More job losses – but where’s the fightback?


by Philip Ferguson

Hundreds of industrial jobs have been taken off workers this month.

A hundred jobs are set to go at Tiwai Point aluminium smelter by November.   Southland region EPMU organiser Trevor Hobbs says, “If the smelter closed, the flow on affect would be devastating to Invercargill.”  The smelter is owned by global giant Rio Tinto, which is trying to get lower electricity prices from state-owned Meridian power company.

The Tasman mill in Kawerau is also taking away around 100 workers’ jobs.  The mill began in the early 1950s and at its height in the late 1970s and early 1980s employed around 2,400 workers; by 1998 this had dropped to 1,200 and by the start of this year it was a mere 280-290.  Now it is set to fall to below 200.

In Kawerau itself, unemployment is already almost 14% while 25% of its 6921 inhabitants receive some kind of benefit.  Many of the Tasman workers whose jobs are being taken off them live outside the town; the wider eastern Bay of Plenty region is being hit, a region already marked by unemployment and poverty

Elsewhere, Solid Energy has now confirmed the scope of its axe-work on jobs.  Spring Creek mine on the West Coast is confirmed as being shut, with 360 jobs being taken away by this state-owned capitalist firm.  Coming on top of the Pike River disaster, this is an especially harsh blow for the Coast.  At Solid Energy’s Huntly mine in the eastern Waikato, 63 regular jobs and 60 contractor jobs will go and in other Solid Energy divisions 163 jobs will go, double the number it suggested last month.

West Coast miners have been told by Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce CEO Peter Townsend not to worry too much because they can leave their homes and communities and come to Christchurch and join in the rebuild!

Solid Energy isn’t the only case of workers’ employment being taken away by what the liberal left refer to as “our assets”.  KiwiRail is planning to lay off nearly 160 staff in its infrastructure and engineering division in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch.  A second round of job cuts is expected next March, as “our asset”, like the profit-driven capitalist company it actually is, attempts to cut $200 million from its expenditure over the coming three years.

What has been the response of the unions to these kinds of layoffs?

Wayne Butson, general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, has noted that the skills being lost at KiwiRail are not those that can be learned from a short video or being taken out to the track, but skills that are built up over years of work in the industry.  He argues that “it beggars belief” that this should be happening when rail is, or could be, such a vital means of transport compared to road use.

In one sense he’s right.  It’s incredibly short-sighted to take away such skilled jobs, especially while the state is spending $12 billion on roads.  But this is simply how capitalism works.  It’s about maximising profit today, not about what is environmentally more sensible or what is more rational long-term in terms of moving goods and people around the country and providing socially useful employment.  Since KiwiRail is a capitalist company it is driven by the same market imperatives that privately-owned capitalist companies are.

The response of the EPMU to the Tasman jobs cuts has been to combine nationalistic rhetoric with accepting the need for a chunk of redundancies and merely trying to save a few jobs through the ‘consultation’ process with the bosses.  EPMU national secretary Bill Newson has been upset, for instance, that Norske Skog has upgraded one of its mills in Australia with the help of tens of millions of state aid and reckons “It’s time our government showed the same kind of support for kiwi jobs.”  He wants National to develop a plan to help the development of the manufacturing sector in New Zealand, a sector which would, of course, continue to be capitalist.

In Invercargill, the EPMU’s response to the job losses at Tiwai Point is to organise a postcard campaign.  EPMU director of organising Alan Clarence says the poster campaign is “about saving the smelter and the town [Invercargill], and we want the government to step up, get involved and help broker a deal with Meridi  So, again, the answer is to get National to change course and get one capitalist business (Meridian) to lower its prices to another capitalist business (Rio Tinto).  Not surprisingly Bill English’s press secretary Joanne Black responded, “the Government will not be intervening in commercial negotiations that occur between two companies.”  While the EPMU and much of the left may not understand the realities of the market and the role of state-owned enterprises within that, Bill English and his flunkeys certainly do.

The EPMU also organises the coal miners and is currently “looking at” Solid Energy’s job loss proposal.  On the West Coast, however, miners have taken to the streets to protest, with a 1,000-strong worker and community march last week.

A dozen West Coast miners and some EPMU officials stood on the steps of parliament yesterday while Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn presented the workers’ and local communities’ case for government assistance to State-Owned Enterprises minister Tony Ryall and also joined their token protest.  But the whole point of state-owned enterprises is, unlike say the old government departments before 1984, to make the maximum profits possible, so Ryall is not likely to intervene to protect jobs.

Moreover, the focus of going cap in hand to the government, which owns these profit-driven companies and both demands and ensures their profitability, is all wrong to the point of slavishness.  Don’t plea with the exploiters – fight them.

Believing there is nothing they can do about the situation, however, for years now workers have, like most union leaderships, frequently been prepared to simply roll over when faced with job losses.  This has occurred even in situations where the loss of jobs has been devastating for their communities as well as themselves.  Sometimes there has been a token protest.  At the Ports of Auckland earlier this year there was a more serious fight, and the company – once again a state-owned company (albeit in that case the local state rather than the national state – had to back off.  (We ran over 30 pieces on this dispute: see here.)

While many of the workers who are having their jobs taken away are angry, their main feelings seem to be frustration, disappointment and resignation.  As long as these emotions prevail, nothing much will change.  Unless workers start to realise we don’t have to accept this shite and start to put up some serious resistance, linking this to an alternative view of how the economic and human resources of society might be organised better, the defeats and the demoralisation will continue.

Bill Newson has noted, “Mass redundancies are becoming an all too familiar pattern. . . Unless the government changes course urgently the jobs crisis will only get worse.”  But another way of viewing this might be to say “Union’ and workers’ surrender is becoming an all too familiar pattern.  Unless the union movement changes course the jobs crisis will only get worse.”

After all these years of dealing with such companies, it seems pointless to complain about them unless you’re prepared to fight the source of the problem – capitalism itself.

But the dominant elements atop the unions simply have no alternative.  The ostensibly radical left is too weak numerically and too feeble politically to pose an alternative at even the most propagandistic level.  And the working class is largely absent from its own cause.

For anything to change, there will have to emerge, within the working class, a new set of politics, based on opposition to the very system that can’t function without regularly ruining workers’ lives.  Out of such a vanguard layer of workers, a serious – ie revolutionary – left can be built and we can start to challenge capitalism and organise for a new society, one based on freedom and material abundance for all.

Further reading: How capitalism works – and doesn’t work



  1. The typical response of a New Zealand worker to redundancy would be to move to Christchurch as disingenuously suggested by the government, or to Australia, which would be more sensible and is where the New Zealand government really thinks that surplus labour should go. A few others will stay at home on the dole, and a few will scratch a living from such activities as hunting, gardening and cutting firewood. Some, who are migrant labourers who will return to their country of origin or find greener pastures elsewhere.

    I suspect that none of them will see socialist revolution as an immediate solution to their personal problem, because actually it isn’t. Workers make logical decisions. If there was no Australian refuge for blue collar workers, and no United Kingdom for the white collars, then they might be forced to address the economic and political situation here at home in Aotearoa, which admittedly becomes more precarious by the day.

    It is our misfortune that few New Zealand capitalists are interested in creating a viable and productive national economy. Most want to make quick speculative profits, and for close on two hundred years the colonial system has allowed them to do that by speculating in Maori land or more recently in state assets. But it will not last forever, and neither will Australia forever provide a market for New Zealand’s surplus labour. The day will come when our people have no choice but to fight the regime. Hopefully not in my own lifetime.

  2. It is past time for the ” Save Our Assets” campaign farce to leave the stage. Their act is not funny.

    A few dozen miners desperate to save their jobs visit Wellington, appeal to the government, get a smarmy handshake and a minute in the Minister’s office and then flicked aside by Ministerial invocation of the market price.

    Self delusion aside, who are the owners of the Solid Energy asset?

    The capitalist class.

    Who are kidding themselves and making an idiotic mockery of struggle over the means of production?

    • The “Save Our Assets” campaign may be misguided, but I think we should be relaxed about it, even if for no other reason than that it will almost certainly fail. State asset sales are just a sign of the end: the colonial class busy burning the furniture in order to keep the house warm. Asset sales will not be the salvation of New Zealand capitalism, but neither will they be a body blow to the working class. It is not what the state does with its assets, but what we do for ourselves that will determine our future as a people.

  3. Just to clarify, I am not including the miners among the self deluded, all power to them trying to retain their jobs. If there had been a wider mobilization of the union movement in support the miners may have won something.
    I cite the miners as an example of how NZ owned state enterprises treat workers.

  4. Personally I feel very unrelaxed about the “Save Our Assets” Geoff, it is precious unrecoverable hours and minutes of activist time pointlessly squandered jumping around misrepresenting the actual state of the political landscape.

    Worse, I say, than doing nothing.

    If Solid Energy was really owned by the people, would the miners have got such a brush off today?

    I agree with you, it’s what we do ourselves that counts. Striking attitudes don’t count in my book.

    Pretending that we own, or can, by a submission or a vote, meaningfully influence corporate bodies in the possession of the armed capitalist state is either cynical deception or will full stupidity.

    • I accept that the people getting in behind the “Save our assets” campaign will one day wake up and say to themselves “That was a huge wasted effort”, and you are right, you do have a moral responsibility to point out the realities to them now. As for the cynics and the deceivers, they also will have their day of reckoning. Just carry on with the work, and in the fullness of time everything will come to rights. There is no point in becoming impatient, frustrated or angry.

  5. I agree there’s little point in being frustrated or angry, especially because I think we’re in for more of this nonsense. There are few, if any, people in this country more hostile to Marxism *in practice* than the Marxist left. So we continuously end up with the ostensibly Marxist left joining in the art of deception and bluster, their participation in the campaign in defence of state capitalism being merely the latest example.

    I agree Geoff that in the fullness of time things will come to rights. Unfortunately, the fullness of time is taking a very, very, very long time. . .

    Of the various campaigns mentioned in the article the one that was the saddest to me was the postcard campaign. Could there be anything more pathetic? Can you imagine, the bourgeoisie getting a postcard from little Mindy in Invercargill pleading that her daddy’s job be saved and the bourgeoisie deciding to stop being the bourgeoisie?

    There was a time when a union official suggesting a postcard campaign would’ve been booed off the stage and the workers insisting on militant action. Until the workers demand something better, however, this is what we’re dealing with.


  6. Thought provoking stuff Phil.

    I appreciate your comment that union is right ‘in one sense’ in lamenting the behavior of KiwiRail. You then go on to say that:

    ‘But this is simply how capitalism works. It’s about maximising profit today, not about what is environmentally more sensible or what is more rational long-term in terms of moving goods and people around the country and providing socially useful employment. Since KiwiRail is a capitalist company it is driven by the same market imperatives that privately-owned capitalist companies are.’

    Those of us who are fighting for jobs do know this. What’s more we do say it – witness my comments on RNZ’s Checkpoint on 10 July regarding job losses in Timaru:

    So I don’t accept your comment that:

    ‘Believing there is nothing they can do about the situation, however, for years now workers have, like most union leaderships, frequently been prepared to simply roll over when faced with job losses.’

    We fought hard to save jobs last year when KiwiRail tried to lay off workers at Hillside and Hutt workshops and whilst we weren’t successful at Hillside we did stop redundancies at Hutt. Similarly we’ve fought hard to reduce the current round of job cuts in KiwiRail from the 220 that was initially proposed to 158. hardly a victory I admit but certainly better than what we were facing. In addition to trying to save as many jobs as we can both these campaigns have focused on buidling organisation on the job and educating members about the situation they’re in – and yes, that does include an analysis of the intellectual bankruptcy of the business model in relation to SOEs.

    I agree with your comment that it sometimes looks like

    ‘…the dominant elements atop the unions simply have no alternative. The ostensibly radical left is too weak numerically and too feeble politically to pose an alternative at even the most propagandistic level. And the working class is largely absent from its own cause.’

    Some of us haven’t given up though – perharps more than some of our critics on the left appreciate.

    Kia Kaha

    • Hi John,
      thanks for your comments. You’ll note I did say “frequently” workers are prepared to roll over; I carefully chose that word, because there certainly are *some* fightbacks. However, serious fightbacks are pretty rare.

      I know how difficult fightbacks are because I work in a job where we seem to have “restructuring” every year and continual haemorrhaging of jobs. A couple of weeks ago a small department here were summoned to a meeting and told it was being closed down and in two-three weeks they’d be redundant. They were gobsmacked and pissed off, but the result has been to make submissions.

      One of the problems with “saving” jobs when faced with redundancies is that a smart employer who wants 150 redundancies will say they want 200; then there will be the consultation process and the bosses will agree to just have 150. So 50 jobs are “saved’ and the union and workers who still have jobs can feel like they have at least achieved something, but really they haven’t.

      I agree with your comment that, in these situations, strengthening organisation on the job is important and that can be done even in the context of partial defeats. You’ll also note that I’m not simply criticising union officials for “selling out”, a fairly standard mantra on the ostensibly revolutionary left. The deeper problem at present is the demobilisation, even decomposition, of workers *as a class*. Even the most committed militant organiser can’t summon resistance out of thin air. This reality tends to be avoided by the left because it’s very difficult to deal with.

      An absolutely clinical analysis of the current state of the working class in this country and why things are at this lowpoint is a really pressing task.


  7. Points John, for correctly blaming “rapacious capitalism”, that is seldom done by unionists in New Zealand today. However, you are, in practice, forced into a “we’ve got to work through this” position, just as I was as a union rep threatened by car plant closure some years ago.

    My own opinion today, based on working life experience, is that trade unionism does not have the answers to capitalist lay offs. We can at best, occupy the worksite for a while and in so doing are in a position to wring a few concessions from the boss. Even that is seldom tried. Trade unionism can do a number of things, but not everything. To fight lay offs meaningfully we need to open up another toolbox.

    I don’t accept your solution of “a little central planning, such as existed before the eighties”.
    Before the eighties we worked under exactly the same system, there was less pressure on it then.
    That was then and the easier times of the postwar boom will not return.

    When a current in labour movement realizes the need to get rid of rapacious capitalism and makes serious efforts in that direction we’ll be making some progress.

  8. That’s nice John, but doesn’t take us any further. Lenin said all sorts of things about trade unions, both unions under capitalism and unions in the young soviet republic. Along the way he suggested that a good dose of Taylorism would do them no harm.
    Pure historical interest aside, the only point of looking at Lenin today is to see if any of his stuff has any practical application for us in the here and now.
    Lenin’s opinion that ‘trade union politics is bourgeois politics’ shocked me when I first read it, but I believe that particular observation is valid and one we need to understand if we want to advance.

  9. Phil wrote ‘The deeper problem at present is the demobilisation, even decomposition, of workers *as a class*. Even the most committed militant organiser can’t summon resistance out of thin air. This reality tends to be avoided by the left because it’s very difficult to deal with.’

    Yes, too true, look forward to you or someone from redline writing about this (if you have already, please provide links, thanks). One thing that has not really been explained yet is how the big anti-austerity movements in Europe (including resistance to redundancies – compare the response of coal miners in Italy and Spain with those in NZ!) have not arrived here and prob won’t arrive here except in tiny, tentative spurts.

    Are you familiar with ‘autonomist marxist’ analysis of class decomposition? Here is a brief summary: ‘Capitalists actively struggle to “decompose” the capacities and strengths of working class composition by exacerbating and re-organizing internal divisions in the working class, ripping apart sources of working class and oppressed people’s power, fragmenting groups and struggles and extending social surveillance. These attempts to destroy working class struggles produce new conditions for the possible re-composition of working class struggle and power.’ Which leads to a breathless and giddy optimism about possibilities, and some weird stuff i really disagree with, but I do find it useful at times to explain things (that is, the framework of cycles of class composition and decomposition). I don’t think you people would agree with it much at all tho, but just interested to see you use the term class decomposition.

  10. I don’t have a lot of time for armchair militants who do nothing to actually change anything, or at least nothing effective, and spend their time throwing stones at those who are because they’re not leading the glorious proletarian revolution they’ve read about in their pamphlets. Their influence is close to zero!

    • Since the folks at redline have, between us, about 250 years of coalface organising experience, I assume this isn’t aimed at us.

      A number of the autonomist Marxists that vomitingdiamonds mentions also have substantial experience in workplace and community organising in places like Italy. So it seems an odd comment.

      For myself, I don’t have much time for people who do a certain amount of stuff based on fairly crappy politics and then use what they do as some kind of protective covering to ward off more radical politics.

      I’d be interested in knowing what you define as “effective”, because the current numerical and organisational weakness of, for instance, the union movement would suggest that whatever is being done is not especially effective. . .

      The reality is that neither revolutionaries nor reformists are making much of a practical difference at present.


      • I might add that I don’t have a lot of time for Labour Party hacks who do nothing to actually change anything and spend their time helping this party which is totally and utterly dedicated to maintaining capitalism – ie the system that requires the exploitation of workers – and will do anything necessary to maintain this system (as per the 1984-1990 Labour government), while claiming they give a shit about workers. Propping up the rotten Labour Party and helping shackle unions to it is actively undermining the possibilities for working class advance. Fortunately, the influence of the Labour Party on workers is decreasing. Speed the day when it’s zero.

  11. My late mother belonged to the Labour Party and remained loyal throughout her life. Despite sharing some of my own misgivings about the direction of the party, she believed that the Labour Party remained our best hope for peace and social justice in Aotearoa.

    As members of the wider community, and as moral agents, we have to be candid, and we have to say what we believe to be true, but on account of my mother, I try to avoid making derogatory comments about the Labour Party or its membership. I would go further, and suggest that in every political party you will find someone’s mother who sincerely believes that her offers the best hope for the welll-being of our people. Therefore I see merit in tempering the rhetoric which we direct against those of a different persuasion.

  12. My late mother also belonged to the Labour Party for many years but left it in 1989 and was a founder-member of the NLP. I think there’s a difference between folks like your mother and people who now, for instance, stand as candidates for Labour and pop up here criticising “armchair militants”. We have written a number of articles about the Labour Party and an entire pamphlet – check out the category section – in which we go in great detail into the record of the Labour Party, from its ardent support for the White New Zealand policy after WW1 to its launching of the dawn raids in the mid-70s to the cut-throat attack on workers’ rights and living standards in the 1980s and the vigorous maintenance of social inequality during the Clark years.

    Speaking the truth about the Labour Party, which sometimes needs to be fairly blunt, is essential. I thought it was pretty cheeky for someone to show up here, given our track records of activism, and complain about armchair militants criticising this or that, so I wasn’t overly concerned about tempering my comments. But, in general, I agree with you about comradely discussion – however, *comradely* also refers to *among comrades* and Labour Party candidates and unionists who try to keep workers shackled to Labour are not our comrades.


    • Some mothers never lose hope that their wayward sons will one day return to the straight and narrow path. It probably doesn’t help to tell them that their boy is rotten to the core, and will never redeem himself, because we cannot prove that their maternal hope is unjustified, and I am not even sure that we should want to.

      We don’t know with certainty what will become of the Labour Party although some of us have taken a different political course, because we have a clear notion of where Labour is heading.

      However not all our political opponents act in bad faith. If they did, given that we are in the minority, there would be little hope for the world, or for our own ideas.

      Some of those who oppose us have merely misplaced their trust in individuals or institutions which will ultimately disappoint them. Others may actually have perceived truths which have so far eluded us.

      Whatever the case , even under the provocation of epithets such as “armchair militant” with its implied contempt for intelligent political analysis, I still consider that it better to speak truth with restraint, in the knowledge that those who take a shot at me today may be my comrade tomorrow.

  13. Looking back over my political life I have some regret for the several times I didn’t speak out plainly. My restraint was sometimes a calculated effort to maintain unity, more often it was for fear of making an unpleasant scene. I have no regret for the times I did speak out and cause a scene.
    As long as the arguments are political rather than personal I think they should be as clear and frank as possible. Telling someone what we really think is paying them the compliment of honesty.

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