Trade unionism: does it have a future?

In mid-2016 the former president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly (no relation) came to speak to PSA staff at morning tea. Helen had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and would sadly die later that year. At the time some of the PSA staff thought it would be an idea to start singing at meetings or union gatherings. These would either be Waiata (Maori songs) or old union protest songs. On that morning the decision was that we should all sing We shall not be moved. Helen was very polite and thanked us for the welcome, but then responded: “I’m sorry to break it to you, but we’ve been moved.”

Filmmaker Tony Sutorius on Helen Kelly's last stand

Above: Former NZ Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly

Helen went on to give a speech I heard her make in various forms throughout her term as CTU president. As a movement, unions ‘needed to evolve’ to organise the current workforce. Most workers ‘had no contact’ with unions and our structures were a barrier to most workers getting involved. Helen and I worked together for most of her time as CTU President. We did not always see eye to eye on everything but on this, she was absolutely spot on.

In these blog posts about my time in the union movement, I have talked about some of the challenges that unions face organising workers in the 21st century. I have discussed some of the debates in the movement regarding small or industry-specific unions vs larger general workers organisations. I have talked about the role of peak bodies, and the role they are meant to play, and how at times they can be disconnected from the members they serve. This disconnect is even worse with the global trade union movement, who do important but often completely ignored work. I have also mentioned the toxic role that competitive unionism has on trying to organise workers.

It is easy to feel demoralised about the state of trade unionism in the early 21st century. At times it can feel like parts of the movement are stagnant and at times moribund. There are plenty of exceptions to this and it would be wrong to dismiss the good work that many in the movement do day in day out. And there are some unions with well thought out strategies, democratic structures that empower their members to improve their workplaces, industries and wider society. But the brutal fact is that most union organisations and structures are not strategic, they often lack democratic accountability and simply are not organisations or structures that are appropriate for organising workers in the 21st century.

I am not going to give specific examples of unions that are not performing. And these comments are not specifically aimed at New Zealand, England or any other country. The union movement globally needs to seriously rethink its structures and its culture. One of the difficult issues in trade unions is it can be seen as disloyal to criticise the movement as a whole. Also, union leaders can see any criticism of the way their union is run as a personal slight. This inability to accept criticism is unfortunate, especially when only one in five workers are members of trade unions, and in many sectors, there is no trade union representing workers at all.

My personal experience of working in the trade union movement was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I was privileged enough to attend international conferences as a youth representative. I was put forward for leadership roles and to be exposed to the structures of the movement at all levels. Also, I made lifelong friendships and still consider myself part of the union family. However, the limitations and frustrations of working within the existing union structures over time became wearying. I felt like much of what we were doing was servicing, aka maintaining the status quo. Much of the time was spent on personal cases looking after members on the job, which is, of course, vital work, but unions need to be more than social workers and legal counsel. I was privileged enough to be working with colleagues who were doing ground-breaking work – an example the Care and Support settlement for care and disability workers in 2017.

The biggest frustration was that union structures have not evolved. In the last 20-30 years, the increasing number of casual, fixed term or contractor roles has increased significantly. The Union movement is set up to organise permanent employees – and this was fine in 1955 when the workforce was mostly that. In 2020 it is not. For example, in construction, there has been a shift towards contracting and people setting up as self-employed or starting their own small businesses. Another example is Uber, where people are freelance drivers contracting to Uber, rather than employees. Unions in London have tried to argue these drivers are employees and want people who work them to be treated as such. Problem is many uber drivers, construction workers and others engaged in this way are not actually seeking to be permanent employees with fixed hours or salaries. The union movement wants a workforce that fits with their structure, rather than finding new ways to organise people in contractor type setups.

The rise of casualisation and fixed-term employment has led to work being more precarious and helped to drive down wages and conditions. Understandably the union movement wants this to stop. Trouble is, while this precarious work does cause all these problems, it also allows greater flexibility, something both employers and many workers desire. A rigid system of shifts and rosters works in some industries, in others, flexibility works for everyone. There are clearly employers who take the piss such as McDonald’s in the UK who put their staff on zero-hour contracts despite the fact these workers were given regular work rosters each week. But there are plenty of examples of industries where variable hours are necessary such as event management. For too many unions they want the world of work to fit in their box.

One of the issues unions face is that they have been told since the 1970’s that they are dinosaurs. When unions are more moderate or pliable to the employers or business they are called ‘modern’ or sensible. This is what the rival union trying to undermine the Tramways Union in 2007 was called by the employer. The reaction to this is a view that defending the old ways of organising or running the union is principled and a way of resisting neoliberalism. That some unions change by becoming ineffective wet blankets does not mean everyone who changes is a sell-out. There is a difference between ideology or principle and strategy and tactics. Yes, the goal is to get through the brick wall, but this does not mean smashing your head against it is the only principled course of action.

Above: Manufacturing & Construction Workers Union Graeme Clarke speaking at the 30th anniversary of the Wellington Trades Hall bombing.

The other issue is that unions do not understand the capitalist system they work within. For all their talk of socialism, the role of unions is to improve the pay and conditions of workers within the current economic order, in effect making it more palatable for workers. One of the things that keep capitalism going is the process of creative destruction, whereby the old and inefficient is replaced by the new and vibrant. A recent example of this is again the rise of uber, which has undermined the Black Cabs in London. Sections of the union movement have fought hard to defend the black cabs, and at times it seemed, were wanting to work with Transport For London (TFL) to wipe Uber out. When over three million Londoners have Uber accounts, and thousands of people drive/work for them this is foolish. Worse, many Uber drivers are looking to organise to campaign for better rates per job, and the old union movement structures are unable to accommodate or are standing in the way of this happening.

That unions defend their own outdated structures is one thing, that they then fetishize inefficient or outdated businesses or structures of capital is just bonkers. Yes, it is understandable that unions want to resist redundancies or restructuring where workers lose jobs or are engaged in inferior employment conditions. But becoming the defender of the old, when often the old was not that great for workers, is both uninspiring and ultimately defeating. Rather than react to or resist change, unions need to understand the process of creative destruction and respond accordingly. Part of the problem is the workers themselves will often not wish to accept that their industry is dying. When New Zealand abolished car tariffs in the 1990s the campaign to save car jobs fell flat. They were arguing for jobs whereby people were reassembling cars that had already been built overseas. These reassembling jobs were created to satisfy government tariff restrictions, meaning the cost of cars in NZ was considerably more expensive. Instead of trying to defend this, the unions needed to campaign for these workers to be transferred into new industries and to be given retraining. They needed to put pressure on industry and government to ensure people were not thrown on the scrap heap.

The other thing unions do is they rely far too heavily on the state to protect the rights of workers. Yes, of course, it is the government’s role to legislate to ensure workers have decent employment and health and safety laws. Unions should be pushing for governments to do this. However, they cannot rely on legislation alone to improve employment conditions. The role of unions is to be an independent collective voice for workers. They need to be a movement that can both win and defend better terms and conditions of employment regardless of who is in power. As my previous post outlined, unions affiliations with certain political party’s can be problematic. It can mean political relationships and loyalties are prioritised over organising. This can also mean strategies are made which rely on the centre-left winning elections, which in many countries only happens occasionally if at all, and even then there is no guarantee that centre-left governments can or will implement the wishes of the union movement. To really make a change, they need to build political support for policies that make it difficult for governments of any colour to resist.

In recent years the New Zealand CTU has called for the reinstatement of industry bargaining, based on the old award system that existed before the 1980s. This system still operates in Australia, and similar systems operate in certain European nations. The idea is that instead of just bargaining between the union and employers, there will be a second tier of bargaining across an industry which is facilitated by the state. The idea is that this will improve the minimum standards of employment across the union movement. The Award system was introduced in New Zealand and Australia as a way of quelling militant unionism at the end of the 19th century. The benefit is that it sets a baseline for pay and conditions, but it can also limit the ability for well-organised workplaces to campaign for conditions that are better than that in the award or industry agreement. For example, in the bus driving sector, awards would benefit the companies where there is no union, and drivers are paid minimum wage with no overtime rates or other benefits. In all likelihood, bus drivers in the bigger cities where union membership is much higher, this sort of industry agreement would be used as leverage to remove conditions like penalty rates that were significantly better than what would likely be in an industry-wide agreement. The other problem is that an industry agreement would apply to people regardless of whether they were members of a union or not. From this, there is little opportunity to build a union movement that can fight to improve workers’ rights. The experience in Australia which kept its Award system was that union membership was much the same as New Zealand where Awards were scrapped in 1987. Further, often the Award conditions in Australia are not that great, especially if the state generally has right-wing governments. In New Zealand, calls for industry agreements have to date had no traction, even under the present Labour Government. The union movement has failed to convince even its own membership, let alone the wider voting public, of the merits of such a change. Sadly, this has been the only real big picture strategy from the NZ trade union peak body to improve employment law, with most other proposals focussed more on tinkering with current legislation rather than challenging fundamentals.

When I started my journey into radical socialist politics in early 2001, I met with lifelong socialist and trade union activist Don Franks. He told me many on the left often threw their hands in the air and say “the trade union movement is fucked.” The problem with this as Don pointed out, there is nowhere to go after that.

Trade Unionism is about people working together to achieve a common interest, something which people have done throughout human history. Where there is injustice, humans will band together to fight against it collectively. It’s what we do. Trade unionism is human nature – working together to achieve a common goal and to help out one another. Talk about the trade union movement dying is nonsense. In the past, I have talked about certain unions being moribund – this does not mean I think unionism is. What is moribund is old ways of working, old inflexible structures that do not correspond to the modern world and the modern workforce.

The future of trade unionism needs to be about engaging the 80% of the workforce who currently do not belong, cannot belong or who have next to no contact with trade unions. It is about building a new democratic movement that is run by workers for workers. This movement would need to actively engage in politics at all levels, and rather than blindly aligning to a party it will have a strategy built by members that advance the interests of working people and creates a political climate where no government want to attack workers’ rights. There needs to be a structure that accommodates for the fact that people often work multiple jobs, across multiple professions or sectors – at present people may need to join 2-3 different unions to cover their different roles. There also needs to be a union movement where if someone becomes unemployed they remain in the union and continue to be supported by the wider movement – rather than the current situation where unions throw the unemployed on the scrapheap the same as the rest of society does.

Building a new responsive union movement that is appropriate for the 21st century will require a lot of work and energy. Many parts of the existing trade union movement can provide a basis to build the new one that is needed, but sadly quite a lot of it rather than being a useful foundation will actually be little more than a hindrance. In the same way that capital uses creative destruction to discard the inefficient and outdated for the new and dynamic, the union movement must be brave enough to do the same. While it is great to celebrate the history of the union movement and record its past struggles, we cannot preserve union organisations out of nostalgia if they no longer do what we need them to. And in this, I do not just refer to smaller craft unions, many of the larger or multi-sector organisations can be just as useless.

One of the difficulties or fears union organisers have is that they will struggle to find work outside of the union movement. I am living proof that union organisers can go on to do other things, but I also have to say that it can be difficult. In part, this is due to hostility from certain employers towards unionist who they view as troublemakers. But even in left circles, working for a trade union can be a barrier to gaining other roles, as a perception exists that unions are ineffective at campaigning or strategy. Many unions and unionists are great at campaigns and strategy, but many others are not and this undermines the credibility of the whole movement. Many unions are stuck with organisers and other employees who would love to get out but do not feel they can. At the same time, many other unionists would love to get a job in a union but struggle for years to get in. For that reason, I left when I knew it was right for me, and always thought at some stage I would move on. Part of being a strong sustainable union movement must be creating an environment where people can get involved and do their best work, but also go back into the wider workforce and do other things when its right for them to do so. Having people with broader work-life experience than just organising or union work is crucial. Otherwise, you create this weird subculture of union workers who lose the ability to relate to the wider working class. Some people want to just work for unions their whole working life, and that is great, they should. But for too many, including those in union leadership roles, they do not feel they can be employed outside the union movement so stay out of fear.

There is no blueprint for building a stronger more effective trade union movement. There are many, who each and every day wake up and do exactly that. I have had the privilege to work with and learn from these people. Both union staff and active union members make a huge difference every single day, and they rightly should hold their head high with the work they do. And it is for them, and for the workers everywhere who want and deserve a better working life, that we need to build a much stronger, vibrant, democratic, and successful trade union movement.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Trade unions and political affiliations

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Local Government provides some of the most crucial and front-line public services we have in society. Yet internationally, voter turnout and engagement with Local Government is generally abysmal.

The services provided by local and central government vary from country to country. Certainly, living in the UK Local Government plays a much stronger role in social housing, public health, and education than in NZ where these are the responsibility of Central Government.

In 2012 I started working at the Public Service Association (PSA), the union for public servants in New Zealand. The PSA organised the core public service, health workers, community public services (including social care) and Local Government. The PSA had merged with the Northern and Central Local Government Officers Union in the 1990s. The Southern Local Government Officers Union merged with the PSA in 2015 while I was working in the sector.

Local Government was often viewed as the poor cousin both within the PSA, and more broadly within the public sector. From a union perspective, much of the sector was not well organised and often it proved difficult promoting PSA membership to council workers. There were notable exceptions to this. When the Auckland councils merged into one super council in 2010, the PSA successfully signed up thousands of members and played a crucial role in protecting and improving employment conditions in the new council.

One feature of Local Government, at least in New Zealand was that it often had a small ‘c’ conservative workforce. Where unions, or specifically the PSA did not have members it would generally be a slow painstaking exercise signing people up. The chicken and egg situation always were that you needed members to win decent conditions, but to sign members up you needed to promote the good work the union had done. If there were previous bad experiences of the PSA or any other union, this became 10 times harder. Talking about good work done at other workplaces only went so far, as people wanted to know what you could do in their workplace. Eventually, we would always breakthrough, but it was often a slow process.

The other problem with local government was the general lack of knowledge about what it did. When trying to promote local government or campaign to save or improve services, the initial step is to raise awareness. Very often the public does not realise what services are provided by their local council. Even fewer can tell you what is provided by a local council vs a unitary authority or regional council.

The other significant challenge in local government from a union perspective was the multiple unions working in the space. This was often down to historical issues, such as one union organising all the gardeners or parking wardens when another organised the clerical staff. These demarcation lines were seldom clear and would often lead to competitive unionism and other distractions. The issue of competitive unionism certainly is not limited to Local Government, but in New Zealand, it was certainly a problem in this sector.

My role in the PSA was initially one of the local organisers responsible for looking after the councils. My patch was Wellington City Council, Wellington Regional Council, and some of the privatised council work units. My colleague George Laird looked after the other councils in the region, and Wellington Water the shared entity set up by the councils to manage the regional water supply. In reality, we shared the workload from the local councils and designed a joint strategy to improve collective bargaining outcomes for council members in the region.

When George and I started in 2012, Porirua and Upper Hutt City Council’s had no collective agreement. Wellington City (the largest council) had collective agreements covering Library and Building Compliance and Consent staff, but not anyone else. The regional council had one of the better collective agreements, but conditions were coming under attack from management. And contracting out of services meant that many council services were provided by private companies – some represented by unions, many others not.

Contracting out and privatisation has been a trend in New Zealand Local Government since the 1980’s. The Wellington buses I had worked on previously were until 1990 run by Wellington City Council and the drivers were council employees. Throughout the 1990’s councils contracted out many of their services to private providers. The driver for this was largely ideological and encouraged by the Central Government.

When we challenged the incoming Wellington City Council CEO about this in 2013, he responded that councils have always use the private sector as they “do not make pencils.” On one level this is correct, it would be daft to say there is no role for the private sector in local government. But the issue was services being contracted out to the private sector, without a business case demonstrating efficiency or where it would save the community money. Worse, too often the contracts were awarded to the company who put in the lowest tender, then subsequently failed to deliver the service they were contracted to, resulting in increased costs to the council.

For council employees, promises of transferring to a new employer on no loss of pay and conditions were great words, but all too often nothing more. In many cases, workers were simply made redundant after decades of service and given little to no compensation.

One example of this was Wellington City Council contracting out their Citi Operations business unit by stealth. In the mid-1990s, the elected councillors had voted down a proposal to privatise the council’s public works unit. The argument then was that the council should continue to do maintenance of the city’s roads, footpaths parks, drains, rubbish collection and the rest. Having lost the political battle, council senior management began a nearly two-decade campaign to outsource all the council operations jobs. This went largely unnoticed by the elected councillors.

This article I wrote for The Standard in 2013 gives a bit more context.

By March 2013 Citi Operations was almost gone and outgoing CEO Garry Poole was just getting rid of the final bit when I started organising WCC. The team of about 50 were all that was left of the once 1000 strong Citi Operations group. When I contacted local councillors about this none of them knew of the proposal and were very annoyed. In particular Labour Councillor and now MP for Rongatai Paul Eagle was outraged. He and I met with the workers several times in the first few weeks of 2013. Various other councillors also got on board and we mounted a campaign to save the 50 remaining Citi Ops jobs.

On the day of the council vote, we organised for the effected Citi-Ops workers to sit in the public gallery in the Council rooms wearing their High Viz’s and work gear. I was one of three speakers for the union, expressing opposition to axing these jobs. The Council debated the issue for about 30 minutes. Those councillors in favour of making the workers redundant argued that they should not interfere with management decisions. Those against the decision felt that management did not have the mandate to make this decision. The vote ended up being 7-7, so Green Party Mayor Celia Wade-Brown used her casting vote to uphold management’s decision to outsource these workers jobs. The Citi Operations staff were sitting in the room, so Celia and the councillors were looking at these workers as they made them redundant.

wcc-2-cookstraight-news

Saving Public Libraries and the Living Wage

Privatisation was not the only thing Wellington City Council management was trying to do by stealth. We discovered through our members in the Library that WCC was planning on cutting over $1 million from the Library budget and had in previous years made even bigger budget cuts to the library operating budget. The details of this can be seen in Gordon Campbell’s article from the time.

The PSA had strong membership in Libraries, who were very vocal against cuts to the service and library branch closures. The PSA helped form a community coalition of Library users to campaign against branch closures and cuts to the services.

Like the gradual privatisation of Citi Operations, elected councillors had no idea that library budgets had been cut. None of the documents that senior management had presented to council pointed this out. When we produced the actual budget documents that Council Senior Management had presented to Library management and staff, it became clear that there were to be cuts to the Library budget. Library staff were told they were not allowed to talk to elected councillors about this as that would breach the council code of conduct. When I discovered this had been happening, I worked with colleagues to ensure the alarm was raised.

2013 was a council election year, so cutting library budgets was not a popular move. Councillors were quick to call for the cuts to be reversed. With public pressure from the Library’s Coalition, we were able not just to stop the cuts but secure a modest funding increase for the city libraries that year.

WCC cookstraight news

Above: One issue at Wellington City Council was they were constantly restructuring and forcing staff to reapply for their jobs. Over time this is very damaging to staff morale in any organisation.

The other significant campaign that started in 2013 was the Wellington Living Wage campaign. Based largely on similar campaigns in London and San Francisco, the aim was to get all wages in the city up to a rate that was calculated to be liveable – as in a worker could provide the basics for themselves and their family.

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown was quick to sign up to this campaign in an election year, and the then Service and Food Workers Union were happy to get the Mayor of NZ’s capital city on board. The campaign rather than being union led, was a coalition of faith and other community groups, political parties, and unions.

This was a positive campaign and did get some early victories with the council voting to adopt the living wage rate for all those employed by the council. By employed, they meant directly employed – not the many workers whose jobs had been outsourced to private companies. This meant many of the lowest-paid workers such as the cleaners, the parking wardens and the council security guards missed out.

For those who got it, there were issues too. Most of the directly employed council staff were in the PSA if they were in a union so I ended up representing them during the implementation phase. Pool lifeguards were told they would get the new living wage rate, but only once they had completed training which would take three to six months. Our argument was that if it is a living wage and what someone needs to survive, then the living wage should be the starting rate and training should just be happening anyway. The other issue was the small issue of inflation. In 2014 when the living wage campaign announced the new rate, I wrote to the councillors as the union organiser asking them if they would be paying the inflation adjustment. Several councillors panicked, not realising that the living wage would increase each year (because presumably, they had never heard of inflation before) and got cold feet. The council management tried to get around this by calling it the Wellington wage – which would increase each year but not as quickly as the living wage.

Collective Bargaining:

The real goal for the PSA was to get bargaining sorted across the Wellington Councils. The employment conditions varied wildly across the different councils just in the Wellington region, and even more so nationally. One of the issues was that each council bargained separately and often at different times. Our goal was to line up bargaining dates across councils in the region so we could bargain, and if needed take industrial action across the region at the same time.

The best of the Agreements was the Wellington Regional Council unitary authority, where we were constantly playing a game of defence against HR who were doing their absolute best to claw back employment conditions. This was not an easy task when other council workers in the region had inferior terms of employment.

At Wellington City Council (WCC) there was a significant gap between those who were in the PSA and covered by a Collective Agreement and those who were not. In 2014 we had our first attempt to do a single collective agreement to cover all WCC employees. At those negotiations, we succeeded only in combining the two existing agreements in the Libraries and Building Consents. Under NZ employment law, any workplace with two or more union members is entitled to be covered by a collective employment agreement. As the council were trying to treat each department as a separate business unit, I responded by initiating bargaining for each one. After a heated email exchange between the HR team and I (much to the entertainment of council members I bcc-ed into the exchange), the council finally decided that negotiating 15 separate contracts was not how they wanted to spend the next year. It took us another 18 months, by 2016 we had successfully negotiated an agreement that covered all business units in the council meaning there was a consistency of, and improvement to employment conditions.

wcc-dec-2016

Above: The PSA Journal reporting on the historical collective agreement signing in December 2016. 

During this time, my colleague George successfully negotiated the first Agreement at Porirua City Council in twenty years. By the end of our time working in Local Government all but one council had a collective agreement. Though the bargaining continued separately for each council, we were achieving greater consistency of conditions across the region.

The goal could not just be to improve the working conditions for those directly employed by council. Large swathes of council workers have had their jobs outsourced to the private sector. The challenge for the Living Wage campaign was to get councils to make their contractors pay this rate when private sector companies would argue that the council should not be stipulating terms of employment. Also, councils like having the excuse of not paying the difference saying it was up to the private company to find the money. Generally, workers employed in these private companies were on worse conditions, as the council would go with the lowest tender when outsourcing work.

In 2013 we picked up a group of road and footpath maintenance workers who had just been transferred from one company to another. The union that had been organising them had failed to do anything during this transfer, resulting in the workers losing all their conditions of employment. This workforce had been without active union representation for some time, despite their depot being located next to a large private-sector union office. A PSA colleague Melissa Woolley put me in touch with these workers after talking to a few of them at her local pub. From there we were able to sign up most workers on-site and negotiate a collective agreement. Unfortunately, about 18 months later the company lost the contract and all these workers got made redundant. Wellington City Council’s response was that they were not responsible for employment matters with their contractors.

Shortly after this, the council started bringing certain services back in-house. The council parking wardens had been outsourced for a couple of years. The decision was made to employ the parking wardens directly and increase their pay to the living wage.

Local Government – National Strategy

As well as doing local work, I was responsible for coordinating the Local Government Sector Committee. These committees sat under the board, the governance structure body of the PSA and were responsible for the sector nationally. I was also one of three national organisers who had oversight of the PSA’s organising strategy at a national level. During this time, the PSA merged with the Southern Local Government Officers Union, so I was part of the committee when this integration took place.

The big national issues at the time were proposals to amalgamate councils, which had started off with the Auckland region where the councils had all been merged into one larger entity. Attempts to do this throughout the rest of the country had met with resistance, including in Wellington. The PSA took no formal position on council amalgamations, though many officials were in favour of mergers based on the Auckland experience. The PSA had increased its membership during the Auckland process by being proactive and ensuring council workers concerns were raised during the process. Outside of Auckland, PSA members were wary of mergers and were pushing the organisation to oppose any change. The Government eventually walked away from council merger plans when it was clear there was growing public opposition.

In 2015 I moved from local government, instead working with government departments. The time working with local authorities taught me that these are crucial branches of government that have considerable power. While people tend not to engage on local council matters, when services are at risk of being cut, they will get involved. Often people are simply unaware of what local government does or how to influence it. When people do get involved in local government politics there is the potential to make real and significant changes to the lives of many in our communities.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Public Service International – global unionism

One of the keystones of trade unionism is the idea of internationalism. The idea that organised workers should supporter each other not just within their nation state, but globally.

In the era of globalisation, the importance of having global labour standards becomes paramount. This is why along with the United Nations; the International Labour Organisation was established to ensure workers’ rights were upheld globally.

International Trade Union Organisations sit alongside the ILO. These have existed in some form or another for nearly as long as the current trade union movement has existed. There are now several international trade union organisations. The more high-profile ones include the International Transport Federation or ITF, Education International and Public Service International, the latter one I was lucky enough to serve as an Asia-Pacific youth rep on from 2013 to 2017. Then there is the main international union peak body the International Trade Union Confederation or ITUC, an organisation I was also to have some involvement with.

It was early on after starting at the NZ PSA that I was put forward as the New Zealand youth representative. NZ PSA had one of the stronger union youth branches of any union in the region, and the PSA was eager to form links with other public service unions doing similar work. The hope was to run international campaigns and form solid connections between young workers in the Asia Pacific region.

The blunt assessment of my 4 years in active involvement in global unions was that these organisations had good ideas, and several good people involved. But frankly, they do not deliver to the extent that they should.

Part of this is a structural challenge. Firstly, we live in a global economy where capital moves relatively freely but labour does not. Yet global governance organisations like the ILO are toothless. In 2015 I attended a global governance training workshop in Chiang Mai. Here I learnt about the various ILO Conventions that had been passed since this body was established in 1919. Depressingly, I also then learnt about the number of countries which refused to ratify these conventions or did ratify them but then made no attempt to uphold them in their own country. For example, the ILO passed Convention 105 banning slavery in 1926. Nearly a century later there is still slavery in many parts of the world, including in nations that have ratified C105.

While serving as a member of PSI and working full time as a PSA Organiser in New Zealand, I was also writing my university dissertation. One of the chapters on this looked at the ILO conventions on equal pay which I earlier posted to this blog. The ILO passed Convention 100 which called for “equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value.” Despite this, many of the countries that ratified the ILO equal pay convention took decades to take any action on it. To this day the gender pay gap remains a significant problem globally. Seven decades after Convention 100 was ratified, few countries are even close to realising the goal of this Convention.

And this is the problem. Generally, the issue with global governance structures like the UN, the WHO, the WTO or the ILO lack teeth. Or if they do have power, it is usually due to them having the backing of a major power like the US or China. For the ILO, the Conventions end up being little more than a list of well-meaning guidelines, which are ignored and breached on a daily basis.

In this context global trade union organisations also struggle to be relevant or to be the force for good they hope to be. When they run international union campaigns, they rely significantly on being able to get buy in from their affiliate unions. These unions are generally focused on their domestic politics and work and see little relevance or leverage from running campaigns through international unions.

There are of course several good exceptions to this. The International Transport Federation (ITF) do lots of good work representing their members. Unions organising in transport need an international focus due to the nature of their work. The ITF run several effective health and safety and workers’ rights campaigns in their sector.

Often people regard international union conferences like the ones I attended for PSI to be nothing more than a talk fest. My experience of attending these meetings was that it gave union leaders and opportunity to exchange ideas and build global networks. This in turn did improve the quality of some of the work being done by domestic unions. Also, it allowed some of the unions from poorer nations to ask for support from larger international unions which had more money and resource. 

There were also opportunities to build international campaigns that have started to get some traction. One example is the long running campaign for a global financial tax, which PSI called the Robin Hood tax. This tax works by taking a small percent on every global transaction. The funds raised from this could be used to fund public services and end austerity politics. PSI and other global unions and NGO’s have played an important role in promoting debate on this issue.

Above: Nick addressing the Quality Public Services conference in Bangkok, Thailand, October 2013. The presentation notes can be viewed here

Another issue with global unions, is that their structures and practices heavily mirror that of their affiliates. This can often include things like gate keeping and leaders who push their own agenda rather than that of the wider membership. Like most domestic unions, the level of democracy in the international union movement can vary. And there have been some instances of people being encouraged to move to international unions as a way of side-lining or ejecting them from national union leadership roles.

Above: PSI Youth meeting in Sydney, March 2014. The meeting endorsed the PSI’s Robin-hood tax campaign. 

When I talked to people in the NZ union movement about global unions, they often could not see the point. The response would be something like “well what do they even do, they are just a talk fest. The real work is done here organising locally.” In a world where capital moves globally with relative ease, ignoring international unionism is not only an error, it is very damaging. In recent decades so much production has moved to countries where wages are lower and labour standards are cheaper.

Unions need an international response to this, and they need international structures to take up this challenge.

My experience of helping to build the international PSI youth section in the Asia-Pacific region showed me that building strong international unions was not going to be an easy task. Getting buy-in and a clear direction across such a vast and diverse region is a struggle. But where we were able to get things happening and we got member buy-in, we had something that could potentially grow to be enormously powerful.

Many unionists and their leaders may still struggle to see the relevance of their international organisations. But for unions to remain or gain relevance over the coming century, having a global focus will be crucial.

Report in the PSA Journal on the Asia Pacific PSI conference in Japan, October 2016.

Link to the PSI Oceania Young Workers meeting report. The meeting was held in Sydney, March 2014.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

After five years at the Tramways Union, in April 2012 I became an Organiser at the New Zealand Public Service Association (NZPSA or PSA). I would stay at the PSA for another five years as an advocate, employee representative, international youth rep (barely qualifying as youthful towards the end) and campaign manager.

The New Zealand Public Service Association is New Zealand’s largest Trade Union, which had around 60,000 members when I worked there and has slowly grown since. There had been a bit of a family tradition with this Organisation. In the 1960s my grandfather had been a member of the PSA’s national executive. At this time there was concern that the PSA had been taken over by Communists. My grandfather, who at the time worked for the Public Trust Office, stood for the national executive as part of a Catholic led anti-communist ticket. When I started at the PSA, I joked that 50 years later I had joined the union to undo Grandad’s good work.

My Dad was also a PSA union delegate, who like Grandad (his father) worked at Public Trust. In 2014 I was to become the National PSA Organiser responsible for Public Trust, continuing the tradition. Public Trust is a government entity specialising in Trust and estate law. They were great to work with, but bloody hard work.

My next few posts will talk about the work I was involved with at The NZ Public Service Association, ranging from youth and international work as well as organising public sector employees in both local and central government.

Above: Nick holding a PSA marriage equality sign with Labour MP Louisa Wall in Masterton, September 2012. 

The PSA has a diverse membership. Whilst many of its members were what could be deemed white-collar or professional roles, a significant number of members were low paid and in roles that would traditionally be considered blue-collar. The incredible diversity of professions and people working for the government or government-funded organisations made the role fascinating.

The NZ PSA had a reputation as being conservative. As alluded to earlier the union had been through periods of militancy and political radicalism. An example of this was the PSA’s advocacy for equal pay for women in the public sector, which I wrote about in my 2016 history honours dissertation. However, at other times it had been more moderate.

The PSA took a significant hit to membership numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because of privatisation of public services and government attacks on collective bargaining. After this, the PSA adopted a strategy of Partnership for Quality. Described by its critics as getting into bed with the boss – the strategy was not universally popular. One theory of its origin was that it came from the Moscow aligned Socialist Unity Party, as one of the leaders of the PSA in the early 1990s had affiliations to this party. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Russian Party told its followers that capital could not be overthrown, so best try to influence and establish worker participated partnerships with it.

Whether partnership was just part of a soviet plot or not is speculation. But the strategy remained PSA policy for the two decades before my starting with the organisation. In 2012 the strategy changed to Transforming the Workplace. This was not seen as a fundamental departure from the earlier strategy, rather building on the gains that had been made earlier (the union had grown during the partnership era, in no small part due to gains made in bargaining under the 1999 to 2008 NZ Labour Government). The new strategy focused on increasing members participation and input into how these government agencies ran. Many trade unions act as little more than bargaining agents primarily focused on pay and certain conditions of employment. This strategy aimed to take the conversation beyond this, through to one of the workers getting a meaningful voice at work.

For whatever strengths or weaknesses were of the PSA strategy, it was nice to be part of a union that had a strategy. Moreover, a strategy that was more than just defensive and dared to try new things. Many unionists are wary of moving away from adversarial industrial relations. And I agree when facing capital those representing labour should expect conflict, up to and including strike action. But where unions or workers organisation is strong enough to gain decent engagement with employers, governments, or major corporations why on earth wouldn’t unions use that? Further, why not advocate for this alongside pay increases and other conditions of employment?

I started as a PSA Organiser in my late 20s, having held leadership roles in both the Tramways Union and before that in Student Politics. The PSA would be a much bigger organisation for me, and subsequently, I was much further down the organisational food chain. However, I quickly found myself in various leadership roles, both within the national union and within the international union movement.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive