Thursday, January 12, 2006

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?


Blogger Matt said...

Couldnt' use the link thing properly.

A brief thought here.

6:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That is an interesting article about Bolivia - I would like to here more about the history of Bolivia -especialy recent - that model offers some hope.

12:56 am  
Blogger Richard said...

If a worker is "incompetent" the Trade Unions need to help that worker big time - that is their job. A lot of trade Unions exist becuase those running them see them as "sweet numbers" - they do less physical work - they get more kudos -they often side with the bosses (masked by virulent langauge and dummy strikes) and become corrupt: but in essence a truly working class Trade Union is great. But I remember in the 70s how the Trade Union Officals just took money from workers and even discouraged strikes - a strike for better pay and conditions (and for safety) was organised in 1973 at Berger Paints - now at a meeting with the FOL - Skinner gave very little support - he was the head of several Unions - but he really served the ruling classes - I believe he finished up posibbly better off in finacial terms than Muldoon and an occasional drinking buddy of that indiviual (one of the nastiest, dictatorial and arrogant bastards ever to be in power in NZ). I also recall (about 1970) my ex wife was working at some sewing factory and a "horrible" Union Official coming around and demanding a largre portion of her wages which were really pitiful...this was typical - there was no interest by that Union official in the workers.

Unions are great in principle but they atttact traitors to the working people. Beware of this aspect of Trade Unions.

1:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are limits to militancy within the workplace, especially in the absence of a broader political struggle against capital.

When developments in production technology and workplace relations degrade workers' skills from 'essential' to 'incompetent' or entirely redundant, it's a result of competition processes at the level of the whole industry or economy - on a world-wide scale. Individual firms can't resist that for long, no matter how militant its workers are.

It's not hard to see why even the most radical organisers have to make compromises - the creative-destruction of capitalism has to be fought on bigger terrain. Marx himself saw trade unions as essentially defensive organisations.

For the same reason, workers' co-ops face difficulties in hanging on to their depreciating factories as the rest of the capitalist industry restructures.


PS Long time no see (I'm still in Aus) Will drop you a line soon!

11:26 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Mike, good to hear from you! Send me an e mail when you have the time.

In response to your point I'd cite the protection of the Venepal paper mill in Moron from the chill winds of the globalised free market, via its insertion in the Venezuelan government's endogenous development plan. The paper the mill is producing is now being bought by the government and used to make schoolbooks for domestic consumption. Anyway, more on this later...

11:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will do (write soon that is)!

I don't know the details of Venepal, but it's been made possible by 'broader political struggle' - it's a route not open to individual militant unionists in NZ, say, countering paper mill closures in Kawerau. Of course, that doesn't mean union officials need to act as apologists for the processes at work - fully agree with you there.

Taking forestry as an example, most of NZ output is for the world market (two-thirds of NZ forestry product as a whole is exported -
That limits the potential scope for political control and redirection at a national level. I imagine similar concerns have spurred on Chavez's government's efforts in pan-South American economic diplomacy. Oil of course is a big ace in the hand. But again I'm not too familiar with the details... need to do some reading!

7:43 pm  

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