The workers’ flag is deepest red — and Green

It’s Labour Day next Monday. What’s the point nowadays?

Once there was tradition: organisation and regulation for decency and dignity for those who got their sustenance from work for others.

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) is in that tradition. It held its biennial conference last week.

It farewelled president Helen Kelly, gravely ill but still sparky on the last day of her eight years at the top: fearless and tenacious, a “complete pain in the arse” for opponents but always with a disarming smile, Labour leader Andrew Little said at the conference.

Kelly was an innovator. She had to be: work and pay are not what they used to be.

E Tu, formed the week before from two of the biggest unions in the manufacturing (Little’s old union) and service sectors, exemplifies that. Hostile legislation and globalisation have made it much harder to recruit and hold members.

Only 10% of private sector and 56% of public sector employees were union members in 2013. Farming out delivery of public services to not-for-profits and for-profit firms will cut the overall percentage more.

E Tu (stand tall is the official translation for the te reo illiterate) draws its name in part from the slender, tall kahikatea: breakable as single trunks but strong in clumps — an old, true message about employment power asymmetry.

But how to get workers into clumps now?

Kelly’s CTU has run safety campaigns and court actions or backed those of member unions, such as those of service workers and nurses on gender-equal pay and sleep-over and transport pay for aged-care workers.

It has explored options for people to be associated with or contribute to union-type actions without formally joining a union.

The CTU and unions have also sought to draw in the wider public, to put pressure on exploitative, confrontational or responsibility-ducking employers: zero hours cafes, Ports of Auckland, forest owners, meat processing companies (involving iwi leaders) and, most recently, a firm which substituted a grocery chit for a wage rise.

The living wage campaign involves community and church groups besides unions, has the Wellington City Council’s commitment and maybe Victoria University’s and has a number of committed firms.

The public have also crowd-contributed funds for projects, especially those involving legal fees, or added names to a petition.

But even as Kelly’s CTU, the more inventive unions and new unions such as Unite have been redrawing the map, the landscape has been changing again.

The 1980s-2000s globalisation displaced traditional jobs geographically — from rich countries (like us) to upwardly mobile poorer countries (like China).

The 2010s digital-technology-driven hyperglobalisation is replacing jobs with robots and other computer-driven devices — very visibly for a decade or more now in places, including in the upwardly mobile economies, where things are made and in offices and, round the corner, even for in-person services such as care of the infirm and aged.

There is also a shift from directly employing workers to employment through subcontractors or turning workers themselves into contractors, which veils who is really responsible for wages and conditions.

Some of this has suited employees. Much hasn’t. Work is less predictable and reliable. The 1936 idea that a wage would provide for a family ¬– the first Labour government’s biggest change — has gone.

Instead employers are subsidised through taxpayer interventions such as Working for Families. That helps them stay competitive in globalised times.

Those times are redefining how work is found and contracted: the likes of Uber and Airbnb or online auctions for specified tasks.

Can unions devise an organisational response? Can there be a legislative response, since these arrangements don’t respect national boundaries?

That poses big questions for Labour and the Greens. For Labour that goes without saying because the “labour” in Labour tags it as a party for those who work for wages.

It goes for the Greens, too. James Shaw was at the E Tu launch and spoke at the CTU conference. That parks the Greens definitely on Labour’s side, however much Shaw insists he and the Greens will work with any party.

That, along with a much improved personal and operational relationship and greater mutual respect than last year, is a plus for a potential Labour-Green coalition in 2017.

But there is a risk: Shaw.

At the CTU conference Little, the unionist among friends, scanned some important trends and future challenges in the future of work, including different ways workers will associate. But he spoke with his head mostly down, eyes on his notes.

Shaw delivered a succinct gender-equality message, making eye contact with delegates, with humour but dead serious.

The risk is that Shaw in 2017 looks and sounds to voters more the leader of the opposition than Little. That could stick a competitive edge into the relationship.

And if that went bad, it could delay the resurrection of Labour Day.