(First published in The Dominion Post, October 30.)
By now Richard Wagstaff should be settling into his new job as president of the Council of Trade Unions.
He’ll be very conscious of the legacy he’s inherited. His predecessors include Fintan Patrick Walsh, Sir Tom Skinner, Jim Knox and Ken Douglas.
Walsh was the closest New Zealand has come to an American-style labour boss, feared and hated in equal measure.
Skinner was a moderate and a shrewd pragmatist, regarded with suspicion by some of his union brethren for doing deals with National cabinet ministers late at night over a bottle of Scotch.
Knox was a gruff but likeable old-style blue-collar battler, a veteran of the 1951 waterfront confrontation who took over what was then the Federation of Labour at a turbulent time when the ground was rapidly shifting under his feet – sometimes too rapidly for him to keep up.
Douglas, who remains active in public life as a Porirua city councillor, was an avowed Marxist who had the misfortune to preside over a movement that was fracturing under the strain of change, and who was accused – unfairly, I believe – of selling out in his efforts to hold things together.
Each was a household name in his day, and a power in the land. Wagstaff is neither, and has little chance of becoming one unless things change radically.
He takes over the leadership of a union movement greatly weakened by economic upheaval and labour law reform, but in many ways also greatly improved.
In the days of compulsory union membership, which ended under Jim Bolger’s National government in 1991, New Zealand was one of the most highly unionised economies in the world.
But while the law guaranteed massive membership, it meant that unions were under no pressure to prove their worth. The result was a plethora of small, weak unions with lazy officials who collected members’ fees but didn’t do much else.
Paradoxical though it may seem, compulsory unionism wasn’t viewed favourably by hard-core, militant unions such as the seamen’s, freezing workers’ and watersiders’ unions. They saw the movement as being weakened by all those thousands of shop and office workers with no commitment to working-class solidarity and no interest in fighting the class war.
It’s a very different picture now. Unions represent only about 17 per cent of the labour force, but give the impression of being far more responsive to their members’ needs. They have to be, or they won’t survive.
The odd little craft unions that once occupied every dusty nook and cranny of the Wellington Trades Hall vanished long ago as industries were restructured – or in some cases wiped out – and unions merged.
Simultaneously, union power has shifted from traditional blue-collar industries to the white-collar sector. Deregulation, economic reform and technological upheaval have destroyed the power bases of once-formidable unions in industries such as freezing works and car assembly plants.
These days it’s public sector unions such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations, mostly dominated by women, that have the big numbers. It’s enough to make grizzled old wharfies and boilermakers weep.
One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the need for well-organised, effective unions. If anything, they have become more important since the reforms of the 90s tilted the industrial balance of power back in favour of employers.
Workers can’t rely on the state to protect their interests. That was demonstrated at Pike River and in the forestry industry, where the CTU successfully prosecuted employers over workplace deaths after Workplace New Zealand declined to take action. Taking bad employers to court isn’t high on the government’s priority list.
Zero-hours contracts are another example of vulnerable workers needing someone to stand up for them.
The big problem for the unions is that people have long memories. Many of us vividly remember the 1970s and early 80s, when the economy was constantly sabotaged by bloody-minded industrial disruption.
That ensured there was precious little public sympathy for the unions when National stripped them of their power.
But back to Wagstaff. He seems personable, approachable and articulate, like his immediate predecessors Helen Kelly and Ross Wilson.
That’s a good start. The union leaders of earlier generations were often furtive and hostile toward the media, whom they regarded as the tools of the ruling class.
It’s different now. Public relations is an essential part of the tool kit of the modern trade unionist as the movement struggles to win back public respect.
It’s a work in progress, as they say.