by Don Franks
In a February 13th interview in The Listener, Public Service Association national secretary Erin Polaczuk makes a valid point: by going on strike, workers may get hurt.
“I remember some strikes. . . and dad losing his job. In the ’90s he was made redundant and survived on his redundancy pay. It terrifies me to think that some people don’t have that backup, so have no way of feeding their families if they lose their jobs. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were. Maybe we are in the mature era and the feminisation of the union movement has changed things. We are not guys coming in and having a punch up any more.”
In New Zealand industrial punch ups have sometimes got quite heated, but not to the extent of some overseas confrontations. For example: “During the night two delegates of the railwaymen were arrested. The strikers immediately demanded their release, and as this was not conceded, they decided not to allow trains leave the town. At the station all the strikers with their wives and families sat down on the railway track-a sea of human beings. They were threatened with rifle salvoes. The workers bared their breast and cried, ‘Shoot!’ A salvo was fired into the defenceless seated crowd, and 30 to 40 corpses, among them women and children, remained on the ground. On this becoming known the whole town of Kiev went to strike on the same day. The corpses of the murdered workers were raised on high by the crowd and carried round in mass demonstration.”
This account of striking workers at the onset of the Russian revolution was reported by an activist who remained a firm believer in strike action, an activist who happened also to be a champion of women’s emancipation, Rosa Luxemburg. Her writing on mass striking organisation is worth reading in full, but the spirit of her direction can be seen in a single short quote:
“A general strike that has in advance been bound to the fetters of legality is like an artillery demonstration that starts with the shot being thrown into the water in front of the enemy’s very eyes. . . Such a restrained threat. . . will not even frighten a child, let alone a ruling class that is struggling desperately to keep its political power.”
Rosa Luxemburg lost her life trying to arouse mass opposition to workers’ participation in World War One; she was bashed to death in the street by troopers’ rifle butts. The world war continued apace, supported by many union bureaucrats of the day, with horrific loss to life and limb to ordinary workers.
And there’s the thing.
While we commonly hear some top union officials and politicians like Jacinda Ardern say that strikes are outdated, they don’t take the same attitude to imperialist war. Far more damaging to workers than any industrial action, wars are seen as inevitable events, undesirable maybe, but the province of governments, to run as they will.
Yes, strikes can hurt. I’ve seen the looks on the faces of families whose breadwinners were out the gate and not earning. I’ve had the bitter arguments that come in those situations.
Human relations have not changed since the days of Rosa Luxemberg. Now, as then, bosses are not to be reasoned out of paying low, closing plants and running dangerous workplaces. The history of opposition to this oppression is a history of taking action, running risks, sometimes taking a fall.
Now, as in Rosa’s time, war destroys peoples lives, the only difference is that war’s destructive capacity today is even more terrifying.
If Rosa Luxemburg and her international comrades had won more support, World war 1 might have actually been derailed. At least they gave it a go, in some cases, everything they had.
As tensions mount over the Korean peninsula today, our challenge rises to test us.