Decision time at the docks

by Don Franks

A scab-loaded 14,000-tonne cargo ship sits untouched at Wellington’s wharf, blacked by Wellington wharfies in support of their Auckland comrades.

The action is the first such flow-on effect for CentrePort from the Ports of Auckland dispute, after it announced it was expecting an extra 3,000 containers during the first two weeks of March because of the Auckland strike.

The blacked vessel, Maersk Aberdeen, has been sitting idle since it docked last Friday.

Yesterday, CentrePort announced it would seek a court injunction from the Employment Court to force the workers to handle the ship.  The hearing is set to start at 9.30am today (Tuesday, March 6).

This morning, Maritime Union Wellington secretary Mike Clark said he expected Wellington MUNZ members to be ordered back to work today.

“That’s usually how these things go.” Workers would comply with any court ruling, he said. “You can’t disobey a court order.”

You can, of course, but there are consequences. Refusal to obey the court order would result in the workers and their union being threatened by fines, imprisonment and the possible destruction of their union.

It has to be said, however, that the history of the union movement is a history of law-breaking. One of the earliest examples is the defiance of seven 19th century British farm labourers in the village of Tolpuddle. For illegally forming a union they were imprisoned and deported. The good news then was that, after some years, mass workers’ protests across the country secured the return of the men. The struggle also massively reinforced the legitimacy of unionism in Britain.

The hard truth is that advances for the workers movement are usually made after self-sacrifice by a few. The wharfies risk severe punishment, but were they to disobey the bosses’ law in pursuit of their cause, it could stunningly reawaken the fighting spirit of the working class.

A few hundred workers defying the capitalist state is impossible, however, without mass backup.

There has already been some support offered.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union Wellington secretary James Stoddart said he was unsure what would happen but there were about 30 members of the union at CentrePort and they would stand with their fellow unionised workers if needed. “I’d say definitely we won’t be touching it [the Aberdeen] if Munz don’t touch it.”

A similar scene occurred in Tauranga during the weekend when members of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union refused to unload another blacked ship. The ship was delayed for two days.

What response would come from other sections of the union movement is unclear. In the present depressed industrial climate, mass industrial action seems unlikely.

The wharfies have been forced into a most unenviable position. If they stand firm, they risk a hiding. If they comply, they surrender their biggest gun.

One thing is clear. Until we reclaim the solidarity strike by mass law breaking, all New Zealand unionists will remain under the cosh.

post script: In a feature report on the dispute, this morning’s DominionPost included a definition:”What is Blacklisting? It is a form of industrial action that is also known as secondary picketing, and used to be a common union tactic before the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991″.

Unmentioned in the DominionPost article is the fact that the Labour Party promised to repeal National’s ECA, was elected in 1999 on that promise and failed to do so during its nine years in government. Labour simply renamed the law, made a few adjustments and retained all the penalties against solidarity strikes, despite being asked by the Council of Trade Unions to remove them.

With this crime on their hands, will Labour now have the barefaced cheek to pretend they are the wharfies’ friends?

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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