Today is Labour Day in New Zealand, the day in which everyone basks in the benefits that unions helped create, without ever acknowledging it, or maybe even being hostile to unions. I wasn’t always so strongly pro-union, but I’m pretty staunch now.
Rightwing rhetoric is filled with talk about how “awful” unions are. The rightwing says they’re “greedy”, that they’re “thugs” and that they rob workers of “choice” and “liberty”. In every case, the opposite is the actual truth.
Unions exist because capitalism is not friendly to workers. That’s not a slam, just a fact. Pure capitalism is pretty much anti-worker by definition, because it’s not its job to care about workers or working conditions.
Capitalism exists (now) to return maximum profits to shareholders, and nothing else matters. In order to maximise profits, businesses must keep costs to a minimum. Labour is always a big part of the cost of doing business, and so, workers are likely to feel the squeeze.
So, it’s not that businesses are necessarily run by inhuman monsters (even if sometimes there are…), but, rather, it’s simply managers’ jobs to contain ALL costs, including labour. Unions exist to balance companies’ drive for profits with humanity.
Unions fight on behalf of working people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice or power. Sometimes they’re low-skill workers at the bottom of the economic ladder, but other times they’re well-skilled workers who realise their employers are looking to squeeze them.
I was a member of a union for a couple years, and we joined to protect ourselves. I worked for Independent Newspapers Limited (INL) at the time, and the company started massive reviews of its operations throughout the country, most of which resulted in staff cuts. I showed the terms of reference for the review to a trusted person, a senior manager in another industry, who told me, “they’re going to do you.”
So, I organised for us to join the Advertising Guild. The idea was that if INL really intended to eliminate our jobs, we’d have someone fighting on our side. In the end, INL sold out to Fairfax, an Australian company that was reasonably okay, but it was later acquired by another Australian company that’s always been notorious for anti-worker policies. By then I was long gone, and no longer a union member, but I was glad to have had union protection as an arrow in our quiver to fight against corporate bosses who didn’t care about humans. At all.
This was a revelation to me. I’d grown up buying much of the Republican Party’s anti-union propaganda because I didn’t know any working class people. When I met real working people who needed unions, my opinions changed. When I became a victimised worker, they change even more quickly.
In the overall scheme of things, not much has changed in the years since then, except to get worse for workers. Here in New Zealand, our current government under John Key is openly hostile to unions and to workers. Their hostility to workers is exemplified by John Key’s determination to end guaranteed tea breaks and meal breaks for workers. Less noticed is his similar determination to end collective bargaining and the right to strike in many cases.
That’s the now that matters. Yes, it’s important to remember that collective bargaining is what gave us the eight-hour day we celebrate today (despite the utter nonsense of rightwing propaganda). And it’s also important to remember that organised labour is what gave us the workplace rights and protections that ALL workers—working class and middle class alike—take for granted, whether they acknowledge their debt or not.
The most important thing to know is that the importance of unions exists as long as big corporations seek to exploit workers. As long as companies think that they can treat workers like serfs, we’ll need unions. As long as we have politicians, as we do now, who promote the interests of the wealthy and businesses and reject workers’ rights, we’ll need unions.
Unions almost always give far too much deference to business, even with little in return. That’s because despite the rightwing propaganda (well, lies, actually…), unions see their role as forging a partnership between business and labour. More often than not, it’s only adversarial when business chooses to make it such.
We ALL need unions. Some of us need them more than others, and some of us know that more than others.
Happy Labour Day!