Off the fence, comrades!
I thought I'd comment, instead, on the refusal of some leftists to support the actors' union in its struggle with Jackson, his Warner Brothers chums, and the National government. Actors Equity's campaign to win a decent contract for its members has suffered from the decision of many of the technicians who hope to work in The Hobbit to side with Jackson and his American backers. For right-wingers in the media and the Beehive, the spectacle of technicians rallying angrily outside a union meeting was a gift. The actors' union has been criticised for failing to consult properly with its members before taking on Jackson, for failing to win over the film workers outside its ranks, and for communicating poorly with the public. Council of Trade Unions leader Helen Kelly has conceded that these criticisms have at least some justification.
Over at Chris Trotter's place, a blogger and trade unionist named Lew has explained why he's not supporting the actors in their stoush with Jackson:
Elementary Leftism 101 might dictate that you side with whatever bunch of fools decide to call themselves a union, but Elementary Commitment to Democracy 101 requires that you assess the quality of their mandate before taking sides. If Actors Equity wanted legitimacy, the route to it was to attract the consent and support of the constituency of film workers before holding their careers to ransom.
Lew's argument reminds me of the positions of the left-wingers (or, in some cases, former left-wingers) who sat out a couple of famous industrial disputes of the past.
In Blighty back in 1984, Arthur Scargill threw his National Union of Miners into a strike and a major confrontation with the Thatcher government without first balloting his members. Although there was solid support for strike action in the union, a minority was dubious about it.
It would be fair to say that Scargill, who learned his trade in the Stalinised Communist Party of Great Britain of the 1940s and '50s, was an autocratic leader. It was certainly reasonable for miners to be unhappy that they had not been balloted about an industrial struggle which would force them put their bodies on the line against one of the the most viciously right-wing regimes in British history. Thatcher threw the full force of the state at the miners, flooding small pit villages with tooled-up riot police. As weeks stretched into months and union funds began to dry up, resentment about the NUM's failure to ballot its members grew. An all-out confrontation between a trade union and the state always makes the more moderate sections of the left uneasy, because the ideology of social democracy relies upon using the state to reconcile workers and employers. In a social democratic society, the state is supposed to mediate between capital and labour through measures like arbitration, and to take back a share of employers' profits and use it to pay for social services like health and education for the proles.
When the state is deployed by the capitalist class to smash a union, then the ambitions of social democracy begin to seem rather quixotic. As riot cops charge through picket lines on horseback and helicopters fire tear gas at corralled demonstrators, it becomes clear that the state and its institutions are not neutral, and that, as the old malingerer Marx said, every society is in the final analysis a dictatorship of one or another class.
For the the leaders of the British Labour Party, for many career-minded self-consciously 'moderate' trade union leaders, and for a few left-wing intellectuals hitting middle age and losing the political zeal they had felt in the '60s and '70s, the legitimate criticisms of Scargill from grassroots members of the NUM who had been denied the right to a ballot served as an excuse to avoid standing with those same miners as they faced down the British state. Because Scargill was a Stalinist, and because proper democratic procedure had not been followed when the strike was called, it was only right, Neil Kinnock and co. insisted, to sit on the sidelines of a struggle that would determine the future of British society. During the 1951 Waterfront Lockout the local Labour Party and a number of prominent liberal intellectuals refused to support the Waterside Workers Union and its militant allies. The refuseniks justified their position by citing the influence of the Communist Party on the WWU, the sometimes chaotic style of the union's leader Jock Barnes, and the well-known phenomenon of petty theft on the docks.
Reasonable criticisms could indeed be made of Barnes' leadership of the wharfies, which was at times sectarian and pointlessly provocative, of the policies of the Communist Party, which had often put the interests of Stalin ahead of the interests of Kiwi workers, and even of the disappearance of goods from the wharves. For many of the leftists who refused to take sides in the struggle between the wharfies and the alarmingly authoritarian regime of Sid Holland, though, the flaws of the WWU and some of its allies were nothing more than a pretext. The real aim of men like the unctuous Labour Party leader Walter Nash, who declared himself 'neither for nor against' the wharfies while the police batoned their marches off Queen Street and 'emergency' laws banned them from distributing leaflets, was simple self-preservation.
Of course, the current stoush over a spoiled nerd's plans to film the infantile fantasies of a reactionary English don looks rather ridiculous compared to the massive confrontations of 1951 and 1984-85. The state is not under pressure, and John Key is not banning the actor's union from meeting, or restricting media coverage of the dispute, or sending soldiers to protect Weta studios from insurgent proles. A parallel can nevertheless be drawn between the arguments that people like Lew are making today and the arguments of the fence sitters of 1951 and 1985.
The fence sitters were wrong back then, and are wrong now, because they do not recognise the necessary relationship between solidarity and debate inside the labour movement. It is not only acceptable but laudable for members of a union to disagree with the policies or actions of their organisation. Without constant grassroots dissension and internal debate unions are liable to become top-heavy and bureaucratic, and to let their members down. The worst periods in the history of the unions in this country - the reign of the corrupt thug Fintan Patrick Walsh in the years after 1951, and the years of the virtual abandonment of industrial struggle by the Ken Douglas-led CTU in the '90s - have been periods when grassroots activism was at a low ebb.
But criticism means nothing if it is not combined with solidarity. The critics of Scargill inside the National Union of Miners were not able to sidestep the confrontation with Thatcher because of their opinions of their leader: they faced the same riot cops, and the same threatened pit closures. Like the critics of Stalinism inside the Waterside Workers Union and the Trade Union Federation in 1951, they made their arguments from the inside of a movement which they had neither the desire to leave nor the option of leaving.
Many of the people who criticised the union movement from the sidelines of the 1951 and 1985 confrontations were on their way out of the left, either because of middle-aged disillusionment or because of career opportunities elsewhere. Lew, though, is apparently a young trade unionist with fire in his belly. Why hasn't he grasped a basic principle of the movement he enthusiastically belongs to? The answer lies, I think, in the erosion of traditional sorts of class consciousness in New Zealand in recent decades, and the widespread adoption of a very voluntarist approach to politics, where individual issues are examined in isolation from any structural and historical context. A whole generation has grown up thinking that opinions can and should be worn and discarded as easily as clothes, and that it is horrific for an individual to have to help to implement tactics or a strategy with which he or she disagrees. Old socialist slogans like 'march separately, strike together' and 'diversity of opinions, unity of action' seem suddenly ridiculous in the era of facebook polls and debate-by-twitter.
In the twenty-first century, though, we are still often defined most tellingly not by the clothes we wear or the friends we keep or the ideas we choose to hold, but by our relationship to the economy. If we are workers, then we have, whether we acknowledge it or not, a common interest with others who sell their labour-power to employers. If my employer wants to cut the lunch hour or get rid of overtime, then I am just as affected as my workmates, no matter how much or how little I disagree with them over their sartorial sense, or their taste in music, or the virtues of JRR Tolkien, or which party they intend to vote for at the next election. If a Tory government responds to the recession its mates in the financial sector created by slashing state spending and further depressing the economy, then the spectre of unemployment haunts all workers.
Trade unions are not debating societies or social clubs. They exist not because all their members agree about everything, or even most things, but because their members have, on account of their status as workers, common interests. The actors' union may have mishandled parts of its campaign against Jackson and failed to consult its members properly, but it must be supported in its confrontation with employers, the media, and the state. Actors Equity and the CTU are under attack from the media and the government not because Paul Holmes and Gerry Brownlee care about internal democracy in the unions, but because they see an opportunity to strike a blow against the labour movement as a whole. They want to paint striking teachers and radiographers, as well as campaigning actors, as agents of radicalism and economic ruin, and they want to soften the public up for new anti-union laws. If Actors Equity is destroyed by the combination of demonisation in the media and legislation made to satisfy Warner Brothers, then the union movement as a whole will have suffered a defeat.
Lew may not agree with the way the actors' union is fighting, but as a trade unionist he ought to support their fight, even as he argues for the improvement of their strategy and their tactics. Would he have abstained from the struggles of 1951 and 1985, just because the tactics of the Waterside Workers Union and Scargill were in various ways flawed? It is better to fight for a good cause using flawed tactics than to sit on the sidelines and see the bad guys and girls win.