In the face of National's employment law and welfare reforms, how will Labour and the unions respond?
Yesterday John Key used the National Party's annual conference to announce drastic changes to employment law.
It was a real time warp moment for me.
While inside the conference Mr Key blandly assured delegates that workers will only benefit from the extension of the 90 day trial, the removal of the right to union access and the gutting of personal grievance processes, outside hundreds of unionists mounted a staunch protest aimed at showing National these reforms won’t be taken lying down.
A sunny Sunday morning on the protest line outside (and temporarily inside) Sky City took me straight back to 19 December 1990, when the new Minister of Finance, one Ruth Richardson, announced her plans to cut benefits and bring in legislation to undermine unions and worker rights through the Employment Contracts Act.
The big question I have right now is: how will the Labour Party and the CTU respond to this new attack?
There is no doubt that John Key’s proposed industrial law reforms are as bad, if not worse, than those propagated through the ECA.
The PM is clawing back a lot of the gains made under Labour, while doing his level best to further weaken an already struggling union movement, especially in the private sector where workers are particularly vulnerable to poor employer practices and are mostly non-unionised.
At the same time, on a parallel front, Paula Bennett is pushing dangerous welfare changes that have the potential to undermine the very basis of our social security system.
I feel reasonably certain that this two pronged onslaught, so similar to the one mounted between December 1990 and July 1991, has the same goals and the same desired outcomes as back then – to increase the profits of National’s big business backers while shoring up campaign funding for the next election.
I hope that it won’t be just the CTU having a council of war this week.
The Labour Party and caucus need to be taking a serious look at their response as well.
My question to Labour is whether they have the nerve to make meaningful promises to workers and unions – and to keep those promises when next they form a Government – or whether they’ll do the same as they did last time, and only give back half of what had been taken away by National.
If they do the same again, things will move even further backwards, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen, and Labour’s credibility with low paid workers and beneficiaries may well be fatally undermined.
I sat on the Select Committee dealing with the Employment Relations Bill in 2000 and saw firsthand how Labour caved in on some aspects of the bill under pressure from big business in the ‘winter of discontent’.
The challenge to Labour now is to find ways of convincing people like me and many others that their party does have the will to strongly support workers and beneficiaries in their current struggle against National’s industrial and welfare reforms, and that they will have the courage to follow through on this in a meaningful way once they regain the Treasury benches.
My question to the CTU and its constituent unions is whether they are going to have the resolve to actually fight what’s going down in 2010 with every means at their disposal, or whether there’s going to be another sellout like that of Ken Douglas, Angela Foulkes and their allies back in 1991.
I sincerely hope that this time around Helen Kelly, Peter Conway and their colleagues will embrace a full response to the proposed reforms, and that the CTU will be a lot more aware than it was in the 90s of the inextricable link between proposed industrial and welfare changes
The CTU cannot afford to fool itself that organising a few big rallies with dozens of sometimes rather tedious speakers and putting out a couple of leaflets will be enough to cause the Government or its allies any concern.
The unions must take their responsibility to workers seriously; they are in all honesty the last organised line of resistance, and they are going to be sorely tested.
We need a type of leadership that’s noticeably different than that offered in 1991, one that allows and nurtures a multi-layered and diverse response to National’s attacks, and which actually encourages mobilisation and direct action.
There is a risk that the union movement and Labour could tear themselves apart over this, but I truly hope that doesn’t happen. Anyone on the left knows whose interests that will serve.
We cannot afford to allow a National Government the pleasure of once again romping into the next election virtually unopposed and unimpeded, despite its increasingly radical right agenda. Let’s do a whole lot better this time around.