Marxism or Littleism?
In a post on indymedia Len Richards, who recently became the co-leader of the Alliance, takes issue with Engineers Union boss Andrew Little over the importance of Karl Marx to twenty-first century trade unionism. Richards observes that:
According to Andrew Little, the fatally divided capitalist society that Karl Marx described and analysed in his ground-breaking study, Capital, back in the mid-to-late 19th century, no longer exists. Little admitted Marx’s ideas are among "the most enduring political and economic theories of all time" but he said they were only relevant for Marx’s time "when the excesses and contradictions of powerful capital were at their height". For him, capitalism has "survived fully intact" and Marxist solutions have been proved "not so flash". Therefore capitalism’s existence cannot be challenged in the 21st century. The six hundred maintenance engineers facing the sack at Air New Zealand might have a different view.
For Little it is just a question of setting "bad management" back on the right track. At Air NZ this means cutting a deal by which half the workers lose their jobs and the other half do the same or more work for less pay. However, it is not "bad management" that is the main problem. At the root of the Air NZ attempt to sack 600 of their engineering workforce are the exigencies of the globalised labour market which pits overseas workers against New Zealand workers. The contradictions of capitalism are still very much alive and kicking.
Richards contrasts Little's attempts to stave off massive job losses at Air New Zealand with legal action and pleas to business with the Marxist solution of direct action by the working class:
In the event of a shut-down of the repair facilities, workers should stage an occupation of their workplaces until the decision is reversed and their jobs are safeguarded. The Argentinean co-operative movement that grew out of the collapse of capitalism in that country in the 1990s was initiated by worker occupations to prevent the destruction and liquidation of vital manufacturing and transport infrastructure. New Zealand workers should take a leaf out of the Argentineans’ book.
Little's faith in the ability of bosses and the state to solve the problems created by capitalism reflects the course that the Engineers Union has steered over the past fifteen years. Faced with plant closures and job losses caused by the neo-liberal economic policies of successive governments, and by the anti-union provisions of Employment Contracts Act, the Engineers' leadership decided in the '90s to embrace a 'partnership model' of unionism. The union pledged to sideline 'confrontational' and 'unconstructive' behaviour like strike action, and instead show that it could help employers boost productivity and profits. In return, it expected to get a few crumbs from the tables of the multinational companies that employed many of its members. The partnership model of unionism was adopted by many unions in 90s, but it failed to halt the catalysmic decline in their membership. The Engineers themselves survived in the '90s largely by gobbling up the members of smaller, weaker unions.
One political corollary of the industrial policies Little is pushing is the social democratic belief that the left can enter government and, using the tools of the state, influence capitalists to act in a 'fair' manner and remedy some of the grossest deformities of capitalism. This strategy of 'political partnership' with the bosses was practiced by the Alliance in the 1990s, and it was no more successful than the 'industrial partnership' pursued by the union movement. Like the union movement, the Alliance saw its membership collapse, as its leaders sold out to the bosses without gaining any discernable rewards. For most Alliance members, the decision to support the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 was the last straw.
Since being kicked out of parliament in 2002, the rump of the Alliance has been casting about for direction. Len Richards' rebuke to Andrew Little symbolises one possible direction; over at the comments boxes of spanblather, the defence of partnership unionism by Len's fellow Alliance member Victor Billot symbolises another. Billot was one of the brains behind the Cabotage campaign waged by the Maritime Union of New Zealand (Munz) from 2003 to 2005. Like Andrew Little, Billot is a supporter of alliances with bosses - the campaign for Cabotage was run jointly by Munz and New Zealand shipping companies, and unsuccessfully courted the Employers and Manufacturers Association for support.
The campaign for Cabotage saw Munz producing pamphlets and posters showing New Zealand surrounded by ships flying foreign flags above the slogan 'Isn't there one flag that's missing here?' One Munz press release in favour of Cabotage warned, in language befitting Winston Peters, that "[W]e have had cheap Third World labour being employed in New Zealand waters while New Zealand seafarers are put out of work." Other propaganda talked up the danger of terrorist attack on New Zealand, and claimed that Cabotage could play a role in defending the country.
By helping 'reserve New Zealand domestic and coastal shipping to New Zealand seafarers', Cabotage would have led to job losses amongst foreign seafarers. For understandable reasons, Munz did not try to get support for the campaign from seafarers in other countries. Instead, it sided with local bosses and appealed to some of the worst instincts of New Zealanders.
Like Andrew Little, Victor Billot is keen to dismiss any notion that Marxism and the ideas of socialist internationalism and class struggle might have anything to teach the trade union movement today. His response to socialist critics of Cabotage has been to ridicule them as ultra-left fantasists. Such ridicule could just as easily be directed at Len Richards' criticism of the Engineers Union.
Ultimately, the Alliance will have to chose between the forward-to-the-past left nationalism of the Cabotage campaign, and the Marxist internationalism represented by Len Richard's critique of the Engineers. What's it to be, comrades? Partnership or class struggle? The red flag flying or the national flag? Marxism or Littleism?