The battle to defend wharfies’ jobs steps up

by Don Franks

The urgent need for wider workers’ support for the Auckland wharfies has led to the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) launching a major campaign aimed at saving 320 Auckland union wharfies’ jobs.

The campaign, called Save Our Port, is fronted by the Maritime Union (MUNZ), with Council of Trade Union’s president Helen Kelly playing a central role and financial support from the CTU and affiliate unions.

Save Our Port was launched at the end of January following months of failed negotiations  over the watersiders’ collective employment contract. Ports of Auckland first demanded concessions, then made it clear they wanted a complete union clean out. They are now progressing plans to contract out the work.

Save Our Port operates a two-pronged strategy in support of the ongoing MUNZ strike action. 

One part is arousal of public sympathy for the workers. The union campaign began with a letter drop to 360,000 households in the Auckland area. Workers and supporters have also operated information stalls at community events, as well as distributing thousands of postcards to rush hour commuters.

The second element of the union campaign seeks to exploit differences among Auckland employers. Mainfreight, corporate consultancy firm Grant Samuel, the CTU and the central Auckland business association Heart of the City formed a coalition calling for Auckland Council to get rid of its focus on maximising profit from the council-owned port and draw up a new management charter. The council’s elected representatives want the port to lift its return on investment from 6 percent to 10-12 per cent over the next three to five years. On Friday (17 February) the CTU sent out a letter inviting interested parties to a meeting on March 6 to discuss policy changes for the port. Kelly said the Westhaven Marina Users Association and the Auckland Architects Association had confirmed they will attend.

In a way, this campaign is a step up from previous CTU efforts.  It is difficult to imagine past president  Ross Wilson leading such a vigorous counter attack. It is quite impossible to  imagine Wilson’s predecessor, Ken Douglas, in such a role. Wilson was a hardworking  ACC advocate in the wrong position, Douglas crowned his career by neutering the CTU’s active regional structures and helping usher in the Employment Contracts Act. Helen Kelly has kept up the CTU tradition of misleading workers down Labour’s blind alley, but her current campaign is a genuine battle to defend wharfies’ jobs.

In some ways Save Our Port is the best shot the CTU has fired for years, possibly since its formation.

That is not saying much, as can be seen by a glance at the CTU’s undistinguished record. Its central strategy has been to lobby Labour MPs instead of organising working class campaigns. The result of this strategy has been a steady decline of union numbers, and a deep decline of union relevance as a real force in society.

At the moment the CTU is using contradictions in the enemy camp and appealing to the public because they have next to no back-up troops to support the wharfies. This is partly a problem of the CTU’s own making. Industrial muscle has atrophied through lack of use. Union office acceptance of anti-strike laws has silent-smothered a whole generation’s sense of class solidarity.

The present weakness of the union movement is not just down to bad leadership. This weakness is also, and I think mostly, a result of various capitalist attacks under Labour- and National-led governments. It’s  also about the inherent weakness of trade unionism itself.

There is a persistent unfortunate tradition in the New Zealand left to view almost any union action as some sort of step towards a socialist future.

The socialist view of industrial struggles was summed up by Marx in the Communist Manifesto:  “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

Romantic notions aside, trade unionism doesn’t really give a shit about ever-expanding union of the workers. Trade unionism just wants to get the dispute resolved, with the preservation of the government-registered union as the bottom line. Trade unionism is not only pragmatic and flexible on principles. It describes itself as a “movement”, but is in reality a collection of snarling little fiefdoms, competing for members and suspicious of one another to a high degree. Running counter to this is a current of  spontaneous worker solidarity which ebbs and flows, seemingly without apparent logical cause. At the moment the tide is still a fair way out. Solidarity strikes are something to read about in history books rather than an urgent present day workers’ option.

I do hope the wharfies win this one, by whatever means. A defeat would be a massive setback for NZ organised labour and I think Kelly is very conscious of that. If the wharfies do manage something like a win, though, I wonder how much “real fruit” it will yield outside of the Auckland waterfront.

Further Redline articles on the dispute:
Why wharfies are striking – in their own words

Public support for wharfies

Ports of Auckland: what should the left be doing?
Wharf boss suddenly for women’s lib?
Ports dispute an issue for all workers
Thanks to the wharfies

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