What’s up with the working class in New Zealand?

Even in the US there is greater awareness of the importance of opposing immigration controls

by Phil Duncan

In New Zealand, working class struggle remains – as it has been for a couple of decades now – at an historic low.  In fact, abject surrender to exploitation and acceptance of the contempt of the employers and their political representatives in National and Labour seems to be thoroughly normal now.  Occasionally a group of workers will struggle, but these workers are a tiny minority and their struggles are limited to immediate conditions and take place entirely within narrowly-prescribed industrial law.

The share of wealth going to workers, meanwhile, continues to decline.  For instance, official figures show that business operating profits have grown from $NZ47 billion in 2009 to just over $NZ65 billion in the latest financial year, an increase of about 38 percent.  But the median-average hourly wage grew by less than 20 percent.   Large numbers of workers simply haven’t received wage rises in the past couple of years.

Mourning sickness

Even when faced with workplace closures, and a possible future of unemployment, the tendency of the employees generally is to look forlorn and demoralised.  They are more likely to cry than fight back.  Employers offer them counselling.

When 29 workers die at Pike River because the company clearly put the maximisation of profit ahead of basic safety concerns, other workers might think that’s bad but few are prepared to act over it.  Meanwhile, the union leader who signed off on the mine in the first place got to be leader of the Labour Party.

The fact that the rate of workplace deaths in this country is much higher than in comparable countries – Australia, Britain – simply creates mourning.  Each year, unions go through the routine of what is effectively Dead Workers Day, standing around looking sad and listening to sad speeches.  No-one, certainly not the government and the employers, expect unions and workers to take effective action, with a few, small exceptions.

Generally, however, mourning sickness rules.

Employers can make workers work longer, harder, faster for less; they can accrue more and more wealth while holding down wages; they can even have lax safety on the job so that dozens of workers die each year.  And the response is that the vast majority of workers just accept this state of affairs.  They may not necessarily like it, although it’s actually hard to tell: after all, they certainly aren’t prepared to do anything much about it.

Why such wretched paralysis?  It seems to me there are two main causes.  One is to do with a series of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the other is a structural one to do with where NZ fits into the overall capitalist world order.


Firstly, to deal with the series of events.  A number of defeats were inflicted on the working class in New Zealand in the period from 1984-1993.  Workers went into struggle in significant numbers then, as had been the case through much of the 1970s and early 1980s.  However, after 1984, pro-Labour union officials stepped up their work of sabotaging working class resistance to attacks by the employers and the state.  While the fourth Labour government (1984-1990) launched the biggest assault on workers’ rights and living standards since the Great Depression, pro-Labour union officials did everything they possibly could to stymie resistance in order to protect the Labour Party.

Workers were told by these misleaders not to rock the boat for the Labour government, least the National Party get back in.  And where workers didn’t follow their advice, they worked actively from within their leadership positions to prevent industrial action.  When a sizeable section of Labour Party members broke away and started a new left-wing party, the NLP, many of these union leaders continued to side with the anti-working class Labour government and tried to stop the new party from being consolidated, especially in the unions.

At the end of 1990, Labour was swept from power, with large chunks of workers not voting and many others voting National.  National won several of the poorest constituencies in the country.  However, National quickly broke its promise not to continue with Labour’s right-wing economics; instead they brought in new anti-union legislation and cuts to social welfare.  Mass resistance emerged in the ranks of the union movement to the proposed new employment law – what became the Employment Contracts Act.

Workers mobilised en masse and the possibility of a general strike began to appear.  In this situation, the pro-Labour union leaders again swung into action.  Where once workers had been counselled by them not to launch strikes while Labour was in power because this would help National, now workers were told not to engage in industrial militancy against National because this would be a barrier to Labour getting back into government.  So, in reality, workers’ resistance was never wanted by this layer of privileged, pro-Labour, pro-capitalist officials sitting parasitically atop the trade union movement.

The fight against the ECA was lost largely due to sabotage from within the movement, many union leaders acting as the labour lieutenants of capital.  Workers lacked both the political consciousness and the organisational vehicles through which might have put struggle on the agenda.

Defeats without a fight are always more demoralising than defeats after a fight.  The defeat suffered by workers over the ECA largely demoralised a generation of working class people.  The class has never recovered.

However, there is another key element as to why working class struggle in this country is so feeble.  It’s one that doesn’t get discussed on the left much at all.

This is the impact of imperialism on the working class in this country.

Imperialism and the NZ working class

Essentially the world is divided between an imperialist club, of which New Zealand is a member, and a mass of countries that are dominated and plundered by the imperialist club.  New Zealand is not one of the great global imperialist powers, but it certainly is a junior imperialist and part of the club, something John Key noted when he reluctantly dispatched some New Zealand forces to join the fight against ISIS.

Being members of the imperialist club means the New Zealand ruling class don’t just have the surplus-value exploited out of workers’ labour-power here to play around with; they also have a share of the global plunder that accrues to this club.

This means that, unlike in the countries dominated by foreign imperialist powers, the NZ ruling class is able to afford to buy class peace.  However inadequate health care, education and social welfare are in New Zealand, workers here are far better off than workers and peasants in the countries outside the club and under imperialist domination.

Being part of ‘the club’ also has a deep impact on the kinds of political consciousness that exist in this country.  It leads large sections of workers here to identify with their own ruling class and nation-state.  Workers don’t identify with the ruling class and the NZ nation-state because they are stupid – which is really what the concept of ‘false consciousness’ suggests – but because they perfectly rationally see their interests as coinciding with those of the ruling class.  The ‘main enemy’ is seen not as the NZ ruling class but as ‘foreigners’.  Rather than being a product of ‘false consciousness’, this outlook is a product of a real material situation: workers here exist in a framework created to a significant degree by this country’s membership of the global imperialist elite.

Because their experience of the New Zealand state is different, and has aspects of the treatment of workers by repressive regimes in the Third World, Maori and Pacific workers tend to be less respectful, let alone obsequious, to authority than pakeha workers.  But these workers do not have a political voice or expression.

Moreover, the dominant views within the working class are not simply the views of ‘backward workers’ but of much of the left.  As noted often on this blog, most of the NZ left is anti-National Party rather than anti-capitalist – something that is acutely exposed every election time – and kiwi nationalist rather than  internationalist.

Unions therefore call for – and many workers support – tighter immigration controls, for only ‘New Zealanders’ to be able to buy land and homes, for import controls and tariffs, and for other nationalist measures, rather than fighting a class struggle against the NZ ruling class.  They see the answer to high house prices and housing shortages not as being a massive programme of public housing and wider infrastructure but as being the placing of restrictions on immigration.

In a nutshell, the bulk of workers in this country don’t see themselves as being one detachment in a global working class army fighting for emancipation, but as members of a club of First World countries whose main concern is holding onto what they already have.

The global working class and building a serious left here 

Today, the global working class is very different from just a couple of decades ago.  Now, most of the working class lives in countries that are not part of the imperialist club.  Their ruling classes are squeezed by the demands of imperialism, so don’t have the funds with which to buy class peace.  In these countries class relations tend to be more naked.  With less leeway for concessions, their ruling classes tend to resort more often to repression and to blatant forms of holding wages below the cost of the physical reproduction of the working class.  People have no alternative but to fight, simply in order to exist.

In addition, the more naked forms of class relations leave much less room for illusions in the state and in reformism.  Reformism and the capitalist state have simply never been able to have much on offer in these countries, compared with reformism and the state in the First World.

The ruling classes in the countries dominated by imperialism are more aggressive because they have to be.  This has the effect of making the masses more militant and more politically conscious.   Given that these countries now contain the big majority not only of the global oppressed and exploited, but of the working class itself, they are increasingly taking the lead in terms of working class struggle.  This has important ramifications for workers and serious leftists in this country.

The number one priority of serious revolutionists here has to be geared towards support for struggles by the oppressed and exploited in the Third World and patiently explaining to workers here that they themselves will never be free until they start to see themselves – and act – as detachments in the global working class.

As workers challenge imperialism across the Third World and its ability to accrue additional profits is squeezed by such challenges, a material basis starts to emerge in countries like New Zealand for far more radical, working class politics.  In the meantime, however, we continue to pay the price for being part of the imperialist club – namely, the almost complete absence of workers’ class consciousness and struggle.

Over the coming months we’ll be covering some inspiring examples of workers’ struggles and revolutionary advance in the Third World and some important examples of workers’ consciousness and organisation from the past whose lessons have largely been abandoned by much of the First World left.

Further reading: See our interview with John Smith, author of Imperialism in the 21st century

See also: New Zealand – neo-colony or junior imperialist?

One comment

  1. “the fourth Labour government (1984-1990) launched the biggest assault on workers’ rights and living standards since the Great Depression”.
    And go back earlier to Labour turncoat Peter Fraser, the Public Safely Conservation Act of 1932 and the 1951 Waterfront dispute.
    New Zealanders learned over generations that any action seriously challenging the rule of the corporate elite would be met with violent suppression. Attempts to work through the political system to achieve change would be undermined by electoral gerrymandering and subversion.

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