Friday 9 November 2007
May I give you all a very warm welcome to Parliament and in particular to this Chamber. As you may be aware, this Chamber once housed our Parliament’s Upper House. It was abolished in 1950 and there has been little enthusiasm to reintroduce an Upper House. The Chamber however now serves a very useful purpose as the venue for seminars, conferences and forums such as this one.
May I acknowledge both the Council of Trade Unions and the Trade Union History Project for organising the seminar. As a long time supporter of the Trade Union History Project I am delighted to host the seminar. The cliché that those who forget their history are doomed to relive it has an element of truth. It has not been easy however for New Zealanders to access the history of working people. I was fortunate to study at Auckland University when Bert Roth worked at the Library and was the unofficial guardian of our history buried in the basement of the Library. While I know it is more efficient to Google for your information today, in those days it was a real pleasure to wander through the shelves and alighting on a pamphlet or a book that described or analysed the events of the 1890s and the early 1900s.
The first research paper I wrote at University was on the history and development of the Arbitration Court. I was assisted in this project by many trade unionists in Auckland who had a very good sense of the history of the movement of which they were a part. They were all members of the unions affiliated to the Federation of Labour, many of whom had been involved in the 1951 lockout or its aftermath. It is difficult for people to realise the scarring that is left by disputes of that magnitude. The Waihi Lockout also seriously affected that community for many years after the tragic events of that lockout. It is not only events of conflict however that contributed to the history of our trade union movement and shaped the attitudes of working people.
The foundation of our social system occurred in the 1880s and 1890s and was driven by the energy and commitment of working men and women who had emigrated to New Zealand for a better life that included a fair wage, safe working conditions, and security in times of need such as ill health and old age. At that time New Zealand was described as the social laboratory of the world forging new ways of solving old problems including the relationship between capital and labour and their representatives at the negotiating table. In many ways the IC&A system, which we borrowed from South Australia, was ahead of its time.
It was the essence of the trade union movement however to challenge and struggle to ensure their members interests were protected and furthered. And this is what they did in the early years of the 20th century. The union movement was born and nurtured by the democracy movements of the 19th century and therefore understood the need of the interests of workers to be reflected in political decision making as well as industrial negotiation on the shop floor. It is not surprising then that the Labour Party was born from the foresight of those in the trade union movement who recognised a political voice was necessary if workers interests were to be pursued.
The fact that the Labour Party is the oldest New Zealand political party is no accident. Through many struggles, including the struggle over 19 years to achieve the right to govern in 1935, the industrial and political wings of the labour movement have worked together. The relationship, like all relationships, has had its ups and downs. The remarkable capacity of the union movement to adapt to the challenges of the times has seen it survive adversities that would have destroyed other movements.
The formation of the Federation of Labour in 1937 was in part a response to the need of the Labour Government to ensure it had the support of a unified movement as it embarked on the transformative social security programme of the 1930s. Of course as I am sure you will hear during the seminar, the “old” Federation of Labour had been formed from the struggle within the union movement over methods of organisation to advance the interests of workers. Unity within the movement has always been difficult to achieve because of the strongly held ideological positions by strong personalities.
The traumatic experience of the 1951 Waterfront lockout also tested the unity of the movement but it had recovered sufficiently to face the even greater challenges of the economic crisis of the 1970s and the neo-liberal response to that crisis in the 1980s. I remember only too well the numerous meetings and confrontations of the 1980s as the government of the time endeavoured to reform the union movement to conform to the neo-liberal agenda. The decision of the movement to unite its public and private sector unions to form the CTU was another example of facing a challenge through combining the resources and strength of working people wherever they were employed.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was the Employment Contracts Act in the 1990s which attempted to destroy the organisational base of the union movement. Unions were characterised as destroyers of economic prosperity and impeders of development. The fact that the movement survived during this period is a tribute to the tenacity and courage of many of you in the room today and some who have left us for a more peaceful place. The fact that the industrial and political movements who remained true to their purpose worked together to rebuild and refocus their organisations, policies and strategies to meet the economic, social and political reality of the period is what enabled the re-emergence of the movements in 1999 and the beginning of a new era.
You are fortunate today to hear presentations from the best of our labour historians. Emeritus Professor Erik Olssen, Peter Franks, Professor Melanie Nolan, Professor Ray Markey, Alex Burton, joined by unionists who experienced the Federation of Labour days, and ending with the current CTU leadership of Carol and Helen provide an unique opportunity for a consideration of an important period in the development of our trade union movement. I wish you all the very best for the day.