In the 2015 Rona Bailey lecture, held at the Toi Whakaari, Graeme Clarke talked about where the trade union movement and socialists are at and how we got there. The lecture was based on his experiences as a trade unionist and communist for the last 40 years. He will suggest some ideas about improving the current low ebb and try to illustrate some of the principles of trade unionism and socialist work in unions. Graeme Clarke is a lifelong trade unionist, militant, and was a comrade of Rona Bailey in the Workers’ Communist League. The Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture commemorates activist Rona Bailey (1914-2005) and is held every two years by the Labour History Project.
Text of Graeme Clarke’s Rona Bailey Lecture
I would like to thank the Labour History Project for inviting me to give this Rona Bailey Memorial lecture. My recent retirement from full time work has given me pause to reflect on my life as a trade unionist, communist and Kiwi. I hope that my reflections will offer something to the progressive movement in our country.
I first met Rona Bailey when I returned to Wellington after spending a year at Teachers College in Christchurch. I was keen to be involved in the progressive movements at the time and it seemed that if you got involved in anything you inevitably met Rona. I quickly learned that Rona was part of the Bailey-MansonGoddard clique who had been expelled from the Communist Party (CPNZ). I remember talking to Jack Manson about some of his experiences in the CPNZ. He told me of the guerrilla training camps that were held to train Party members to surround the cities from the countryside. The Bailey-Manson-Goddard clique thought that slavishly following Maoism, which was developed for Chinese conditions, in New Zealand was perhaps not the correct path for us—Jack noted that we didn’t have a peasantry. For daring to challenge the CPNZ application of Maoism to New Zealand the Wellington District of the CPNZ was deregistered and its leading members expelled.
I believed then, as I do now, that we Kiwis would have to find our own way to socialism—that we could not follow anyone else’s prescription. So I was attracted to working with these progressive communists.
My involvement in progressive movements and nascent communist organisations steered me towards employment at Todd Motors. I was told that the majority motor industry union, the Coachworkers, was disorganised and any reports I could give to the union’s officials to assist their organising would be appreciated. Todd’s was about 2 km away from where I had grown up. The union had 1,000-1,500 members at Todd’s and two delegates. We set about organising the job after I was elected as a delegate in 1975. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing at the time—that is, creating a union culture in which solidarity predominated and members were prepared to take direct action to advance theirinterests. I would simply listen to a complaint of a worker to the union, raise it with the company, and report back to small smoko meetings. When disputes went unresolved some form of on-the-job industrial action was resorted to. I found that accurate reporting of a “No” from the company generally got a result. For example, heat was an issue in the paint shop.
The industrial relations (IR) manager said he wasn’t going to do anything about the problem because when he played golf he found that his game improved the higher the temperature on the course. The disruption to production through industrial action ultimately yielded improvements in paint shop heat conditions. The IR manager was generally regarded as very stern and tough. He was a Scottish gentleman with a very broad accent; I would mimic his words. I remember one dispute about the lack of adequate protective clothing on the wet deck in the paint shop. The job involved using sanders with a water spray to remove defects from the undercoat preparing for the final coat: the grit from sanding was washed off by the water spray. The water went everywhere and in short order the workers were very wet as they were only supplied aprons and gumboots. The IR manager said to me, “Och I play golf. When it rains my game gets better.” This didn’t go down well on the wet deck. Another issue was solved—full wet gear was supplied.
In these disputes I was looking for the natural leaders. The object was to elect more delegates. However, these disputes also promoted democratic ways of dealing with issues—discussion, consensus decision-making. They also fostered an understanding that by sticking together and supporting each other—solidarity —we could get results.
As Secretary of the Coachworkers’ Union from 1977, I encouraged the use of this process on all jobs in an effort to organise the motor industry across the Wellington region. We achieved a high level of organisation in a short space of time. This was assisted by the involvement of members of the Workers Communist League (WCL) who were active at nearly all industry sites. A strong and vibrant group of delegates, predominantly non-WCL members, was created.
In collective agreement negotiations the strength of our organisation was demonstrated as the wage freeze came to an end. From 1981-84 the employer response to industrial action anywhere in the industry was a threat of an industry lockout. The first time the spectre of an industry lockout was raised was in 1981 during a strike which had shut down two of NZ Motor Corp’s factories in Petone and Auckland. The dispute was referred to the Federation of Labour (FoL) which effected a deal that was basically a surrender to the employers position. While most of the union’s negotiators didn’t like the deal we were pressed to support it in stop-work meetings because we knew we were not prepared to take on an industry lockout.
The industry lockout threat became a predictable response from the employers. Most of the unions in the industry prevailed on subsequent occasions this threat was made and the industrial action was stopped and the unions’ terms accepted. By 1984 we had reached a point where the Coachworkers and other progressive unions were sufficiently organised to meet the employers’ threat. In one day every site had the employers’ collective agreement offer, a 4.5% wage increase, put to 8 stopwork meetings. It was rejected and a vote to go on strike was carried and put immediately into effect. The whole Wellington industry was shut down in a single day by an indefinite duration strike. The threat of a mass lockout was irrelevant: the industry was already shut. The employers were taken by surprise. The agreement was settled after a 4 day strike for a 9% pay rise.
In the course of these events, I came to realise that solidarity and democracy are two vital trade union principles. Another important principle should be added to these: monopoly. The union must be a single seller of labour to employers. By speaking with one voice to the buyer of labour the union aims to obtain a higher price than would result from competitive selling of labour on a labour market. For the most part unions were guaranteed a monopoly by NZ law that existed from the 1890s to 1990. I began to appreciate the significance of the principle of monopoly as a result of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA).
The 70s and early 80s were the zenith of trade union activity in New Zealand. In 1985 union membership was 680,000, about 45% of the workforce or 55% of wage and salary earners. By 1998 union membership had fallen to a little over 300,000, a 40% reduction in the space of 7 years, down 55% from the mid-1980s. The reduction of union membership in New Zealand was the most extreme in the developed world during the period when neoliberal policies became globally pervasive. The impact of the ECA was the single biggest factor in this decline of unions and union membership. However, in my view it would be a mistake to ascribe the decline solely to that cause, which I think the trade union movement has a tendency to do. The movement is now fixated on legal change as the saviour of the trade union movement in NZ. I want to suggest that there are other important factors in the decline. We must look at our own actions as well as the activities of governments if we want to understand the causes of the decline and current languishing of the trade union movement.
Fundamental to the decline was the compliant response of unions to the ECA: bigger is best; competitive unionism; don’t fight the government/law, you can’t win.
The idea that bigger unions were better was actively promulgated prior to the ECA. The FoL/CTU wanted 8 super unions. There is nothing inherently wrong with a big union provided it is organised along sound union principles. However, in New Zealand bigger unions have tended to become more remote from members. The on-the-job democracy and solidarity has diminished. Workers’ issues became technical/legal problems to be resolved by experts. Call centres were established to relieve the burden on organisers of members contacting them directly to discuss job matters. The lifeblood of organising a union seems to me to have been sucked out of the bigger unions. The form of democracy remained but the content diminished.
I first heard of the notion of competitive unionism from the Engineers’ Union (EU) delegate at Todd Motors. He told me that under the ECA only the fittest unions would survive. The ending of the legislated monopoly of unions was embraced by the union movement. Everyone looked to settle old scores, increase their job density at the expense of other site unions, or take pre-emptive action against perceived threats.
A fundamental element of the power of the union is its monopoly. Once monopoly is lost it is very hard to recover and the union is significantly weaker. In the motor industry our union decided on a pre-emptive approach—the statement of the EU delegate seemed to require it. We wanted to avoid separate and competing bargaining units as we felt it would cost all workers in the industry. We first initiated a meeting with the EU’s Wellington district. If there was a split between the unions in Wellington the right would coalesce around the Engineers. In the meeting we proposed that existing demarcation lines be retained and that neither side attempt to increase its membership at the others expense. No agreement could be reached on this. The omens were not good.
Meetings of the industry unions were later convened by the CTU/FoL to discuss bargaining under the ECA. At one such meeting we put forward our union’s policy: one collective contract; one stopwork meeting with one worker, one vote, rather than the right’s preferred one union, one vote. If a union did not agree with this then our position was we would sign up their members until they did agree. Ken Douglas ran the meeting where we related our union’s approach. He told me I was “mad” and we have never spoken since. But where unions have combined on a principled basis it has produced better results both then and now. The third part of our contribution to the demise of trade union membership was our reluctance to fight to protect ourselves, and instead rely on politicians to introduce better laws. I don’t just have in mind the fight against the ECA, and the failure to mount a general strike. The problem goes deeper than that.
Bill Birch said at a lecture of his I attended at Victoria University prior to the passing of the ECA, that under the ECA a union would be able to close a shop. I took him at face value and tried to do just that. We succeeded at Mitsubishi first after a lockout. The terms of the closed shop were part of a collective contract between the employer and union: there could only be one collective agreement at the workplace; it was a condition of employment that a worker be party to the collective agreement; and if a worker did not belong to the union they had to pay to the union a bargaining agent’s fee which was equal to the union fee.
The Manufacturing and Construction Workers’ Union (M&C) got to about 40 closed shop agreements prior to the ECA being repealed. These agreements enabled the union to put more resources into weaker jobs; we didn’t continually have to organise to retain membership on stronger jobs. Faced with these terms, everyone joined the union and learned of its value to them as a member rather than having to be persuaded of its value before joining.
When the Employment Relations Act (ERA) was ushered in it was initially a step back from the ECA with respect to closed shops. I had a discussion with Margaret Wilson, Minister of Labour for the Clark government at a consultative meeting she arranged to discuss the proposed ERA. I sought to amend the draft legislation so that it permitted closed shops. I justified this on the basis of her promise to retain, if not improve, any right that existed for unions under the ECA. The idea of being able to close a shop by requiring employees to be party to the agreement/contract ran counter to the ERA which gave party status to unions. For employees to be covered by the collective agreement they could only do so by joining the union. Margaret Wilson wrote back to me saying that “union lawyers” had advised her that it was not legal to close a shop under the ECA and it would be a step too far to give this power to unions in the new legislation. This advice from union lawyers was contrary to the legal advice given to the employers who had agreed to our closed shop provisions, advice that came from law firms and even the Employers’ Federation.
The same attitude still exists today in the union movement. The National government’s changes to the ERA are mostly not used by unions to strengthen unions—but they do provide that opportunity in my view. It seems to be simply assumed that they weaken unions and anything we might try would be counter to the law; that the answer to the movement’s present woes lies in electing a better government.
Having examined our contribution to the demise of the movement brings us to the problematic of seeking salvation in the election of a new government.
In NZ electoral politics since the 1930s a low turn-out of electors has always equalled a right-wing victory. A heavy voter turn-out ensured a Labour Party win. Labour relied on the unions to mobilise their members to vote them into office. Traditionally, whether that happened or not depended on the politics of the day. If Labour was out of office, and workers felt their interests were not being looked after adequately by the National Party, a heavy turn-out would materialize and the government would change. The difference today is that the reach of the union movement is about one third of what it was. An unpopular Key government can still be re-elected on a low voter turn-out. Key’s landslide win at the last election was brought about by a low vote—thousands and thousands of workers and their families did not vote, many believing that it was pointless because the government would win easily. Parties of the right have greater money resources to throw at re-election while the people resources of the left that historically compensated for that material gap are far less today.
Popular political movements have diminished. Demonstrations in the 60s, 70s and early 80s were often held during the working week and involved thousands of workers organised by the union movement. We don’t do that now unless it has the cover of a legal stopwork meeting. The Labour Party ceased to be such an organising force many years ago. Socialist and communist groups with their links into unions and other working class organisations have dwindled and with it the ability to create the kinds of mass movements of the past. It is mainly in the environmentalist area that this activist traditional extra-parliamentary organising exists. Mostly this is organised outside of the trade union movement.
It is inconceivable that the movements which opposed the Vietnam War, nuclear war, apartheid, state spying and the like would have been as large and successful without the dedicated work of the socialist/communist left. The political foment of these movements was part and parcel of the process of mobilising workers on election day.
One example of this kind of activity was the campaign to oppose the SIS Act amendment bill. The Muldoon government had introduced a bill into Parliament to increase the powers of the SIS. A campaign against the bill was organised. Every home in the Wellington region was leafletted. Stop work meetings were held. A demonstration took place. Busloads of workers from the motor industry and many other worksites attended. The number attending was estimated to be 19,000. It is certainly the largest demonstration held during the working week outside of the Māori land march that I have witnessed in Wellington.
That kind of political activity, of which unions were a significant part, is not recorded on internet history sites. Yet it was a significant expression of popular protest. Nineteen seventy-six was the year of nuclear warship visits and harbour strikes and anti All Black tour protests so the anti SIS bill movement is often forgotten.
Today we couldn’t mount such a campaign. The campaign against TPPA, for example, holds its demonstration in the weekend and 2,000 is a good turnout in Wellington.
In addition to mass movements the socialist/communist left was also active in developing unions. The development of union strength and the development of working-class leaders was a key activity. This was planned in socialist/communist party meetings. This kind of activity still takes place, but not to the extent and in the organised way it once did. The trade union movement is weaker for it.
The second significant aspect of socialist/communist activity in unions was they brought a sense of strategic direction to union work. We were creating class solidarity, promoting class interests, to lay the foundation for socialist revolution. Negotiations for the terms of a collective employment agreement (CEA) were not the only objective, as they seem to be today. Negotiations were also to reveal class interests of workers and employers. The negotiation table was used as another means to organise workers on the job, to imbue workers with socialistic views and a willingness to support each other and act. Today, without this dimension of strategic goals, negotiations are generally the beginning and end. Good faith requirements are now paramount. Bargaining process agreements require joint reports. Members are not involved in the negotiation process. Polite civil exchanges predominate. Negotiations have no greater purpose than achieving a CEA. Employers’ claims are no longer an organising tool. Instead they are given serious consideration. Good faith demands it. The bargaining stance of unions is typically weaker. As a result, employers are encouraged and we are gradually going backwards.
So what happened to the socialist/communist left?