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Peter Franks and Melanie Nolan (eds), Unions in Common Cause: The New Zealand Federation of Labour 1937-88.

Peter Franks and Melanie Nolan (eds), Unions in Common Cause: The New Zealand Federation of Labour 1937-88, Steele Roberts Aotearoa, Wellington, 2011. pp. 224. NZ $39.99 paper.

The four essays that form the core of this book had their origin as papers delivered to a conference held in 2007 to mark the 70th anniversary of the formation of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). New Zealand historians, as the editors of this collection rightly point out, have been much slower than their Australian counterparts to turn their attention to 'peak' trade union organizations such as the FOL. They explain the difference by pointing to a general drift away from institutional history and suggest that the labourism of the majority of trade unionists proved too uninteresting and too conservative for the nation's labour historians. Whatever the validity of this claim, it is certainly true that the five-year existence of the FOL's earlier namesake, the revolutionary socialist Red Federation of Labor (1908-13) with its solid contingent of Australians, has received a great deal more attention than the 50-year history of the FOL. Unions in Common Cause rectifies this deficiency, draws attention to fruitful comparisons that might be drawn between the histories of the Australian and New Zealand labour movements, and above all provides a framework for future research.

At the heart of these comparisons and central to the history of the FOL is the elaboration and extension of the New Zealand version of the 'Deakinite settlement'. Both countries developed something of a liberal social consensus based around a male breadwinner wage, and restrictive immigration policies, tariff and industrial protection that sustained relatively egalitarian societies and promoted social harmony. The editors of this collection point in their introduction to a less remarked 'second' New Zealand social contract that embodied a statist and centralist consensus built around the welfare state and the Keynesian policies of the first Labour Government (1935-49). The creation of the FOL was, as this collection clearly demonstrates, a critical component of this consensus and its replacement by the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) 50 years later that was inextricably linked to the free market policies of David Lange's Labour Government.

Four chapters of Unions in Common Cause are devoted to the origin, formation and functioning of the FOL. Erik Olssen's survey of its precursors stresses the continuity of aspiration evident in the quest by a generation of radicals who had since 1908 striven to create a form of national trade union organization that would act as the industrial arm of the socialist movement. More than a quarter of a century later as members of New Zealand's first Labour Government, it was they who brokered the compromises that paved the way for the formation of the FOL. Peter Franks' account of these compromises underlines the pragmatism that prevailed. Despite an objective that sought to promote organization by industry, most affiliated unions were and remained occupational or craft ones. A voting system that gave small unions proportionately greater strength than the big unions encouraged caution.

The 50 years of the FOL's existence is the subject of two chapters, the 'Walsh Years' (1937-63) and 'Troubled Times' (1967-88). In the first, Melanie Nolan demonstrates how New Zealand piggybacked Henry Higgins' 1907 Harvester Judgement and built a successful wages policy around the male breadwinner, introduced compulsory unionism and sought a general advance for workers within the arbitration system by way of General Wage Orders. Within this framework the FOL, as the national organization of the trade union movement, pursued a policy of seeking advances in the wages of skilled workers in the expectation that they would trickle down to all workers. In good economic times it was able in this way to maintain the standard of living of its members, avoid stoppages and strikes that might imperil this objective and cement its role within the process of wage determination.

In these terms, 'The Walsh Years' were successful ones but there were signs that the context in which the FOL became organized as labour's pre-eminent advocate was beginning to be reshaped by worsening economic circumstances and changes in the composition of the labour movement. These changes are traced out in Ray Markey's chapter on the more troubled years that followed Britain's decision in 1963 to join the European Economic Community and were quickly registered in a nil order by the Arbitration Court in 1968. At the heart of the transformation of the trade union movement was the decline of male-dominated manual occupations and a corresponding increase in the number of white-collar workers, especially within the public sector. Organized industrially in the country's largest union the Public Service Association and possessing their own umbrella organization, the Combined State Services Organization, such workers became a powerful voice within the labour movement. Theirs was to be a dominant role in the creation of a new peak organization that better reflected the composition of the workforce and the changing attitudes of its members.

Unions in Common Cause ends with the transcript of a fascinating panel discussion in which participants in the transition from the FOL to the CTU reflect upon their experiences. Perhaps the most telling comment is the observation by Ken Douglas, FOL secretary throughout its final decade, that the process of adjustment took too long and that the delay left the trade union movement unable to combat effectively the economic changes unleashed in the 1980s and 1990s by Labour and National Governments pursuing neo-liberal economic reforms.


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Author:Richardon, Len
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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