Solidarity Library

Sunday, August 27, 2006


A right yet to be won – our freedom to strike


Strikes have brought workers suffering and death. They’ve also won money and righted wrongs. Striking involves risk, excitement and, dare I say it, fun.

A strike is a miniature revolt. For a period, the boss’s words have no authority, existing rules are broken and anything is possible. While strikes are most commonly reactive and defensive, they also have limitless potential.

The communist Rosa Luxemburg noted: “The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat.”

Generations of New Zealand workers have seen striking as their basic right. For most of our history, strikes have been severely restricted by the capitalist state. That remains the situation today.

Strikes in early New Zealand

Workers’ living conditions in early colonial New Zealand were appalling. Unemployment was rife in the first years of settlement and recurred regularly for the rest of the 19th century as the economy swung from boom to slump.

Conditions worsened during the long depression of the 1880s. There were no social services of any kind – no poor law, unemployment payments, old age pensions, labour laws or factories act.

These years also saw manufacturing grow in New Zealand. Manufacturers even catered for export markets. Their expansion was based on the low wages and sweated labour of women and children as well as men. Working class struggle took the form of occasional strikes, the formation of a few craft unions and petitions for unemployment relief.

Then came a great surge of workers’ organisation in 1889-90. For the first time in New Zealand, unskilled and semi-skilled workers organised themselves on a large scale. Union membership leapt from 5,000 to 63,000 in the space of one year.

Organisation was strongest in the transport occupations, with the Maritime Council bringing seamen, watersiders, miners and railwaymen into a single entity. Many improvements were won in a short space of time.

The employers soon counter-attacked, provoking a strike in 1890 of all sections of the Maritime Council except the railwaymen. The strike was defeated by a shortage of funds and scab herding. The employers began cleaning out unionism with a wave of wage cutting and victimisation.

The events of 1890 woke the capitalists up to the realities of working class strength. A continuation of the “no rules” relationship between capital and labour would lead to further serious outbreaks of class struggle which threatened the interests of business. A new strategy was needed.

The first ‘pro-worker’ government

In 1891, the Liberal Party won office on promises of land and labour reforms. William Pember Reeves was made minister of labour – the first such appointment in New Zealand and the British Empire.

Reeves named his son Fabian, after the British Fabian “socialists”. The Fabians were reformist, pro-imperialist intellectuals hostile to revolution and workers’ independent action. The Fabian legacy was to cast a long shadow over New Zealand industrial relations.

Reeves’ 1894 Industrial Conciliation & Arbitration Act introduced compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes – probably the first such provision in the world.

The IC&A Act was summarised by NZ historian Keith Sinclair as “encouraging trade unionism and preventing strikes”.

Reeves introduced several reforms, often more substantial than any Labour offerings today. Over considerable bosses’ opposition, Reeves’ government in 1894 passed the Shops & Shop Assistants Act, closing almost all shops from midday on Saturday until Monday morning.

But the Liberals’ policy had two sides. It looked to outlaw the worst excesses of capitalist dictatorship in factories, mines, ships and offices. It also tried to moderate the class struggle by involving the state as arbiter over wages and conditions of work.

Working class fightback

By 1906, after twelve strike-free years, real wages in New Zealand were below the 1894 level despite the country being in a period of prosperity.

Pressure had built up for militant action, and in 1906 the strike drought was broken by Auckland tramwaymen who took illegal action against victimisation. In early 1907 slaughtermen in Petone won a 15% increase in defiance of the Arbitration Court. More strikes followed, including the famous Blackball strike on the West Coast.

Soon a militant union organisation was formed – the “Red” Federation of Labor. Red Fed unions broke away from the IC&A Act and won many improvements in wages and working conditions by taking direct action.

Red Fed unionists were the first to demand the overthrow of the capitalist system and the setting up of a socialist society in New Zealand. They thought industrial organisation and the weapon of the general strike could do this.

This working class upsurge continued until 1912, when the employers counter-attacked at Waihi. Miners at Waihi struck to defend their union against a management-inspired scab union. The employers and their state reacted to the strike with vicious class hatred. Police and scabs poured into Waihi, the Miners Hall was attacked and one miner was killed and hundreds driven out of town.

The following year the employers attacked again, provoking a titanic waterfront struggle. Bill Massey’s new conservative government sent armed specials and troops to clear the wharves of strikers. The Red Feds went down for the count.

These industrial defeats turned workers towards politics as a means of improving their lives. In 1916 the Red Feds were central to forming the Labour Party, which talked of “socialism” but proposed reformist methods of achieving it.

Rise of the Labour Party

Labour’s election victory in 1935 coincided with economic recovery, allowing considerable improvements to be made in New Zealand’s social welfare system.

Labour also introduced compulsory unionism. No longer did workers have to fight for the closed shop. Union membership jumped from 81,000 in 1935 to 250,000 in 1939, and a new Federation of Labour (FoL) was established. At the same time the powers of the state in union affairs were greatly increased, such as the provision for deregistration of unions passed in 1939.

Compulsory unionism had the bad effect of creating paper unions dominated by a few reformist leaders and with little rank-and-file participation. A powerful group of class collaborationist officials headed by Fintan Patrick Walsh came into existence. They co-operated closely with government economic policies.

By 1949 the Labour Party had turned full circle. The same men who had led the Red Feds smashed the Carpenters Union with the scab-herding methods Massey had used in 1913.

The first Labour government of 1935-49 played exactly the same role as the Liberal government of the 1890s. They moderated the worst excesses of capitalist dictatorship while binding the working class to the capitalist system and allowing big business to flourish all the more.

After the Second World War finished in 1945 there was a further wave of working class militancy. The Communist Party reached the zenith of its influence and membership.

But in 1950 the union movement made a tragic mistake by splitting between the moderate FoL and the newly-formed militant Trade Union Congress (TUC).

When Holland’s National government picked a fight with watersiders in 1951, FoL leaders treacherously supported the government. Locked-out and striking TUC unions were isolated, going down to defeat after an epic struggle lasting 151 days.

Unions didn’t recover until 1968 when the Nil Wage Order of the Arbitration Court provoked a big and victorious outbreak of class struggle.

Two repressive law makers

In recent years successive National and Labour governments have taken turns limiting workers’ freedom to strike.

Under the Kirk Labour government, injunctions against the Drivers Union were issued in 1975. This was one of the first major uses of injunctions in industrial disputes.

The Lange Labour government intensified anti-worker legislation with the 1987 Labour Relations Act, making injunctions against workers and their unions a powerful weapon in the bosses’ hands and allowing employers to bring huge damages claims, as in Tory-ruled Britain.

This legislation was the forerunner to National’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act (ECA) which wrote unions out of industrial law and banned most strikes.

Countless tens of thousands of workers from all sectors marched in protest against National’s union-busting law. There were many calls for a general strike to smash the ECA. It was a close run thing, but top-level union treachery finally stopped a general strike from happening. Communist Party members were physically prevented from putting general strike resolutions at mass meetings.

At a conference of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), president Ken Douglas successfully manouvered to deflect the majority unionist wish for general strike action. A grateful capitalist state later rewarded Douglas with their highest honour – the Order of New Zealand.

Workplace Relations Bill

During 1997 top union officials drafted their alternative to National’s ECA, called the Workplace Relations Bill (WRB). The WRB proposed restoring the right of union entry to jobsites and the right to strike over multi-employer contracts. But all National’s restrictions and penalties for solidarity strikes and political strikes remained in the WRB, in exactly the same wording as the ECA.

At the 1997 CTU conference, delegates were handed elaborate folders about how to promote the WRB – a document none had been allowed to see.

Writing one year on in Socialist Worker’s internal bulletin, I observed:

When Labour is elected to the Treasury benches – as seems very likely – they are sure to pass a version of the CTU’s scab Workplace Relations Bill. Although the Alliance have made a few feeble noises of dissent about the WRB the record shows that they don’t think it’s a big issue and they are not into public attacks on it, let alone trying to rouse mass workers’ opposition to the bill. Although some union leftists had negative things to say about the bill last year, they seem to have mostly caved in to pressure from the union right and now go along with the WRB for the sake of “unity”. Almost all union officials have either lied about the meaning of the WRB, or kept silent about it, so the chance of the mass of rank-and-file workers to oppose it has been almost nil – because they’ve been kept in a state of enforced ignorance on the matter. The news media, as might be expected, have been uncritical of the WRB. This is a shocking situation for the working class in Aotearoa. Because of a bureaucratic conspiracy of dishonesty, cowardice and expediency, workers face the danger of having the penalties of the old ECA enshrined in law – as “the bill that the unions asked for themselves”.

Aware of opposition to this sellout, union officials were half-hearted about pushing the WRB. The fancy promotion kits lay unopened in union offices. Eventually the WRB was quietly forgotten, to be superceded by a Labour-CTU creation called the Employment Relations Act (ERA).

Socialist resistance to the ERA

When passed by Labour in 2000, the ERA restored the right of union entry to jobsites and the right to strike over multi-employer agreements, but left the rest of National’s ECA essentially intact.

Labour got away with it through the help of top union leaders. They didn’t show the whole ERA to their members before it was passed. The best they offered were “summaries”, none of which pointed out the retention of ECA strike bans and penalties.

Instead of organising against the ERA’s anti-strike provisions, union leaders pressed form letters on their members inviting them to endorse, sight unseen, the “fair and balanced” legislation of what they called the “new era”.

A strenuous campaign against Labour’s anti-strike legislation was mounted by Socialist Worker, but the group was too small and unconnected to the union movement to rouse enough support to kill the bill. Most top union officials found our campaign little more than an irritating nuisance.

But when too many of their members started listening, they took action. The 1999 CTU conference workshop on industrial relations backed the freedom to strike by a large majority. CTU secretary Angela Foulkes stopped the idea becoming conference policy by refusing to put it to the vote.

In the Service & Food Workers Union (SFWU), Socialist Worker caused bureaucrats some anxious moments by getting freedom to strike resolutions passed in all three of their regional delegates’ conferences. Following those resolutions, SFWU secretary Darien Fenton summoned me, as a prominant member of Socialist Worker and the SFWU, to a meeting with herself and organiser Don Swan. They unsucessfully sought my agreement that complete freedom to strike was not reasonable – for instance, “what about ambulance drivers?”. Finally they asked if it would make me happy if the CTU sought the right to strike over “social and political issues”. I said that would be a start. A couple of days later, this request was put by the CTU to minister of labour Margaret Wilson, who rejected it, and that was the end of that.

Socialist Worker also succeeded in getting many union officials to sign a petition demanding workers’ freedom to strike – including members of the CTU executive. But having made gestures in the direction of union principles, top union leaders proceeded with business as usual. No leftist official made any real attempt to rouse union members in support of the freedom to strike.

Effects of Labour’s strike-breaking ERA

At his first Wellington union meeting as CTU president, Ross Wilson said “getting the legal right to strike around social and political issues is impossible” and “the chance of getting that right from a Labour-Alliance government is totally nil”. He also stated: “If you have a mass movement on an issue, and resort to civil disobedience, then the legal right to strike doesn’t matter”.

Months later, with legal pressure on railway workers to stop their picket in support of the Kinleith strike, no union official defied the law. Nor did the CTU president make any call for civil disobedience.

At the 2001 Wellington May Day rally, Wilson spoke in praise of the ERA. At the same time, elsewhere in the country, Carter Holt Harvey was using ERA provisions to break a struggle by the Waterside Workers Union against casualisation. Socialist Worker’s paper noted:

This dispute is the first big test of the ERA, and from a workers’ point of view it has failed completely… The ERA’s provisions against pickets and solidarity strikes leave workers powerless. Watersiders can’t win if they abide by the ERA. But they can’t beat the ERA without a massive campaign of illegal solidarity actions from other workers.

Today in Aotearoa, under Labour, workers can be fined and imprisoned for illegal strikes. These are some of the harshest industrial penalties in the Western world. Our freedom to strike remains to be won.

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