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Richard Wagstaff: “Things need to change”

Written By: - Date published: 2:00 pm, August 16th, 2016 - 20 comments
Categories: Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , ,

The inaugural CTU organisers’ conference is being held in Auckland this week, bringing together organisers from across the CTU affiliated unions to discuss the future of the movement. CTU President Richard Wagstaff opened the conference this morning.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangatanga maha, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou koutoa.

Welcome everyone to this inaugural CTU Organising Conference.

And a special welcome to our Australian sisters and brothers – you have been running organising conferences for a while now and given us the motivation to have a go ourselves.

Everyone in this room wants things to change. Things need to change. Working people, and those wanting work are being screwed. We aren’t getting our fair share. We aren’t getting respect. We aren’t getting listened to. Even worse, working people are made to feel that they are undeserving and that we should think ourselves lucky that the 1% are so generous. So, according to them, don’t rock the boat because things have never been so good.

Being In Union means we understand that it doesn’t have to be this way. But if we are going change things we have to seriously challenge the establishment – their power, their money, their narrative, their law – we have to get stronger ourselves. And getting stronger involves getting bigger and using our strength to maximise our leverage.  Not enough working people want to join in union with us – this remains a major barrier to our success.

This conference is about growing our voice and growing our movement – and this is the single biggest challenge facing the union movement here and internationally. I’ve always considered union membership and density to be the ultimate measure of our success. No matter how we feel we’re going, if people are joining with us it means people are attracted to our agenda and we are building our voice, power and influence. If working people aren’t joining with us the opposite is true.

I don’t want to sound the panic button and given we’re 8 years into a government which doesn’t share our values, we can be proud of our efforts.

And we are turning our minds to creating a better political and industrial environment. Part of that is electing a worker friendly government, and I know many people in union will be working hard with the CTU in the election campaign next year to make that happen. And we will be providing an incoming worker friendly coalition Government with a suite of sensible policies to adopt. Perhaps none more important that new labour law that better enables union members to organise and negotiate collectively.

But that won’t be enough in itself. We have to get ourselves in good shape to take full advantage of better conditions but we also have to adopt practices that successfully grow our movement no matter what political party has the reigns, because we can’t rely on an endless summer of worker friendly  Governments.

When you get down to it, ‘Organising’ is the most fundamental activity of our work, and unless we do it well, we can’t be successful. And I think being an organiser is arguably the hardest and most challenging job anyone can do. But as most of you will know – it is also the most rewarding and meaningful job anyone could do.

What’s fundamental about being an organiser is that your primary role is building a political organisation of workers. I’m not talking about working for a political party, I’m talking about how all unions are collectives of members and our job is to organise them into a powerful force to change the industrial, social, political and economic order of things. An organiser’s primary role is not about being a saviour, or the hero who gets members out of trouble. Rather Organisers are political operators always aiming to build and grow an organised movement, grow political strength, presence and appeal. And we do that by creating and seizing opportunities to attract more people to union actions that serve the interests of working people.

So much has been written and debated about the ‘best way or model of organising’ and typically union officials have been quick to align themselves to this approach or that, decrying the methods of others. But it’s my hope that we rise above that over the next three days and genuinely, openly and safely discuss the benefits and challenges of different approaches and experiences, the times we’ve got it wrong and the times we’ve got it right, and above all what we’ve learned about what works in practice – as opposed to what just works in theory.

Because I’m a firm believer in what works matters.

As a movement we need the maturity to do this. Genuine discussion involves respect and support all round from all the participants here. We are all in this together and we all benefit when any one of us does a good job, and we all pay a price when our movement is criticised. Let’s use this conference to build everyone’s understanding, confidence and practice.

When I learned about organising working people here in Auckland, I quickly realised that union organising was a long game and it involved me needing a real understanding of what it was that working people  were experiencing day to day and the industry they worked in. It wasn’t about me presenting them with my theory and my left wing shopping list for social justice. And it wasn’t about me telling them that their organisation, their boss and their jobs sucked – they had a deep connection to the work they did, the clients or public they served and the organisations they worked in. Like everyone, they wanted a great job experience, and they were deriving an enormous amount of meaning from the work that they were doing despite their employer.

Of course these workers had real issues that needed addressing and they were very receptive to being organised in union to confront these issues collectively. Their aspirations were positive and uplifting…based on a need for dignity and respect and a desire to have and do a good job.

The public doesn’t distinguish between the different unions and the media is quick to portray us all in their one big stereotype – old reactionaries constantly fighting a losing battle

Too many potential members are unsurprisingly put off by these stereotypes of what it means to be in union and union officials. But let’s be clear – those images of us are not difficult to manufacture when much of what we say and project is negative, reactive and defeated. It’s not attractive.  And these stereotypical negative images do not convey the interests of working people looking for a better and brighter future. They are a turn off and they are an indulgence that we can ill afford.

We need to guard against portraying ourselves as simply what we against, rather than what we are for. It often feels that our agenda appears to be wholly reactionary – that is limited to simply a direct and opposite reaction to the employer, simply against everything and not for anything.

So what are we for?

I know we’re for a country which does so much better for its people including better wages – But what are we really for in the workplace? And could we articulate our dreams if we were asked?

Is it simply we want to keep what we’ve got? Or is it more pay and better, safer workloads, and more job security?

Achieving those things would be a major gain for many workers, especially precarious workers.

But is it more than that?

I’d like to think so.

Are we also concerned with workplace culture? Do we care about the dehumanising command and control management approaches that subjugate union members? Are we concerned with the performance of the organisations our members work for? Are we looking to create a world of work where our members have a say in decisions, where they enjoy something positive that is more than just a job that pays the rent, but a place where they have a great social experience, reaching their potential, enjoying their relationships with others, getting a sense of meaning, engagement and pride in their labour?

A bright future for our movement is there for the taking. But let’s remember – it is the future and not the past. We have so much proud history to stand on, and we have strong timeless values and principles to guide us, but we are operating in a different environment and we need to adapt ourselves accordingly. We can’t act as though time has stood still and expect to be successful. We need to reconstruct our image for the modern world.

As a movement we are beginning to learn that to recruit and to remain attractive to new workers, we need to learn how to articulate what it is that workers aspire too, instead of talking just about what is wrong. I’m delighted that Mark Chennery from Australia will be helping us address the issue of how we match the things we care about, our values, with our action.

And the ITUC President Sharon Burrow will give us an international perspective.

We also need to be strategic, because as many people will tell you strategy is especially important when your resources are limited. Elaine Bernard from the USA has done much to highlight the importance of strategy with NZ unions.

We need to consider the organisational climate in which we organise, and how to create the conditions for growth and influence. David Coats from the UK can tell us about that.

But perhaps more important than our international key note speakers, is the interactions we will have between ourselves in the workshops. In this room we have a great collection of union minds and centuries of experience. Let’s make the most of it.

I was reading a very recent article by McKinsy the other day about organisations and improved performance or growth in light of all of the new technology coming down the line. It said “About three-quarters of the potential for productivity improvements comes from the adoption of existing best practices and “catch-up” productivity improvements, while the remaining one-quarter comes from technological, operational, and business innovations’

I think this has resonance for us. We certainly have to develop and adopt new approaches and technologies. And the sessions here on new forms of association and using new technology are very important.

But I also think that if we just spread around our best practice, if we learned from what works and applied it across our sites that aren’t working so good, we could get a real lift in our growth and in our reaching our goals.

So that’s why this conference is designed to share the thinking and the experience and the learnings. I encourage you to take the challenge, to truly open up, contribute what works and just as importantly what hasn’t worked and what you’ve learnt from your experience.

Have a good conference.

20 comments on “Richard Wagstaff: “Things need to change” ”

  1. Skinny 1

    The front person of the CTU needs to be in the face of the media every second day of the week. Unfortunately this bloke isn’t like his predecessor.

  2. Siobhan 2

    Maybe while she’s here someone, I would like to think Labour, but more likely the Greens, could ask her for a perspective on ‘Free Trade’. Her take on NAFTA is very interesting, and easily understood.


  3. Bill 3

    Oh dear. I had to do a double take to make sure, but yup, he actually did use the term “bright future”… 🙄

    edit. Twice! Well, actually went the full nine yards and used “brighter future”. It’s….fwah – I give up.

    You want to organise then talk to people and inspire them to lift their horizons. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

    A three day conference on “How to Organise” from movement that’s been around for over a hundred years. Seriously?!

    • adam 3.1

      Feels of sadness washed over me reading that speech. It felt like they had nothing but a pitiful play book which does not work anymore, when all they had to do in the first place was organise.

      If they had asked I would have sent them this link…


    • Grant 3.2

      Also ‘learnings’, blurk-gag…

    • The world’s changed in the past hundred years, Bill. Work has changed, communication has changed, and we’re up against an elite which not only has unprecedented amounts of power and wealth (unless you want to get all Victorian) but tremendously sophisticated ways to get people to voluntarily act against their own interests.

      I’m at the conference right now, and it’s inspiring af. We’re talking about community organising, online organising, different membership models – the old “everyone signs up on day 1 and payroll deduct the union fee automatically” way of doing things isn’t sustainable. We have workshops on climate justice, litigation, working with Māori and young people, insecure work. There’s a big contingent of Aussies here too, and one of yesterday’s keynotes was from a staunch as bloke from the WA Maritime Union about the importance of militancy.

      There’s always more to learn, and the traditional ways of doing things aren’t working. Which is pretty much what Richard said. Yeah, maybe “brighter future” is a bit of a scathing phrase, but to be honest, we have a bit of a tendency to get all doom and gloom and “oh the 90s were terrible and everything’s shit and nothing will ever get better.” But that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Ad 3.3.1

        And there you go.

        Terrific to hear from someone who has the guts and determination to actually be committed to union organizing, rather than from the usual melancholic defeatists bleating and complaining about some imagined linguistic problem and why they’re not living on Big Rock Candy Mountain anymore.

        Great to hear from a real organizer Steph.

        • Bill

          Do fuck off with the oblique snipes Ad. You’ve no idea what my experience with union organising is.

      • Chris 3.3.2

        Any talk on how the unions (for all the reasons you’re saying) need to represent the interests of all workers, whether employed or unemployed?

        • Chris

          Obviously not?

          • Stephanie Rodgers

            Sorry Chris, it’s been a jam-packed event and not much time to check comments. We’ve definitely been looking outside the traditional union models – how we represent freelancers, casual workers, people employed by labour hire agencies.

            Auckland Action Against Poverty also have a few members here who’ve talked about their work supporting people on benefits, including those who aren’t in work and those who can’t work.

            It’s been a really wide-ranging discussion and there’s a huge amount to build on.

            • Chris

              Fundamental changes to the labour market and the nature of work etc require unions to have a look at who they represent by re-examining the concept of “worker” if they’re to remain relevant. Unions grew out of a movement which was about representing workers whether employed or not. Modern day unions seem to have abandoned that idea by taking on the largely neo-liberal-influenced concept of worker as someone who’s got a job. Unions rediscovering their roots will ironically help address problems with relevance in a modern day labour market.

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    as an old saying goes–“to investigate a problem is to solve it”

    Helen Kelly charted a course out of the servicing/members only blind canyon via community organising ; the central labour organisation needs to keep that approach up by operating a modern class analysis style–unapologetically on the side of the workers, unemployed workers, interns, migrants, agency workers and other oppressed and exploited

    the “CTU classic” approach–wait till we have a friendly govt.–can be a rather long wait,
    I do my bit with unions still at various actions and in support roles, Standard readers can encourage any workers they know to get involved and join the appropriate union

  5. BM 5

    I like the way he spends the first bit of his speech blagging the “1%” and being all angry and aggressive then later on he speaks of the importance of not being angry and aggressive as people find that a turn off and it’s hurting the union movement.

  6. Ad 6

    Anyone who still works in a union is my hero.

  7. Chris 7

    “Even worse, working people are made to feel that they are undeserving and that we should think ourselves lucky that the 1% are so generous. So, according to them, don’t rock the boat because things have never been so good.”

    The working people. Sanctimonious git. And this is what the left puts up? We’re doomed.

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