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Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Written By: - Date published: 11:02 pm, July 11th, 2020 - 21 comments
Categories: Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , , , ,

Originally posted on Nick Kelly’s blog: The role of the Union peak body is to provide national or international leadership for all union members. The union movement structure in NZ and many other countries is to have several sector-specific unions, which then affiliate to a peak body. In some countries, there is more than one peak body,  for example, left or right unions will want to group separately.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the late 19th century advocated the idea of ‘one big union’. Whilst there are the sector-specific issues facing certain professions, the general role of unions is to empower members to fight and win improved working conditions. One big democratic union where joined-up thinking and an overall strategy is present would be far more effective. This could still have departments focusing on sector-specific issues, but they would not be separate from the main bigger group. Industrial Workers of the World - Wikipedia The reality is that unions grew up as guilds and craft unions in the 19th century, and this legacy is carried through to the present day. 19th and early 20th century models of unionism are expected to serve the interests of workers in the 21st century is an ever-changing workforce.

In this context, peak bodies exist as the national or international voice of organised labour. At a national level, peak bodies like the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in NZ or the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK are the main group who lobby government on behalf of all union members. They also are the main go-to for media wanting comment on workers’ rights issues generally. Like international union peak bodies, national peak bodies can suffer the same issue of disconnect from their rank and file membership. At times peak bodies can operate in a bubble and risk being captured by officialdom and the political establishment.

The major challenge with the structure of peak bodies is that their affiliate members are often in direct competition with each other. As mentioned in my earlier post, there are multiple unions trying to organise bus drivers in New Zealand. When briefly working for a union in the UK, one of my jobs was to talk to bus drivers asking them to join Unite union when most drivers on that site were members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union. When unions are trying to defend their declining empires in a Game of Thrones-style power struggle.

There is also a big verse small union battle, which sometimes is ideological but more often union officials battling to keep their patch. The small local union model is arguably more accountable as their officials are more accountable and their focus will be solely on their local members. The big unions argue that they have more resource and have more sway with employers. Having worked in both I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of both. In the big unions, they often have members from many professions or employers, it is easy for workplaces to be neglected if there is not a proper organising structure. Equally, in small unions, the sole focus can be bread and butter local issues and the bigger picture gets neglected, ultimately harming their members.

My view is that neither big nor small unions function particularly well in the modern-day workforce. There are many notable exceptions to this where both do very good work. But few have found the balance of good local support for members, tackling national and international issues and crucially not wasting considerable time and resource fighting another rival union encroaching on their patch.

Were I to try and design a model that may possibly work, it would be to have the union peak body running all the back-office functions. Combining the legal, policy, membership systems, and even campaign work into one big back-office function would allow a concentration of resource and stop duplication across the movement. Peak bodies would also become the employer of all union staff and pay scales and other employment conditions of union workers would be consistent rather than certain unions in certain sectors paying more. The unions could maintain their separate brands and democratic structures and have their sector focus but would be working cohesively as a movement.

The role of the peak body is primarily to provide the vision for the movement. Their role is to head national campaigns that improve employment and health and safety legislation. And help affiliates work and campaign together to bring positive change. But more than this, the peak body should be a shining light to the whole movement. It should be advocating for the future of work to be one where workers are empowered and no longer exploited or alienated from the systems of production they work in. In short, this peak body’s need to be a beacon of hope and a movement for real change, not just a semi coordinated alliance of union organisations that are defensive and only try to maintain the status quo.

For unions and their peak bodies to achieve this, they need to radically re-think their structures and models. They also need a fairly fundamental rethink of how they operate in an evolving 21st-century workforce. The next post in this series will consider what some of these changes need to be.

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

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

21 comments on “Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers ”

  1. greywarshark 1

    Looking at the time and date – this has been up since 11pm last night and now it is 11 a.m. the following day so are we all up late as I am, or are we getting distanced by Trump, our politics, world politics etc from our core concern? Are we mesmerised by events, and forgetting the underlying structures or lack of them for the people? I haven't real all of Nick Kelly's post yet as I have to go out soon, things to do. But the lack of comment struck me, dong, on the head, and I thought I'd put down thoughts I've had for a while, and others have written similar.

    Which is people, the mass of working people, and the way that we have been pushed down the social mobility ladder, and tend to be living in discomfort and stressed. And we know that active unions are important to help get up again. They look at how safe workers are, while they do the real work, not just the keypad stuff.

    But also we need to think, how do unions stop following the apparent inbuilt human behaviour of getting better conditions, then demanding more for themselves and being willing to leave others in their dust. Once people get comfortably off, it seems that they step up so many rungs on the ladder that they are above the rest, and then they echo the attitudes of the wealthy that they professed to despise!

    Let's think on three things – One helping people be in work, this means government must employ some people doing things beyond the realm of profit or not-for-profit business, with a livable wage so we can have a 'decent' economy as tech and screams of 'efficiency' degrade our society.

    Then help those in work to be safe and have regular work, and reliable income and the ability to switch to government support in between jobs, that is easily obtained.

    Then have all people make a written commitment to supporting people through government to have homes that are adequate for health and comfort, and this will mean state housing for various purposes, that is not for sale, and at affordable rents, and with provisions for upkeep by tenants and for reasonable neighbourly behaviour with local agreement on behaviours. Getting support will apply to all, including money support from government sufficient for their needs without sanctions though this may be basic and allow people to earn more without deduction.

    And further that all people and children will do at least one hour's work a week at something that is useful, wanted and good for society and not just for their own family, group or neighbourhood. Those who want to do more in certain areas where they recognise a need would receive an honorarium to carry out defined work within a defined time.

    This last one is the biggie. As unions want their members to be better treated they need to carry this desire to also instil a new attitude in society so they extend beyond their group. They need to carry forward the caring and sharing approach, this new extended family approach, to cover all citizens. We need a requirement for each one of us to make some small contribution of help, work to the country, actually to each other, in return for the contribution and help being received. Good actions and feelings of involvement in society will increase this way and a lessening of self-absorbed attitudes of groups and people isolating themselves.

  2. Tiger Mountain 2

    The “one back office” concept has its attractions for sure, my view is there need only be two unions in NZ–one public sector, one private sector, plus some version of the CTU’s Together interface for community contact.

    But the practicalities are mind boggling if you have spent any time involved with NZ Unions, which I have since the late 70s as a member, executive member, “rank and file” President for several years of a medium sized Union in the mid 80s, Trades Council delegate, FOL Conference Delegate, NZCTU conference and local Delegate, employee of a National Union, delegate for Union staff (the original hospital pass). etc. etc.

    It was difficult enough voluntarily collapsing the multiplicity of Unions that existed during the 70s and 80s to a more logical framework. The 1991 Employment Contracts Act finished the job, though obviously on a union busting basis.

    The NZ peak body or “pique” as one PSA organiser I know jokingly termed the NZCTU, got off to a shaky start in 1987 and deteriorated from there to ignominy among activist workers by 1991. Helen Kelly single handedly almost resurrected the reputation of the CTU after its years of Tri Partism, Partnership and lets be honest–class collaboration. The CTU has long been a cheerleader for the NZ Labour Party, just another lobby group rather than a fighting working class leadership. How many more press releases “welcoming” something or another before the CTU finally develops a class analysis and starts to take on the employing class once again like the FOL led by Jim Knox did? It will only happen from the bottom up.

    Good on you again Nick, for attempting this whole discussion.

  3. Byd0nz 3

    Yea, the union movement never did recover from the 1991 facist assault, I agree Helen Kelly really brought a positive face to the position and deserves huge credit for that and how she is sorely missed. I was also pleased to hear Jacinda quoting Big Norm a while back and I wish he had not been (assasinated) as his super scheme, had it been permitted to carry on would have been the saviour of a Socialist NZ. I know that traitor Dougless claimed that scheme, but it was all Norman Kirk, and I believe that's why there has been very little mention of him over the years. Norman Kirk, Helen Kelly, two great names to remember.

  4. greywarshark 4

    Did the strong unions become power-hungry and inflexible and the reason for lack of support for control of unions generally?

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/3218812/Ex-seaman-wins-fight-with-union
    A former seaman has been awarded $10,000 after the Maritime Union wrote an email claiming he had left the union “under a VERY BLACK CLOUD”, making it impossible for him to find work.

    The court was told that Ian Reddie, 64, had been a loyal union member while working on ships between 1974 and 1999 as a cook and steward.

    In early 2007, he moved to Australia and sought jobs in the shipping industry there. He wrote to the New Zealand Maritime Union asking for union clearance so he could join the union in Australia and continue working on ships.

    But Wellington branch secretary Joe Fleetwood replied that Mr Reddie had left the union many years before "under a VERY BLACK CLOUD". The email was copied to officials of the New South Wales, Victorian and West Australian branches of the Australian Maritime Union.

    "He never even knew me," Mr Reddie said. "I felt then, and still do, that I had done nothing wrong by the union at that time."

    Many staff and shipping companies were afraid of the union, which was powerful and ruled the industry with an iron grip, he said. He believed the note stemmed from union members being upset he had stood up to them….

    In 2004, he applied for a job on a ship while not a union member. He said he intended to become a member if he got a job, but the union felt he was "queue jumping". He did not take the job….

    • Tiger Mountain 4.1

      Steady on greywarshark…
      in unqualified preference days (“compulsory union membership”) unions in some limited sectors had some sway on who got hired, but it would be a mistake to believe that situation applied to all unions–e.g. retail and clerical and logistics for instance. One of the last unions to hold such sway was Actors Equity if you have heard of the “Hobbit dispute”. Doctors and Cops and other professional micro associations still gate keep employment to some extent also. I see nothing wrong with the working class organising its own ranks and shunning scabs and underminers of solidarity.

      These days the 20 odd percent of unionised workers have to put up with free loaders bludging on their achievements and conditions that they organised for, and paid union membership dues.

      • greywarshark 4.1.1

        edit
        Well I've put up lots of stuff to argue over. If the unions were so smart and doing the right thing we wouldn't be so deep down as these days. Australian unions have always been difficult to control – have they come out better than us. If so, how did they manage that?

        We have read recently the story of the Wellington Tramworkers Union fighting on. So let's have some mea culpas, it hasn't just been a collapse of its own accord. Workers who bring their skills to employers who have organised finance to get something going needed to understand their POV and work with them as much as possible, not just be intransigent. It seems that it developed into a duel, and a fatal one.

        Workers aren't all the hard done by saints they paint themselves as. The strength was usually with the employers, but when it shifted to the unions as with the Cooks and Stewards Union, did they act as responsible ordinary citizens doing what was both good for themselves and other ordinary citizens when they went on strike at Christmas more than once? Because it gave them better leverage by distressing travellers. And in Australia some would clock on in the morning and then disappear for quite a time and clock off again at evening. Were NZs guilty of this too?

        The histories I have put up lay out the situation in the late 20th century. There are many people with ideas of what went on but with gaps in their perception so they lack the understanding of where to put pressure on employers, and how to appeal to the public, and what they can reasonably aim for. It is hard to keep people safe if they undermine their own monitoring systems in order to keep a business going as in Pike River (I understand this is what happened).

  5. greywarshark 5

    Background to a deceased unionist veteran of NZ government's erratic but behaviour to unions, most often of antipathy. Veteran politician Mike Lee delivered a eulogy at the Celebration of Life ceremony for Gerry Hill at the Grey Lynn RSC. 11.1.20.

    This item also relates to what the Gang of Four? in Labour did around 1989. http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2020/01/eulogy-for-gerry-hill/

    I first met Gerry Hill in 1989 and interestingly enough it was in the columns of the NZ Herald (and what a wonderful eulogy for Gerry by John Roughan in the Herald today [See link at end of this post]. As fate would have it, it was the occasion of another bitter maritime dispute.

    In January 1989 the Labour government of the day began the privatisation of the NZ Shipping Corporation. This was bad enough, but it did so in the most ruthless and unscrupulous way – without notice, breaking contracts, reflagging the ships and replacing officer and crews with international non-union labour.

    Gerry at the time was a Cooks & Stewards Union official in Auckland and I was a radio officer in the NZ Shipping Corp, a member of the Merchant Service Guild.

    The Herald story was about my formal complaint to the race relations office over the inferior pay and conditions of the Indian non-union officers on the reflagged ships as opposed to the European non-union officers. Gerry issued a statement backing me up.

    I really came to know Gerry after meeting him and Sally at the 40th anniversary commemorations of the 1951 dispute.

    I left the sea after that to go into regional politics. Gerry was later involved in the amalgamation of the Cooks & Stewards & NZ Seamens Union, which became the Seafarers Union and the amalgamation of the Seafarers with the watersiders to become the NZ Maritime Union. He left the sea in 1999 to move to Auckland to build with Sally their successful Great Ponsonby Art Hotel business in Ponsonby Terrace.

    Gerry always staunchly supported me during my time in politics – right to the end.

  6. greywarshark 6

    FYI

    https://teara.govt.nz/en/unions-and-employee-organisations/page-7
    Story: Unions and employee organisations
    Page 7. Unions after 1960

    When the Labour Party won the general election of 1984, restructuring speeded up. For the first time in a century, many unions were suddenly on the defensive. They were described as old-fashioned relics from an earlier age of state-regulated institutions, ‘overtaken by nimbler forms of evolution, like Treasury analysts’.1

    Council of Trade Unions

    In 1987 the FoL and the Public Service Association recognised their weakness and united in a new organisation, the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). After a fierce debate and an astonishingly close vote – 265,489 to 265,187 – Māori and women were given separate representation on the national executive and at all levels. The Maritime and Transport Workers’ Federation led a protest of dozens of blue-collar unions against the merger with the predominantly white-collar unions in the state sector. Yet these white-collar workers and professionals – clerical workers, nurses, teachers, airline pilots, and even junior doctors – proved to be the most militant unionists in the labour movement.

    End of compulsory unionism

    As more areas of the economy were opened up to competition, the Labour government’s failure to fully deregulate the labour market became a political issue. The Labour Relations Act 1987 ended compulsory arbitration but left intact compulsory unionism, blanket award coverage and the unions’ exclusive right to represent workers. The CTU tried to reach agreement with the government on a future role for the unions, but failed until just before the 1990 election, which Labour lost heavily.

    One of the new National government’s first measures was the Employment Contracts Act 1991. This deregulated labour markets and turned all collective contracts into individual contracts between an individual employee and his or her employer. The Arbitration Court was replaced by an Employment Tribunal and an Employment Court. The act abolished national awards and ended compulsory unionism. Unions themselves lost their exclusive right to represent workers. The term ‘union’ did not appear in the new law, so employee organisations could only gain legal recognition by becoming incorporated societies, with a minimum of 1,000 members.

    Collapse of the unions

    Although New Zealand still had one of the highest rates of union membership in the world, unionism after 1991 was the weakest it had been since 1897. When the railways and then the post and telegraph department were privatised, even the state’s once powerful blue-collar unions began to collapse. The only unions which remained in a fairly strong position were the state sector’s white-collar unions and other professional organisations.

    The 2000s

    With the election of Helen Clark’s Labour government in 1999, new legislation meant that unions could rebuild their memberships. Employers and unions were required to negotiate in ‘good faith’. The Employment Relations Act 2000 restored the term ‘union’ and specified that only unions registered under the act could represent employees in collective bargaining. Even so, unions still had far less legal protection than they did under the Labour Relations Act 1987 or earlier industrial laws. In 2018, 15.7% of workers belonged to unions.

    Globalisation, which allows employers to find the cheapest labour anywhere in the world, has created new challenges for the union movement.

    • Incognito 6.1

      Given that your comment was intended as a “FYI”, don’t you think the link would have sufficed, i.e. was it really necessary to copy & paste a large piece of text from the link without any accompanying commentary?

      • greywarshark 6.1.1

        It seemed to me that people weren't interested not only in taking part in discussion from Kelly, but lack an understanding of what the issues are. So I have brought the information to them, rather than leaving it lying likely unseen, in the archives. Let us see some detail about NZ rather than every matter that Trump brings up. Perhaps we will go into this election better informed than in the past. So yes I did think it necessary to bring relevant stuff forward and thank you incognito for putting it up. I hope my explanation will ameliorate your concerns about it.

  7. greywarshark 7

    https://teara.govt.nz/en/nga-uniana-maori-and-the-union-movement/page-4

    [deleted]

    [too many links got caught in the filter, and couldn’t tell what was yours and what was in the link. Let me know if you want a hand with the commenting tags in the TS comment box – weka]

    • greywarshark 7.1

      Thanks weka there were too many links on the page – didn't realise just how many. I have to go and get dinner on – will come back to look at this later.

  8. greywarshark 8

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/opinion/10327735/Unions-paying-for-militancy-of-past 2014

    The Boilermakers Union:

    It was a small union, but it wielded power far beyond its size because it effectively controlled some of the country's biggest construction jobs. And in the 1970s, under Devitt's leadership, the Boilermakers' Union was synonymous with militancy and disruption.

    Most notoriously, the union was blamed for endless delays in the building of Wellington's showpiece BNZ Centre. Begun in 1973 and intended for completion in 1977, the 31-storey building wasn't finished until 1984. The final cost was four times greater than the original estimate.

    The BNZ site wasn't the only one where the boilermakers made their presence felt. They were also involved in festering, long-running disputes at Mangere Bridge, Marsden Point oil refinery and the Kawerau pulp and paper mill.

  9. greywarshark 9

    2016 https://thestandard.org.nz/what-have-the-unions-ever-done-for-us-2/

    2018 https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/20-11-2018/why-didnt-we-strike-under-national/

    Lots of pdf which I can’t get on my normal set=up but can be reached under google keywords:
    nz unions Bank of nz and boilermakers union

  10. georgecom 10

    A couple of thoughts on what Nick Kelly wrote. One of the significant drivers of change of the LRA of 1987 was the creation of Industry focused union and bargaining. Those changes were slowly starting to occur when the ERA came along. The notable example perhaps being the likes of the Engineering Union with their Plastics and Metals documents.

    In terms of unions with their structures and models, I think many of the answers Nick poses are fairly simple. Simple anyway to enunciate, more problematic to achieve. Broadly however it's clarity of thinking and goal and aligning union structures along that thinking. It's about winning issues which meet the reasonable expectation and priorities of union members. Building union leadership, capability and capacity. Engaged and informed union membership activity. Growing the membership and credibility of the union through the above.

    [Fixed the same error in user name]

  11. greywarshark 11

    Open Mike 270 comments – union one 17? for 12 July. 13 is't going to be the lucky number for lots of people to swing around to talk about unions. People are prepared to repeat comments about already known matters where it doesn't make a great difference. Yet on unions and workers and how we look after each other so we can have a good life in NZ, coping with the ups and downs but being brightened by the fact that we have a place to stand, a position of respect as a human and a share in the good things current in the nation, we are in deficit.

    What about unions running little workshops about business and the economy here, and what's involved in running your own micro business and employing workers. And how employees can understand their management and how to approach management to understand them. Is it a good idea to have management give performance bonuses, in a good year can they get a bonus then. He can they help keep the business going well, what do they do when they feel sure that management is leaking money away that isn't appearing in the accounts?

    We need to understand about Marxian theory and being the owners of production etc. and how to step up from being the downtrodden worker, and not just to being the sly worker who puts one over the boss when he/she can.

    • Incognito 11.1

      The number of comments give you a skewed view. Please remember that there are many more (silent) readers here than commenters. Many comments in OM are meh, IMHO; sometimes it feels like Open Meh.

    • Chris 11.2

      "We need to understand about Marxian theory and being the owners of production etc…"

      Perhaps unions should also take up the plight of unemployed workers, the "reserve army of labour" that is so crucial to Marx's analysis? At the moment beneficiaries are not represented apart from by a handful of voluntary organisations scattered around the country that struggle along on next to nothing. A particular group may be lucky to have a skilled advocate work for them for a while but when that happens it is only luck. A very tiny percentage of beneficiaries are represented at review hearings, for example.

      There are a lot of reasons why beneficiaries have been forgotten, and no doubt the lack of resources given to advocacy in this highly specialised area is because of attitudes towards the poor, as well as the fact the poor have no money. But these are the very reasons why something needs to be done.

      The answer, I think, are the unions. It fits philosophically and makes practical sense for unions to adopt beneficiary advocacy as part of their core work. Workers surely aren't merely the 'employed', but are, as Marx said, part of the reserve army of labour upon which the owners of the means of production are so heavily reliant.

      • Tiger Mountain 11.2.1

        There were various attempts to take up your point Chris in the 80s and 90s. PEP schemes were unionised, and the unemployed paid proper “Award” rates. Pride of place goes to Sue and Bill Bradford’s Auckland Peoples Centre which housed the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre. The Combined Beneficiaries Union was in the Auckland Trade Union Centre. There were others; BUM (Beneficiaries and Unemployed Movement) in Waikato, and CUBA in Wellington, and many others too, some of which are still functioning in places like Rotorua.

        Various Union organisers tried to involve unemployed advocates in redundancy situations. Unions funded the above groups to some extent, but it often depended on the political views of the union secretaries.

        Really, beneficiary advocacy and research, and poverty action should be funded like any other NGOs, but the powerful are not too interested in the discarded and demonised. The only MPs in living memory to have fully supported the unemployed are Sue Bradford, Metiria Turei and Marama Davidson–who not coincidentally I would say–experienced the tender mercies of Social Welfare/WINZ/MSD first hand! And the official Union movement barring FIRST, which supports AAAP–Auckland Action Against Poverty–in its Auckland building, seems to have long forgotten unemployed workers. But the unemployed are not going to organise themselves are they? so in this time of almost 200,000 job seekers on the back of Covid it is indeed time for unions to have another go.

        • Chris 11.2.1.1

          To be successful there must be buy-in from the unions of the need for a generous and properly functioning welfare system. That's no doubt the official line most if not all unions take – no union if asked is likely to disagree. But biases against the poor run deep. Decades of a low minimum wage don't help. Like the judiciary, individuals within unions aren't immune from the toxic cultural shift NZ suffered as a result of the 1990s and left unabated throughout the Clark years. Ardern seems to be making some ground but there's a long slog ahead. The thinking that asks "why should we help those who do nothing over hard working low income people?" is still very much with us. I agree it's time to have another go, although I'd like to think it was more a matter of making sure we keep going.

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