the CTU to lead the charge for “No Jab. No Job”. Because how else can employees be protected from the enormous risk posed by the stupid and the selfish? The great union motto has always been: “An injury to one is an injury to all!” Not, “The injury of all – by one.” What greater priority could the labour movement have than throwing its entire weight behind the drive for universal inoculation against Covid-19?

The NZ CTU’s policy, published on Sept 12th was set out by President Richard Wagstaff:

We are encouraging employers to do the right thing and support the team of 5 million, including all working New Zealanders, to get fully vaccinated. The union movement is proudly encouraging everyone, who can, to get vaccinated. Vaccinations are a collective action; they work best when we all get them. Employers need to be doing everything they can to support people and make it as easy as possible for employees to get vaccinated. In practical terms this means being able to get vaccinated in paid work time. Providing accurate and clear information in the workplace is another practical thing employers can do. This includes having a zero tolerance approach to misinformation spread with intent to scare and anger people. The goal is that people want to get vaccinated because they understand the benefits to themselves and the people they love. But if people don’t want to get vaccinated then their employer must not be able to force them. If someone is in a role which does require them to be fully vaccinated, then it is our recommendation that the worker be redeployed into a different role within the organisation as negotiated with the individual and their union. Working people on our frontlines have lead the way in getting vaccinated – now it’s time for everyone else to get vaccinated, together we’re strongest.

In other words, a bob each way and hopefully the employers will somehow facilitate that.

Was Chris Trotter justified in demanding union leaders take a hard ’no jab no job’ line?

Union members will have different opinions. Whatever those might be, workers had virtually zero opportunity make them part of NZCTU policy. It’s a safe bet that Richard Wagstaff’s press release was, at best, an executive resolution, the views of a handful of people.

The present NZCTU was formed in 1987, combining the NZ Federation of Labour ( FoL) and Combined state unions. The former FoL had many serious imperfections but was immeasurably more democratic than the present union body. Regular national conferences were attended by rank and file delegates from functioning district councils. The essential decision making body at FoL conferences was the mass plenum, where resolutions were debated, often heatedly, by all present. In times of crisis, special conferences were assembled to give the movement direction.

The deeper democracy of the FoL is not because it’s leaders were better people. The 1960s and ’70s can be seen in hindsight as a time of relative kiwi worker prosperity. There were more blue collar worksites across the country, many of them actively unionised at ground level. Workers consequently had higher expectations and demanded more of their employers and of their union representatives. By no means all worksites were organised or militant but those that were provided an impetus affecting workers in all areas.

In recent decades capitalism has gone on the offensive and tightened its grip across the board. Workers gains of the ’60s and ’70s have been badly eroded, in terms of job security, penal pay, employment prospects, housing and health – physical and mental. The means to redress these losses – industrial action – has also been eroded by anti strike laws and diminished union power.

There is no point in seeking to recreate the past, nor any point in demanding that the present bureaucratic NZCTU somehow rejuvenate itself into social relevancy.

The point is that at present, the mass of workers in New Zealand lack a functioning democratic central organisation to vigorously promote their class interests. Until that problem is addressed, we’ll continue to slide further away from enjoying a decent life.