Sunday, March 19, 2006

Matt McCarten: Old ties with Labour hold unions back

I had a call from several union colleagues on Wednesday, asking me to lobby Maori Party MPs. My colleagues were in a tizz, as it appeared that the Maori Party caucus intended to support Wayne Mapp's private member's bill which would allow employers to sack workers in their first three months of employment.

At this late stage of the process, there was little that could be done. But the fears of my union colleagues were well founded. The "sack new workers" bill narrowly squeaked through the first stage of Parliament with the support of three of the four Maori Party MPs and National, Act, NZ First and United Future. Hone Harawira - the industrial relations spokesman for the Maori Party - voted against it. So did the Greens and Labour.

Mapp obviously convinced United Future, NZ First and most of the Maori Party caucus that his bill would help employers give inexperienced workers a chance to work. That sounds reasonable, but there is a nasty wee hook in it. Mapp's proposal is that if things don't work out the employer can "let the employee go" without the worker having any right to challenge the decision.

Current legislation allows for a trial period, but entitles a new worker to have an independent review if they have been sacked unfairly. Mapp's bill removes this basic protection.

The bill will be used by some employers to intimidate new employees. Once the evidence of how some unscrupulous employers already misuse their power to exploit vulnerable new workers becomes known in the select committee process, this unnecessary proposal should bite the dust.

But this incident does raise a concern about why the union movement seemed to be caught on the hop over this bill. One of my callers said the union link was with the Maori Party. He said the relationship was weak and he assumed that this was because the Maori Party thought that trade unions were a front for the Labour Party. He meant it as a joke, but it did raise the obvious problem for the union movement under MMP.

When the Labour Party was formed in 1916, its MPs were unionists and were unashamedly there to represent workers' interests. These days, even the most loyal left-wingers in the Labour Party would accept that the modern Labour Party is a "third way" party representing broad interests. Yet the trade union movement still puts all its eggs in one basket. Its dedication in providing funding and resources for Labour's election victory last year was impressive. I know two unions alone put six-figure sums into Labour's campaign. That's not counting the thousands of union campaign helpers provided on the ground.

While the union movement has cordial relationships with the Labour Party, it misses the reality that they no longer have a party that can govern alone. The two-party system has been replaced by MMP's multi-party system. They have to learn to count.

If the unions had given an equal amount of resources to the Greens last year, the Greens would have won at least one more seat. This would have ensured Labour would have accepted them into Cabinet. The Greens have constantly supported pro-worker policy; their inclusion in Government would have strengthened policies that help workers.

If the spadework in building the relationship with the Green Party and the Maori Party had been done before the election and some money and resources had been shared with these two parties, we would now have a Government that didn't have to rely on United Future and NZ First.

It's important that the trade union movement recognise the new reality of the political landscape. The old Labour Party fighting for workers is gone. Under MMP they will never rule in their own right. New allies need to be won over.

If we don't change our strategy we will continue to see anti-worker policies slipping through even when Labour is in power.

The trade union movement needs to have a long-term strategy of building meaningful relationships with all the parties.

It is difficult for the trade union movement to build relationships with other parties when some trade unions are formally affiliated with and fund one of their competitors. Those affiliated unions might be better off withdrawing their formal links with the Labour Party and treating all parties the same.

If the union movement wants support from political parties to oppose bills such as Mapp's, they need to be seen as being more independent of the Labour Party.

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