This is a contributed article by a union organiser who is also a regular Redline reader; it raises a number of important issues which we hope readers of the blog will take up.

Facing redundancy

Workers at General Motors plant in Petone, 1983, facing redundancy.  Photo by Ian Mackley, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: EP/1983/2198/10

by The Secret Union Organiser

I am a union organiser.  I’ve worked for a number of unions over the past quarter of a century, both as a delegate and a paid organiser, here in New Zealand and overseas.

My experience in organising in the face of redundancies has led me to the following conclusions (this is not an exhaustive list…):

  1. Regardless of my or my union’s view of the law (and by ‘my union’ I mean the members affected as well as the wider membership and organisation), the boss will use it against us.  The law in NZ is so heavily weighted against workers that there is no legal way of stopping redundancies if the boss is bent on them.

  2. A campaign against redundancies, whether it uses legal or extra-legal tactics, is also highly unlikely to stop the boss completely.  It may stop some redundancies, it may delay or slow down the process.  To do that the employer has to be vulnerable to public pressure and the union has to wage a very smart campaign to get public support – once that happens mainstream politicians and interest groups will jump on board.  Ultimately, however, all this is likely to do is blunt the boss’s advance rather than stop it.

  3. It will do two other things though, with varying degrees of success.  Firstly, if it’s done right and it involves grass roots activism, it will build organisation amongst some of the workers – they will take pride in going down swinging and they will grow in confidence and that will go with them to the next job.  Some won’t, however, and will be even more bitter at fighting hard and losing and will become disillusioned.  Secondly, pour enough ordure on the boss and they will think twice next time.  It’s not that you lose the battle and win the war – in my personal view it’d take a revolution to do that – it’s that the boss thinks very hard before they buy a fight and sometimes foregoes laying off people next time.

  4. I don’t agree that occupations, sympathy strikes or other illegal tactics will lead the boss to make concessions e.g. “paying money to make us shut up and go away”.  At least not in New Zealand.  In other countries with different cultures it may do.  Here, in my experience, they simply injunct, call the police and use the full weight of the law and the state to intimidate us and our members.  And when you’re faced with a prison term and losing what little wealth you’ve managed to accumulate for contempt of court, and you’re a worker with a family who has never had to face that in your life, it’s pretty intimidating.  They also threaten to dismiss for serious misconduct – which means workers face losing any redundancy compensation they are entitled to.  Again, pretty intimidating when you’re at the sharp end.

This isn’t an exhaustive list as I said above.  Our union will campaign and fight job cuts and we will use those campaigns to build consciousness and organisation on and off the job, despite the difficulties and tactical problems outlined above.  Some other unions are less effective, not (in my experience) because of some sinister hidden agenda or because they’re incompetent, but for a whole range of reasons tied to resources, history and the legacy of 100 years of the arbitration system in our little country.

The fact is unions in a capitalist society don’t exist to challenge the exploitation of labour, we exist to negotiate the terms on which workers will be exploited. We can be vehicles for raising class consciousness, and for putting the idea of a different world in workers’ minds, but that different world won’t come about through unions alone.  I think we’re a necessary but insufficient factor when it comes to making a revolution.



  1. Don Franks says:

    “The law in NZ is so heavily weighted against workers that there is no legal way of stopping redundancies if the boss is bent on them.”

    Quite correct. Yet again and again unions look to the law for remedy. As you infer, pointlessly.

    I believe “very smart campaigns to get public support” aimed at enlisting mps and the like are equally useless.
    For a couple of generations now unions have as a first – and often only- option resorted to general pleas for sympathy. They stress how small their claims are, they underline their ‘vulnerability’ and for what?
    What is the public actually expected to do? As for mps, they will give you all the crocodile tears you want and that’s your lot from them.
    You can always get an mp to help open a factory, when one is being shut the mps are all suddenly very busy elsewhere.

    From a working class point of view, most mps are useless contemptible creatures.

    “I don’t agree that occupations, sympathy strikes or other illegal tactics will lead the boss to make concessions e.g. “paying money to make us shut up and go away”. At least not in New Zealand”

    Just because we have seldom tried those tactics here does not mean they can’t work.

    Yes, the cost may be very high. Class struggle is brutal. Even on an ordinary ‘peaceful’ day there
    are a thousand petty hurtful injustices done to wage workers all over New Zealand. Strikes are
    tough on people, I know, I’ve talked to pleading indignant strikers families too.

    Unions are needed to prevent workers from being treated like beasts of burden.

    I don’t believe that apologetic legalisitc union approaches to redundancy does anything to raise class consiousness, if anything, they do the reverse.

    Yes, we need a revolution. And we need to be taking steps towards it in the course of every dispute.

    A very difficult thing to do, I grant.

    Not impossible.

    • `Thomas says:

      [“I don’t agree that occupations, sympathy strikes or other illegal tactics will lead the boss to make concessions e.g. “paying money to make us shut up and go away”. At least not in New Zealand”

      Just because we have seldom tried those tactics here does not mean they can’t work.

      Yes, the cost may be very high. Class struggle is brutal. Even on an ordinary ‘peaceful’ ]

      If I’m not mistaken, many Australian unions quite often take ;’illegal’ strike actions and just force the union to pay whatever fines. Seems like a much better use of fees than propping up the Labour party 😉

      • John Kerr says:

        Giving $100000s to the boss in ‘damages’, not to mention paying court fines is what the prospect is when we’re injuncted here. Not to mention being jailed for contempt. It’s happened to our union – most recently during the Ports of Auckland dispute. I don’t see that as a good use of members’ fees.

        I can’t comment on what happens in Australia. I have taken part in civil disobedience there with an Aussie union. It was limited, targeted, and done for the benefit of a Labor minister who was pushing to get their ‘safe rates’ bill for truckies through parliament. It worked.

        Only five unions are affiliated to the NZLP, but more may donate to their funds. Our union is an affiliate and donates to both Labour and the Greens.

  2. John Kerr says:

    I don’t think the writer was advocating that a ‘legalistic’ strategy would be successful in fighting redundancies. The point about the low chances of success of such an approach stopping or reducing job cuts was made, however obliquely. I don’t think any confidence was expressed in the role of mainstream politicians in this regard.

    My understanding is that aside from the cultural and historical reasons for seldom adopting an ‘extra legal’ strategy (such as occupations etc) a compelling factor is when such approaches have been (admittedly seldom) tried, the full weight of the capitalist state has been used to crush them. In short, it is only in very exceptional circumstances that such a strategy is a winning one.

    Of course, that is not to argue that the left shouldn’t build organisation through campaigning and be ready to move into the illegal phase of the struggle when the moment presents itself.

  3. Don Franks says:

    John, we’re totally on the same page with building organisation through campaigning and being ready to move into the illegal phase of the struggle when the moment presents itself.
    In my experience anything approaching that has been anathema to most of the NZ trade union movement.
    The result has been the sidelining of unions, as in the case of Pike river.
    I think it will best serve the interests of our class to try and tear a hole in the collaborationist blanket we’re trying to keep warm under.
    When a live movement of workers next moves even slightly in that direction we need to give them all the encouragement and support we can.

  4. Tom O'Lincon says:

    I have long believed that major iindustrial disputes are not primarily about wages and conditions, but primarily about control. Forms of struggle that raise the question of “who’s running the country” are the best. Below I paste an item from my book about colonial Australia:

    “Later on employers commonly offered good pay to shearers willing to accept the bosses’ terms, in order to undermine the ASU. George Mair, bitter enemy of unions, thought that the shearing rate was ‘comparatively unimportant … the question is whether we shall preserve to ourselves the control of our business or place ourselves under the control of our own workmen.”

    This is one of the advantages of occupying plants. It raises the spectre of job control.

    • John Kerr says:

      I agree.

      Which is why the full weight of the state is deployed against such direct action in countries like New Zealand.

      • Don Franks says:

        That being the case John, workers have only two choices. To back off as the shadow of the laws falls upon us, or to fight knowing we will most likely lose.
        The second option hurts a lot and causes all sorts of collateral damage, but unless we take it we will be in perpetual servitude.

    • Daphna says:

      The 1951 Waterfront lockout was very much a case of who had control, as John has said below. After the ruling class defeated the wharfies the employers pretty much decided it was better to have wharfies on good pay and conditions rather than get in to another battle on that scale.
      Then in the 1990s the employers started applying pressure to cut back on wharfies’ relatively good conditions.

      Another dispute that fits that description was in 1992 when Pulp and Paper workers went on strike for 3 months in four plants around NZ. That was essentially the first big dispute after the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. The workers took strike action primarily to keep a multisite collective agreement. They didn’t win, and there were very few strikes after that for the next decade. The state wasn’t involved in a big way, but there was a police presence on the picket lines when the company tried to bus in scabs at the Auckland site. The scabs didn’t get through, and the only thing that stopped the bus from being toppled over was that strikers were pushing from both sides of the bus. I recall the company helicoptered some engineers in, but they didn’t really get production going.

      Since 2002 and the introduction of the Employment Relations Act employers haven’t been legally allowed to bring in outside labour. That has taken some of the heat out of strikes and pickets. Often, pickets outside workplaces are not really pickets in the old sense, more often just ‘information pickets’.

  5. Don Franks says:

    “I have long believed that major iindustrial disputes are not primarily about wages and conditions, but primarily about control”

    So have I. One of the longest strikes we had at Ford Seaview was to get a young worker reinstated. We were out for several weeks. The bloke had only been there a short time and left the job not long after getting reinstated. It hadn’t been about him, it was a trial of strength between us and the company.

  6. Malcolm says:

    Can we perhaps evaluate John’s comment about the full weight of the state being deployed against workers in NZ with some actual historical examples? Perhaps from the 1970s onwards, the onset of the crisis in capital accumulation in the advanced industrial countries, including NZ and the change in the State’s accommodation with with unions to a much more hostile policy that culminated in the ECA.

    Off the top of my head I can think of the Rixen occupation. What happened in that dispute? I also remember Feltex workers occupied their canteen in 2006 (?) to demand their proper redundancies.

    Also, John, I didn’t realise the RMTU was fined for illegal action in the Ports of Auckland dispute. Can you tell us more? I remember there were pickets put up at Wellington and Christchurch, secondary action, but I thought the union backed down and worked the ships?

    • John Kerr says:

      Malcolm, we were injuncted in Wellington and Christchurch, as were the MUNZ branches. Our officials, both paid and unpaid, faced jail for contempt and heavy fines if they continued to organise secondary strikes, as did any rank and file members who went out. We were hit with huge bills for ‘damages’ by the port companies, citing the delays we did cause. Yes, we did ‘back off’ at that point – faced with custodial sentences, personal fines, and the freezing and sequestration of our union’s assets, I believe our leadership made the right decision. The rank and file certainly supported it.

      There are times when it’s worth continuing the fight in such circumstances – for example when the wider working class is prepared to take to the streets in support of such action. I didn’t see any sign of that happening…

      Want another historical example? 1951. The capitalist state didn’t hold back then.

      I’m sure readers can provide other examples. Most recently when the Lyttelton Port Logistics Officers took limited action we had reports of police mobilisation in anticipation of pickets (we were tucked up in bed so had a wry smile at that) and a threat of injunction when the Canterbury Rail Branch resolved to take action in support of the LOs. And that was in the context of a very limited dispute.

      • Malcolm says:

        Hi John.

        I did say from the 1970s onwards. You’ve given me 1951 … and the injunctions issued against the RMTU in the PoA dispute. I’m not saying you were wrong to back off when you did – you have to pick your battles – but there does need to be a point when injunctions are ignored (like they used to be in NZ) or the union movement will continue to be ineffective and the slow steady decline will continue. PoA is still unsettled and it looks like the union has taken some losses there so far. What, in your opinion, could bring a victory in that particular dispute?

      • Daphna says:

        John the example you give below of the Fiji football tournament to get around meeting bans is brilliant.

    • PhilF says:

      The full weight of the state here is certainly nothing like Third World countries where union organising gets you killed.

      Among the powers employers were given as the postwar boom turned to slump were that the third Labour government introduced legislation which allowed employers to injunct unions – yes, it was dear old Labour! The most famous case was the Northern Drivers Union, where the leader (Bill Andersen) was jailed as the union defied an injunction. The FOL brass immediately went to work with the government to de-escalate the situation. Andersen was quickly released and did his usual job of getting the workers back to work and preventing more struggle taking place.

      I’m working on a piece on the third Labor government at present. It should be ready to go up in a couple of days. They were a nasty crowd but, of course, their nastiness was the result of being absolutely dedicated to managing capitalism. As the postwar boom turned to bust, they did what was necessary to reboot capital accumulation.


      • John Kerr says:

        Yes, I’ve met union organisers from places like rural India, Cambodia and Sri Lanka who have far more to deal with than I do.

        I also met a Fijian union president who got round the regime’s ban on meetings by holding a football tournament. Twenty two ‘players’, four ‘officials’, not to mention ‘coaching staff’ and ‘spectators’, and he had a quorum. Not sure if possession gave a ‘player’ speaking rights…

      • John Kerr says:

        Malcolm, depends how you define ‘victory’ comrade…

      • Malcolm says:

        Hi John. By victory I guess I mean a new collective agreement without any more concessions to the PoA bosses. No further casualisation, etc.

  7. Malcolm says:

    Also, what are the specific arguments you would make for NZ being an exception to the development of class struggle in other countries around the world? Are we not more and more tied into the world market and the global capitalist system?

    • John Kerr says:

      I don’t say we’re an exception. I just don’t think we have much of a culture of taking to the streets compared to countries like France, Italy or Spain (and many others). Our discontent seems to be anomic and tends to manifest itself as domestic violence, substance abuse and petty crime rather than indigado.

      Plenty of societies are like ours, to a greater or lesser extent.

      • PhilF says:

        Plenty of societies like ours – unfortunately. In my view, however, we are worse than most.

        If someone had’ve said 40 years ago, “This is what NZ workers will accept. . .” and then listed what they *have* accepted, no-one would’ve believed them. The response would have been, “There’ll be a revolution before people accept all that shite.”

        There are some specific historical reasons why NZ is the way it is, but it is also the legacy of defeats and betrayals by successive CTU leaderships, most particularly 1991. The fact that Labour did the spade work in the 1984-1990 period is also important. For a lot of union leaders, loyalty to the Labour Party came well before loyalty to the working class and they caved. This was true even of a lot of quite militant union officials. The collapse of the meat workers in the mid 1980s was a classic example.

        One of the characteristics of a fighting union movement of the future is that it will have the same attitude to Labour in the early 21st century as the Red Feds had to the Liberal Party in the early 20th century. And their eyes won’t be on parliament.

        Unfortunately, at present, there is no visible motion in this direction.


    • John Kerr says:

      If that’s the definition of ‘victory’, and it’s a good one, then I believe it’ll require the repeal of anti-union legislation outlawing sympathy strikes. The yellow union at PoA is the only one with a CA now and all new workers start on those terms. My understanding is MUNZ has a shrinking membership and that roughly a third of workers are non union, a third in the yellow union, and a third in MUNZ. I stand to be corrected however. Given the reduced industrial strength of MUNZ at PoA, I believe it’ll require a successful campaign by other ports’ workers to achieve victory. And for that to happen the ERA will need to change fundamentally.

      • Malcolm says:

        That’s my understanding of the situation at PoA as well. It seems that despite all the hoopla the strategy of trying to win the dispute in the media and the courts instead of at the point of production has been an unmitigated disaster for MUNZ. Everything has gone very quiet there now. It’s a crying shame. I agree with you that it will take concerted action by other port workers to achieve victory. I’m not holding my breath for Labour to change the ERA significantly in regard to taking industrial action in the seemingly unlikely event that they get back into government though.

  8. PhilF says:

    Moreover, in NZ we have an incredibly apolitical, even anti-political, culture. Quite unlike most of the world. In much of Europe, pretty much all of Latin America and the Middle East, and much of Asia and Africa, politics is part of daily conversation, part of everyday culture. It’s not something separate and odd, like it is here, most especially among pakeha.


    • John Kerr says:

      Agree Phil. To all of the above comrade – with possible exception of the comment about the Meatworkers’ Union leadership, and only because I’m ignorant of that particular chapter of labour history.

  9. PhilF says:

    The meatworkers were very militant. A lot of the middle leadership of the union was very militant and there was a large layer of rank-and-file militants. There were also Marxists working in the meatworks, from Westfield in Auckland down to Ocean Beach in Bluff and hundreds and hundreds of meatworkers had subscriptions to the SAL’s fortnightly paper, ‘Socialist Action’. It was a sector of the workforce where it was reasonable to expect there would be strong resistance to the efforts to ‘streamline’ the industry.

    But when the big assault came, part way through the fourth Labour government, resistance started yet then totally collapsed, almost overnight. It was quite bizarre. I don’t think anyone ever produced an analysis of what happened.

    I wasn’t in New Zealand at the time, so never really got a handle on the collapse other than how sudden and (seemingly) out-of-the-blue it was. But, obviously, it couldn’t have been that out-of-the-blue; there must have been signs earlier on, indications of the political weakness of the meat workers – they certainly weren’t organisationally weak.

    One of the lessons of that collapse for me is how important having the right politics is. You can be fighting alongside people and it seems you’re all on the same page, so you don’t bother too much about the specific politics. Then, one day, it’s all gone because actually it did matter what the politics are/were.

    Same lesson I learned in relation to the Republican Movement in Ireland. We were all “on the one road”; but it turned out we weren’t really. Our paths just joined at a certain point but, really, there were quite different destinations. And, inevitably, that became apparent, with momentous consequences.

    It’s interesting watching the pakeha left repeat the same kind of error in Mana.

    Some of us learn the hard lessons and some just become more determined to make the same crap work next time, but it never does.