Ports of Auckland – what should the left be doing?

by Don Franks

Striking Wharfies

To his credit, political commentator Chris Trotter has risen to the defence of the Auckland waterside workers (The Auckland Ports Dispute: An Injury To All) and has noted that a defeat for them would be a major, possibly historic setback for the working class.

Chris has also raised the question :

“What, then, should the Left be doing?”

He suggests this:

“There is already a measure of co-operation between MUNZ and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Together these bodies have released a fact-sheet on the dispute which puts paid to most of POAL’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the union’s position. But much more than this needs to done. MUNZ should consider seriously ‘handing over’ the dispute to the CTU in the way unions enmeshed in serious disputes in the 1960s and 70s ‘handed them over’ to the National Executive of the old Federation of Labour.

“By involving all of New Zealand’s trade unions in the dispute’s resolution, MUNZ would be saying to the POAL management: ‘This fight is now a national issue.’ It would empower the CTU President, Helen Kelly, to speak out nationally on the issues at stake and, as workers’ awareness grew, the CTU’s affiliates could be advised to prepare for large-scale solidarity actions in support of MUNZ’s members.

“Because New Zealand’s draconian employment laws outlaw sympathy and protest strikes the CTU’s response (at least initially) would have to be confined to organising demonstrations and raising funds to support striking workers’ families. What the CTU could also do, however, if POAL refuses to negotiate with MUNZ in good faith, is call upon young unemployed workers and students to take a leaf out of California’s ‘Occupy Oakland’ play-book and prepare to occupy the wharves.

“Makes more sense than sitting in a pup-tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square.

“The CTU and the Occupy Movement should not, however, be expected to fight POAL alone. Mayor Brown, rather than allow himself to be alienated from his South Auckland base, should announce immediately his intention of organising a series of rallies throughout Auckland’s working-class suburbs where he will declare his support for trade union rights, pledge to keep the Ports of Auckland in public hands and ask for Aucklanders’ support in dismissing the POAL Board of Directors should a settlement of the dispute not be effected quickly.

“Nor should the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, be allowed to repeat the error of his predecessor, Walter Nash, by attempting to keep the Labour Party neutral in this dispute. Here, before him, lies his ‘Orewa moment’: a chance to demonstrate to Labour’s electoral base that the Left is far from vanquished.

“That ‘an injury to one’ remains ‘an injury to all’.”


Is Chris better employed writing that advice than sitting in a pup-tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square?

Not much.

Helen Kelly has already spoken nationally on the issue, making some reasonable points. But Chris’s bright conclusion that: “and, as workers’ awareness grew, the CTU’s affiliates could be advised to prepare for large-scale solidarity actions in support of MUNZ’s members” is, in today’s conditions, just a fantasy.

There is not, at the moment, the political will, in the CTU office or most other union offices, or on worksites to take meaningful defiant mass action, even in the form of legal demonstrations. At the present time the best we have been able to do in disputes of the last decade is fund raise and make press statements and mount tiny protests of committed activists. We have, for now, lost the heart and resolve to produce meaningful mass union mobilisation.

Moving to the next point, I am sorry, but there is no way in the whole wide world that the CTU might, even in its cups or in its most feverish dreams, ever “call upon young unemployed workers and students to take a leaf out of California’s ‘Occupy Oakland’ play-book and prepare to occupy the wharves”.

Activated militant young workers and students are notoriously uncontrollable, a state of being which is absolute anathema to the CTU.

Chris Trotter’s appeal to Len Brown and David Shearer is nothing less than a gross insult to his blog readers’ intelligence.

Brown is just another nothing capitalist rent boy and when, Chris, in any crunching class issue in this country, has Labour ever appeared armed and uncompromising on the battlefield bearing the standard of ‘the Left’?

After an excellent introduction we are left here with a smelly indigestible mess of warmed-over romanticism and lazy political claptrap. False hopes.

So if not that, what’s the answer then?

We do what we can. We give money, we go to the picket line if we can get there and, in the event our union actually does send out a call for us to be part of a solidarity action, we become an active part of that. We argue on our jobs and to our social circles and on the internet in favour of the wharfies.

We keep ourselves alert and ready to support to the very end any workers’ spontaneous upheaval and uphold that action as above any law of the land.

We recognise that we are no longer in the 1970s, that the CTU is not the Federation of Labour and that our class is unorganised and atomized.

Contemporaneously with that, we should take a leaf out of Lenin’s book, when he insisted that workers are entitled to “the bitter truth”.

In this case, the bitter truth is that it is utterly vain to appeal to Len Brown and Labour, because they are enemies on the other side of the fence.

Appealing to those bastards for workers’ justice can have no result other than to waste precious minutes of our finite lives.

It is as vain to expect any help from lawyers or courts, because they exist to punish and marginalise and cheat the working class.

The bitter truth is that this is a class fight and workers can only win such fights by amassing large enough numbers of workers in a mood to defy the laws and the police as well as the bosses. If we can’t do that in any big industrial dispute we won’t be able to win it, and that’s the glaring reality.

We are greatly strengthened in such day-to-day fights by having a vision of the socialist future where workers run the country, by holding that vision and believing in the possibility and necessity of its complete fruition.


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