Reflections on the 2021 Labour History Project Symposium by Paul Maunder and Grant Brookes.
Paul Maunder, LHP Bulletin Editor, reflects
The seminar left me with the feeling of having experienced a contradiction at a deep level, but one which is not easy to articulate.
Having started off on a high (the victory at Kinleith), the union movement, as a social and political institution, obviously diminished in power and influence during the 1980s. From the Federation of Labour having a high media profile and with ready access to government, the body became something of a marginal player. And this diminishing has never been reversed.
Of course this is explicable. During the decade the manufacturing sector virtually disappeared, and this sector had provided the labour intense work sites that were often the base of militant unionism. But as well, white collar jobs were re-organised with short term contracts and an approaching digitalising of work. Meanwhile the service sector grew, characterised by low wages and precarious conditions. There was probably only hard-fought-for continuity in health and education, both sectors proving resistant to neoliberalism.
This was the negative story of the day.
The positive story was the diversification of the union movement during this same period, opening itself to women, other gender, Maori and Pasifika voices, leading to campaigns for equal pay, against sexual harassment and racial discrimination and beginning to bring tiriti relations into the movement.
The contradiction is that the garden in which this flowering took place diminished in size, even though the impulse was shared with more human rights focused campaigns. And there have been some notable blooms: the important care workers campaign and of course the more recent living wage campaign.
Yet, at the end of the day, at the negotiating table, a worker is a worker and a manager a manager, no matter what gender, race or sexuality either might be. The culture of the organisation getting the case together and the negotiating process should be inclusive, but that is not ultimately the matter up for negotiation, nor can failure be excused by good intentions.
Put it this way: If the negotiating team is ethnically, gender and sexually diverse, yet doesn’t achieve a good result, there is a cultural achievement yet ultimately a union failure. Scale this up to workers not getting their share of the cake and growing inequity, the end of union monopoly and the reduction of collective bargaining, poor health and safety, the housing crisis, an inadequate benefit system… The latter can be downplayed and the former celebrated – and there is cause for celebration − but also a failure if it becomes the goal of the union movement, that is, if the culture of the union movement becomes the central focus of the movement, as a way to sidestep the dominant crisis.
And was it in the eighties that this possible confusion of intent, imposed by crisis, became present?
In writing this I become aware of being on dangerous ground, but perhaps I am old enough and irrelevant enough as a Marxist to test the thinning ice of post modernism.
Grant Brookes, PSA Eco Network National Co-Convenor and nurse, reflects
History, as they say, is written by the victors. And in Aotearoa in the 1980s, there is no doubt who the victors were.
So complete was their control of the narrative that up until February’s Symposium even my own memory, as a young adult during that decade, contained recollections of dole queues but none of the strike at Kinleith.
As a consequence of this, the newly restored ‘Kinleith ’80’ film, shown at the start of the day, was an eye-opener. For me it was riveting to see the power of working people when we organise and the way that industrial struggle can transform every area of our lives, from our gendered relationships to cultural attitudes. The people in the film looked and sounded like my uncles and aunts. It brought the history to life.
From that high point, as a number of speakers observed soberly, the trajectory for our class was downhill.
But not everything was lost. As I entered the workforce myself in the following decade, the gains from ‘Fighting sexual harassment in the 1980s’ had been sustained – at least in my unionised, public sector workplaces. Those oral histories from the Clerical Workers Union in the early eighties were eye-opening, in a different way. They were shocking.
A highlight of the day for me was the presentation on ‘Workers’ resistance to destructuring in the 1980s’. This challenged the prevailing state-centred account of the rise of neoliberalism, which sees it as a response to the failure of Keynesian policy prescriptions and an organised takeover by ideologues in Treasury and in the Fourth Labour Government.
The alternative explanation offered, in terms of a class assault to address a crisis of capitalist profitability, seems to me to allow an answer to the question posed in the final ‘Panel on Intergenerational conversations’: “Does history provide the answers for how to address our current crises?”
That answer is – yes it does, when theorised correctly. Many of the systemic drivers are the same today. Viewed through the right lens, history provides us with track markers and signposts the pitfalls. Although they do not know it, multitudes of working people in this country owe a debt of gratitude to LHP for keeping the flame of scholarship alight and organising symposiums such as this, where answers might be found for us all. •
First published in LHP Bulletin, 81, 52-3. Re-posted with permission. For a one year individual membership of the Labour History Project and subscription to the Bulletin, deposit $30 to the LHP Kiwibank account, 38 9012 0672630 00, and email email@example.com with notification of deposit.