Monday, August 25, 2008

A bad look for the EPMU

The EPMU’s decision to suspend its employee Shawn Tan, an ACT candidate in the forthcoming election, is a bad look for the union.

The union says Tan was suspended because he breached his terms of employment by not seeking permission before becoming a candidate, and because his work would suffer because of the demands of campaigning. But EPMU national secretary Andrew Little appeared to concede to both Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald that the union’s view was jaundiced by the fact Tan was standing for ACT, a party that Little claims is bent on stripping away workers’ rights.

Full marks to Little for his honesty, at least. But the union gets a dismal score for its tolerance of dissent and its commitment to democracy and freedom of opinion.

One of the most unattractive aspects of unionism is the hostility its leadership cliques show to anyone who dares to buck the orthodox line. The EPMU is a sophisticated union and Little has been very effective in rehabilitating unionism’s previously woeful public image, but the Tan controversy shows that intolerance of renegades is still embedded in the union psyche.

Here was an opportunity for the union to demonstrate that it was big-hearted enough to cop the minor irritation of an ideologically delinquent employee exercising his democratic rights, and they blew it. The old, petty political instincts kicked in; solidarity with the Labour Party had to be protected at all costs. So now we are observing the ironic spectacle of a powerful organisation trying to crush the little guy – the very sort of thing trade unions were created to prevent, except that in this case it’s the union that is doing the crushing. (Tan says the union initially demanded his resignation, frightening him into reconsidering his candidacy. It was only after taking legal advice that he decided to go ahead.)

Little attempts to justify the union’s position by saying that Tan would have needed to take a lot of time off work to campaign. Well, hello? Isn’t it common for employers to cut some slack for staff who want to participate in the democratic process? The EMPU rarely loses an opportunity to pontificate on the obligations of being a good employer, but dismally fails the test itself.

And as much as Little tries to explain the EPMU’s position by referring to the inconvenience Tan’s candidacy might create, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the union would have found a way to cope if he happened to be standing for Labour.

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