Over the last week Jill Ovens election to the SFWU Northern regional secretary position, and her membership of the Labour Party, has been fiercly debated by the the sections of the New Zealand left that care about those sorts of things. Over the last few days the debate has gone public, with both the Dominion Post and the NZ Herald reporting on it.
The short version is that Jill Ovens had played a variety of leadership roles within the Alliance party. She has been both co-leader and president over the last few years. She stepped down from her role as president at the beginning of this year to concentrate on running as the Northern Secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union. This union had been run by Darien Fenton - a Labour party hack who is so destructive in the union movement that I almost voted Labour to try and increase the chances of her getting into parliament (she got into parliament on the Labour party list). Jill was running against Lisa Eldret - who had been well groomed by Darien Fenton in the fine arts of maintaining your power. That Jill won was a victory and a shock. That Jill decided that she had to join the Labour party to do so, was equally shocking to me. The way she has defended that decision pretty much destroys and left-wing credentials she may have had.
The thing that disturbed me most was this statement:
Our campaign involved ordinary union delegates phoning other delegates who would be attending the conference. They don't have the sophisticated political arguments of people from the "Left" like yourselves. They are cleaners, caregivers and hospital orderlies who are loyal to Labour, who believe that if the union is not affiliated to Labour and their regional secretary is "not Labour", they won't get a pay rise because they depend on Government funding to get one. This is what they were told by my opponents.By joining Labour Jill has supported this idea - the basic tenant of right-wing unionism anywhere - don't fight for stuff, wait for it to be given to you. It's not just bad politics - it's obviously untrue. The biggest victory for a public sector union was won by the Nurses - which was being led by Laila Harre - who never joined the Labour party.
I can understand that Jill felt the need to neutralise the idea that rights are given not won - but she had ideas and history that she could have fought this with. She didn't have to give in.
This matters because the Labour party has huge, and damaging influence in the union movement.* The energy and resources that go into supporting the Labour party are energy and resources that don't go into the movement. The fact that the union movement chooses not to fight battles agains the Labour government has meant that it hasn't been able to use the extra muscle margainly better legislation gives it, and it's only through fighting that we get stronger.
* Not incidentally, the other way round, any influence the union movement might once have had within Labour is long gone. The Labour party stalwarts in unions promote the Labour party position to the union movement, not the other way round.