In defence of incompetence; or: Let's get unreasonable!
Like so many of her posts, and like so many of the arguments of social democrats in general, Spanblather's 'Union Myths #4: Unions just protect the incompetent', means well, but ends up being compromised by its implicit acceptance of the framework of bourgeois argument. Like 'fairness' or 'humanitarian', to name two other hobby horses of the liberal left, 'incompetent' is a term which has been constructed in a discourse dominated by apologists for capitalism: the left needs to pick the term apart - to deconstruct it - rather than simply accept it and use it.
In our society, 'incompetent' workers are usually workers whose sets of skills do not fit with the requirements of capital, or workers who are suffering from social or emotional problems which society is desperate to deny causing them.
I know a number of people who are today adjudged 'incompetent' workers, but who were twenty or so years ago considered 'essential' workers, for possessing the same sets of skills. One worked as an electrician on the railways, and was always in demand from managers; today, though, subcontracting and changes in technology mean he is out of a job, and unlikely to get another in his old field. Any attempt to do so would quickly lead to his being adjudged 'incompetent'. Another person I know worked at a paper mill in the 1980s; he lost his job when the mill closed, and new technology in the country's few remaining mills means he is unlikely to get another job in his old field. Unemployment has led to his developing a drinking problem, and also a mental illness, making him still more 'incompetent'.
There are many workers who manage to hold down jobs, but who are none the less 'incompetent', to one degree or another. There is the secretary who trained in the days of typewriters and shorthand, and struggles with computers; the nurse who has put his back out, and is no longer able to do the heavy lifting the job occasionally requires; the supermarket checkout operator who is suffering from depression, and finds it hard to offer each passing customer the compulsory smile and 'How are you today?'
Span assures us - or, rather, assures the various sub-species of right-wing swamp thing who seem to frequent her blog in disproportionate numbers - that unions do not defend the 'incompetent', only unfairly victimised competent workers, and that 'it is possible to fire people [incompetent, deserving people, presumably] in New Zealand'. Such an argument reminds me of the 'liberal' cases for imperialism that have been appearing in her comment boxes lately, which insist that liberals do not oppose all interventions by powers like the US or the UN, only unjust ones. Iraq may have been a mistake, but 'incompetent' countries still deserve to be fired, or fired on, by the global bosses. (Another reference point is the pathetic attempts of Span's Alliance Party to gets its policies 'costed' by a set of economists before elections, in a futile effort to persuade the public that they were 'affordable', 'realistic', and 'reasonable'.)
Just as the liberal imperialists buy into the logic of imperialism, even as they try to oppose some of its actions, so do 'reasonable' trade unionists like Span buy into all the worst assumptions of the union-bashing right. A union movement which refuses to defend the most vulnerable workers - the 'incompetents' - is as useless as a political movement which refuses to defend the most vulnerable peoples from imperialism. It's only a hop, skip, and a jump from Span's argument, well-meaning though it is, to the 'partnership' model of unionism which did such damage to Kiwi trade unions in the '90s, and which still dominates the Engineers Union and the PSA. The 'partnership' model saw unions exercising their 'power' by virtually taking responsibility for firing workers, and by accepting mass layoffs in sectors like the railways and the paper industry as 'economic reality'.
The trade union movement and the left in New Zealand will only meet with success when they become radically unreasonable. We need to reject rather than argue within the logic and the vocabulary of the bosses. We should insist that unions defend 'incompetent' workers, and demand that the bosses take responsibilty for the problems that these workers encounter.
A useful reference point here is the workers in Venezuela and other South American countries who have occupied factories that the bosses have tried to close down. Instead of acquiescing in the destruction of industry here, and then trying to disassociate themselves from the 'incompetent' workers, the human jetsam and flotsam who are the flow-on effect of massive job losses, the trade unions should have occupied factories scheduled for closure and kept jobs and communities alive. Compare the Venezuelan town of Moron (alright, I know the name's unfortunate, but they pronounce it differently in Spanish!), where workers have occupied their paper mill and kept it going, with towns like Tokoroa and Kawerau, which produced thousands of 'incompetent' workers in the 80s and 90s, and ask: what could have been achieved, if unions and left parties like the Alliance had rejected the logic and language of the bosses?