The freedom to belong

John Drinnan has placed the comments in his column in context. I mentioned them in an earlier thread. It’s helpful to know the backstory.

Drinnan says the Tan “row” has for some journalists brought to a head the tensions of belonging to a party-affiliated union. They ask, “can I be a unionist and not be caught up as a third party in a party election campaign?”

Fair enough. But implicit in  the suggestion that journalists will “face criticism they are in an organisation that is on the frontline backing one party” seemed to be the idea that they might be better to leave the union. It is difficult to divorce such a suggestion from the centuries of struggle for the right to have and to belong to unions.

One important point that has been overlooked in the current debate over Tan is that unions are inherently political organisations. Always have been and, as long as the distribution of wealth is determined within a system which is itself shaped by the struggle between capital and labour, always will be.

By struggle I don’t mean the sort of class struggle that my grandfather experienced. But the northern EMA’s recent ads contesting law changes to ensure employers contribute to their employees’ kiwisaver savings serve as a perfect example of how the interests of employers and employees are not identical, and that both groups continue to pursue their interests through political forums as well as industrial ones.

A very good case can be made for exempting unions from the prohibitions on discrimination on political grounds. As well as their “industrial” work, they promote their members’ interests through the political process. Reflecting their inherently political nature, unions played the major role in forming the Labour Party in the first place, and some continue to maintain links.

Because some union officials see themselves as “fighting the good fight”, problems will arise such as those that Drinnan outlines, where an organiser likened the union to “a religion”. Chris Trotter started his post on the EPMU’s response to Tan with, “unions … have an atrocious record as employers.”

I recounted in a comment to Chris’s post that as a trade union official I once went out with my colleagues because we’d been lied to by our management. When I was introduced to Ken Douglas on the street a few days later as one of those who took this industrial action, I was promptly denounced as a “wanker.”

It’s all about being in the “vanguard of the proletariat”, I guess.

Yes, as Drinnan writes, the union does belong to its members, not the staff. Some union staff functionaries have trouble understanding this. They mean well, but they have lost touch with what unions are really about. They been sucked into the political system, and they start to believe the puff about how wonderful they are, just like many of the managers with whom they have to deal.

To come back to the issue Drinnan raises, Herald journalists are working for a large capitalist organisation that has never failed to take the side of capital in any showdown with labour. They can strive for objectivity, but they don’t get to decide policy.

I can’t see how being a member of a Labour-affiliated union need have any bearing on the “professionalism” with which journos work, even in an election campaign. Unions are large organisations, and it is widely recognised that their members hold a range of political views. I’d like to know who is “pillorying” journos for their union membership. It’s wrong-headed and anti-democratic.

Journalists forgo their right to collectively deal with their employer at their peril. But yes, a media column can ask that question without it being part of a right-wing conspiracy.

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5 Responses to “The freedom to belong”

  1. John Drinnan Says:

    But implicit in the suggestion that journalists will “face criticism they are in an organisation that is on the frontline backing one party” seemed to be the idea that they might be better to leave the union. It is difficult to divorce such a suggestion from the centuries of struggle for the right to have and to belong to unions …

    Well – not really – its pretty easy to divorce that from a centuries old class struggle. Having doubts about the efficacy of belonging to a union that is taking a moral and philosophical stand on your behalf does not mean turning your back on representation. THe question is whether individuals who are part of the EPMU and uncomfortable with its third party role in the election – or over the Shawn Tan affair for that matter – should seek another union or advocacy that does not carry the political baggage of the EPMU – not just of affiliation – but a much wider relationship with a political party. Either that or journalists in the EPMU take an active decision en masse to walk away and find other representation – and given the low journalist membership I can’t see that happening. Given your union background I am not going to convince you – but yes – it is important that a journalist union is not party political. There are journalists who can abide the idea of membership of any organisation – and other no doubt who are quietly active in the election campaign. National etc has had plenty of goes at journalist membership of a union with such Labour Party – but their views are less relevant than the decision each journalist takes on whether they are comfortable with those ties.

  2. Robinsod Says:

    John – I think Pete is saying it’s a bit odd to be concerned about your union’s political behaviour when your employer is engaged in just as political a game. Can we, for example, expect to see a column from you asking if they should be looking to protect their impartiality and change jobs given the Herald’s clear decision to campaign for the National Party and ACT?

  3. jafapete Says:

    Thanks for your response. There seem to be many points that we agree upon.

    I can see how some journalists would be uncomfortable belonging to an organisation that is partisan and politically active, despite the link between one’s own politics and that of the union being generally accepted as very tenuous. Surveys frequently show that union members’ voting patterns don’t differ all that much from those of other voters once other factors are held constant.

    Ideally, the union ought to be able to find some way of building a Chinese wall between its journalist members and its political activity. In much of the US, for example, those who don’t wish to join the union in their workplace pay an agency fee, which is calculated as the union membership fee minus the cost of the union’s political activities. Or the union could get more creative, set up a seperate union and operate that at arm’s length from the principal union.

    If it is unwilling to find a way of attending to its members concerns, then perhaps they should look elsewhere. We’ve had contestable union membership for more than 20 years nbow, and it’s not as though the EPMU has not been adverse to taking advantage of it at times.

    My main concern was that journalists should be wary of giving up their union membership too readily. I represented broadcasting journos for a time, back when they were very strong — and very instrumental. But management were determined to break the union and managed to introduce individual contracts with the connivance of the 4th Labour Government. I’m told that most broadcasting journos are much worse off today than they would be had they all stayed in the union.

  4. John Drinnan Says:

    I’m sure it adds a bit of frisson to a party activist’s day.
    But I just don’t think there is such a campaign. My personal view? The Herald is conservative line in its editorials – always has done. I don’t always agree with it. But if I was working at the Sunday Star Times – with a pro Labour line – I would not always agree either. Fact is, a journalist would go mad if they got caught up in editorials. I am not aware of any journalist being told they have to be mean to Labour or plump up the Nats or Act. Fact is, after nine years in power staunch Labour supporters I know are taking Labour to account. The opinion polls say a lot. Or are they all created by the evil msm and the brainless electorate who are being manipulated by them? Give the public a bit of credit? What would you do if you did have a problem with the editorial line? With the union you make a choice about the degree that you are prepared to have your name linked to a partisan organisation. It was a small part of my decision to leave the NBR, but it is not an issue at the Herald. With the union, I rationalised affiliation because my membership money was not going into party coffers. My concern is third party was a step too far. The Shawn Tan affair -and the union’s handling of it makes you question whether there is a dividing line between the union and the Party.

  5. Journalists, politics and the union movement « Ethical Martini Says:

    […] Journalists, politics and the union movement An interesting piece on Jafa Pete’s blog about the rights of journalists when it comes to trade unions. Particularly if their union, like the EPMU in New Zealand, campaigns on behalf of a particular political party during elections. [The freedom to belong] […]

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