Why unions should not be affiliated to the NZ Labour Party

The Spark November 2010

This is a follow-up to the article in the last issue of The Spark where we welcomed the decision of the Victorian Electrical Trades Union to disaffiliate from the Australian Labour Party. This article looks at the problem of union affiliation to the NZ Labour Party; it is drawn mainly from our pamphlet, Labour: a bosses’ party.

Before the fourth Labour government, much of the blue-collar union movement was affiliated to the Labour Party. Since then however, very few unions have remained affiliated. The two main unions keeping the formal ties to Labour are the EPMU (Engineering, Printing, Manufacturing Union) and the SFWU (Service and Food Workers Union). In recent years, in particular since the collapse of the left social-democratic Alliance Party, several small unions (Rail and Maritime Transport, Dairy Workers and Maritime Union) have reaffiliated.

NORMAN KIRK : 6 February 1973

The main argument put forward by union leaders supporting affiliation is basically that it is better to be in the tent exerting influence on Labour policy than outside it simply opposing policy.

However, this argument is deeply flawed, as can be seen by looking at the actual history of union involvement in the Labour Party.

In 1918 there were 72 affiliated unions and just 11 party branches. In the 1919 general election, nine Labour candidates won seats, eight of them being active unionists. In 1938 three quarters of all union members were affiliated to the Labour Party; by 1971 it had fallen to just one half.

Even formal connections with the unions withered. For instance, after the 1951 waterfront lockout, in which the militant unions led by the wharfies were smashed, a Joint Council of Labour was set up involving the party and the right wing-dominated Federation of Labour (FOL). It met five times in the second half of 1952, after it was set up, but in the years 1967-75 met only four times. The fields it discussed became increasingly narrow. Basically, the parliamentary Labour Party was primarily interested in using the FOL to ensure the dampening down of any worker militancy, while maintaining the regular flow of cash from the unions into the party coffers and election workers every three years.

In fact, as early as 1937 it was clear that union influence was negligible. Peter Fraser, one of the central party leaders and later prime minister, told Labour Party conference delegates in 1937 that “he would be ‘dishonest’ if he let them believe that ‘any resolution passed compelled the government to do anything, regardless of the consequences’.”

Nor did workers all vote Labour. Even in safe Labour seats in the three elections 1978-1984 the Labour candidates in the thirteen safe seats averaged only 43 per cent of the votes of registered electors.

By 1972 only 27 percent of Labour MPs had active union backgrounds. By 1975, 49 percent of Labour MPs were businessmen, farmers and professionals and another 12.5 percent were public servants. (In 1919, not one single Labour MP had belonged to any of these categories). By the 2002 general election, of the top ten Labour list candidates, only one was an active unionist. The total number of Labour MPs with union backgrounds could virtually be counted on the fingers of one hand – and these were far from radical union activists. By and large, like the Labour bosses, these “unionists” see the trade unions as businesses and career pathways rather than as fighting organisations of the working class and schools for socialism.

The changes in the New Zealand Labour Party’s social composition and union involvement began, albeit slowly, from an early stage. In 1926, 60.5 percent of LP conference delegates were from affiliated unions. By 1945, after a decade of experience of the first Labour government, this had fallen to 47.2 percent. By 1955 it was only 33.8 percent. In the 1960s and 1970s, it continued to decline dramatically. In 1965, 30.2 percent of LP conference delegates were still from unions but by 1975 only 17.7 percent were. The experience of the third Labour government – that of Kirk and Rowling – certainly speeded up the decline in unionists attending LP conferences.

Moreover, while the number of unionised workers had expanded rapidly between 1940 and 1975, the number of union members affiliated to Labour through their unions actually fell slightly, from 185,500 to 184,700. Whereas in 1940 nearly 75 percent of the unionised workforce were affiliated to Labour through their unions, by 1975 only a little over 42 percent were. In 1950, just over 57 percent of all unions were still affiliated to Labour; by 1975 it had fallen to under 27 percent.

During the 1950s and 1960s there was a small increase in affiliation by the reorganised waterside unions and some labourers’ unions. However there was a much more noticeable decline in affiliation by biscuit, confectionery, clothing, iron and brass and shop workers, painters and decorators, carpenters, freezing workers, boilermakers, drivers, store workers and packers, and fire fighters. Today Labour-affiliated unions organise only about 15 percent of the unionised workers and a tiny percentage of the overall workforce. If you took away the engineers’ union, there’d be little left of union affiliation at all.

1951 union march

The decline of union involvement in the 1950s, 60s and 70s also gives the lie to the attempts of National in the 1960s and 1970s to portray Labour as dominated by unions. While much was made by National, the media and the pro-Labour left groups of union “block voting” at Labour Party conferences, the reality was that between 1963-1975 only 6.3 percent of all remits at Labour Party conferences came from unions.

The role of unions and unionists at Labour conferences, in any case, was not to fight for working class interests but, as long-time leading Labourite of the 1970s and 1980s Richard Northey put it, to assimilate the views of Labour Party conferences (i.e. the party leadership cabal) and transmit them back to the union members. John Wybrow, who was party secretary for part of the 1970s, was even more blunt: the role of conference was “to discuss policy, not to formulate it.”

What this meant was that the real policy was set by the top leadership – essentially the MPs and a couple of top party apparatchiks, sometimes with a few top union bureaucrats along as well – and then handed down to conference delegates for transmission back into the affiliated unions and local party branches.

This realpolitik of the Labour Party was the opposite of the naïve, fantasy view of pro-Labour “revolutionary” groups like the Socialist Action League (the remnant of which is today’s tiny Communist League) that LP conferences could or would reflect any radicalisation in the working class and force a shift left by the organisation, creating a “class struggle left wing” and split which would lead to a mass revolutionary workers party! These illusions were being sown even while the third Labour Government had started funding private schools, opposed liberalising abortion law, and opposed homosexual law reform.

Because the real motion was in the other direction – the pro-capitalist leadership transmitting its ideas and instructions down to the ranks through vehicles such as party conferences – no “class-struggle left wing”, as dreamed of by the pro-Labour left groups, was ever on the cards.

In fact what actually happened was that Labour Party conferences became increasingly dominated not by radical rank-and-file workers but by professionals. Basically, workers began dropping out of the Labour Party in significant numbers as early as the 1930s, especially after 1938 by which time they’d had three years experience of the first (supposedly “socialist”) Labour government. They never returned.

As workers have dropped out of the Labour Party over the past seven decades, the middle class has increasingly joined, albeit providing much smaller numbers. Thus the fall in individual membership has been especially dramatic. There were 51,000 members of local LP branches in 1940, still mainly working class, but only 14,250 individual members by 1975 and even less after the party’s election defeat that year. The largest losses of membership were in working class strongholds. For instance, from 1940-1975 branches in Grey Lynn, Otahuhu, Napier, Westport and Port Chalmers, all of which had been among the party’s largest branches, lost 87-94 percent of their memberships.

When the process of “modernisation” of the party was undertaken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, largely by Jim Anderton, membership rose to 50,000. However, the new recruits came increasingly from the liberal middle class alienated by Muldoon and attracted by the “modernising” project in the Labour Party.

This project was a precursor of the Blairite “New Labour” project in Britain, consciously shifting the organisation away from the working class. Indeed, as early as 1963 John A. Lee had noted that Labour MPs were now recruited “from among school teachers, lawyers, journalists, small businessmen, and from the trade union secretary class” rather than from ordinary workers. This layer of new middle class members provided the base of the neo-liberal economic reforms and the accompanying liberal social reforms.

A leading political scientist, Jack Vowles, has noted the following clearly observable trend since the early 1950s: “Party membership declined, most particularly that of blue-collar workers and trade unionists, and most steeply during periods of Labour government.” When membership rose in the late 1970s, recruitment came mainly from white-collar sections. Vowles conducted an in-depth study of the social composition of the Labour and National annual conferences in 1983 and 1988. He found that in 1983, one of Labour’s largest ever national conferences, only 19 percent of conference delegates were manual and service workers, a figure below their weight in the labour force. By far the largest group of conference attendees were professionals, making up 26 percent, while teachers made up 16 percent. By 1988, 40 percent of the delegates to Labour’s conference had university degrees, compared to only 20 percent of the delegates at National’s 1988 conference. A third of the delegates at Labour’s 1988 conference earned over $57,000, a very hefty salary in 1988.

Not surprisingly, Vowles notes that by 1988 Labour “clearly over-represent(ed) elites, higher-paid workers, and those with higher education at the expense of the larger mass of workers in less attractive jobs on lower incomes.” The blatantly anti-working class nature of Labour had an effect on how workers saw the party and how they related to it at election time. Thus Vowles writes that by 1987, “members of the traditional productive core of the working class were no more likely to vote Labour than any others. . . and more likely not to vote at all. Labour’s working class losses to non-voting were offset by gains in the middle class.”[62] That this trend has, with some ups and downs, basically continued can be seen in the historically high non-voting figures for the 2002 election: 25 percent of the electorate did not vote. Abstention was highest in working class areas; in the Maori seats, for instance, it was almost 50 percent.

After the experience of the first three-four years of the fourth Labour government, membership collapsed again, to a mere 11,000 by May 1988 and possibly less than 4,000 by 1994.

Although membership rose again in the late 1990s to possibly over 10,000, middle class layers continue to dominate within this small remaining party membership. This is also reflected in the Labour list at election time, the list being dominated by academics, lawyers, managers and other members of the professions.

The Labour Party, like any respectable capitalist party, seeks – and gets – corporate funding. Big business spends millions of dollars backing Labour because it knows it can be relied upon to serve its interests. In 1999 Labour won the elections and formed a coalition government with the Alliance. In recognition of Labour’s thoroughly capitalist credentials big business gave just as much to Labour as to National for electioneering. Labour’s total declared donations came to $1.1million while National’s were $1.2. The Act Party got $805,000. The Engineers’ Union gave $80,000 to Labour’s campaign, big dollars for a union, but this was just a tiny drop in the bucket for the Labour Party. At a time when unions were in dire straits that money could have been much better used on union campaigns and organising resistance to the attacks on workers’ rights. In 2002 the Labour Party surpassed National, raising $1.6 million in election donations, mostly from big business.

The Labour Party in recent years, certainly from the late 1990s until 2008, has been the most well-funded party. Not content with big business donations, Labour also receives substantial funds from the public purse. In all, the extra-parliamentary Labour Party organisation appears to operate on a budget of about $2.5 million per year. Compared to this, the Parliamentary Service provides the parliamentary wing of Labour with $5 million in Party and MP Support alone. The Labour parliamentarians also receive about $12 million worth of Services to MPs, and Labour ministers in government received nearly all of Ministerial Services’ staffing budget of over $15 million. These lucrative resources greatly overshadow the party organisation’s finances.

When the Labour Party is overwhelmingly funded by business and the state – with the sort of funds unions could never match – is it not clear who calls the shots? Funding sources alone indicate how little sway unions have on Labour policy. However, if unions have little influence on Labour policy, Labour certainly has substantial influence on union policy. This influence is utterly woeful – it is all about getting unions, especially affiliated unions, to lower their horizons, to not undertake industrial action (especially when Labour is in power) and to not do anything that may rock the boat for Labour. Union affiliation therefore subordinates workers’ interests to the interests of the Labour Party, a party which is utterly dedicated to managing the capitalist system and draws its leaders from the technocratic and managerial elites within society.

The list of anti-worker laws introduced by Labour is long. To cite a few: it was the Kirk Labour Government that issued injunctions against the Drivers’ Union in 1975. This was one of the first major uses of injunctions in industrial disputes. The 1984 Labour Government intensified anti-worker legislation with the Labour Relations Act, making injunctions against workers and their unions a powerful weapon in the bosses’ hands and enabling employers to bring huge damages claims as in Tory-ruled Britain. This legislation was the forerunner to National’s Employment Contracts Act.

The experience of the fourth Labour government indicated how totally powerless affiliated unions were to prevent the biggest attack on workers’ rights, pay and living and working conditions since the Depression of the 1930s. Union affiliation to Labour hamstrung any attempted fightback by workers – the affiliated union officials, as Labour Party members, were always expected to put the interests of the top Labour leadership ahead of the interests of the working class. And they did.

The leaders of the remaining affiliated unions have to answer a question: are you going to put the interests of workers or the interests of the capitalist Labour Party first? If you are going to put the interests of workers first, then you simply cannot remain affiliated to Labour.

The full pamphlet, including sources for figures and quotes, can be purchased from the Workers Party for $3 or downloaded at: http://workersparty.org.nz/resources/the-truth-about-labour/

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