The Council of Trade Unions has been organising a series of “Fairness at Work” rallies in opposition to proposed new legislation which would allow employers to refuse to negotiate collective contracts, pay new workers less than the collective rate, deny rest and meal breaks to workers, cut pay in order to undercut competitors and make it harder to strike. The Christchurch rally followed earlier rallies in Wellington and Auckland which drew 1,500 and 3-4,000 workers respectively. The speakers at the Christchurch rally were Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly, kitchen worker Ian Walker, Service and Food Workers Union youth rep Kim Tanner, Engineers Union assistant general-secretary Ged O’Connell, and John Kerr, an organiser for the Rail and Maritime Transport union. The mood of the workers at the meeting was good, with many asking “What Next?” There is little appetite, however, among the top union leaders for a national stoppage or for the kind of groundwork that would need to be done to make a national stoppage a realistic prospect.
Below we reprint the speech made to the rally by John Kerr.
In the past 18 months there have been general strikes in Portugal, Italy and Spain; strikes in essential industries in France; protests in Germany; mass demonstrations in Britain; occupations of public spaces across the developed world; the near collapse of the political system in Greece and the actual collapse of that system in North African and middle eastern countries.
All these events are underpinned a common factor: the economy has stopped delivering and mainstream politicians haven’t a clue what to do about it.
Three things are happening:
1. In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008 it is clear that free market capitalism has failed.
2. In a great arc from Dublin to Istanbul there is a growing tide of discontent and protest as governments try and make working people like you pay for this failure with cuts to public spending, attacks on unions, and policies that lead to mass unemployment.
3. In Europe, the leaders of Social Democracy are in denial about points 1 & 2. For example the Labour Party in Britain is a pale pink shadow of the Tories, offering no alternative to austerity.
It’s not that bad here. Our economy has been insulated by Australian-owned banks and, until recent weeks, the sale of loads of milk powder to China.
There’s a good chance it won’t stay that way. The Aussie mining boom is over. One commentator said last week that their economy resembles a big hole in the ground surrounded by over-expensive property. If their house price bubble bursts and our milk powder stops selling, then look out. What’s happened in Europe can happen here.
In good times the political right tries to keep us in our place by giving just enough of us just enough so that we don’t demand a better deal. In difficult economic times they show their true colours and attack our wages, close hospital wards and stop buying school books.
The fact is that in good or bad times the bosses and their lackeys in this Government always want more – more profit, more dividends, more dollars in their wallets, and they have no scruples about taking it off you and your families.
They will only stop chasing us when we stop running. Appeasement doesn’t work.
We’ve been here before. Remember 1991? We didn’t put up a fight. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealand workers were ready to fight and our union leadership lost its bottle. The defeat was moral as well as political. The last National Government brought in the Employment Contracts Act and we’ve been paying the price ever since. Sure, Labour tweaked things with the Employment Relations Act but that didn’t even come close to fixing things and now we’re trying to hang on to that.
So let’s stop wringing our hands and let’s stop running. You and your fellow members gathered here today are your union, not the full-time paid officials like me. Demand that your union takes action after today. And if that means escalating this campaign then demand it.
We have the same level of union membership as France. Unionised labour in New Zealand works the railways, the wharves, the hospitals, the schools, the meat works and the dairy factories. It flies the planes, collects the taxes, delivers the mail and fights the fires.
We’re stronger than many of us think and stronger than many want us to think.
Further reading: What will it take to rebuild the unions?