(Originally posted at On The Left.)
I was casting about for something to write today, and that’s when the Internet gave me a gift: a column from Rodney Hide, conveniently timed, which decries the role of unions and even the very history of Labour Day:
Tomorrow is Labour Day. Once again we will endure the annual claptrap that unions are great and won for us the eight-hour day. Without unions we would be working 24/7. It’s nonsense.
He cites the story of Samuel Parnell, considered the father of the eight-hour working day. Conventional history will tell you that, in a terribly union-y fashion, Parnell organised his fellow tradesmen in Wellington to refuse to work more than an eight-hour day. Rodney tells it a little differently:
Hence was born the eight-hour day. The practice caught on. For more than 100 years we have celebrated the eight-hour day as a victory for trade unionism. We know it as Labour Day which, on the fourth Monday of every October, is a public holiday.
It’s a myth. The so-called victory had nothing to do with unions. It was simple supply and demand. The demand for skilled labour was high in the new and growing settlement. The supply was low.
Parnell could have negotiated more pay. But he chose fewer hours. That was his choice. That was the free market.
The myths are actually all on Rodney’s side. The myth that good business practices just “catch on”, like a fashion trend – when the reality is that unions almost always lead the way in securing better wages and conditions for workers, which non-unionised businesses then have to keep up with – unless of course you’ve spent a few decades dismantling workers’ rights and entrenching the power of employers, so they can do things like refuse to offer frontline workers a basic guaranteed number of hours while your CEO earns $11,000 a day.
The myth that the concept of unionism can’t have been involved in Parnell’s victory, because “it was just about supply and demand”. Yes, this was a unique circumstance – in 1840 Wellington there were literally three carpenters. You couldn’t hire one from London and pop them on the next plane over.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the eight-hour victory came down to collective action. If Parnell had said “nope, only working eight hours, soz” and the other two carpenters had said “sweet, we’ll take the job” there would be no history to remember on Labour Day.
The difference is that today, very few workers are in a position to say “well there’s only three of us you can hire, so you have to take our terms.” These days, thousands of people will queue for 150 supermarket jobs. People are living in cars. They don’t have the luxury of leveraging their specialised skills in a remote corner of the world.
And thirdly, the myth that unions have never achieved anything, ever. It’s a standard rightwing line. It relies on people taking a lot of things for granted – like equal pay for women, having four weeks’ annual leave, getting sick leave, having basic health and safety protocols in the workplace.
The greatest achievement is this, though: if you’re in a union, the chances are your pay is keeping up with, or even staying ahead of, inflation. This is an old graph from a 2012 post at The Standard, but it makes the point pretty clearly:
In the year to June 2014, 98% of workers on a collective agreement got a payrise – compared to only 48% of workers on individual agreements.
I think that’s an achievement which a lot of workers can feel pretty happy about. Because they stood together. Because they leveraged their collective power into getting real gains for themselves and their fellow workers.
One important thing to note is this. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Hide’s bizarre re-writing of history. It’s easy to insult his intelligence or imply he’s out of touch with reality. But Rodney Hide isn’t a stupid man. Rodney Hide isn’t unable to see the ridiculousness of his words.
This is why the rightwing narrative has dominated NZ political discussion for years: because they decide what story they want to tell and they push it through every avenue they have. They drown out dissent and academic arguments about what really happened or how the economy really works in practice.
Let’s not read Rodney Hide’s column as a ludicrous piece of near-satire. Let’s take it for what it is: a cynical, deliberate attempt to erase the importance of unionism from New Zealand history and perpetuate the fantasy that workers and employers are on a level playing field.
And let’s celebrate Labour Day, and the power of our unions.