N.Z.U.S.A. Congress 1959. Curious Cove - New Zealand University Student Press Council
"The Working Man..."
"The Working Man..."
"Trade Unionism is working men's capitalism," said the secretary of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, Mr. K. McL. Baxter. This was one of the constantly stressed points in his talk, and his main theme was the need for the more widespread knowledge of the important economic role of the Federation of Labour.
Mr. Baxter suggested that there was not enough attention given to trade unionism in historical textbooks. Moreover, he thought that young people trained in colleges were not always familiar with many of the "economic and social forces" in society. There was even a tendency for "people in the academic world to unconsciously lock themselves in air-tight compartments, even to becoming divorced from the hard and harsh facts of everyday life".
"The federation is not a political party," said Mr. Baxter. "It is not affiliated to any political party." It was, however, a political force, and its importance would undoubtedly increase as population and production increased.
There were 230,000 members of the Federation in New Zealand. By law, all workers bound by awards or industrial agreements were obliged to become members of a union. When the dependants of Federation members were added to this total, it could be seen that here was a large and important section of the community. These organised workers occupied "important strategical positions" in the economic life of the country, and their actions were vitally important to all New Zealanders.
Mr. Baxter then went on to outline the organisation of the members of the Federation. The 230,000 members were organised into over 100 affiliated unions, represented on 20 District Councils by delegates elected according to the numerical strength of each union. The unions were represented at the annual conference, also on the basis of numbers. The seven members of the National Executive were elected by the annual conference. The policy of the Federation was decided by the annual conference, from remits put forward by the trade unions. Their delegates were usually given a free hand as far as voting was concerned. "Our functions are directly related to and for people at work," said Mr. Baxter.
The battle for the recognition of the right to organise had been won, Mr. Baxter went on. But eternal vigilance must be kept up if this right was to continue to operate. It was a valuable right since workers had nothing to sell but their labour power. But with the recognition of this right must come the knowledge, on the part of union members, that this right involved responsibilities.
Officials of the Federation, who were aware of the "nature of modern society", were also aware of the conflict of interest in the modern economic system between employer and employee. "We know there is a class struggle," said Mr. Baxter, "but we do not seek to widen and deepen the conflict of interests and turn the struggle into a class war." The struggle was a descriptive factor, not a motivating one. Instead, the Federation tried to act through tripartite bodies, such as the Industrial Advisory Council. It was opposed to "regimentation and coercion, knowing that it can only lead to tyranny and unnecessary suffering."
Disabled Servicemen's Re-establishment League Training Centra Wellington.
The machinery for settling industrial disputes was discussed—the appointment of a Conciliation Council Commissioner, and the final decisions of the Court of Arbitration. The Federation accepted conciliation and arbitration as the best way of getting "social justice" done, although it was not always satisfied with the present Industrial, Conciliation and Arbitration Act in all its forms. The Federation sometimes made requests to the Government for amendments to the industrial laws to iron out difficulties in procedure, and to meet changing circumstances in industry.
This, however, did not mean that the trade unions renounced the right to stop work. Under a property-owning, profit-making economic system, employers had the right to close down an industry or shift it from one place to another, if they decided that this was needed. The workers, under the same system, had only one piece of goods to sell, and that was their labour power. In their turn, then, they claimed the right to withdraw or transfer it. In the last analysis it was the only weapon left. "The organisation of workers will avoid using the srike weapon, but will not renounce it," said Mr. Baxter.
In the international field, the Federation supported an international tie-up to prevent any "stupid" use of nuclear weapons. It was also very interested in the rise of Afro-Asian nationalism, and would fight against any form of totalitarianism which might try to fill up any political vacuum created by this desire for national status.
If, as the Federation hoped, the volume of production was to be increased, a healthy employer-employee relationship must exist. But there was no set formula which could lead to this. "The changing circumstances of the day to day conflict for shares of the national wealth is not to be deplored," said Mr. Baxter, "but met in a positive way." The members of the Federation wanted to increase the quantity and improve the quality of the national economic "cake". Mr. Baxter also used the simile of the "porridge-pot" in this connection, emphasising that "the more you put into it, the more there is to take out". The workers, he said, would organise and strive to get their share of the volume and value of production.
Employers were also entitled to their share for taking on the responsibilities of management and for trying to see that industry was efficiently run. "They have their rights too," said the Federation secretary. "But we are also going to note how much is being ploughed back into industry for future production and human well-being."
Better technical methods would be welcomed. Members of the academic world could play their part as engineers and technicians, coming into closer contact with the needs of industry.
Mr. Baxter went on to stress that the trade unions must retain their independence. Neither the "Right" nor the "Left" should be allowed to capture them and destroy them, or use them to maintain their own power.
All these things meant that the levels of understanding and the education of trades unionists must be raised. The machinery of the Workers' Educational Association could be used to train members "to accept responsibility and leadership", or to study such things as economics, the art of public speaking, organisation or administration. It could also encourage people to do research work, or to understand the industrial laws. In this respect, members of University staff who acted as tutors for W.E.A. classes made a valuable contribution to building up a responsible movement.
"A strong, responsible, democratic, free trade union movement," said Mr. Baxter in conclusion, "is vital to the preservation and progress of our country and the Commonwealth, and to a future democratic, political and economic system."
Mr. K. McL. Baxter—Born in Central Otago; spent 22 years in the printing trade in Australia, United States and New Zealand; 12 years secretary New Zealand Printing Trades Union; 14 years secretary New Zealand Federation of Labour.