by Daphna Whitmore
One of the aims of the Redline contributors is to make sense of New Zealand politics. This means that as well as looking at the dramatic periods of class struggle, such as the Waterfront dispute of 1951, we try to understand the long periods marked by low levels of struggle, the long years of inactivity.
Twenty years ago, workers were getting ready for a showdown. Tens of thousands joined demonstrations against the Employment Contract Bill. This attack by the National government came after two terms of a Labour government that had sold state assets off and dismantled or downsized industries which were centres of worker militancy (freezing works, mines, waterfront, seafarers, car plants, railways). There was an expectation that union leaders would call for strikes.
But the call didn’t come. CTU Secretary Ken Douglas and others in the leadership refused to lead a struggle, and so the Bill became law. Overnight many union rights were wiped out and collective bargaining was undermined.
This was not just a defeat following capitalist class attack, it was a betrayal from within the workers’ movement. The sellout/betrayal of 1991 coincided with the unravelling of the USSR and the loss of a visible alternative to capitalism.
In all the first world countries workers’ struggles waned.In New Zealand, rather than fight back against the privatisations, lower wages, casualisation and job losses, people adjusted their expectations lower, or hopped across the ditch to a better life in Australia. Thousands of people now emigrate to Australia every month rather than stay and fight for better wages here.
New Zealand has a large middle class whose sheer weight puts a brake on struggle, a stark contrast to third world countries where the middle class is small and the masses are much more militant. Here among the poor there is little experience with collective action.
Grim as things are on the lower rungs of the working class, there are now educational opportunities that didn’t exist a generation or two ago, such as the option of getting a student loan and going to university. These individual opportunities act as an alternative to organising collectively for change by enabling some people to get better-paying jobs, or at least giving hope that they’ll climb a career ladder.
Today, even with low wages, rising GST, and increasingly unaffordable housing, resistance has been very muted and the National government enjoys high levels of public support.
There is an old habit among much of the left to issue bold slogans in the hope that they will summon up a mobilisation of the masses. It hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.
*Stability, lack of momentum.