indexby Don Franks

A correspondent to Redline asked, “if syndicalist praxis is kind of impossible in NZ now due to the illegality of sympathetic strike action?” 

As a young left activist, I found syndicalism an attractive political idea. The 1971 movie Joe Hill celebrated workers hitting back hard at cruel capitalists. The Industrial Workers of the World Songbook gave us something socialist to sing until we got to making up our own songs. 

An added attraction was that, unlike Marxism, basic IWW philosophy did not require too much difficult thought to comprehend. The heady IWW mixture of mass unity and moral indignation followed on quite easily from a standard christian upbringing.

The idea of one big union taking over the means of production and running a democratic workers society was almost like a secular heaven. 

It was also just about as remote. 

For the syndicalist idea to become a part of real life, a mass syndicalist workers’ movement is needed. Unfortunately for would-be syndicalists of my day, there were not enough takers. In 1971, the New Zealand workers’ movement was dominated by the Federation of Labour, the state sector unions, the Labour Party and half a dozen tiny hard-left political parties. On the job worker discontent was usually quickly absorbed by one or other of those repositories.

On the odd occasion where it was not, the participants in a dispute usually came to a compromise after a few hours or days. Put it another way, workers of my generation saw no need to create an alternative syndicalist movement.

What they did see the need for was fairly frequent use of a key syndicalist tactic – strike action. 

In the early 1970s workers had fewer legal restrictions on their freedom to strike. So, on well organised jobs, it was not uncommon for unionists to strike in support of sacked workers seeking reinstatement, or in support of other workers on strike. At that time there were also significant numbers of political strikes against racism, western intervention in Vietnam, the threat of nuclear war and other issues. Most of these actions did not last very long, because the blue-collar manual workers, who did most of the striking, mostly lived from payday to payday. 

While strikes gave a feeling of worthy sacrifice for a greater good, and were an exciting change from daily drudgery, they also hurt. Young families trying to pay off a house and educate their children could not afford too many strikes. Often, industrial action would severely damage family life. As a young person without responsibilities I did not always realise all the negative social implications of strikes.

Employers have enormous resources – control of the paypacket, the right to hire and fire and almost unquestioning backing from the state. If workers are to face down that level of opposition and force the boss to do something the boss doesn’t want to do, those workers have to be disciplined enough to stay out the gate and put up picket lines. Real picket lines which physically stop people from passing. Some of those would-be line breakers are often strikers’ former friends. After a strike is over it may take months or years to heal the bad feeling resulting from what took place on the picket line. As older militants can attest, sometimes the healing never happens.

Strikes are a vitally necessary weapon of the working class and as such I am very much in favour of them, but it needs to be recognised they come with a price tag. 

Today, strikes are rather out of favour among New Zealand workers. This is partly due to the anti-strike culture created by more restrictive industrial laws. I see several other reasons for fewer strikes today. 

In the ’70s there was a small communist current in the union movement. It was very small, but of some significance. Communist union delegates and officials did not usually initiate strikes but were more likely to encourage them and support them when they got going. (There was one exception, that being the Socialist Unity Party which sought to control and restrict industrial action.) Today there is no communist current in the New Zealand union movement and that has a negative effect on the use of strike action and on workers’ vision of an alternative socialist society.

The loss of communist ideology in the workers movement has been accompanied by a singular loss of spine in New Zealand labour union ideology. Today, unions make vague generalised public appeals for special consideration of “vulnerable workers”. This idiotic formulation not only disempowers and degrades sections of workers who have fought successfully for their own interests in the past, it also artificially divides the working class into ‘vulnerable’ and – presumably – ‘not vulnerable’. This attitude also surrenders the area of wage rises to mayors and city councillors to bestow or not bestow a ‘living wage’ to the deserving poor. This union office capitulation is like a cancer to basic working class solidarity.

Today there are fewer big manual blue-collar jobs or workplaces in New Zealand. Having been a union delegate on a big organised site and on several small non-union sites I have an idea of the huge difference in culture. Of course white-collar workers can and do take industrial action, but I think shared organised physical labour is a more fertile ground for immediate spontaneous expressions of solidarity. 

The culture of workers’ solidarity is not taught in schools, but passed down mostly by example and word of mouth. After the battering of the Employment Contracts Act and the subsequent union rout, we have, to some extent, missed a generation of generalised militant workers’ culture. Workers can learn the basics of organisation from scratch and do that rapidly when required, but the lost tradition does not help us.

Workers today are more atomized in their daily lives than they have been for many years. Devices such as the laptop, videos, I-pod, the internet, the Smartphone and the Playstation are universal; they allow and encourage individuals to find preoccupation and distraction in a self-contained world of their own. 

The rise of professional sport has created an important new alternative individual escape route for ambitious workers. Sport used to be something played after work, for fun. Now, sport has become work – for a few, it’s very well paid employment. A recent survey of school children saw them rate ‘sports player’ as their most favoured future occupation. Winning the Lotto is now not the only way to escape a crap job.

In recent years the ruling class has grown more sophisticated in its practice of social control. While the state forces all remain intact and ready to shoot where necessary, there is a layer of careful cultivation masking that reality. For example, in the same survey of school children, prime minister John Key was overwhelmingly described as one of the most cool people around. Such a thing would never have been said in our day of Holyoake, Muldoon, or – even despite the subsequent mythology – Norman Kirk. MPs used to appear remote; mainly boring, pompous, old white men in suits who drank too much . Today they are just as rotten, but effect a far more friendly and diverse image. Hey, look, they’re just folks like us! There is certainly class hatred of millionaire John Key out there, but it’s diluted and deflected by his carefully maintained ‘nice ordinary guy’ image. 

Although it is not on the horizon, I am sure that there will be a resurgence of working class fighting spirit. Capitalism has proved to be a very flexible system, but its internal contradictions do not allow for smooth transition to a civilized society for all to enjoy. Despite modern inventions, inequality is growing steadily.

The form of the next working class resurgence will necessarily rise out of modern conditions, which are very different from those of the early 20th century, when syndicalism briefly flourished. Although the basic contradictions of capitalism remain, today’s world of work, leisure, social mobility and social expectations has changed quite markedly. That is why events like the rise of the Wobblies – and the Bolsheviks – will not be replicated.

See also: The 1913 General Strike: is it relevant to us today?

  1. garagecollective says:

    Agree with the sentiment here, and also agree that 20th century workers organisations are no longer relevant in the changing face of worker identity today (see any communisation text for why). But one thing that is overlooked is the IWW tactic of ‘striking on the job’. Wobblies were very aware of how prolonged strikes had a negative impact on workers. So they advocated the go-slow, work-to-rule, and other ‘sabotage’ tactics that would hurt the bosses while still getting paid. There’s a tendency to paint the IWW as simply gunning for the one big general strike – and this relates also to wobblies involved in the 1913 Great Strike in NZ. But as I point out, many wobblies during that strike were against long strikes and advocated on-the-job action, or short, on-and-off strikes.

    Thanks for your post Don, enjoying your writing and keep up the good fight.


  2. Don Franks says:

    Thanks Jared.

    Yes, there is no one magic tactic, and all of them presuppose a workforce who are prepared to defy the boss.

    Given that essential ingredient, what are some good options?

    In my experience go slows and work to rules are depressing tactics, they are a drag to do, they go against the natural rhythm of human work and I have never seen one succeed.

    Sit ins and work ins are I think a very potent and potentially unifying workers weapon.

    Google up this document below my comments. It is a most inspiring account of workers struggle.

    Progressive Labor Party pamphlet, ‘The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike

  3. Phil says:

    The PLP pamphlet is on the Marxist Internet Archive at:

    There’s also a very interesting interview with Genora Johnson, one of the great figures of the Flint sit-down strike, on the same archive, see:

    It deals with the background and events of the strike and includes stuff on the role of women and on how the workers had to combat racism in the course of the struggle.

    I think the main political tendency involved at Flint was the American Workers Party, led by a radical Christian intellectual and organiser called A.J. Muste, although most of the membership were not religious. The WP later merged with the Communist League and subsequently evolved into the US SWP. One of the interesting things about Flint was that it was the trigger for a merger process between the Muste-led organisation and the Trotskyist CL, whose militants were the driving force in the Minneapolis teamster strikes.

    In other words, these kinds of struggles put a serious party-building project on the agenda.


    • Malcolm says:

      The AWP were heavily involved in the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934, the same year as the Minneapolis Teamster strike.

      Haven’t read it yet but there’s also this book by Sol and Genora Johnson Dollinger available:

      Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers’ Union

      • Phil F says:

        I meant to get that book a couple of years ago; it’s supposed to be very good. Sol and Genora remained convinced marxists and class-struggle militants the rest of their lives.

  4. Thomas R says:

    Hi Don,

    Interesting article, I enjoyed it. I wonder if, in light of the sort of ressurgence in IWW activity in the USA, that syndicalism of some stripe may be gaining popularity (over say traditional Leninist parties etc). This is really an outsider view, though. I have some friends in the wobblies in the USA so I may have been swallowing some propaganda in terms of how popular they really are 😉

    I think the IWW is often accused of looking back to it’s glory days – tho I wonder if that’s really any more true of them than it is of other leftist groups obsessed with theorizing history

  5. Don Franks says:

    The depressed condition of many workers there means there’s plenty of scope for industrial organising in the US at the moment. The IWW are very small in number but have made some Unite type efforts in recent years. Like Unite, they appear to me as much more of a labour union organising movement than a revolutionary political alternative.
    I think IWW competition is not with any Leninist grouplets but the existing US labour bureaucracy.

    There has long been a romantic view of the IWW among some activists,for several reasons.
    Some early IWW members were very courageous. The movement was always based on class and industry rather than a narrow trade perspective. And the IWW never gained enough power to commit any anti worker crimes in office.
    Those seeking an apparently unsullied political tradition may find fulfillment in syndicalism.
    I respect the struggles led by this tendency but don’t believe its perspective mounts any serious challenge to the capitalist state.