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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 13. Somewhere-in-July. 1971

2 Gager on F.O.L

2 Gager on F.O.L.

Trade Union leader in Jew Zealand have always been controversial figures. The last Federation of Labour president, Fintan Patrick Walsh, once threatened to turn the entire strength of the labour movement against a law firm which employed a resident in a student flat next door to Walsh's home where there were regular parties till 2 in the morning. Tom Skinner, Walsh'e successor, is less erratic and much less flamboyant. Nevertheless, like Walsh, most of his political effectiveness comes from his special relationship with the National Party. Walsh's relations with National were so clear and avowed that he supported the National Government against Labour opposition when it outlawed the militant watersiders' union in 1951. Skinner is not quite so openly pro-National. But this year he has been remarkably indiscreet.

Let's look at the story of the National Government's Stabilisation of Remuneration Act, New Zealand's current makeshift for an incomes policy. The aim of this legislation, for obvious reasons unpopular with the unions, is to limit wage increases to a pretty meagre 7% annually. Originally the Act, like Caesar's Gaul, was divided into three parts, the third and most noxious to Trades Hall, providing for wage agreements which exceeded the guidelines to be automatically annulled. The unions with Skinner as their chief barker immediately declared that in the entire history of the democratic world a greater threat to the rights of industrial labour had never been conceived. The Government, carefully drawing the electorate's attention to its adamant resistance to threats from 'pro-communist elements in the unions', stood firm, Crisis. The Wellington Trades Council started organising one-day strikes, the worst of which brought Wellington's Friday night boozing to a screaming halt. Only by joining the Workingmen's Club was it possible to get even mildly lubricated that Friday. The Government said the unions could strike as long as they pleased - it would do them no good. All this was good, strong, fighting stuff such as the innocent believe is the real kernel of politics. Both labour and capital were fighting for their principles. Both labour and capital were refusing to yield to threats. Both had made promises to the people they represented that they would keep regardless of the cost. Reality had to break in somewhere.

The place reality choose to break into was the Parliamentary Select Committee on Labour and Mines, which invited Tom Skinner, among other celebrities to testify before it on behalf of his organisation. Tom, keeping in mind the mood of his supporters, gave it to the Committee hot and strong. (A trade union deputation was waiting outside to make sure he did everything right). The Federation, Tom said, thought the Bill before the Committee was unworkable. The Federation not only thought the Bill wouldn't work. It would make sure it didn't. If the Bill was passed, the Federation wouldn't talk to the Government, the employers, or (running out of inspiration) anyone. Already the Federation had frightened Colombus Lines out of setting up a container depot in New Zealand by refusing to talk to it. There was more to come. 'Are you threatening a General Strike?' a junior national member quavered. Skinner had not thought of this, himself, but hurriedly assured evertyone that his national executive might. "What could be done", Mr Skinner enquired, "if we told our members not to work more than 40 hours a week?". A frightened labour committee cowered in its plush seats.

But anybody who took the sound and fury at its face value was myopic. The Federation of Labour had done all in its power to smooth out troubles last year, Skinner assured the committee more dovishly, but "if you think you can kick us to death because we co-operated to this extent it's not on." In other words, the old refrain of why didn't you come and see me before you started trying this on? The Federation's "main complaint" was that the draft bill prevented union negotiations with employers. If, in other words, Part III of the bill prevented meaningful negotiations Skinner, for want of anything better to do as a trade union leader, would simply have to be militant. But he was passing the message on, for anyone who wanted to hear, that he's rather not be. Someone up there was listening - the Minister of Labour, Jack Marshall, no less. And Marshall quickly established, at the Committee hearing, that Skinner could fairly easily be satisfied with an "independent" tribunal, a promise not to implement Part III of the Bill without consultation with the F.O.L and onw or two other really minor details. In return the F.O.L. would impose voluntary wage restraint. The average worker might have been worried about how much less money he'd get, or whether the Government should have a veto over the size of his wage packet, or whether there should be wages control without price control. Skinner wasn't. All he wanted was to keep on doing his job as a union official and negotiate agreements. Inside three days, the Prime Minister was announcing that Cabinet was going to amend the Bill, and on the same day Skinner announced he was taking a trip to Fiji. The Labour members of the Select Committee, understandably peeved, said there wasn't much point in their Committee's work if Cabinet acted before they had even reported but they were conciliated with a promise by Marshall that the Cabinet would "recommend" its amendments to the Committee. There's nothing like a good legal fiction to put down a Labour Party Criticism.

Before anybody could say "productivity agreement" Tom Skinner was off to Fiji, leaving Wellington to the tender mercies of the Hotel Workers Union and its associates who kept on striking regardless. By the following Saturday, the Government announced that its amendments to the Bill were exactly the things Jack Marshall and Tom Skinner had talked about the week before. This was apparently supposed to bring everyone to their knees in tearful gratitude, but, alas, without Tom Skinner around, the tears adamantly refused to flow. Even the Evening Post's Gallery reporter decided the amendments were merely "sweetening on the medicine". The Combined State page break Services Organisations immediately rejected the amendments. On Monday, the Federation National Executive, after two days of what they called agonised indecision in Ethel M. Dell's novels, rejected the amendments as well. Somehow Tom Skinner had failed to tell everyone else what he was doing. Or, more likely, his attempt to pass the buck onto his National Executive for an agreement he had negotiated but didn't want responsibility for had failed. Mr Marshall murmured that perhaps the F.O.L. "really didn't understand the situation". Now was the time for the call for a total ban on overtime, the beginning of the general strike, and the refusal to talk to the Government and the employers. Everybody in Wellington kept on striking loyally, waiting for Tom Skinner to come home and organise the real action. Had Mr Skinner not said there was no law in the world which would stop the F.O.L. taking action?

Mr Skinner's first action, on returning, was to make a 'no comment' statement. Reporters noted he appeared a little disoriented, referring as he did to Fiji as 'on the other side of the world'. He had said on Saturday, interviewed by telephone from Fiji, that he understood that the F.O.L.'s main objections to the bill had been rectified before he left New Zealand, but he had not yet seen the final draft. The day after his return he announced the Federation was "still against the Bill in principle", but that nevertheless, the Federation's main objection to the bill had been removed. Some people might have felt that this meant the Federation's main objection to the Bill had never been the principle of the legislation. Mr Skinner's actions, as usual, showed the value he attached to principles. He applauded a "sensible" decision of the Auckland Trades Council to leave the organisation of protests against the Bill to its individual affiliates. Virtually no action was taken. The Wellington Trades Council's rolling stoppages slowly stopped rolling. The real action was yet to come. As Mr Skinner told the Canterbury Musicians' Union on March 30, the real fight would come when the Government invoked the mandatory provision of what was by then the Stabilisation of Remuneration Act. The Act had passed. Some people still believed in Mr Skinner's reputation for militancy.

Came June. Jack Marshall and Tom Skinner were both out of the country, modifying their opposition to apartheid in Geneva. The Federation of Labour Conference had come and gone without threatening a general strike, re-elected Tom Skinner President unopposed for the fifth time. The industrial situation was thickening. Enter new villain: the National Party parliamentary caucus. Both Rob Muldoon and Lance Adams-Schneider had spent a good deal of time in March attacking the Labour Party for having its attitude to the Stabilisation of Remuneration Bill dictated by Tom Skinner. In fact, of course, Labour had supported the Bill (supporting it in the same way Skinner opposed it, in priciple, so they probably meant the same thing) and Skinner had left thy Labour members of the select committee on labour, as we have seen, out in the cold. It had taken three months for the Cabinet's Young Turks to realise that it was not the Labour Party, but the National Party which had been dictated to by the Federation of Labour. This made them, very angry. So, taking advantage of Marshall's absence, the acting Minister of Labour decided to invoke the mandatory provisions - Part III - of the Act against two unions which had been left behind in the general rush to get wage increases through before the Act was passed. Thomson took great care to alienate the Federation of Labour, by not consulting it in the terms laid down in the legislation, so that he could be quite sure Federation secretary Knox would lose his temper and advise the unions not to accept Thomson's quite illegal back-down-or-be-mown-down ultimatum. But even Thomson had to go through the motions of consulting Skinner, and later claimed Skinner had sent a telegram to the Federation telling the unions to accept his ultimatum which Knox hadn't passed on. And then the decision to invoke the mandatory clauses of the act was delayed until Skinner returned from Geneva. But by then Thomson had driven every Union so far up the walll that all Skinner's cooing couldn't bring them down again. As the Federation Executive's advice to the two Unions Thomson threatened was allegedly unanimous, taking Skinner's advice might have been thought undemocratic. But not even Knox raised the issue of democratic decision making when defending himself against this 'slander'. After all, the decision by the F.O.L. executive to oppose the Bill in March has also been unanimous. So while Mr Skinner's telegrams were or were not ignored, Part III of the Stabilisation of Remuneration Act became, possibly unconstitutionally law.

One way of seeing this is a part of a Muldoon bid for power. A week after all this Marshall was due back from the E.E.C. talks, with, it might be anticipated a raw deal. Thomson, standing in for Marshall at the Labour Ministry, could have hoped to precipitate a confrortation with labour which Muldoon could resolve immediately before the Government's other economic spokesman, Marshall, returned home discredited. Then Muldoon could really start pushing for the leadership. Muldoon's actions over te period fit in well with this theory - he took the lead in red-baiting Knox immediately before Thomson's ultimatum. This was all upset, it would seem, by the Skinner-Holyoake talks at the Auckland airport.

Tom Skinner's first action on returning from Geneva was not to say that the time for real action had come, rather he spent 35 minutes on the airport telephone talking to Sir Keith Holyoake. What had happened to that 'if this Act is passed, we will never speak to the Government' pledge? Mr D.A. Crossfield, President of the Auckland Storemen's Union, said that Mr Skinner was only one man in the union movement, and had to obey the majority of the unionists, like everyone else. He obviously hand't noticed what happened at unanimous F.O.L. executive meetings when Mr Skinner wasn't there. Mr Skinner did say he would not ask unions to refrain from direct action against the mandatory provisions of the Act. But even if you can untwist all those double negatives, Mr Skinner hasn't managed to yet. At the moment, Mr Skinner is placing his reliance on changing the law back to where it was before he went to Geneva, and on the National Party caucus which now has before it amendments from the wage Remuneration Authority which one story has it Holyoake suggested to the Chairman should be put before Cabinet. He now takes F.O.L. leaders regularly to Holyoake to enquire about caucus meetings. One may imagine that, without Marshall's influence things will go badly. But, if they do, it will be difficult for Skinner to threaten industrial unrest to coerce anyone into amending legislation. His credibility is now low but it isn't worrying him. The F.O.L. council meeting with Skinner's blessing merely withdrew representatives from a few Government and semi-Government committees, where their absence will probably be greeted with relief. This at a time when for the first time in New Zealand history since 1951 the Army has been used to scab on a group of workers at Auckland's Oakley Psychiatric Hospital.

In the meantime, the Wage Remuneration Authority set up by the Act has given one of the two Auckland unions everything it wanted. So what was all the fuss about? Why—to get Part III of the Act through no matter what. The moral? Even if you've got one half of the National Party on side, you still have to worry about the other half. Unionists who talk to National Cabinet Ministers shouldn't threaten strikes; it's no good advocating the programme of the Communist Party if you can't carry it out. Skinner's power threatens the whole trade union movement, for it is clear that while on any important issue what Skinner says goes, trade union democracy is a farce and the debates at trades council and Federation of Labour level a charade. That the whole issue of the Wage Remuneration Authority could be fought out in ways never discussed at the Federation of Labour conference proves that rank and file consultation is merely a routine ritual to achieve consensu.