From Samuel Parnell to the future: working  in union

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with Rachel Mackintosh

Service Leader: Clay Nelson



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Read below, or download the PDF

The Eight Hour Day is by Australian singer, songwriter, poet, John Warner, and is sung here with Margaret Walters.

Bread and Roses originated from a speech given by U.S. laabour union leader Rose Schneiderman; a line in that speech “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” (appealing for both fair wages and dignified conditions) inspired the title of the poem Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim. It is now most often sung to the tune by Mimi Fariña popularised by her sister Joan Baez.

Rachel Mackintosh © 21st October 2018

I mostly avoided history at school. Too much reading. I like reading. Modern poetry. Shortish novels. Brevity is the soul of wit. History had great heavy tomes. So when Clay asked me to speak on Labour Weekend, I thought, “Labour Day. Hmmmm. Samuel Parnell. What exactly?” I do believe in considering how the past has got us to here, but I’m often hazy on the details. Thank goodness for the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography. And Google. And before Google, thank goodness for the index. So I invite you to join me on a journey out of the haze.

The first thread of the union movement in this country was laid down when English carpenter Samuel Parnell landed at Petone on 8 February 1840.

One of his fellow passengers asked Samuel to build him a house. This is Samuel’s famously quoted reply:

“I will do my best, but I must make this condition, Mr Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day … There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.”

His terms were accepted and so he began to work. He also out-organised the other employers, who were trying elsewhere to impose the British standard 12- or 14-hour day. Samuel met incoming ships and talked to all the people about the eight-hour day.

In October there was a meeting of tradesmen, where they all committed to an eight-hour day and resolved to duck anyone in the harbour who offended against the resolution.

This is a story of courage, of reducing inequality, of reducing the hardship of working people, and it has left us a hero to commemorate …

So why had Samuel Parnell settled for working 12 to 14 hours per day in London but wouldn’t do it here? Maybe because of the marketing of the colony as a better England? Maybe, but that didn’t cause the employers to think up the eight-hour day.

It was because he had the leverage. Carpenters were in short supply and employers had little choice but to comply. That and unity, with all the carpenters coming off the ships being organised and holding the line.

By 1890 the eight-hour working day had become standard for tradesmen and labourers, but many other employees still worked much longer hours. The Labour Day parades that began that October were part of a union campaign to force the government to restrict working hours by law rather than custom. The government didn’t do that but they did establish a public holiday, and we now celebrate Labour Day on the fourth Monday in October.

By 1890 more threads were being woven into our union history.

The Sweating Commission report of that year officially concluded that there was no sweating in New Zealand. However, it seems that was largely down to definitions. The report contained a minority opinion that referred to a definition of sweating from Beatrice Potter, who had spent time in the sweat shops of London: she defined sweating “as consisting in (1) overcrowded or insanitary workshops or living-rooms, (2) long and irregular hours, (3) constantly falling prices and low wages.” The opinion goes on to say: “If this be the understood definition of ‘sweating,’ then there is abundant evidence of its existence in the colony. There are numerous overcrowded and insanitary workrooms, great numbers of workers labour long and irregular hours, and wages in many trades are at the lowest possible ebb.”

Harriet Morison — who would later be chair of the management committee of this church — was the leader of the tailoresses union in Dunedin, a union that was established in the wake of the sweating revelations. That union raised wages and established industry standards throughout Otago. Harriet also organised and ensured the survival of the tailoresses union in Auckland, and maintained contact with tailoresses throughout the country, as she believed unity was vital to the tailoresses’ cause.

Harriet Morison was also a suffragist, Christian and community activist. She believed that the issues were interrelated, that improved wages were linked to women’s suffrage and to the recognition of skilled labour, and that all these were in keeping with her faith.

The fabric becomes more intricate, as the analysis broadens and more threads are woven in. Unity is vital to the cause.

Values underpin the work — the value of unity, the value of equality, the value of non-material things, such as time, to allow people to express their humanity and be part of a community. The union movement uses its leverage in support of these values. When there is conflict, it is the conflict that arises from setting the value of humanity against the value of profit; the value of unity against the value of domination of some over others; the value of equality against the value of a small group enjoying superior status and wealth.

And so a carpenter has eight hours a day to express his humanity. And a tailoress has enough material comfort, the dignity of having her skills recognised, and enough time to be part of her community.

You may have noticed that Samuel Parnell’s and Harriet Morison’s issues — working hours (too many or too few), pay and recognition of skills — are very much issues of today too.

Why are we still grappling with these things?

The International Monetary Fund reported in 2016 an association between low unionisation and high inequality.

Unions internationally have diminished enormously since the worldwide neo-liberal takeover of the 1980s. This is a direct factor in why the issues of the 1840s and the 1890s are still issues today.

Yet unions remain the largest democratic institutions in the world. 300,000 people in unions in this country are affiliated to the Council of Trade Unions, and 207 million people around the world are affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation.

We continue to be a fabric of many threads.

So what is our current project?

We are in the modern world, beset by the threats associated with climate change.

About 20 years ago in the US, a group of unionists, First Nations people and environmentalists started a movement for “Just Transition”.

Environmentalists had been calling for an end to dirty jobs — particularly coal, oil and gas — and the people making profit from these jobs had stood by while the people in the jobs railed against the environmentalists who wanted to take their jobs and destroy their communities.

In a project that combined the new threads of decolonisation and environmental protection with the threads already in the union movement, the project was about a transition away from dirty jobs, but also about the need for justice in that transition.

In any change, and with any new industry, there are three important questions: who pays? who benefits? and who decides?

In the union I work for, we have members who work in mining on the West Coast and members who work in oil and gas in Taranaki.

I have met some of the miners. They have said to me: “Don’t you tell me I have to be a bloody basket-weaver.” When they hear about a transition, they hear that their jobs will go, their communities will be destroyed and that they will no longer have an identity. And basket-weaving, unlike mining, is not well paid.

And those miners live in communities where the teachers, shopkeepers, public servants and mechanics also rely on the economic activity of mining.

In my union we also have many Pasifika members. A couple of weeks ago was Tuvalu language week. A Tuvaluan colleague was talking about the effects of climate change on her community. In Tuvalu the highest point is 3.5 metres above sea level. The 12,000 people who live there can’t drink the ground water any longer.

What is a just transition for a miner? For a Tuvaluan? For their communities?

What must they pay? What will they benefit? Who will decide?

It is usual for governments and the heads of corporations to decide. It is common for the most vulnerable, the colonised, and the environment to pay. It is normal for the already wealthy and privileged to benefit.

A couple of weeks ago — during Tuvalu language week, by coincidence — the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions held a one-day “round table” on just transition.

Attendees included tangata whenua, corporate heads from the mining and electricity sectors, government ministers of energy, of climate change and of workplace relations, and unionists from New Zealand, Australia and from the International Trade Union Confederation’s Just Transition unit in Oslo.

The event was guided by a whakatauki: “Ki te kahore he whakakitenga ka ngaro te iwi”. “Without vision and foresight, the people will be lost.”

The question of who decides is very much driven by whose vision and foresight get to be the basis of what we do next.

The round table was the beginning of a conversation with everybody’s voice in it.

The union movement is calling for a seat at the table right from the point at which the vision is established.

The miners’ need for identity and community can then be part of the vision. The Tuvaluan community’s need for land and drinkable water too. And the union movement’s ambition for a more equal world can be part of the planning. We can plan for jobs with enough but not too many hours, with skill recognition and decent pay.

And tangata whenua as the kaitiaki of this land, and as a colonised people, can be part of weaving decolonisation into our future.

The vision for what kind of community we want can be a shared vision. Then we can work out what kind of work it will take to create that community. Then we can work out what kind of skills we will need to do that work.

When the government and the corporations, who can invest, are part of the conversation, they can invest in the necessary retaining, the necessary infrastructure and in the new economy.

Then with vision and foresight, and with listening and planning and action, the people will not be lost.