Politics: Just Coincidence?

Ask business leaders what lobby has had the most influence on this Government and the chorus in response would be: “the unions”.

Look at the rash of pro-union laws, from the Employment Relations Act to the renationalisation of accident compensation. And there’s more to come.

Yet little more than 20 percent of the workforce is unionised. Three times that number tell pollsters they approve of Helen Clark’s administration. They must feel she is responding to their needs as well as those of the unions.

And even in the union movement port workers, secondary teachers and nurses have felt the blunt edge of Clark’s fiscal tight-fistedness and ministers’ private scorn.

So what’s this about unions having lot of influence on the Government?

Well, it’s true. But not in the 1940s’ sense of the Peter Fraser/Fintan Patrick Walsh plenipotentiary duumvirate.

Today’s union influence is lot less direct and less compelling. Society and politics have changed.

The rump Alliance still sees itself as union-based and leader Laila Harre takes strong workers-versus-bosses approach. For example, she wanted employers, not the general taxpayer, to pay for parental leave. Labour grew out of the union movement and early on was little more than industrial labour’s political arm. But it has long since widened its sources of support and policy inspiration and sees workplace issues as subset of social issues. Parental leave is an example – the taxpayer pays, not the employer.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard on both sides. Not even Sir Roger Douglas could shake all the unions free of Labour, though some did let go. The more farsighted, pre-eminent among them, the Engineers Union for instance, chose instead to change the party and build influence.

Only that way, the engineers reckoned, could the Employment Contracts Act be overturned. Splitting the left, as the Alliance did, taking with it the old-left unions of the breakaway Trade Union Federation, played into the hands of the right, they reasoned.

Only when the Alliance struck deal with Labour to run in the 1999 election as coalition government-in-waiting did the engineers relent.

For that election the engineers’ union divided $100,000 cash assistance 80:20 between Labour and the Alliance and urged other unions to do likewise. Arguably more important, however, they threw their extensive nationwide network of organisers into Labour’s election campaign.

What did that buy? No MPs. Lynne Pillay, their only real chance, ended up one place below the cut on Labour’s list. Pillay should make it this time, at No 39 – but that’s one place below Dave Hereora, the Service Workers Union’s likely fourth MP.

Union money plays very much junior fiddle to corporate money in Labour’s war chest and is matched by members’ pledges. But campaign contributions do not produce parliamentary poodles in this country, as they do in the United States. What counts is policy leaning. If party likes what you like, or can be persuaded by national interest arguments, you get what you want.

Most Labour, Alliance, Progressive Coalition and Green members like all, most or much of what unions like; most union activists like some mix of policies those four parties will offer – young echelon, for example, has Green leaning, some lean to the Alliance. So all four will get varying degrees of support, though with clear acknowledgement that Labour is the lead party.

What does “support” mean? Some money, some organising and logistical support, but mostly endorsement and exhortation to memberships to vote for the endorsed parties – though this will vary with unions and the engineers are particularly peeved that Harre is standing against Pillay in the Waitakere seat and in April urged other unions to boycott the Alliance.

Can we expect more goodies for the unions in second term?

Unions have shopping list for the workplace, at the top of which is refinement of the Employment Relations Act in the promised three-year review in 2003 and law protecting workers when business is sold or contracted out.

But the CTU, which was yet to formalise its election strategy when this went to press, places economic growth well ahead of anything on its shopping list. “Improvements in workers’ standard of living depends on that more than anything else,” says CTU president Ross Wilson.

The CTU also places high store on the “social wage”: health care and education.
All of which happens to be broadly in line with Labour’s thinking. Influence? Or coincidence? Take your pick. M

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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