Helen Kelly - A Twenty-First Century Union Leader: The truth of the matter is that restoring equality in the workplace will not be accomplished by top-down, bureaucratic, institutional solutions. To enjoy the confidence and active support of ordinary working people, a fit-for-purpose, twenty-first century system of employment relations would need to have emerged from a consultative exercise of unprecedented size and thoroughness. In the simplest terms: it would need to be the product of the workers themselves.
WHAT BETTER TIME could there be to talk about Kiwi workers’ rights than in the days following Helen Kelly’s death? Who has contributed more to this discussion than the NZ Council of Trade Unions’ (CTU) first female President? And what other contemporary New Zealand trade unionist’s passing could have left such large and stylish shoes to fill?
Had she not succumbed to lung cancer, it is likely that well before the end of this decade she would have made the transition from the trade union movement to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Once in Parliament, her rise to the top would have been inexorable. In relatively short order New Zealand would have had its second Labour Prime Minister called Helen.
All of which makes it one the great counterfactual questions of our history: “How different would New Zealand have been if Helen Kelly had not died of cancer at the tragically young age of fifty-two?” It is only when we attempt to answer that question that the true magnitude of the nation’s loss is brought home to us.
Labour has made great play of its current Future of Work exercise, but it has been much less enthusiastic about discussing the future of workplace relations. Indeed, Grant Robertson seems much more comfortable discussing how vital it is that workers are made ready for the challenges of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. We hear a great deal about the importance of continuous upskilling and labour flexibility, but nothing like as much about ensuring employees have a genuine say in how much they are paid and under what conditions they work.
For a party calling itself “Labour”, this is a critical deficiency. The power relationships of the workplace have a huge impact on people’s well-being. How much we earn and how we work continue to dominate our existence in much the same way that they have done since the first industrial revolution. More so in the first quarter of the twenty-first century than in the second half of the twentieth, because the effective destruction of mass trade union membership in the 1980s and 90s swung the balance-of-power decisively in the employers’ favour.
Anyone raising these issues, however, will be told that they are living in the past, and that the world has changed too much for any social-democratic party to contemplate a return to the industrial relations regime of the 1970s. And it’s true, times have changed: although not enough, apparently, to destroy the master/servant relationship, or eliminate the commercial necessity of legally limited liability; but certainly enough to make joining a union a career-threatening move for 90 percent of private sector employees.
The most important challenge facing today’s Labour Party is how to render workplace power relationships more equal without mobilising the entire neoliberal establishment against it. Simply legislating for the restoration of compulsory unionism and industry-wide contracts is not the answer, because a change of government would instantly bring about their legal demise.
The truth of the matter is that restoring equality in the workplace will not be accomplished by top-down, bureaucratic, institutional solutions. To enjoy the confidence and active support of ordinary working people, a fit-for-purpose, twenty-first century system of employment relations would need to have emerged from a consultative exercise of unprecedented size and thoroughness. In the simplest terms: it would need to be the product of the workers themselves.
Such an exercise would need to be established and protected by legislation. The body responsible – let’s call it WorkRight NZ – would aim to, and be empowered to, approach as many working people as possible in their workplaces and have them fill in a comprehensive questionnaire intended to identify both the good and bad aspects of working life in twenty-first century New Zealand. The survey would also ask workers how their rights, as citizens and employees, might best be protected and exercised within the workplace.
The WorkRight NZ legislation would also establish a second investigative unit, dedicated to drawing upon the knowledge and experience of existing trade union and employer organisations; the experiences of employers, unions and working people in other countries; and the research and insights of New Zealand and overseas academic employment relations specialists. The goal of this investigative unit would be to establish local and international best practice in relation to collective bargaining.
The results of the consultative exercise would then be collated, analysed and written up in the form of a comprehensive report by WorkRight NZ. Contained within the report would be a draft bill, incorporating the participants principal recommendations, for presentation to Parliament.
Interestingly, a similar exercise in mass inquiry was undertaken by the First Labour Government. The Social Survey Bureau was set up in 1937 to discover the actual conditions prevailing in New Zealand’s farms, factories, shops, offices and homes. Its first major inquiry – into the living conditions of dairy farmers – produced such shocking findings, however, that the responsible cabinet minister, Peter Fraser, tried to suppress the research report and, when that failed, shut the Bureau down.
Asking the right questions has always been the essence of political radicalism. It’s what made Helen Kelly such an effective trade union leader. If the CTU and the Labour Party are looking for a way to honour her legacy, then finding out what workers want from their employers and their workplaces – and giving it to them – would be a great place to start.
This essay was jointly posted by The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Sunday, 16 October 2016.