Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Harness slumbering union giant

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National's attacks on workers' rights are provoking unions into action.
National's attacks on workers' rights are provoking unions into action.

A merger between the two biggest and most influential unions affiliated to the Labour Party is almost certain to happen around the middle of next year. This week, they showcased their future.

The EPMU (the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union) is our oldest and the largest private-sector union. Its central place in the trades sector of the economy makes it the most powerful.

The other prospective partner, the SFWU (Service and Food Workers Union) dominates the service industry and leads many of the campaigns for low-waged workers. Its current campaign for a living wage is impressive.

It's the union I joined in my early years, first as a rank-and-file member, then a local president and later a paid organiser. As a working-class kid, my union was my university.

These two unions have called combined meetings of members in response to the Government's announcement of another round of attacks on workers' rights.

The Wellington meeting rallied an impressive 1500 people and 4000 turned up in Auckland.

The National Party may not realise their petty war on workers is going to bite them back hard. More than 1000 of the Auckland attendees volunteered to be actively involved in political campaigns.

By next year's election, these two unions will lead a resurgence that will result in more workers campaigning on the ground than all the political parties combined.

It is dawning on even the most apolitical union members that the decision over which party sits in the Treasury benches is important to their interests.

The 33 unions in the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) have 350,000 members. About 80,000 aren't even on the electoral roll. I suspect up to half didn't even vote in the last election. So forget the polls. If the unions could just mobilise their members to turn up at polling booths and vote for parties that weren't trying to screw them, there would be change of government. Simple, really.

The three contenders for the Labour leadership know it's suck-up time, and wanted to come to Wednesday's rally. The unions were reluctant to become a media backdrop for their campaigns, so David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson agreed not to attend. Shane Jones was happy to front up and work the largely Maori and Polynesian crowd.

CTU president Helen Kelly was miffed and praised Cunliffe and Robertson in her speech - with no reference to Jones.

The union movement and the Labour Party have both been on the back foot for a while. The leadership contest in the party is a breath of fresh air. The new anti-worker laws promoted by National are breathing new life into the union movement, too.

The political and industrial wings of the labour movement are on the cusp of something new. At the rally, there was an energy and restlessness in the crowd - maybe it's a slumbering giant waking. Hopefully the next Labour leader can harness it.

- Herald on Sunday

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