It's time for workers in NZ to stop sobbing and start fighting

It’s time for workers in NZ to stop sobbing and start fighting

by Phil Duncan

There used to be a sort of joke in the 1960s that the prime minister, Keith Holyoake, knew the names of all the unemployed. I say sort of joke because it may well have been true. And it wasn’t because he had the snoops spying on people out of work. It was because hardly anyone was unemployed.

Hard to believe now, but during the long postwar boom from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that was actually the case. Of course, there was also a certain falseness about it because married women out of work couldn’t register as unemployed and, indeed, for a chunk of that era, the dominant capitalist ideology said that married women with children, especially small children, weren’t really supposed to be in paid employment outside the home. One wage – typically that of the husband/father – was supposed to be sufficient to maintain a family of four, five or even more. (The state also helped out with a universal child benefit.)

From boom to bust

Not only was unemployment negligible, there was an ongoing shortage of labour. To meet the needs of an ever-expanding economy, Maori were drawn from rural areas into the cities, workers and their families were drawn from the Pacific into New Zealand, migrants from Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe were encouraged and, eventually, more and more women, including married women, were drawn into paid employment. (So much for the idea that immigration causes unemployment.)

The first sign that all was not well and the post-war boom was coming to an end was probably the 1968 nil general wage order. (In those days the Arbitration Court issued an annual general wage order, dictating the size of pay rises, although workers could use their industrial strength to get more from individual employers too.) However, the boom didn’t come to an end until 1973, when the country – along with most of the rest of the developed capitalist world – entered a deep recession. In fact, most of the capitalist world never fully recovered from the onset of severe economic problems as the boom ended. We have never since experienced a period of growth comparable to the postwar boom. Booms are shorter and smaller, and punctuated by regular periods of recession.

Today in New Zealand unemployment tends to fluctuate around the 6% mark. Sometimes it dips under, often it is above. It’s a mark of how far the working class has been pushed back, and how far public – worker and capitalist – horizons have been lowered that 6% is considered relatively low unemployment. If anyone in the 1960s had’ve said people here would regard 6% unemployment as OK, they would have been viewed as nuts. “There will be a revolution before that happens,” would have been the feeling of many people of all classes. It might be time to rehabilitate Marx’s idea of the ‘reserve army of labour’.

Yet it has happened. Since 1973 – ie over 40 years – the working class has been pushed back. There have been no victories of any real size and significance, but lots of defeats, some of them very big ones. The victories for people’s rights and social progress have been exclusively around issues of ‘race’, gender and sexuality and these victories have done a lot more for middle-class Maori, middle class women and middle class gays than for the working class majorities of those sections of society. Gains for working class Maori and working class women, in particular have been far more limited.

Continuous working class defeat

For the working class as a whole it has been predominantly a depressing story. And it continues. One of the features of working life today is redundancies – few workers these days enjoy much job security. At the same time, as we have noted again and again on Redline, workers’ resistance is at an all-time low and the vast bulk of the class show little sign of retrieving any fighting spirit. Faced with redundancy, New Zealand workers are more likely to burst into tears than get angry and want to fight.

In previous articles we’ve often mentioned the way in which the trade union bureaucracy put protecting its own privileged interests and those of the capitalist Labour Party which they support before any kind of spirited resistance. We’ve also at the role of the Labour Party in both massively attacking workers’ rights and living standards and lowering workers’ horizons. In this article, I want to look at the politics of the labour movement as it has existed over the past 70 or 80 years – the period in which it was house-broken and then simply broken – and how these politics have prevented the kind of fightback that is necessary to advance workers’ interests.

During the postwar boom workers generally did not need to fight much. Times were good, profits were flowing, and the capitalist class was prepared to share some of the bounty in order to buy class peace. This, along with the defeat of the more militant sections of the working class in the great waterfront lockout of February-July 1951 and the dominance of Cold War ideology, meant a major break in the tradition of class consciousness that had existed in swathes of the working class pre-1951. Class peace reigned from 1951-1968; indeed until the early 1970s. Class collaboration seemed to deliver.

When the postwar boom ended, class relations changed dramatically. The capitalists, and the politicians who manage society on their behalf, now needed to deal with a series of economic problems at the core of which was the falling rate of profit. To overcome their problems – or, more accurately, the problems of their system – the capitalists and their political go-fors had no alternatve but to attack the working class. Wages had to be driven down, so the rate of profit could be lifted. Public spending, which is essentially a deduction from surplus-value (the basis of capitalist profitability), had to be cut. Parts of the state which could be turned into profit-making enterprises had to be flogged off cheaply to the capitalists, with some being retained as state-capitalist businesses. The ability of workers to resist these attacks had to be constrained – unions had to be weakened, for instance.

These attacks really got going seriously under the third Labour government of 1972-75. Since the postwar boom had had the effect of raising workers’ expectations – workers now expected their lives to get better and better in econoic terms – the class began resisting the attacks. Class conflict grew as the bosses and Labour government attacks were met by workers’ resistance. Workers’ experiences of these attacks turned many against Labour and the party which had swept into power with a massive victory in 1972 was swept out in a massive defeat in 1975.

National came in, led by the fiercely socially-conservative Rob Muldoon who promised to smash the unions and restore the boom. Muldoon, however, was a product of the 1930s Depression and World 2 and thus his economic outlook was very much within the mould of Keynesianism. Rather than ruthlessly implementing ‘new right’ policies to smash up the working class, he resorted to much, much more state interventionism. Things actually got worse, Keynesianism being completely incapable of solving the core economic problems. It was left to the next Labour government (1984-1990) to launch the full-on onslaught on workers’ incomes and rights that the depth of capitalist crisis required.

Redundancies, workers and unions

Redundancies were one of the key features of the fourth Labour government. Tens and tens of thousands of jobs were shed in both the private and state sector. For instance, 000 railway workers found their jobs being taken from them while Labour’s business cronies made hundreds of millions organising the flogging off of rail and other parts of the state sector. Labour began reconciling workers to the idea that our jobs were never again going to be secure and that redundancies were just part of our working lives, like some kind of natural phenomena that humans couldn’t control.

And Labour’s faithful allies atop the union movement went along with this and continuously sabotaged workers every time they sought to fight back effectively. Being defeated by being stabbed in the back is far more demoralising than being defeated after putting up a real fight, so these defeats had a particularly debilitating effect on workers.

The harsh reality was that the unions, especially their leaders, had no real political alternatives to Labour, to National, to capitalism. Because the union leaders were both privileged as a social layer and tied to Labour and to capitalism – acting as mediators between workers and bosses and being a key mechanism for subordinating workers to the capitalist Labour Party – they could never offer a way forward for workers. Indeed, typically, they accepted core arguments made by the bosses, especially around the ‘right’ of the bosses to hire and sack, around ‘competitiveness’ and around ‘profitability’. Because these are dominant ideas within capitalist society, they are also often accepted by workers.

This means that when redundancies are announced workers have to face the consequences of ideas and policies which not only the bosses, the politicians and the top union bureaucrats endorse but which they, the workers, also have largely accepted. This makes organising against redundancies very difficult.

At present, and for decades past, there has been no credible alternative to these politics. But unless workers are prepared to defend jobs regardless of the effects on company profits, the competitiveness of the industry or the national economy, they will be unable to fight effectively. Indeed, they will be unable to fight much at all.

These days, any serious defence of workers’ pay, conditions, living standards and rights comes up quickly against the limitations of 21st century, clapped-out capitalism. So anti-capitalist politics are essential. Not for a bit of rhetoric at left-wing meetings or in left-wing papers and blogs. But for here and now.

We need to understand:

The needs of employers – for instance to cut back on jobs – and the needs of workers – for instance, to keep jobs – are fundamentally antagonistic. These needs are the needs of different and opposed classes.

Workers can take no responsibility for solving the problems of individual capitalists or the capitalists as a class. We don’t really have any vested interest in the competitive position of the capitalists individually or as a class. We can only approach issues around jobs, pay and conditions from the standpoint of the living standards of our class.

We can’t adopt a cap-in-hand attitude – the more we do so the more encouraged the capitalist class is to give us a kick in the teeth.

We can’t allow ourselves to be divided, for instance between employed and unemployed. The unemployed need to be part of the fighting unions we have to have to defend and advance our interests.

Where workplace closures and/or mass redundancies are threatened we need to stop sobbing and start fighting. Workplace occupations can be particularly effective in this regard. Instead of simply going home and maybe attending a picket line for a few hours on a few days, occupations mean us taking over the workplace, learning how to run it, making connections with workers in other industries, setting up our own networks of support and exchange. Occupations, if well-organised, can become training grounds for the times when the class itself starts to reach the point where the expropriation of the capitalists as a class is on the agenda.

The fight against redundancies, unemployment, wage cuts, erosion of workplace conditions and so on requires a range of tactics. Respect for capitalist law – contracts, injunctions and so on – is dangerous because these things are in place to maintain the interests, power and prerogatives of the exploiting class not us. The bosses resort to the law because they know this. We have to refuse to play their game. We need to choose the ground on which we decide to fight.

As long as we are stuck with capitalism, no job is secure. All jobs are up for grabs. This means every fight has to have two aims. One is to score a win around the immediate issue/s; the other is to develop the fighting potential and class consciousness of workers. A defeat around any struggle can be a crucial part of the learning process, but only if there is a fight and the workers come out of the fight with a clearer understanding of class politics. Otherwise, a defeat is just demoralising and a victory is just putting off defeat for another day because we can be sure the capitalists will come after us again and they will have learned how to attack us more effectively.

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