The historic and weakened relationship between trade unions and the New Zealand Labour Party is the subject of the cover article of this weeks’ Listener magazine. Written by David Fisher, the article interviews a number of key unionists and Labour Party sources. He asks whether the unions still slavishly follow Labour? And ‘How does a revitalized union movement best represent its members?’ Fisher details how the union-party linkage used to be vital, but it’s been weakened, and now the linkage only really exists at an elite, non-organic level. He says, that ‘Born out of working men’s desire for political change 92 years ago, the Labour Party has all but severed those ties, turning its attention to middle class issues’. [read more below]
Fisher talks to Laila Harre of the NDU and Matt McCarten of Unite and points to them as the epitome of the new revitalized union movement that has distanced itself from Labour. McCarten stresses that a union membership is now relatively non-partisan, and in any union crowd you will find voters from an array of parties. He thinks this is a progressive change: ‘We have party supporters of almost every party in our union and our leadership. It gives a good dynamic, good debate’.
Matt McCarten and Laila Harre are painted as the faces of the modern revitalized union movement in New Zealand. Fisher points to them as having actually won many important battles for workers in politics and industry – with the point being that they’ve done so from outside the Labour Party. McCarten explicit states that those unions that are affiliated aren’t actually helping their members:
He says those unions with “blantant” support for Labour are not necessarily furthering the interests – or reflecting the interests – of members. Instead, union should talk with all parties, even those on the right. McCarten and Harre have met National’s John Key and Bill English.
Andrew Little of the EPMU also features in the story. He says that his union members ‘don’t want to be told how to vote’. Instead he stresses the distance between Labour and the EPMU, saying that ‘We are affiliated to the party, but we are independent and we have an independent stance.’ Furthermore, like Labour, the EPMU is also increasingly aligned with and working with business: the ‘EPMU was involved in setting up the NZ Manufacturers and Exporters Association’
Labour, according to Fisher is no more closer to union leaders than it is to business: ‘it seems Labour listens to business as closely as it does to the unions. Often, when it meets with unions, it will also meet with business groups’.
Labour-union finances come into the discussion. Fisher clearly suggests that any idea ‘of the cash-rich EPMU… being a funding pool for Labour might also be dismissed’. He points out that the EPMU only pays about $25,000 a year in affiliation fees to the Labour Party – that’s only a minuscule $1.25 per member, and only 0.22% of the union’s $11.5m annual revenue from subscriptions.
According to Little, the affiliation doesn’t get the union much in response, but merely the chance to lobby at Labour conferences etc. He seems to emphasize that ‘it doesn’t buy favours or policy’.
The article is particularly useful in pointing out just how much low paid and union members are no longer automatically inclined to vote Labour. Instead the article shows that workers vote for parties across the political spectrum, and Labour’s stronghold is totally broken.
The example is given of a South Auckland factory worker, interviewed, who associates Labour with ‘more rules to live his life by, and really, there were enough of those already’. Instead he was focused more on economic issues and getting by, which he associated the National Party with being in favour of giving him a better go financially.