Matt McCarten’s Unite Workers’ union sacrifices rank and file democracy for deals with bosses and parliamentary careers. McCarten is trying to enlist ‘his’ union as part of the World Social Forum reformist left bloc that tries to make deals between workers and ‘democratic’ bosses as the road to parliamentary socialism.
Unite Workers Association won a good wage increase from Restaurant Brands but how did it do it? By strike action! So far so good. Matt McCarten presented the victory as a “new historic deal” for young fast food workers. But then we hear that instead of taking the proposed deal back to a vote of the members he signed the deal behind the backs of the members. What was the rush? It may have got overwhelmingly support from the membership anyway. So why not take it back to the members?
We know that some fast food workers were upset by the fact that Unite was calling on workers to go on strike by text messaging them. One worker we spoke to who was also a job delegate was called into work to fill in for workers who walked off the job without any discussion or a vote on strike action. She was called a scab by those who walked off.
Were the Restaurant Brands deal and the charge of scab hurled at this young woman isolated cases of things going wrong? Or were they symptomatic of the McCarten political machine? We think the latter. This looks like McCarten using these young workers as media fodder to pressure politicians to back Sue Bradford’s Bill to eliminate discriminatory youth rates, at the cost of their own democratic right to discuss matters and vote on them. In other words the rank and file members of McCarten’s Unite branch are being used by him to back his own campaign to form a new reformist party on the left.
Why doesn’t this surprise us?
Well we’ve seen it coming for years. Back in 02 when the Alliance lost out in Parliament we predicted that McCarten would regroup and try to find a union base for his politics. It took him about 3 years to insert himself into Unite by forming his own branch in Auckland, Unite Workers Association, and start recruiting members, but deliberately excluding beneficiaries and the unemployed.
All the while we kept up a running commentary on McCarten’s methods. First, he exposed workers to unnecessary risk of sacking by his flamboyant, high profile advocacy. Second, he started poaching workers from other unions. Third, he structured UWA so that he controlled the union from the top down. Fourth, he associated the union with the police in the ‘Comrades and Cossacks’ commemoration. Fifth he ran, and continues to run, a scurrilous campaign against Waitemata Unite! a branch of the union based on beneficiaries who have been openly critical of his bureaucratic methods and his exclusion of beneficiaries over several years.
But in spite of these problems, CWG backed the initiative of recruiting non-unionised workers especially young fast food workers. For us this is elementary united front politics. But we always said to Unite organisers that the members had to be in charge. We pushed to make Unite a genuinely rank and file based union. Those inside Unite who were in agreement with this principle assured us that they too were fighting for this objective. It seems however, with the Restaurant Brands deal, that our fears have been justified, and their hopes have been defeated.
Radical Youth ‘walkout’
Radical Youth originated the campaign against youth rates taken up by later by Unite which then steered it behind Bradford’s Bill. The ‘walkout’ organised by Radical Youth in March could not be contained by McCarten’s Unite. Both the Alliance and McCarten praised the walkout but then tried to steer the youth’s actions behind parliamentary reforms to make capitalism a ‘fair’, ‘democratic’, 'socialist' society.
But there is no future in such activism. It is no more than media fodder to support parliamentary reforms. Similar street activism was the routine tactic of the Peoples Centre in Auckland when Sue Bradford ran it in the late 1980's and 1990s without much success. It was also the preferred method of the university students against user pay fees in the 1990s. They made their point, but the protest fizzled because it was always designed to put pressure on parliament.
We don’t think that radical youth were prepared to be used as rent boys and girls on McCarten’s parliamentary roadshow. We see the walkout as part a wider movement of young workers globally that is taking on capitalism itself? This is a movement that goes beyond immediate reforms towards revolution? In this they are not alone.
Young people in France, migrant workers in the US, and oppressed Iraqis, all know there is no way that capitalism can afford ‘democracy’ and a living wage for them. Sure fast food outlets may pay more in NZ, but they are going to screw workers in other ways and in other countries to make their profits. Capitalism today is about taking these rights and conditions away from the weakest. And even the best organised workers in the world, the US autoworkers, are facing crippling job losses and pension and health ‘takebacks’.
So the more pressure radical youth puts on companies here, the more they will find that they are still exploited so that its not just low wages but the wage system that is the problem. Just like the youth in France right now i.e. facing wage slavery. The French youth won a small victory against the CPE, but it will take an unlimited general strike to stop the ruling class from bringing in the measures it wants in some other form.
In France the recent student rebellion proved that students, youth and workers can unite to fight not only bad laws but can mobilise to bring down a government. They were aiming for a general strike to defeat the law. But the union bosses are as usual playing a treacherous role. The Communists and Socialists think that a ‘social Europe’ can be won through parliaments to do everything they can to stop a real all –out general strike from happening.
But not only the open reformists. The leading so-called ‘Trotskyist Party’ the LCR joined with the CP and SP and the Greens to sign a statement begging Chirac to throw out the new law and sit down to talk with the ‘left’ about a ‘consensus’ i.e. ‘compromise’. In other words the so-called ‘far left’ took the struggle off the street back into parliament to do a deal behind the backs of the young workers.
The LCR in France has close relations with the SWP and the Socialist Workers in NZ. The LCR talked about a general strike but did not put this demand on the union officials to force them to call one. This is the same politics of the Workers’ Charter and McCarten’s Unite in New Zealand. They try to contain the spontaneous struggles of the youth, students and workers by making backroom deals with the bosses and with governments. Their reformist perspective is to build a popular front in which the ‘left’ can pressure the right. Fat chance! Right across the world, the parties of the ‘new type’ are no more than the broad left leg of the popular front alliance with the ‘democratic’ capitalists, sowing illusions in young, militant workers that they can deliver parliamentary socialism from above, and disarming them in the face of imperialist attacks.
Where to from here?
Fight for rank and file democracy! Challenge the leadership? Make McCarten accountable! Insist that all issues are debated at all up meetings. Insist that delegates are elected by the rank and file and are accountable and recallable. Stand up for your rights!
Unite for workers power, not bureaucratic power! Build fighting, democratic unions, not parliamentary careers!
Reject the McCartenite, Workers Charter local kiwi branch of the World Social Forum bloc that draws young workers under the influence of the bourgeois and restorationist leadership of Chavez, Castro, Morales and Lula that is containing and strangling the revolutionary masses in Latin America!
From Class Struggle 66 April/May 2006