Archive for May 4th, 2008

CTU vs. striking doctors’ union

May 4, 2008

Today, CTU President Helen Kelly got a short, sharp lesson in trade unionism from Matt McCarten. He was not impressed by her criticism last week of the Resident Doctors’ Association, representing junior doctors, for the strike action in support of its pay claims.

Matt was typically blunt. He was “gobsmacked”, he said, “to see the head of the trade union movement publicly attack the junior doctors’ [strike] and their union leadership. It’s not as if [Kelly] doesn’t know any better – her parents were staunch unionists.” Ouch.

So, what was Kelly’s gripe? She argued that the RDA “never really formalised themselves into what a modern union is.” That is, they lack “wider professional advisers such as policy analysts, economists, lawyers and advocates” and focus on industrial matters instead of “social issues”. Rather than striking, the RDA should have been “[engaging] in the broad range of issues that face the health sector” with other health sector unions, the DHBs and the Ministry of Health.

It is true that the RDA is little more than a bargaining agency with a very narrow focus on pay and conditions, and that it has not participated in the multi-party problem-solving in the sector over recent years.

It is also true that the highly disruptive strike action is adding to the Government’s current woes. Kelly may have been recruited to put a helpful spin on things. It does begin to look that way.

Undoubtedly, unions in the present climate should cooperate where it is mutually beneficial to do so and there are win-win solutions to problems to be found. A recent survey revealed that this is what union members want.

But this approach doesn’t apply where there is a sharp conflict of interest. In this case, the DHBs are haemorrhaging junior doctors and the outlook is for things to get worse. That’s because of the huge pay differentials between here and other developed countries. It’s about the international labour market, stupid.

The DHBs seem to be the meat in the sandwich. It would appear that the government has been getting some poor advice from the Ministry of Health, or simply does not understand the magnitude of the problem. Either way — bureaucratic capture or arrogance — it is hard to find sympathy for the Government.

Further, the Government announced a massive $621m funding increase for the diplomatic corps only days before the first strike. Such timing! A new embassy in Stockholm or junior doctors to keep the hospitals running? Your choice, come November.

Some right-wing bloggers (here, here, and here) have been trying to promote the idea of a far-left takeover of the CTU linked to a new Alliance-type party. Ignore the blatant attempt at wedge politics from the right. Matt’s criticism of Kelly’s comments is much more readily explained as the response of a staunch unionist to a union leader lashing out at striking workers on behalf of a government that ought to know better. And I’m inclined to agree.

[Update: Bryce Edwards blogs on McCarten, "a right bastard."]


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