Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Honourable unionist fights by the rules

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Helen Kelly has been sensational since taking the CTU president's job. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Helen Kelly has been sensational since taking the CTU president's job. Photo / Kenny Rodger

The war on workers has pushed trade unions back into the news headlines in a way that I've not seen for decades.

It's not that union bosses are looking for relevance. Rather, it looks as if it's a result of a series of brutal attacks by unscrupulous employers attacking their workers - at the ports, in the meatworks or rest homes.

This week's blithe admission by the Ports of Auckland that it had strategically leaked an employee's confidential personal information to the right-wing Whale Oil website in an attempt to discredit the individual shows the immoral depths to which some employers are now capable of sinking. I'd have to think hard to recall a more despicable act by an employer.

When an applicant is interviewed for a job, they are asked to disclose all their personal history and sign a document promising never to disclose any information they acquire on the company to anyone outside the business.

If they breach either policy they can be sacked - and it happens.

The port management doesn't appear to believe normal rules apply to them. It seems any deceitful act is permissible.

There is now no doubt that the source of the ongoing leaks to Whale Oil's website editor during the dispute was company-sanctioned. Our mayor, Len Brown, on Thursday huffed that the leaker would lose their job if found out. Oh, please!

The port management admitted their people did it. If Brown claimed earlier he couldn't tell the port management what to do when the Auckland economy was in crisis and hundreds of workers were being sacked, I hardly think insisting the leadership now be held accountable will be taken seriously. Our mayor is one step away from being a public joke.

The only person involved in this dispute whose credibility has risen has been the Council of Trade Unions' president, Helen Kelly. She has only been the head of the trade union movement a short time but her conduct has been outstanding, whether it's over the ports or the meatworks disputes.

Though her immediate predecessor, Ross Wilson, was well regarded, Kelly has proved her worth by rolling up her sleeves and actively running major disputes.

If Kelly hadn't moved to Auckland and ensconced herself with the wharfies, they would not have been able to withstand the onslaught by their employer.

Kelly's respect has risen not just with other trade union bosses and rank-and-file workers, but with many employers and politicians, too.

But here's the dark irony. The tactician through this dispute for the port management was board director Rob Campbell. When I was a young lad, this man was being groomed to be the anointed son to ascend to the role that Kelly now possesses.

Campbell was the darling of the Labour Party and the left wing in the mid-1980s. He was the head of one of the biggest and certainly the most militant trade unions in this country. Campbell led the fight against GST within the Labour Party and was heralded as the face of modern trade unionism. He was assumed to be a member of old stalwart Ken Douglas' Communist Party, which added to his credibility in some circles. He was our own Bob Hawke and, by now, a potential prime minister for the workers.

Instead, he turned, and now attacks his former comrades. I'm told Campbell does it with a passion that shocks even his strongest right-wing supporters. I understand he promised his fellow port directors an easy victory.

When the wheels fell off his campaign, they got cold feet. So, in a fit of pique he resigned in protest.

What possesses someone like Campbell, who was arguably the finest workers' leader-in-waiting, to morph into the person he has become?

Fortunately for the working people of New Zealand, someone as capable, more principled and infinitely more charming has stepped up and defeated him.

People's true characters are tested under stress. Despite the never-ending onslaught against unionised workers, they should at least know the best person possible serves them.

- Herald on Sunday

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