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Monday, October 30, 2006

"putting the ‘Labour’ back into the Labour Government"

Former Alliance President and Co-leader, Jill Ovens, played a pivotal role in opposing state-owned Air New Zealand’s attacks on the jobs of its workers at last weekend’s Labour Party (90th Anniversary) Conference in Rotorua.
Ovens is the Northern Region Secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) which represents many of the affected workers, along with the Engineering and Manufacturing Workers Union (EPMU).
On Friday, at the pre-conference meeting of Labour affiliated unions, Ovens acquainted Finance Minister Michael Cullen with the latest Air NZ proposals to outsource the jobs of 1700 frontline and baggage-handling staff to private contractors.
These proposals mean the workers’ existing employment agreements would lapse and they would be forced to accept cuts in wages and conditions on the pain of not being rehired by the outside contractors. Air NZ has told the workers they can only avoid outsourcing by accepting an ‘in house’ solution that would make savings of $20 million a year at the workers’ expense.
This move, along with similar ones in other areas of the company’s operation, threaten to turn this strategic transport asset that is more than eighty per cent owned by the people of New Zealand into what Ovens described as a "virtual company"; just a brand name with very few directly employed workers.
"Unions to Govt: Save our jobs" (front page headline of Monday’s NZ Herald)
At the remit workshop on Saturday, Ovens succeeded in getting an anti-privatisation remit put on the conference floor for discussion. This resolution reaffirmed the Labour Party’s "commitment to the principle of a democratic society’s right to choose public ownership, social goals and non-market answers over market economics answer to economic issues ...".
Ovens was designated to speak in support of the remit at the Sunday plenary session. Her call on behalf of the unions for the Labour-led Government to buy back the remaining small percentage of privately-owned shares in Air NZ was enthusiastically applauded by the seven hundred delegates.
The call she made for the Government to amend the appropriate legislation so that central and local government can directly intervene in the public interest in the management of state and local-government owned enterprises was also supported, as was the appeal for the Government to urge the board of Air NZ to oppose the company management’s contracting-out moves.
Ovens, SFWU National Secretary John Ryall and EPMU head Andrew Little met privately with Prime Minister Helen Clark on Saturday afternoon to communicate their opposition to the outsourcing strategy of Air NZ. It is understood they received a sympathetic hearing.
Labour conference finds its voice
It is somewhat ironic that Ovens, so recently a leader of the Alliance, was instrumental in "putting the ‘Labour’ back into the Labour Government" (as NZ Herald political commentator John Armstrong put it). Armstrong observed that rank-and-file delegates combined with the union affiliates to remind the government that instead of a high-skilled, high wage economy, many workers are experiencing loss of jobs and conditions through restructuring and outsourcing by cost-cutting managers. He said that their frustration was not surprising, but he found it surprising that it was expressed so openly at a Labour Party conference.
"For years," he wrote, "Labour Party conferences have been dead zones when it comes to genuine debate – something sacrificed to preserve an image of complete and utter unity.
"Quite why the party should suddenly find its voice, if only in mild fashion, might have several explanations."
Armstrong surmised that it might be because members were inspired by the celebration of the Labour Party’s 90-year heritage and they felt the need for renewal and/or reaffirmation of ‘core values’. He also thought they might have been emboldened by the fallibility shown by the party leadership over the election spending fiasco.
In my estimation, a more likely reason that conference delegates found their "voice" was that they have been galvanised by the attacks on Labour and the unions by enemies of the working class. The implications of the election of a fundamentalist, far-right, National-led government are too grave to allow to occur. The recent month-long lock-out of 600 distribution workers by Progressive Enterprises is a warning that cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, the support given by fellow unionists and the wider community to the Progressive workers has reminded everyone how strong ‘the people’ are when they are mobilised. What better motivation could there be for Labour members to reclaim their conference and speak out?
It must be said that Ovens clearly helped the Labour conference to "find its voice". Without her determined intervention, the "public ownership" remit would not have been discussed on the conference floor.
From Alliance to Labour
Ovens left the Alliance to join Labour earlier this year at the urging of SFWU delegates who were supporting her in the election for the position SFWU northern region secretary. The issue of public ownership and control of strategic economic assets that Ovens helped advance to the centre stage of the Labour conference would have met with equally strong support at an Alliance gathering. She found that Labour conference delegates shared many of the same concerns as members of the Alliance.
Ovens must be heartened to have found such a strong echo for her ‘Alliance voice’ among Labour activists. What’s more it was an echo that resonated into the highest levels of the Labour Party and the government it leads.


Richard Wallis said...

Let us hope that this echo does not get lost in the winds of Labour talk.

Len Richards said...

Yes, echoes can sometimes be a little hollow. But it is important to try all avenues. The only 'truth' about Labour is that which actually exists, and that is something many on the 'Left' are unwilling to try and test out. The 'testing out' process can only strengthen the working class, whatever the result. Labour must be challenged to live up to its heritage and its name. In this process the possibilities and opportunities of creating a movement and a party that will fight the fight for a new society will open up.