Trade unions and New Zealand’s economic crisis

By Grant Brookes

Unity, May 2009 -- Comparisons now abound between the global economic crisis of 2009 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Naturally, there are similarities and differences. The following bleak assessment of the role of trade unions in the early 1930s comes from the best-known book by one of New Zealand’s foremost social historians of the 20th century:

When their interests were attacked in 1931, they [the trade unions] passed resolutions. In March 1932, after a second civil service wages cut, a 10 percent reduction in all Arbitration Court awards, and the abolition of compulsory arbitration to bring wages down more rapidly, a conference of the Alliance of Labour, the Trades and Labour Councils, and the civil service again sidetracked a strike proposal and spent a good deal of time in discussing forms of organization. The unions had been wet-nursed by an anaemic Arbitration Court, and now that this had gone their weakness was apparent. Union secretaries had become advocates before a court rather than militant leaders in collective bargaining with the strike weapon in the background and the organization experience and rank and file discipline that this entails... Union membership dropped to lower levels, for trade unions seemed to offer little protection.

First published in 1942, The Quest for Security in New Zealand by W.B. Sutch was still in use as a history textbook at my high school in the 1980s. The vital questions today are whether the role of unions in 2009 will be similar to Sutch’s authoritative assessment or different, and what union and radical activists can do about it.

Sutch highlights how the union response to the Great Depression was shaped by the trade unions’ prevailing policy of the previous decade. The years before World War I had seen a string of successful strikes and rapid growth for the small “Red” Federation of Labour. The Red Feds were founded on a militant policy of direct wage bargaining with employers and a rejection of the Arbitration Court. But the crushing defeat of the Red Feds in the 1913 general strike tipped the balance back. By the 1920s, although some dissent remained inside the newly formed Alliance of Labour, the prevailing policy of the larger union grouping, organised through the more conservative trades and labour councils, was one which downplayed direct action and relied on the Arbitration Court to resolve wage disputes.

The partnership debate

In the first decade of the 21st century, the prevailing policy of the union movement has been one of “social partnership”. The front-line battles of the near future will probably be sparked by job losses and pay cuts. But the partnership policy, and the debates around it, will very likely shape the mainstream union response to these battles and to all other aspects of the growing economic crisis today.

Partnership began in 1998, with a local deal between the Public Service Association (PSA) and the Manukau City Council. The first major Partnership Agreement embracing a union, employers and government was signed at the Public Service Association biennial congress two years later, in 2000. Ross Wilson, president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), gave a keynote speech which outlined where the policy had come from: “The last 15 years in New Zealand we have witnessed debates in the union movement about the proposed Compact, the Growth Agreement, `Nissan Way’, `Workplace New Zealand’ and [now] `partnership’.’’

Partnership is an elastic concept. When presented to union delegates and activists, it is portrayed as a strategy for stronger worker participation in decision making at workplace, industry and national levels. And in a few workplaces, for a while at least, small groups of worker representatives have achieved just enough input to sustain this view. For other audiences, however, what is stressed is union willingness to cooperate in boosting business profitability. Under a picture of workers and employers united behind the NZ flag, a 2004 CTU leaflet declared:

A happy, motivated, high-skill, high-wage workforce is an important part of business success. That’s what the CTU wants for everyone... We want businesses to succeed. That’s right ... we’re pro-growth... We’re not trying to create “a hostile business environment”. Why would we? We’re interested in people being in work and leading productive lives.

As in earlier times, today’s prevailing union policy of partnership has been contested.

As a delegate to the PSA congress, I challenged Ross Wilson from the floor about social partnership. I said it reflected, and reinforced, a self-limiting mindset which had grown under the anti-union National Party governments of the 1990s. Partnership was a policy of defeat. It was based on a loss of confidence that unions had the power to achieve their objectives through independent action.

Significant dissent over social partnership emerged at the 2003 CTU biennial conference. The re-affiliation two years earlier of the 18,000-strong National Distribution Union (NDU), which opposed social partnership, led to a formal debate on the conference floor. As an official observer at the conference for my current union, I witnessed a rarely seen challenge to the top union leadership.

The case for partnership was made by PSA secretary Richard Wagstaff and Rosalie Webster, assistant secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). A defensive Wagstaff conceded that “partnership and engagement have been tainted words”. Webster admitted: “It can create disillusionment with members when they see the union being pulled around by the nose by the boss.”

Wagstaff gave the tri-partite forum on Auckland’s health system as an example that partnership works. But a nurse from NorthShoreHospital stood up from the floor and said, “I have been fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to be involved in the tri-partite forum. The outcome has been very dismal so far.”

NDU president Bill Anderson expressed the mood of many conference delegates. “Our union is opposed to the social partnership”, he said. “Of course we have to have a relationship with the employer. Is it a partnership? A partnership is a common interest. When it comes to the employee and employer, it is a conflict relationship... The union movement grew up on the basis of struggle. We used to be stronger when we struggled harder, and our future lies in the same direction.”

Not a single delegate spoke in favour of partnership. When the CTU president put a resolution reaffirming support for social partnership, it passed narrowly by a show of hands.

The forerunners of social partnership mentioned by Ross Wilson at the PSA biennial congress – the proposed Compact (1988-90), the Growth Agreement (1990), “Nissan Way” (from 1987), “Workplace New Zealand” (1992-94) – never won majority backing inside the trade union movement.

Mainstream acceptance of social partnership over the last decade was made possible by four things. Firstly, the election of the 1999 Labour-led government and the incorporation of the Alliance Party as a junior coalition partner. This in turn helped to sideline the Business Roundtable, with its extreme free-market policies, and allowed the more pragmatic Business NZ to become the recognised voice for business. Labour-aligned top union leaders could then overcome opposition to partnership with “reasonable” employers and with “their” government. Finally, a decade of unusually strong economic growth allowed employers to make small concessions in the name of partnership.

Now that social partnership is entrenched, however, some union leaders are carrying it further. Nurses Organisation chief executive Geoff Annals, for example, wrote on the election result in the December/January issue of the union’s journal:

During the election campaign, the lack of policies from National fitting neatly into the ‘right end’ of the traditional ‘right-left’ political spectrum was assumed by many to be a strategy to dupe voters, fearful of any return to ‘90s policies... But perhaps what is happening in politics is more complex than that, and more hopeful... Political parties, and particularly the National Party, seem to be coming to understand that they must genuinely attempt to represent all New Zealanders, if they are to be in Government.

This belief in the possibility of union partnership not just with a Labour-led government in good economic times, but with today’s National Party-led government too, shaped the CTU position going into the high-profile “Jobs Summit” called by Prime Minister John Key in February.

On the eve of the summit, CTU president Helen Kelly wrote in her column in the Dominion Post Business Day, “This is a scary time to be a worker... It is also a scary time for many business owners. Both groups have an interest in each other’s survival through these unusual economic circumstances... The Council of Trade Unions does not object to support for businesses at this time... We are actively participating in the Government’s programmes for economic stimulus.”

The CTU discussion document, presented at the summit a few days later, called for a “social consensus” about measures to tackle the economic crisis. “It is not an opportunity to relitigate longer term policy settings... Stabilisation policies should be reversible”.

A centrifugal force

The problems with this union approach run deep. As the lessons of the 1930s should tell us, the growing economic crisis now sweeping the globe will create a centrifugal political force which shatters any “social consensus”. That decade saw the growth of right-wing extremism worldwide, and a corresponding wave of social revolts, militant trade unionism and growth of the radical left – including, in this country, the election of the most left-wing government New Zealand has yet seen.

No one – least of all those running the system – can claim to be able to reliably predict the future. But whatever tactical moves a National-led government may be forced to take in the short term, in order to shore up support and prevent rapid economic collapse, the current crisis will almost certainly lead (at the very least) to irreversible changes in longer term policy settings lasting for decades to come.

Even the traditionally conservative International Trade Union Confederation, which the CTU belongs to, understands this. Energised by the more advanced stage of the crisis overseas, its declaration to the G20 Summit in April vowed, “there can be no return to ‘business as usual.”

Already, the National Party-led government has signalled its rightward direction. The rushed passage of the 90-day “Sack-at-Will Bill” has received a lot of coverage. So have moves to undermine four weeks’ holiday for all and time-and-half pay on statutory holidays, reductions in entitlements, tax cuts for top income earners, privatisation of prisons, removing the few restrictions on wealthy overseas investors buying up New Zealand assets and public service spending cuts.

Finance minister Bill English left no doubt about the irreversible nature of the spending cuts. After telling TV3 News that the effects of the recession could last for 15 years, he said he’d advised government department heads that “restraint is permanent. For the rest of their careers, there isn’t going to be more money or more people.”

Other far-reaching policy changes, like strengthening the free-trade agenda and its international “race to the bottom” in pay and conditions, are promised in response to the economic crisis. Signing a new free-trade deal in Thailand in March, foreign affairs minister Tim Groser said it “sends the message” that free trade, “not protectionism, is the best way to bring us through the most serious international economic crisis we have faced since the Great Depression”.

As NZ Herald commentator John Armstrong has observed, “So the National Government is variously inching, shifting, drifting, veering or lurching to the right, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. Surprise, surprise... John Key may have portrayed himself as a moderate pragmatist in Opposition – indeed he is still doing exactly that as Prime Minister – but he is still the leader of a party, the fundamental ethos of which is firmly centre-right.”

Employers who talked about saving jobs at the Jobs Summit are busy axing them at their own firms. Warehouse founder and “socially responsible” business leader Stephen Tindall led one of the six discussion groups at the summit. At the same time, his senior managers were finalising plans to lay off as many as 1000 workers. Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyffe, who’s slashing at least another 200 staff this year, led another group, while John Bongard of Fisher and Paykel (which has shed 900 jobs in the last two years) led a third. Employer representatives at Business NZ, meanwhile, are pushing for drastic anti-union laws to shut unions out of workplaces and return to individual employment contracts.

How could it be otherwise? The economic crisis of 2009 is at root a crisis of business profitability. Profit is the lifeblood of a market economy. Without it, there is nothing to re-invest in the company, or to return to shareholders to attract their capital. Many employers, like those at the Jobs Summit, understand that a widespread collapse in consumer spending through job losses and pay cuts threatens their livelihoods. But to boost profits for their individual firm, they are driven by market imperatives to make these cuts themselves.

For parties of the market, like the National Party, reviving the economy means restoring business profitability. In today’s deep crisis, this means emergency measures to cushion consumer spending and prevent economic collapse. But it also has to mean helping businesses to cut costs – including wage costs and tax payments – over the longer term.

When Sealord announced, less than a week after the Jobs Summit, that it was laying off 160 staff, Prime Minister John Key told TV3’s Sunrise, “I think in the case of Sealord they’re actually restructuring their business. One thing we have to be realistic about is the recession will ultimately drive some of those changes, it’s not to say we’re not hugely sympathetic to those who have lost their job, we understand that there will be change”.

The government’s economic stimulus package – praised by pro-partnership union leaders – is being partly funded by borrowing. It’s fairly certain that the National Party government won’t repay this debt through higher taxes on companies and top income earners. The burden is likely to fall, sooner or later, on working people.

The alternative – pouring all government efforts into protecting the people from the crisis – would weaken corporate power and undermine the central pillars of the market. This is something that parties of the market can never do.

Just as worrying as the CTU’s talk of ongoing partnership with the National Party government and employers is what is not being said by top union leaders. So far, there is no discussion in the CTU about the kind of large-scale, cross-union campaign, which could ensure the burden of the economic crisis is not borne by workers.

In effect, by persevering with social partnership, the CTU is continuing to express a lack of confidence in independent union action and is pinning its hopes instead on action by the National-led government. In return, as its discussion paper humbly promises, the CTU will help implement “the more creative changes in a way that secures worker agreement to the changes and avoids the liabilities that unilateral changes can create”. The higher stakes of today’s growing economic crisis are elevating this lack of top-level commitment to independent action into a major problem.


Even during the current “partnership decade”, however, when unions have been formally committed to cooperation for “business success”, a number of unions have effectively managed to work around the policy and secure major gains in the teeth of employer and government opposition – beginning with the Nurses Organisation in 2002-3. In each case, it was the sudden entry of the mass of grassroots union members onto the political stage which delivered the victory.

Most of the time, the views of grassroots union members and activists are invisible, hidden away in conversations in the workplace tearoom. While the views of union leaders are important – not least because of the influence they can have with members – they are often not wholly representative of the union movement.

Typically, these officials in full-time union positions are on salaries considerably higher than the average union member. They are much closer to government and spend more time mixing with officials and employers. Particularly at higher levels, they don’t experience the same daily hassles with the boss. And because their incomes come from membership fees, they are not directly affected by changes in the pay and conditions of members on the job. They are the managers of sometimes sizeable union-owned assets.

Because of all this, full-time union officials tend towards conservatism – both maintaining necessary union organisation and expertise, but also shying away from radical action.

While the views of grassroots union members and activists are usually hidden, in times of change they can break through and lead unions in new directions. When a union leader manages to connect with grassroots members and activists and express their mood for change, then union power is unleashed. This is what happened in 2003, when newly appointed Nurses Organisation strategist Laila Harré went directly to members in the union’s first series of nationwide stopwork meetings in over a decade.

The meetings solidified the mood to fight for a NZ$300 million fair pay claim. As a nurse from HawkesBayRegionalHospital put it in an interview with the forerunner to Unity journal, “In the last few months we’ve gone from ‘no, we can’t, we care for our patients too much’ to ‘sod you, who cares for us?’”

Business NZ chief executive Anne Knowles described the nurses’ pay claim as “completely unacceptable” due to its “flow-on effect” for private sector pay. Treasury advised, “The Minister of Health has indicated to DHBs that the outcome of these negotiations must be met within their three-year Health Funding Paths.” But in 2004 nurses secured extra government funding and won their pay claim, without trade-offs. Key to the victory was nurses’ preparedness, built up over 18 months of active leadership and mounting grassroots campaigning, to take independent action. As the nurses’ union journal explained after a settlement was reached, “members’ determination to take strike action in support of the NZNO pay claim was crucial”.

In 2005, the EPMU spearheaded a cross-union push for big pay rises of five per cent and more. EPMU national secretary Andrew Little, too, went directly to members in that union’s first series of nationwide stopworks in over a decade. His militant message met the grassroots mood. A worker who attended the 1500-strong Wellington meeting told Unity, “I got a feeling of confidence from those around me. I haven’t seen anything like it for 15 years.”

Andrew Little described the meeting as “unbelievable”. “It was like a festival, with workers from one company getting together with workers from rival companies in a show of solidarity. There’s a new union movement emerging, and it’s coming from the members themselves”.

The surge of grassroots union power, oblivious to any official policy of “social partnership”, strengthened the whole union movement. When Progressive Enterprises locked out 500 supermarket workers in 2006, unionists had the confidence and organisation to rally round and help them win. During the six-week struggle, an army of grassroots activists collected $250,000 and food donations to sustain the locked-out workers and their families. Community boycotts of Progressive supermarkets were organised. And crucially, groups of workers had the confidence to defy the anti-strike laws in the Labour Party government’s Employment Relations Act and take small-scale industrial action targeting Progressive’s supply chains – with bigger action threatened. A similar grassroots mobilisation defeated a shorter lockout of 800 hospital cleaners by Spotless Services in 2007.

It’s impossible to tell in advance how the slow-motion collision between the top-level commitment to partnership, and the mood of grassroots union members, will be resolved as the economic crisis deepens. But collide they will, and not only through sudden and unexpected eruptions of grassroots anger and desperation at job losses or pay cuts.

It may be that union passivity and demoralisation win out, as they did in the early 1930s. But there are hopeful signs to the contrary.

Speaking at a union forum in late March, Prime Minister John Key commented, “It’s an interesting thing when you come from being a Centre-Right government and you start saying, ‘I’m building great relationships with the Council of Trade Unions’”. He quickly added, “I don’t want to get Helen [Kelly, the CTU president] off side with her delegates.” Key knows that many trade unionists oppose “social partnership” with his government.

The opposition is being voiced by some union leaders. In the March 2009 issue of the Service and Food Workers Union journal, for instance, national secretary John Ryall wrote: “The Government is preaching inclusiveness but has already signalled its intent with its rush into pre-Christmas urgency of the 90-day sack-at-will legislation for small workplaces... The National Government and the employers can’t have it both ways. If they want a united front to deal with the economic crisis then they have to get rid of their anti-worker agenda.”

But it’s left to the general secretary of one of the smaller unions to say many of the things that really need to be said. In the post-election issue of the Maritime Union journal, Trevor Hanson wrote:

The main goal of the new Government will be to ensure profit levels for employers are kept up. Their stated commitment to public services and limited changes to employment laws will soon take second place to ensuring that big business and the wealthy elite are protected from the recession...

Comparisons of the current crash to the great depression are being proliferated widely, but none of us were around to feel the effect.

I can recall my father telling me that as a boy in the Great Depression on the 1930s he had no shoes, and they used to follow the cows to school and warm their feet in the cow pats. He also told us about coming home to a stew made of the family pet goat, and depending on trapped rabbits for food...

Right now we have many financially stretched and in poor living conditions, and a resurgence in the kind of problems we see in recessions and depressions. Thousands of New Zealanders have lost their life savings...

It would be foolish for any Union movement to rely on a friendly government.

Unions must be in a position to fight effectively for their members and for the working class at all times regardless of the Government.

Ironically, the questioning of social partnership by union leaders is not just coming from traditionally left-wing unions like the Maritime Union, the National Distribution Union and Unite. It is also coming from mainstream unions like the EPMU, which pushed for the policy in the first place.

In December 2008 EPMU national secretary Andrew Little wrote a strongly worded letter to the unions’ “social partner”, Business NZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly:

[Your] briefing on employment relations is a disgrace in this day and age... The stance adopted by Business NZ in its recommendations to the government are deeply disappointing when, as an organisation, it stood out under the previous government as demonstrating a constructive approach to employment relations... It appears that this approach is now at an end... Business NZ has undergone an apparent reversion to type.

Radicals and activists

Despite these voices of opposition, however, no alternative policy for the union movement as a whole is yet visible. A positive alternative is only likely to emerge out of mass struggles by grassroots members. These mass struggles will begin small, in unforeseen places.

If this is the situation confronting radicals and union activists now, then our first task is clear. We must continue to foster the conditions for small struggles to grow. Activists should spread solidarity for unionists whenever they appeal for support during an industrial dispute – as we did during the lockouts of 2006 and 2007. The difference being that in today’s economic turmoil, a small spark of determined resistance is more likely to ignite wider struggle.

Activists should also support grassroots political campaigns initiated by unions. These can energise a broad movement extending beyond a particular workplace, industry or union in the absence of a rallying point around an industrial dispute.

The Unite union’s national secretary Matt McCarten has proposed a petition for a citizens’-initiated referendum on raising the minimum wage – first to $15 an hour and then to two-thirds of the average wage. “The economic crisis facing the world is the toxic product of insatiable greed at the top and the free-market policies of governments that removed all controls”, he says. “Restoring the minimum wage would be an important step towards replacing the greed and inequality of the past three decades with policies that protect jobs by enhancing the purchasing power of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

It’s significant that Unite has gone it alone in initiating this petition, without waiting for the CTU to take it up. The Maritime Union has pledged support. But it will take all the help radical activists can deliver to gather the 300,000 petition signatures needed to trigger a referendum.

Radical activists also need to understand that in times like these, the best instinct of all grassroots people is to put aside differences and band together in self-defence. So we must work cooperatively with people of all political persuasions who publicly advance unity to protect the people from the market crisis. This will include trade union leaders from outside the traditional left, as well as Labour Party figures, and members and office holders in the Maori Party, the Greens, the Alliance and the Workers Party.

But even as we unite, we must also recognise that the Labour Party-aligned union leaders, who make up the dominant bloc, will only be able to take the struggle so far. Chris Trotter has more inside knowledge and more loyalty when it comes to the Labour Party than any other commentator. Even he bluntly describes the party in 2009 as “at serious risk of imploding under the weight of its own extraordinary timidity”.

But ties to the Labour Party won’t hold the movement back just because it  is currently unable to mount any serious opposition to the National Party government. The problem is deeper. Labour loyalists in the unions ultimately can’t protect the people from the market because Labour, like the Nationals, is a party of the market.

So the second task for radical and union activists is equally clear. The success and strength of unions in today’s crisis is also linked to the creation of a political alternative dedicated to breaking the stranglehold of the market over New Zealand society.

Across the decades

What kind of political alternative? There are two main strategies on offer on the New Zealand radical left today. On the one hand, some see the way forward as building a “narrow party”, made up exclusively of revolutionaries committed to the overthrow of capitalism. Advocates of this approach establish their identity by denouncing trade union “bureaucrats” and left “reformists” belonging to other parties, more or less indiscriminately.

Others are pursuing a “broad left” strategy, creating a grassroots political movement embracing the tiny revolutionary forces as well as a wide range of others not (yet) convinced about the particular models of “revolution” they’ve been presented with.

In the 1930s, the Communist Party of New Zealand tried both narrower and broader approaches.

Formed in 1921, the CPNZ is the forerunner of Socialist Worker, the organisation which publishes the Unity journal. It was a young party finding its feet when the Great Depression appeared on the horizon in the late 1920s. At the same time, unbeknownst to communists Downunder, the Russian Revolution, which was their guiding light, was being strangled under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Not surprisingly, therefore, the CPNZ veered left and right. From 1924 to 1926 it had even placed itself under the direction of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in a bid to stabilise its political orientation.

In the late 1920s, following examples overseas, the CPNZ attempted to build a Militant Minority Movement (MMM) as a cross-union grouping of militant trade unionists. The party kept tight control over the MMM and proclaimed it an explicitly “revolutionary” organisation, with high expectations of union activists wanting to join. The theory – seldom stated in public – was that the MMM could be used to create breakaway “red unions”, separate from the mainstream trade union movement.

In the same book which provides the opening quote for this article, social historian Bill Sutch described the CPNZ at this time as “narrowly sectarian”. “Trade union secretaries were regarded as ‘reformist bureaucrats’.”

Labour historian Bert Roth adds, “The Communists at that time attacked Labour Party and Alliance [of Labour] [trade union] leaders indiscriminately as traitors, fakirs and social fascists.”

“[The] party expected unreasonable feats of militancy from their members. Communist attempts to form a Militant Minority Movement on the British [and Australian] model met with little response, and the party virtually lost all influence in the trade unions at the very beginning of the depression.”

The Communist Party strategy of bringing together activists to oppose the market on an exclusively revolutionary basis failed so comprehensively during the Great Depression that even its leading proponents drew the lesson. According to Australian labour historian Stuart MacIntyre, CPA general secretary J.B. Miles concluded in 1934 that “the Minority Movement was too narrow and sectarian”.

But from 1931, the CPNZ took a different approach – on the ground, if not always in the theories coming out of the central executive – when it helped to launch the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM). By comparison with the Minority Movement, local UWM branches were not exclusively revolutionary – indeed the great bulk of their activists were Labour Party supporters. This breadth of participation was possible because local CP activists – sometimes to the disquiet of party headquarters in Wellington – did not make it a point of honour to routinely denounce union leaders and other leftists.

Bill Sutch observed that the UWM is “historically of great interest” because of its “mildness” and its pluralism. “It contained ideas surviving from the earlier Socialist and Social Democratic Parties.” While it was “looked on with suspicion”, particularly by conservative union leaders who were shying away from radical action and presiding over declining union organisations, the UWM was seen as “reasonable enough, and contained elements supported by the trade union [leaders]”. UWM activists in Auckland, in particular, actively sought opportunities to unite with local Labour leaders, independent leftists and trade union officials in common campaigns – like the 1934 Free Speech Campaign.

At its best, the UWM represented a broad left grassroots movement which met the needs, and matched the popular mood, of grassroots people. Tens of thousands of the unemployed rallied round the UWM’s banner. It organised successful mass protests against the “slave camps” for unemployed men, forced the government to raise relief payments and “gave the tiny Communist Party much more influence”. The CPNZ, agreed Roth, “became the leading organisation in the field”. On the back of this movement, the Communist Party was able to rebuild support inside the trade unions after the late 1930s.

Socialist Worker is learning from the historical experience of the CPNZ, but drawing conclusions that our Communist forbears were unable to reach. In the 1930s, the Labour Party was committed to preserving the “intricate and delicate machinery” (as deputy leader Peter Fraser put it) of a market in crisis. But it was also a mass workers party. This presented an historical obstacle to the creation of a mass broad left political party, opposed to the rule of the market, to activate and represent broad grassroots movements like the UWM. At the same time, loyalty to Stalin’s regime in Russia was eroding the CPNZ’s socialism from within.

Socialist Worker, as a Marxist organisation, is also guided by theoretical insights of Karl Marx and fellow thinkers who followed. “The Communists”, said Marx, “have no interests separate and apart from those of the working class as a whole”. Like Marx, we oppose the narrow strategy of the sect, which “sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ – not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth [identifying mark] which distinguishes it from it”.

Seeing that Labour today is neither a mass party nor a workers party, Socialist Worker has embraced a broad left strategy to create a political alternative to the parties of the market. In 2003, Auckland Socialist Worker members were involved in setting up Residents Action Movement (RAM) as a political movement dedicated to grassroots campaigning and fielding candidates in local body elections. Standing for the Auckland Regional Council in 2004, RAM won 87,000 votes and one ARC seat. In 2007, standing for a wider range of seats, RAM polled 117,000 votes.

In 2008, RAM went nationwide and initiated a broad, grassroots campaign to remove the goods and services tax from food. The campaign attracted mass support – though sadly this was not reflected in our poor vote in the general election.

At our 2009 conference in Auckland in February, we established a union committee to focus our activities inside the union movement. RAM embraces and welcomes a wide diversity of political opinion, but is united in fighting for a transition away from the corporate market. Unlike the CPNZ in the 1930s, we will not have the dead weight of Stalinism to stop us.

[Grant Brookes was elected chair of the Residents Action Movement in March 2009 and sits on the National District Health Board Delegates Committee for the NZ Nurses Organisation. However, the views expressed in this article do not purport to reflect either of these organisations, and represent solely his own opinions. This article first appeared in the May 2009 edition of Unity, journal of Socialist Worker-New Zealand. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. To download the entire issue, click HERE.]

Thanks, Grant, for this extensive and historically-informed account of their crisis and ours in NZ.

However, I do not think you exhaust the range of possible scenarios or alternatives. There has, over the years, been a broad international debate about 'social movement unionism', 'the new social unionism', 'labour-community unionism', 'labour as citizenship movement', and related terms.

I think that what might distinguish these from the alternative(s) you offer would be one or more of the following: 1) questioning the 'national industrial' model of union structure under the current capitalist order of globalisation/neo-liberalism/computerisation; 2) going beyond the institutionalised labour movement (union and/or party) horizontally or even 'downwards', in the direction of other popular or radical social movements and recognising unionism-as-we-know-it as but one of such; 3) surpassing the old manichean opposition 'reformist/revolutionary' with an 'emancipatory' or 'utopian' perspective.

This is a period of less a crisis than a catastrophe for unionism-as-we-know-it, and then on a global scale. However, as we know, capitalism recovers from its crises and goes on until it is surpassed. The two solutions that came out of the radical 1930s were on the one hand Communist statism and Capitalist reformism (Keynesianism, the Welfare State, Social Partnership) - and total unpreparedness for the predatory and life-destroying nature of capitalism in its latest guise. Oh, and before these appeared there was, of course, that other 'alternative', fascism.

Unfortunately, there does not yet exist a website on which such matters can be widely and openly discussed. I can only offer access to a friendly website listed as my Homepage above. And to one particularly utopian strategy on it, that of a Global Labour Charter Movement:

Best thing I can say about this so far is that it has been on both a German and the Uruguay-based website and published in Spanish.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/23/2009 - 00:35


Mr Brookes commentary on unions in New Zealand is a curate's egg of a piece. Some of it is quite sensible - for example, the newly-elected National-lead government is not friendly to workers. And yes, there was considerable debate within the trade union movement about partnership, a debate which still continues, as it should.

The background to this is complex. The union movement in New Zealand is in a parlous state. It has an overall density of about 20% but in the private sector, this has fallen to between 7-9%. This trend, similar to that found in many other OECD members, reflects both secular factors (e.g changing demographics in the population and work) and a failure on the part of unions to renew themselves such that people want to join them.

As a result, the union movement has been engaged in a renewal project since the restructuring of the NZCTU in the later 1990s. It is fair to say that, by then, unions were increasingly out-of-touch with the changing realities of the workforce and sectoral shifts. The late 1990s saw the beginnings of a generational shift in union leadership, both within the NZCTU and in its affiliates. That shift might be categorised as traditional labourist, as opposed to politically radical or syndicalist. Indeed, radical agendas are marked by an inverse relationship between their noise and smoke and their effective presence.

The new leaderships were not uniform in political or strategic perspectives. However, two key unions - the two largest, the public sector union (PSA) and the Engineers (EPMU) - supported social partnership from slightly different perspectives. Others were less supportive. What is the case, clearly, is that the National Affiliate Council of the CTU , and the regular CTU conferences, did debate partnership, and substantial support for partnership existed. It is also the case that, for example, Matt McCarten, leader of Unite, one of the more radical unions, actively supports partnership programmes (in particular, with Accor - the hotel chain). There is, therefore, a strong stream of deliberate involvement in social partnership by NZ unions, even if some unions remain to be convinced about its advantages.

This engagement is not uncritical. The current government's policy settings may well undermine unions' interest in partnership. Government's responses to the current recession involve serious public sector cuts and the threat of significant anti-union legislative reform. Whether that undermining takes place remains to be seen. I suggest that this would be a sad outcome, for there is no evidence in NZ that the mass of workers is in any way ready to shift allegiance to a more radical, oppositional role. In fact, strikes are very rare, and have been for many years. Much more commitment has, I think, been shown to engagement with the last Labour-lead government and, amongst its many policies, social partnership.

The CTU and its constituent unions are also not standing still. Of course, it must engage with whatever government is in power. But, under the leadership of Helen Kelly, that engagement is hard-nosed, and is accompanied by a sophisticated project to re-think trade union relevance and presence in New Zealand. That re-think hasa strong focus on organisational performance and new methods of engaging with the unorganised. Pretty much all unions and leaders - including many mentioned by Mr Brookes - are actively and positively engaged in this process, which must be successful if unions are to have a serious presence in NZ.

You’re welcome, Peter – I only wish there had been more positives for trade unionists in NZ for me to include in it.

On your suggestion that I have not exhausted the range of possible scenarios or alternatives, I could not agree more.

I gave a great deal of thought, while writing the article, about possible alternatives. In the end, however, I decided to sketch a broad outline of a political response (given more detail in another article from our journal, reproduced at, but not to propose an alternative policy for the trade union movement to the current one of social partnership.

I was not aware of the Global Labour Movement Charter you refer to. However, radical unionists in NZ did launch – and campaign for – a Workers Charter here ( We succeeded in getting endorsement of the ten points (shorn of the preamble and conclusion) by the National Affiliates Council of the NZ Council of Trade Unions. (We also inspired a similar movement in Britain -- But the Charter did not, in practice, achieve any significant support in guiding trade union policy – perhaps because it was required support for a wide range of issues, taken as a totality, by a broad-based, politically diverse body like a trade union.

I am aware, however, of some of the current international debates around ‘social movement unionism’ you refer to. Having been around as a union delegate (or rep, or steward, as they are also known overseas) in the 1990s, I’m also aware of a previous round of union policy debates. Back then, I belonged to a union which had consciously adopted the ‘service model’ of unionism. Each issue of our glossy union journal contained advertisements for discount schemes the union had negotiated with various retailers, holiday homes for union members, insurance deals, credit card offers, and other services and benefits available to members. My current union, on the other hand, espouses the ‘organising model’.

I followed, and took part in, the sometimes heated debates around these two models. While I definitely favour one over the other, I have to say that the difference in practice between the two unions is not as great as the heat around the debate would have you believe.

Although it is not yet fully played out, I suspect the ‘social movement unionism’ debate will be similar. The current president of the NZ Council of Trade Unions was elected in 2007 on a platform of ‘social movement unionism’. I have to say, I have yet to see any difference in practice in either the CTU or its affiliates as a result.

The reason, I believe, why these union policy shifts have not resulted in the kind of changes that can meet the challenges of today’s economic crisis is that they are largely confined to the upper echelons of trade union officialdom. Fundamentally, I chose not to put forward an alternative union policy in my article because of my faith that “a positive alternative is only likely to emerge out of mass struggles by grassroots members.”

Instead of proposing an alternative, I drew on some of the lessons of the ‘Red Feds’, the radical unionists of the pre-WWI period. Flourishing in a time of heightened class struggle, the Red Feds adopted the revolutionary (syndicalist) preamble of the Western Federation of Miners in the US as their policy. But even then, among the wider working class their agitation was mainly directed against a single point - union support for the arbitration system (of state-sponsored settlement of industrial disputes). They largely succeeded in discrediting arbitration (which they dubbed, “labour’s leg-iron”), and showed – in their short existence – hints of the positive alternative that mass practice can generate.

I maintain that, as the economy slides into crisis under a centre-Right government, social partnership is labour’s leg-iron in NZ today. Beyond this, we can only agitate and fan the sparks of grassroots resistance into a fire that can burn through the existing constraints on the union policy debates and set the movement on the radical new direction we need.


Interesting response. And it is always useful to be reminded of radical or revolutionary bodies, ideas and moments in labour's history. Such a reminder has been recently provided, for the US, here:

I am also interested to see the NZ and UK labour charters you signalled. And that the NZ (and UK?) one failed to take off. So has my own Global Labour Charter project, so I can hardly take comfort in the fact that the earlier two were 'workerist' whilst mine is 'alternative'?, 'emancipatory?'. Nor can we put the failure down to that ancient bogeyman of the labour left, 'the union bureaucracy'.

When I was in South Korea a year or two ago, the socialist or Marxist union leadership was worrying itself about the conservative or fearful behaviour of the MEMBERSHIP!

Moreover, when I was engaged in the Transnational Information Exchange project for 'shopfloor internationalism' in the 1980s, this one also faded or burned out. Nigel Haworth (now a labour studies professor in NZ) and Harvey Ramsay concluded, at that time, that any such new labour internationalism (or movement?) had to go beyond the factory wall and the union office.

Unions - even if they seriously address the unemployed, the casualised, streetworkers, sex workers, homeworkers - organise workers 'as such' rather than 'for themselves' (to draw from Marx's 'an sich' and 'fuer sich'). 'As such' means for me, as workers exist within and under capitalism. And, as such, they serve at best as a means of evidently necessary defence, but at the price of accepting the limits of capitalism. And therefore seeing as their very best hope, 'social partnership' (meaning a subordinate partnership with a hegemonic capital and state). The major achievement of such a union model and strategy is or was the capitalist welfare state. Which, as you know well from NZ experience, can go more rapidly than it came. But, in the meantime, this union model socialised workers into dependence on the mentioned hegemons - mostly defined in national terms. Little wonder that workers are now in a condition of anxiety and confusion. And lacking the vision, language and instruments for effective counter-attack. Nor if we see a worrying growth of nationalist or chauvinist responses amongst them (at least in Europe).

My own labour charter suggests that we need to focus on 'work' (labour for capital, state, empire, patriarchy)rather than the unions or even the 'working class' (unless the latter be redefined to include all working people, including 'housewives', etc). It also suggests that unions have to recognise their affinity with other radical-democratic and internationalist social movements, and abandon notions of priority or privilege in relation to such, whether expressed in Marxist or Social-Liberal terms. This also implies opening up to a networking rather than an organisational kind of relationship, both within the labour movement and with other social movements. And this itself means treating the less-numerous, the more-marginal, the less-powerful as equals.

The charter also suggests the need to revive discussion about 'labour's utopias'. These are, or were, according to Peter Beilharz, Bolshevism, Fabianism and Social Democracy. Why we need to revive this discussion is, firstly, because these have all failed, secondly, because otherwise we are condemned to acceptance of 'social partnership' or 'decent work' (the old fabian or social democratic utopia offered by the International Labour Organisation and uncritically endorsed and promoted by the International Trade Union Confederation).

Finally, if not firstly, we need an open online platform, with an appropriate and attractive name, in which this discussion can take place internationaly - and then in two or more languages!