Thursday, 19 March 2009

Workers of the World Untie

Redundancies are one of the hardest things for unions to deal with. Workers have very little power, and short of taking over the factory and running it some or all of the workers are going to get screwed over.

But that is all the more reason why it's vital that workers stick together, and focus on who is making people redundant (the boss) and not each other.

I say this because over the last few days union leaders have been in the news dividing workers. The M&C union (Which is on the left of the union movement, so it's particularly disappointing):

Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union general secretary Graeme Clarke said the union had been in contact with the Government about companies continuing to employ migrant workers.

Any businesses that had imported workers through the skills-shortage list should have to "re-prove" they could not fill the positions with Kiwi workers, he said.

"Our answer has always been `yes, you can import people', but now we want it proved again that the shortage still exists."

Christchurch branch secretary Phil Yarrall said the union complained to the Labour Department about jet boat manufacturer CWF Hamilton's decision to make 28 Kiwi workers redundant while retaining 24 migrant workers on temporary contracts.

"They got the permit because there was a labour shortage. Now there's no shortage," he said.
Andrew Little from the EPMU (which isn't on the left of the union movement or a surprise):
Migrant workers had helped New Zealand through years of major skills shortages, but there were now questions over what to do when Kiwi workers were losing jobs. "Kiwi workers are obviously capable of making a long-term commitment to the business, but those on work visas are limited to a couple of years," he said.
Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions, appeared on the Panel on National Radio yesterday (it's in the first half available here for a week or so), with a bob each way. She tries to take a stand against racism towards migrant workers, which is severely hampered by her support of racism towards migrant workers.

So to go back to unions 101, as soon as the bosses divide workers they've won. Union leaders may not have any good solutions to redundancies, but turning on migrant workers is not a substitute for a good solution. If, for example, the workers at the Hamilton company think redundancy should be based on a last on first off basis, then they should fight for that rather than targetting workers who remain on the basis of their country of origin (and if those workers aren't in the union then the responsibility for that probably lies with the union).

These are hard times for workers, hard times for unions. But that's no reason to abandon the basic tenant that underlines unions very existence.


Dolan said...

This is a good post and raises an interesting point, but I do wish people would stop refering to unions as left or right. It's a stereotype and a prejudice. It adds nothing to your argument, and in fact, one could argue that it is just another way workers are divided.

Anna said...

Dolan, unions are a response to the fact that, in a capitalist society, workers have less power than employers, and need to band together to redress that imbalance. That's really a left wing premise - and when it's absent (as in the case Maia has described), what remains isn't much of a union - just a bunch of individuals getting together to pursue self-interest.

Maia, I've been really troubled by this. I don't think it's unreasonable to stop bringing in more migrant workers where kiwis can do the job - but the idea of expelling the ones who are already here is repugnant.

Dolan said...

You have missed my point Anna. I don't disagree with the thrust of Maia's post. I just don't think it is useful to categorically say the EPMU is a right wing union or the MCWU is a left wing union as she did above. Like any stereotype it is not always or even often true.

Sometimes the EPMU comes out to the left of other unions like they did with the 9 day fortnight. The EPMU represents 40,000 odd workers of different political hues and it employs Workers Party supporters, Greens and Labour supporters.

All I am saying is don't generalise - it is not helpful.

Anna said...

Oh, I get what you're saying - sorry! :-)

Maia said...

Dolan - I disagree that analysing the political position of unions is either stereotyping or prejudice. I take your point that those political position can be complex, particularly in a union as large as the EPMU.

I also think, unfortuantely, that there is no consistent 'left' of the union movement. The position of the M&C union on immigration proves this.

But I've spetn enough time round CTU meetings to know that the EPMU is one of the most vocal, powerful and consistent forces pulling the CTU to the right. To deny that reality is doing the union movement a diservice

Dolan said...

Maia, your original post talked about unions needing to show more solidarity and collectivism. This discussion is not exactly helping I know, but I find myself feeling compelled to have one more try in the name of cross union peace building ;-)

I acknowledge that your perception is that in the meetings you have been around the EPMU has dragged the CTU to the right. I don't hang around the CTU so can't comment much on that. I can only site the 5% in 2005 campaign which was led by the EPMU and resulted in the biggest wage increase in real terms since before the Employment Contracts Act. Was that the EPMU dragging the CTU to the right? How much industrial action did the MCWU take in that campaign?

I can also comment on my experience as an EPMU organiser, arguing on shared sites to push for better terms and conditions while other so-called 'struggle based' unions are only interested in a soft settlement. I don’t go around calling those unions right wing or soft because that would be unfair, wrong and a gross generalisation.

I agree with you in that unions should stick together more and fight for all workers indiscriminately. But I do think that one union denigrating another for being left or right is divisive as well as simplistic. You can’t just put unions into neat little boxes called ‘left’ and ‘right’. We should be, and for the most part we are - all on the same side.

Maia said...

OK, can I use a different union as an example? Hopefully we'll both agree that the PSA's "Partnership for Quality" is not a left-wing approach to unionism. To say that isn't to condemn anyone who works for the PSA, let alone all the members and worksites. Nothing that you have said

I agree that the New Zealand union movement doesn't have very clear boundaries between left and right (which is what I was saying in this post). But to act as if there are no ideological divides within the movement is not an honest assessment of the way unions work.

Incidentally in this post I wasn't arguing for more solidarity among unions, but more solidarity among workers

DeepRed said...

Similar issues recently flared up in Britain at the Lindsey Oil Refinery over Italian and Portuguese migrants, who were hired by refinery owner Total Oil under the EU's Posted Worker Directive.

In any case, is there some kind of deliberate strategy to force workers to choose between saving face (and selling out the union movement) and saving their arses (and getting accused of racism)?

Dolan said...

I think it is going to be very interesting to see how the partnership for quality evolves under a National government. There is obviously a divide in the movement between private sector and public sector unions who have very different types of employers and issues to deal with. It is much more difficult for a public sector union to be overtly 'political' except to the extent that all unions are political by their very being.

Different unions have different leadership and cultures that are not static but constantly evolving. They don't always agree on everything and nobody would expect them to.

But I very much doubt that any union leader or executive, when deciding how to respond to an issue, first asks themselves how each response fits within a left or right kaupapa. They look at each issue on its merits and make a call. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. We are all of the left. I don't know about others but I just hate, hate, hate to be thought of as right wing. That probably raised my hackles and made me bite when I should have just let it go. I'll shut up now :-)