New Zealand workers’ right to strike: is history about to be repeated?

Posted: September 15, 2012 by Admin in Class Matters, Labour Party NZ, New Zealand history, New Zealand politics, Ports of Auckland, Unions - NZ, Wharfies, Workers history, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes

by Don Franks

An attempt to increase workers’ bargaining power was recently made by Andrew Tait, International Socialist Organisation member and a Dunedin member of the EPMU. At last year’s EPMU regional forum, Andrew moved that the union  lobby for the introduction of the right to conduct secondary (sympathy) strikes. The immediate inspiration for Andrew’s motion was the Ports of Auckland dispute, where anti-strike laws forced Rail and Maritime Union workers to supply the ports when they were run by scab labour. 

Andrew’s motion was passed at the Dunedin forum and also adopted at the EPMU national conference. 

Andrew is  hopeful the EPMU will put some pressure on the Labour Party, would like to see other unions picking up on this campaign, and would also “like to see the left in New Zealand recognise the strike as something of a missing link and do more study and propaganda on them”. 

Elements of the left have actually put rather a lot of effort into this cause over the last few years. Our demand then was for workers’ full freedom to strike. The article below traces our campaign.

Will the hard won lessons of previous struggle be taken on board, or will left activists ignore them, to needlessly repeat past mistakes?

From The Spark, 18 May 2004

The SWO’s Freedom to Strike Campaign reviewed:

A presentation to the Wellington Anti-Capitalist Alliance student club May 2004, by Don Franks, former SWO member

“Agitate, educate, organise!” said Lenin. How might socialists carry out this advice in New Zealand today?

One sustained attempt in recent years was the Socialist Worker’s Organisation’s Freedom to Strike campaign.

Our “Freedom to Strike” campaign arose out of opposition to National’s union-busting Employment Contracts Act. The SWO focused on the repressive anti-strike clauses in the ECA. Prior to the ECA’s passage in 1991, work stoppages in solidarity with other jobs, or over political issues like nuclear ships, hadn’t been explicitly legal, but they’d not been explicitly illegal either, and they’d taken place, whenever workers so decided. Union officialdom also opposed the ECA, but did not centre their opposition on its anti-strike clauses. Their concern was for recognition as bargaining agents and access to potential fees-paying members. 

During 1997 Labour Party and top union officials drafted their alternative to the ECA, called the ‘Workplace Relations Bill’. The bill restored union right of entry, and the right to strike over multi-employer contracts. But all National’s restrictions and penalties for solidarity strikes remained, written in exactly the same wording as the ECA!

Rank and file unionists had no say in forming the WRB, but were expected to support it. At the 1997 Council of Trade Unions conference, delegates were handed elaborate folders about how to promote the Workplace Relations Bill – which no delegate had ever seen. The one copy of the actual Bill at the conference was held by Paul Tolich, who never let go of it. When we finally got to read the WRB, we denounced it as a strike-breaking disgrace to the union movement and began agitating hard against it.

Writing one year on in a SWO internal bulletin I observed:

“When Labour is elected to the Treasury benches – as seems very likely- they are sure to pass a version of the CTU’s scab Workplace Relations Bill. Although the Alliance have made a few feeble noises of dissent about the WRB the record shows they don’t think its a big issue and they are not into public attacks on it, let alone trying to arouse mass workers opposition to the bill. Although some union leftists had negative things to say about the bill last year, they seem to have mostly caved in to pressure from the union right and now go along with the WRB for the sake of ‘unity’. Almost all union officials have either lied about the meaning of the WRB, or kept silent about it, so the chance of the mass of rank and file workers to oppose it has been almost nil- because they’ve been kept in a state of enforced ignorance on the matter. The news media as might be expected have been uncritical of the WRB. This is a shocking situation for the working class in Aotearoa. Because of the bureaucratic conspiracy of dishonesty, cowardice and expediency workers face the danger of having the penalties of the old ECA enshrined in law – as ‘The bill that unions asked for themselves’.”

Aware of some opposition to their sellout, union bureaucrats were half-hearted about pushing the WRB. The fancy promotion kits lay unopened in union offices. Addressing a union rally in front of Parliament, CTU leader Ken Douglas never mentioned the WRB, although he was twisting a copy of it in his hands the whole time. I believe his silence on the bill that day was because he’d recognised several militants in the small crowd ready to jeer and interject if he’d tried to openly push his rubbish.

Eventually the WRB was quietly forgotten and superseded by the Employment Relations Act, Labour’s current policy. Union officials were more confident and united about pushing the ERA. But it retained the anti-strike provisions and SWO campaigning continued. We ran dozens of articles in our paper, and distributed many leaflets, carrying model resolutions which we hoped workers would move at union meetings. They said: “Our union must campaign for workers’ freedom to strike, banned under National’s Employment Contracts Act and Labour’s industrial policy. We ask the union umbrella bodies (Council of Trade Unions and the Trade Union Federation) to organise nationwide actions promoting the freedom to strike”. This resolution was carried by some PSA members, freezing workers, Nurses Organisation members and all three regional conferences of the Service and Food Workers union. In almost every case,the vote was unanimous – but in almost every case the resolution was moved by an SWO member. Despite these resolutions, nationwide actions promoting the freedom to strike never happened. My letters on the matter to the Service and Food Workers union I belonged to were fobbed off. In February 2001 I wrote to the Wellington CTU local affiliates council, asking for a forum on ‘The right to strike – how can we organise to regain it?.’ Finally, five months later, the LAC agreed to have a forum on ‘Industrial action in the new Era, where “the right to strike thing can be raised”. There was a higher than usual turnout for that meeting, but no subsequent action.

At his first Wellington LAC meeting as CTU President, Ross Wilson stated: “Getting the legal right to strike around social and political issues is impossible” and “the chance of getting that right from a Labour-Alliance government is totally nil.” He went on to say that if you have a mass movement on an issue , and resort to civil disobedience, then the legal right to strike doesn’t matter. Ross continued in this militant vein by asking: “Why do we want the government to legally sanction everything we do?” He got himself a bit of a laugh from the crowd by adding: “If striking was totally legal it would take half the attraction out of industrial action!”

That sort of brush-off from union officials was very common – and often effective. Militant workers would nod their heads and say, yes, that’s right, if we want to go on strike, we’ll just go ahead and do it. The difference was, of course, that the militants were sincere and the officials were not.

Months later, with legal pressure on railway workers to stop their picket in support of the Kinleith strike, no union official defied the law – and Ross Wilson did not call for mass civil disobedience. Most of the time union officials found our anti-strike law campaign little more than an irritating nuisance. But when too many of their members started listening, they took action.  The 1999 CTU conference workshop on industrial relations backed freedom to strike by a large majority. But CTU secretary Angela Foulkes stopped the idea becoming conference policy by refusing to put it to the vote.

In April 2000 I was summoned to a meeting with Darien Fenton, secretary of the Service and Food Workers union, where our agitation had been getting a positive response from delegates. Darien and her sidekick Don Swann grilled me about the right to strike, trying (unsuccessfully) to get me to admit that some restrictions were necessary, like for ambulance drivers. Finally Darien said would it “make you happy” if the CTU called for “the right to strike over social and economic issues”. I replied that, while not enough, that would be a welcome advance on their present position. Next day’s radio news said the CTU had asked the government to allow “unions to take industrial action on social and economic issue”. The request was instantly declined and the CTU took it no further.

Central to the SWO campaign was a Freedom to Strike petition, which many workers signed. In November 2000, to our surprise, the petition was finally endorsed by the National Affiliates Council, top body of the CTU. This was greeted in Socialist Worker as a sign that “support is building for the campaign within the union movement”. We called for a “broad left hui on the freedom to strike to be held in 2001”. That hui never took place and, in fact, the CTU leaders’ endorsement was the effective end of the Freedom to Strike campaign.

CTU leaders were never going to fight for the aims of our petition and the SWO had insufficient base among unionists to make them do so. At the 2001 Wellington Mayday rally CTU president Ross Wilson devoted most of his speech to uncritical praise for the Employment Relations Act. At the very same time as Ross was praising the ERA, Carter Holt Harvey was using that Act’s provisions to break the waterside workers’ struggle against casualisation. Socialist Worker noted: “This dispute is the first big test of the ERA and from a worker’s view it has failed completely. . . the ERA’s laws against pickets and solidarity strikes leave workers powerless. Watersiders can’t win if they abide by the ERA. But they can’t beat the ERA without a massive campaign of illegal solidarity actions from other workers.”

Today, in Aotearoa, under Labour, workers can still be fined or imprisoned for illegal strike action. The legal right to strike over any issue remains to be won, and it’s an ongoing question whether it will actually be won under capitalism.

So long as bans on solidarity strikes remain unchallenged by a mass movement of workers, the union movement will remain weak and divided. The Freedom to Strike campaign helped keep the flame of union principles burning, but not strongly enough to set the forest ablaze. Our petition was signed readily enough by most workers we approached. Many agreed, yes, it was scandalous that Labour was pushing such anti-worker laws. But masses of workers weren’t moved to take active ownership of the campaign.

In contrast, National’s threats to the Holidays Act produced far more groundswell, with a fraction of the agitation. To most workers, anti-strike laws were a bad, but remote, abstract thing, not the central issue of the day to be active on. The importance we placed on the legal right to strike wasn’t shared by enough people to create a mass movement. The campaign revealed most union officialdom as cynical, undemocratic and deceitful. But I feel that we expended overmuch energy demanding that officials uphold militant unionism. Berating right-wing officials is wasting breath unless you have mass support alongside you.  And most left-talking functionaries will take off and leave the socialists to fight alone when the shit hits the fan.

A positive legacy of the SWO campaign was our detailed submission to the parliamentary select committee on the Employment Relations Bill. This wasn’t made with any expectation of influencing the committee, but to set down a summary of our case. Published as a pamphlet called Workers Freedom to Strike, it’s essential reading for industrial activists today.

Most progress in the campaign was made where we had comrades active in unions and established on jobs. Face to face agitation at workplaces and at mass meetings is a potent form of struggle. Leaflets and papers are useful, but secondary.

Further reading:                                                                                                                                            Workers, unions and Labour: unravelling the myths                                                                                     Labour: a bosses’ party

  1. Admin says:

    It’s quite perverse how much of the ostensibly Marxist left in NZ is unprepared to learn anything much from the past despite a lot of hot air rhetoric about the need to learn from the past, being in a process of “learning” etc etc.

    It’s extraordinary how the lobbying approach to Labour still finds support on the left too. This blog and the class-struggle anarchists must be about the only folks on the left who have a hard line in relation to the Labour lieutenants of capital.

    Incidentally, after the Workers Party deciding nearly three years ago to launch a right-to-strike campaign, the current leadership appear to have dropped the ball entirely. There’s been no campaign and not much coverage of the issue in their paper either.


  2. Don Franks says:

    Most of our “Marxist” left todsy is that in name only.
    It has come to this; Socialist Aoteroa, probably the most vocal left group around today, just held a “revolution conference” where they hosted a Labour mp to exchange views about how to fight the present government.

    In practical terms this means nothing more or less than helping a rival capitalist party gain office next election.

    A party which in some respects has a more anti working class policy than National, who promise not to raise the retirement age. Labour are campaigning to sqeeze more out of tired old workers.

    How things could get much worse for the left is hard to see. How did we get to this state?

    A general impatience with revolutionary theory has dogged the New Zealand left for years. Questioning established habits and shiboleths is seen as divisive, theory in general is often dismissed altogether as ‘paralysis by analysis’.
    Never mind all your dusty books, Let’s just get on with it, involve people in some sort of action, any action, and it will radicalise them.
    It doesn’t.
    Run ragged in ill thought out directionless protest politics, bouncing from issue to issue, activists eventually became weary of getting nowhere and cease being politically active.

    Of course there is more to the problem than that, but it is a signifigant part of it.