For a long time, it seemed that strikes were a thing of the past – and then, under an ostensibly more worker-friendly government, they came roaring back. So why now? Trade unionist Alastair Reith provides a view from the left.
This year has seen the welcome, long overdue return of strike action to New Zealand. As it’s gone on, I’ve noticed an unfortunate talking point sneaking into the discussion. “Why didn’t you strike under National, why are you only doing this now? Give Labour and Jacinda a chance!”
It’s an interesting question. Why were strikes so low, for so long? Was it a case of union officials not wanting to take action, and the rank and file following that? Or were union members not ready to take action, despite officials being up for it? I suspect some combination of both.
The recent wave of strikes is partly coincidence. Major collective agreements, such as those of the nurses and teachers, happened to be in bargaining this year and the mood for action was there. When the rank and file have made loud and clear their determination to improve what’s on the table, the question of whether a strike will happen answers itself, though plenty of heated debate is (and was) possible around what form the strike takes and how far it goes.
But this isn’t enough to answer the question. Public sector workers had major collective agreements come up under nine years of National, and similar industrial action was not taken. Other unions did strike; when I was a Unite store delegate at McDonald’s, my union waged a successful campaign of strikes, media engagement and community pressure that forced the company to give secure hours to staff. Wharfies went toe to toe with Ports of Auckland, Bunnings was rocked by strikes across the country, junior doctors walked out, and more besides: ANZ bank tellers, AUT academic staff, KFC workers, bus drivers… the list could go on. Yet year after year, strikes figures remained stubbornly low, and few of these strikes lasted even a whole day, let alone days on end.
Rather than asking ourselves why workers have begun striking now, it may be more useful to consider the background to why it didn’t happen for so long.
A legacy of defeat
Unions’ defeats in the 1980s and 90s – and the shameful lack of bottle shown by those who should have opposed the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 – left a crushing legacy. New Zealand workers took those lessons to heart, and despite the inspiring and brave struggles of so many during those trying times the end result was a generation that grew up with less experience than our parents or grandparents of how workers can strike, and win.
I’ve always thought it is a mistake to call Kiwis apathetic. We care about all sorts of stuff, deeply, but the strike simply slipped out of most people’s lived reality following two or three decades of retreat and defeat. Why gamble on something so risky and alien, when you can just buy a ticket to Australia and get a 50% pay rise? Why should we gamble so much on a scrap?
From an institutional perspective, it’s worth noting that unions face a tightly restricted legal environment. The threat of injunctions is real, and solidarity strikes are illegal. It’s all very well to call for them anyway, but the officials charged with overseeing our unions are unwilling to risk asset seizure, potential bankruptcy, the loss of resources pooled by members over generations and, of course, the loss of their own jobs.
At a certain point, whether on the picket line, in the courts or via parliamentary allies, these anti-strike laws will need to be challenged. No union has so far wanted to be the first one to do it, for obvious reasons.
Class war by the rich
As the profitability of the employing class was threatened by the increasing ground won by organised labour, they turned on us in the late 1970s and 80s, dealing a series of kill shots to key powerful unions around the Western world. The miners and printers in Britain, the builders labourers in Australia, the air traffic controllers in the US. Here in NZ, the boilermakers were deregistered by Muldoon. Rapid deregulation and massive cutbacks to state services under the Labour government of the 1980s left union strongholds in places like the freezing works and the railways depleted of members, and the broader movement confused – this is our party in government, why are they attacking us?
The resulting demoralisation and infighting left the unions without an unbroken shield wall in 1991, when the National government – elected, ironically, on a (quickly betrayed!) platform of kinder government than what came before it – unveiled its Employment Contracts Act and tried to force everyone onto individual agreements.
From then until now, it’s largely been survival mode. Unite’s emergence was a welcome addition to the ranks, and there have been some organising drives by existing unions to break into new territory. But for the most part, the key industrial disputes of the past decade have been defensive ones against employer clawbacks, and most union growth has been through amalgamations. The overall trajectory has been marked by ongoing loss of members, and the loss of 90% of the private sector.
Neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t sell itself as any kind of utopia. The facts are too well established, the families sleeping in cars too hard to deny, the basic tenets of the Kiwi dream – a home, a car, a holiday with the family here and there – too obviously out of reach for so many. Rather than denying these facts, the mantra of the ruling class is to denigrate those in poverty: the problem is not a yawning chasm between rich and poor, with low wages for some and obscene profits for others, and an out of control housing market. The problem is kids (somehow!) spending $40 a day on smashed avocado. The reality, they say, is that there’s no alternative.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force,” wrote Karl Marx in 1845. With even the most passionate free-marketeers unable to credibly deny our planet of slums sliding toward climate catastrophe, the rulers of the Western world have instead fought to destroy any conception that a different world is possible.
Middling progressive reforms like paid parental leave were fiercely resisted by Helen Clark in New Zealand, and public healthcare dismissed as impossible by Hillary Clinton in America as recently as two years ago. The mild social-democratic programme of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain is hysterically derided by critics as a return to Stalinist Russia, and the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to offer permanent proof that the other path leads nowhere. Pepsi was bankrupt, Coke reigns supreme.
The ruling class and its dominant narrative kept horizons low, and this fed directly into the declining strike rate of the 1990s and 2000s. Suicide, drug abuse and emigration replaced collective industrial struggle as the response to capitalism’s every day abuse. It went on for far too long.
A new beginning
Resistance, however, cannot be postponed indefinitely. Like pent up steam, the discontent of ordinary people must eventually find an outlet. The long overdue replacement of John Key’s government with a somewhat more progressive coalition put a change of direction in everyone’s mind. If those at the top can alter course and change some of the rules, why can’t we do the same in our workplaces?
A basic principle of the labour movement is that you never cross a picket line. As we witness the return of strikes to the New Zealand landscape, it’s our responsibility to support and encourage them in any way we can. Unfortunately, some on the left have fallen short of this task. Accusing striking workers of being National Party agents, of undermining the government: this is scab talk.
We do not owe the Labour-led government our quiet servitude, and they haven’t demanded it. Throughout history, those who passively rely on politicians to improve their lives tend to receive very little. If we want to change this country, we need to make it happen ourselves. Workers taking strike action is something to celebrate, indicative of a more hopeful and confident mood among ordinary people. If we win these fights and improve our lives, we set the standard for others, and move our whole society in a better direction. Only good things can come of it, and it’s wonderful to see.
Alastair Reith lives in Wellington. A former store delegate at McDonald’s and national executive member of Unite, he has worked for the Maritime Union of New Zealand and the Rail & Maritime Transport Union. He now works in not-for-profit communications, and is a member of the Public Service Association. All views expressed are entirely his own.