Today is Labour Day, a public holiday celebrating the dignity of working people in this country. It’s observance is tied up with the concept of the eight-hour day, which was about regulating working hours to better reflect that dignity. The historical success of that movement owes much to the achievements of trade unions.
Union strength is at a low ebb
In contemporary New Zealand, as with elsewhere, trade unions have become much weaker, with membership only a shadow of what it once was. Depending on your own perspective you may find different justifications and rationalisations for this.
People on the left are apt to invoke the malign forces of “neoliberalism”. People on the right tend to focus on the abuses and failings of unions and disconnect between union officials and members.
But this is not an isolated trend
For my part, I think it is wrong to separate the decline of unions from the diminishment of churches, political parties, organised sports, service clubs and other forms of voluntary association. All those groups, and nearly all others like them, have struggled to attract and retain members in the twenty-first century.
And that’s a big problem because these types of association are crucial to the accumulation of “social capital”.
Mediating institutions hold democracy together
The OECD defines social capital as those “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.” A simpler way to put it may be to characterise it as those non-state institutions that bind us together and result in us developing ties and links to people outside of our family circle.
Social capital has long been recognised as crucial to democratic culture. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in it the 18th century. More than fifteen years ago, I remember somebody accurately forecasting that it would be very hard to build in democracy in Iraq since it was a country with no Rotary clubs.
A small society struggles against a big state
Individuals are so small in the face of big government and big business that it is easy for people to feel alienated and helpless unless they have the support of other people. Families play a foundational role in providing that support obviously.
To go beyond that and have what it sometimes called “civil society” you also need to have a galaxy of voluntary associations as well, however, to interpose themselves between people and the faceless and indifferent institutions that hold economic and political power.
As my friend Camryn Brown puts it:
The fingers of the helping hand of the state are too big to reach into the cracks on the uneven surface of society. Those in the cracks need support at their own scale.
Conservatives should recognise the constructive potential of unions
Trade unions are part of that order. There is a reason that totalitarian dictatorships take aim at independent unions as readily as they take aim at churches. They represent a decentralisation of power.
I realise that this makes me much more pro-union than many on the right. I freely acknowledge that unions, like churches, are not immune to the corruptions of power. In a functioning society, however, those temptations would be kept in place by a competition and a healthy tension between the various mediating institutions making up civil society.
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel on this
With that in mind, what can be done to improve responsible union membership? There is no one-simple-trick to reverse the decline, but a change of framework may help. And for years I have been fascinated by a model known as the Ghent system.
Named for its origins in Belgium, the Ghent system is characterised by its use of unions and other voluntary associations for the distribution of social welfare. When people become unemployed, they turn to their union for a benefit to tide them over rather than the central or local authorities. Unions are also heavily involved in training, recruitment and worker discipline.
An approach that blends the left and the right
Just to be clear, this isn’t the wholesale privatisation of welfare. In all countries using a form of the Ghent system associations are funded by the national government. But because the only way to access welfare is through membership the result is that membership rates are generally very high.,
For example, about 70 percent of workers in Ghent-system Sweden belong to a union. That country is, despite myths to the contrary, flagrantly capitalistic in most regards. In fact; the Ghent system is arguably more capitalistic than the current system because it pre-supposed that workers should have a choice with respect to how they participate in the welfare system.
This is all very European and, as a matter of labour relations, quite different to our own Anglo-American tradition. Yet it is also not wholly foreign to our welfare system. It has some similarities to the Whanau Ora approach to social and health services that flourished under the premierships of John Key and Bill English.
The Ghent system is more “social” than a UBI
It does, however, stand in marked contrast to the various Universal Basic Income proposals that have received so much attention over the years.
The idea of a UBI reinforces the atomisation of society. Every person is allotted a certain weekly payment with no strings attached. Nobody owes any obligation to anybody else and public assistance becomes more impersonal than ever.
A move to civil society administered welfare, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to reinvigorate unions while decentralising power and promoting less adversarial relationship between the representatives of capital and labour.
Conservatives should look to build on the gains of recent years
Anyone who has payed attention to politics over the past decade is aware of the trend of increasing openness by working class voters for conservative parties over the past decade. This is in part driven by the gentrification of the left. It is also, however, a reflection of the fact that conservatism, as a non-dogmatic ideology, has a surprising flexibility for dealing with changing times.
For very good reasons, individualistic conservatism has prevailed since the Second World War until quite recently. A turn towards more communal conservatism may, therefore, seem quite novel. In the broad sweep of history, however, there is nothing too innovative about what I am suggesting here.
Reforming conservatism to reform the country
Before Donald Trump took over the GOP, there were the beginnings in America of a movement to take conservatism to a more responsible, populist place.
The idea was that instead of focusing so exclusively on shrinking the state, the right thing to do was to bolster the middle class by promoting “the space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy.”
Some American conservatives have expressed admiration for the Ghent system for that very reason.
That project has stalled in the US but there’s no reason New Zealand’s conservatives can’t pick up where they left off. And rebalancing the relationship between workers, their employers, their representatives and the Crown would be a good way to start.