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Thursday, May 22, 2008

You just want to be on the side that's winning

Today I started earnestly going through my research in detail, extracting themes and ideas for the essay. My method for keeping myself focused on this involves tricking my brain into thinking I'm earning $12 an hour for it - entering the title, date and subject of each circular into a spreadsheet like I would normally do in a summer job. Apart from the motivational aspect of this, the list will probably be quite handy in those "where on earth did I read that good quote?" situations later.

Today I learned, to my amazement, that the CTU signed a "growth agreement" with the government in 1990 to the effect that they wouldn't ask for wage increases if the government would try to control inflation. If it had lasted to become operative, this agreement would have gone down as the biggest sellout in New Zealand union history. (A change of government and the Employment Contracts Act soon meant that unions had other things on their minds.) In order to have thought that the Growth Agreement was a good idea, the unions must have swallowed the neoliberal rhetoric on the evils of inflation hook, line and sinker. Furthermore, they must also have believed the part about inflation being the fault of workers with too much bargaining power, and the part about productivity gains being the only way to justify wage increases.

They sold the agreement to their members with claims that lower inflation would lead to lower interest rates, so by helping the government to control inflation they were really helping workers. From here that looks like a remarkably thin excuse. The experience of years of neoliberalism has taught us that unions must stick to their own game if they're to achieve anything at all. Even back then, the unionists must have realised the enormity of what they were giving up in exchange for so little. I can only conclude that they must have been very afraid of something to agree to such a deal - and one year later, their fears were realised with the passing of the ECA. As it turned out, not even handing over the best of their power to the government could save them in those dark days.

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