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On The Left Keep that red flag flying.

Monday 1 May, 2000

After a few weeks away, a refreshed author is back again. The new Parliamentary session begins this week, and it’s going to be fun. But first, a song sung to the tune `O Christmas Tree’:

The people's flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts' blood dyed to every fold

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its fold we'll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We'll keep the red flag flying here

The Red Flag, of course.

May Day is an historic day for socialists the world over. Standing for worker's rights, it is the day that socialists and the international labour movement have chosen to commemorate the historic struggle for workers' basic rights all around the world. The song above is an expressive part of the culture that surrounds the left's activities on May Day. All around the world governments are moving to the left, and part of the recent protest-based action focused on May Day shows the world's people are moving to the left too.

In New Zealand, we again have a Government that is actually interested in worker rights. That is demonstrated by a number of key policy areas, the most controversial of which so far is the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act and its replacement by fair labour legislation which, for the first time in New Zealand history, meets the international standards laid down by the ILO (International Labour Organisation, part of the United Nations) in conventions 87 and 98.

This point is an interesting one. The old awards based framework was in breach of our international obligations, because it imposed compulsory trade unionism. Though union membership never passed 48% or so of the work force, the ILO obligation to allow workers the freedom to organise or, more importantly, not to organise, was breached by the law. The Employment Contracts Act framework since 1991 has breached the opposite end of the ILO's requirements, by actively discouraging and inhibiting the collective organisation of workers.

The new Employment Relations Bill is a moderate piece of legislation, unlike either of the two previous frameworks. It encourages collective bargaining without requiring it, and generally strikes a sensible balance between making collective action viable again, and moving too far in a hard left direction. It also, perhaps most important of all, brings the notion of good faith into the employment relationship. This is crucial, because in New Zealand we have a culture of adversarial industrial relations which doesn't lead to the best outcomes for productivity, employment or satisfying employment conditions. Good faith, if adopted positively by all involved, will over time lead to a significant improvement in the operation of our country's work places. This on its own would be sufficient reason for any intelligent person to support the proposed reforms.

Labour’s second move to improve the lot of workers is the changes to ACC. The re-assertion of state control over ACC was never an end in itself; the party isn’t hung up on state ownership any more. The evidence is clear; state schemes are cheaper to run in the long term, and employers will one day be thanking us for removing what could have been a source of considerable cost pressures in the near future to them.

ACC is now on the road to recovery. Rebuilding the scheme to the theme laid out by Sir Owen Woodhouse more than 30 years ago will lead to major improvements in the level of rehabilitation available to all. Those five key principles of comprehensive entitlement, community responsibility, real compensation, complete rehabilitation and administrative efficiency are as relevant today as they were in the 1960’s and 1970’s - and the tragedy of their attempted burial since Bill Birch’s 1992 ACC act is about to, finally, be addressed. Restoring an effective and decent ACC scheme is a major improvement to workers’ rights, and a part of Labour’s heritage we won’t give up easily.

Third and finally, the next extremely desirable change is the forthcoming restoration of income related rents in state housing. At a stroke, this will be a major attack on poverty, and another big improvement in the conditions of all those on low pay or welfare around the country.

Internationally, people are speaking out about the globalisation of the world economy, with massive protests planned in cities around the world. Recent actions against the IMF and World Bank in the United States itself show that people are deeply concerned about a juggernaut they don’t feel is under control any more. Until the international economic institutions are democratised, we will see more of this sort of thing. People no longer accept that globalisation in its current form is desirable, inevitable or even necessary. What we need to see develop is a more persuasive critique of the current system and, more importantly, a viable alternative to put in its place.

May Day celebrates these struggles overseas and here. Domestically, many people, before last year’s election, were worried that Labour couldn’t be trusted to stay left. The Alliance, our coalition partner, ran on a theme of keeping us honest. My view is that the changes to date leave nobody in any doubt. Labour is back in New Zealand, and it’s about time too.

Till next week,

Jordan Carter

carters@ihug.co.nz


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