Labour Day, created as a public holiday to celebrate the eight hour working day and other achievements of the worker movement has become just another holiday. To restore a touch of authenticity the Blackball Museum of Working Class History mounted two events in the village. Last night we held a debate on the topic that Blackball workers (those employed in the village) should be unionised and covered by a multi employer collective agreement. It proved to be an intense ‘conversation’.
Those on the affirmative argued the proven benefits of a collective agreement for wages and conditions, the more general benefits of collectivisation in times of crisis and change, as well as the benefits of having a collective voice and a sense of belonging, plus the hypocrisy of a village whose main heritage story is that of worker activism not currently living its union story – except as a brand.
The opposing stories were revealing and based mainly on the blaming of unions for failing to provide solutions in often complex situations. For example, a local school is down to one teacher because of a falling role so the teacher aide inevitably assumes, by default, a teacher role yet is not paid accordingly. Teacher aides were created when mainstreaming of disabled or neurologically different children was brought in. But the position has been paid from a school’s bulk fund so has always been competing with other needs. The drop in roll is caused by a combination of demographic factors: retirees from the cities attracted by cheap housing so as to have a retirement nest egg or to add to the Mum and Dad bank; investors buying houses for Air BnB now the great walk is up and running; further holiday houses now the village is becoming trendier… None of this can be blamed on the union, it is simply the incoherent saga of the market. In fact the teachers union have supported teacher aides’ struggle for better wages and conditions and advocated that they be paid from the department salary budget rather than competing with general school expenses, yet it still somehow gets the blame for the situation. Another story of feeling let down in a redundancy/restructuring situation led to a skilled worker advocating for individual bargaining. A third opinion was simply for peace and harmony – local employers are kind hearted so why create friction; the battles have been won and unions are no longer necessary?
It is strange that anger and bitterness should be aimed at unions rather than at the capitalist system, yet, in reflection, unsurprising, for there was in the Muldoon era a concentrated government and employer campaign to discredit unions, leading to the Trades Hall bombing. And then the Employment Contracts Act era of the 1990s saw another onslaught on the ‘bloody unions causing trouble.’
A second event is today’s opening of an exhibition on the midwife story, a story of women achieving an independence from the patriarchal and hierarchical medical control of birthing practice. The Lead Maternity Carer (LMC) system introduced in the late 1990s was celebrated internationally as a progressive model to be emulated. But in setting it up, the midwife representatives failed to include regular negotiation of pay and conditions in the agreement with the Ministry of Health. This has led to a failure of payments to keep up with inflation and a further failure to recognise inequities for rural practitioners and the need for paid time off. A return to union advocacy is required and underway.
As usual I dream of a working class museum existing and these sorts of face to face discussions taking place, in villages and towns throughout the country over Labour Weekend.