Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Monster Union or a Union Monster?

Unite members will be interested to read in the media that amalgamation talks between the heads of Unite!, the Service and Food Workers’ Union (SFWU) and the National Distribution Union (NDU) have reached the point of 'agreement'. Of course the Unite News invited us as members to make submissions on this question. But that is a very different thing from the membership driving and controlling this process. Is that the way to build strong, democratic unions?
It seems to us that it is a good thing for relatively small, enthusiastic and campaigning unions like Unite!, SFWU and the NDU who work in the low-paid casualised job sector to unite. The bigger combined union will have more members and resources to fight or the interests of its members and recruit many more into the reviving union movement. But isn’t this something that the membership should be driving? Why is this amalgamation being done from the top down? The unions are its members, and those members should be in control of everything their union does. It’s called union democracy.There are a number of questions that we want to raise about this process.Why these three unions? Are there other unions in the low-paid sector that can be included? We hear that SFWU is offloading Elder Care workers to the Nurses' Union. Maybe there are other cases of groups of workers who need to be included in one big low-paid workers union. What about membership? Matt McCarten is quoted in the NZ Herald as wanting to introduce 'life membership' to cover members that may move from job to job. This is a very welcome move since it recognises implicitly that today's casualised low-paid job sector involves periods of unemployment 'between jobs'. But this 'portable' membership should not be confused with 'lifetime' membership which today means a membership that is earned by long service to a union.'Portable' membership should be equally valid for employed, unemployed and beneficiaries, recognising that the working class is composed of all of these groups. Unite under Matt McCarten has been reluctant to acknowledge the equal rights of employed, unemployed and beneficiaries according to the constitution of Unite!, a union established in the 1990s to all of these groups. Unless the rights of these groups are considered to be equal and recognised by any amalgamated union in its Constitution, then a bigger, more powerful union will not do anything to overcome these divisions in the working class.What about the new Constitution?We also see that Matt McCarten has generously offered the Unite! name to a new amalgamated union. We are right behind the spirit of this offer, but we would be very worried if the new union was to be organised on the basis of the existing Unite! Union. Matt McCarten has built up a strong membership of casualised lowpaid workers, but we don't think that these workers have any real democratic control of the union.In Unite!, for example, the officialdom has at Matt McCarten's instigation actively and successfully opposed democratic rights such as those of ordinary members to observe at Management Committee meetings and has successfully failed in its democratic duty to furnish branch secretaries with minutes of those meetings.We don't think that the elected officials of these three unions have the authority under their constitutions to make these decisions without the active participation of the members. Nor do we think that Unite! with its record under Matt McCarten is the model for a bigger, better union. 'Consulting' members to rubber-stamp a top-down agreement is not union democracy, its union bureaucracy.We think that the members of these three unions should be responsible for amalgamation negotiations, the conditions of membership and the Constitution of any combined union.To ensure the active involvement of the members in these negotiations Waitemata Branch of Unite calls for:
(1) each of the unions take the current proposals to all up meetings of their members, so that they can be debated and voted on, and for negotiation teams to be elected from these meetings to take forward any resolutions from the members.
(2) if the members agree to proceed with amalgamation, we call for a Constituent assembly of the delegates of all the memberships of each of the unions to meet to decide on the terms of amalgamation, membership and a new Constitution.

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