Erin Polaczuk and Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg, rallying workers for struggle

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.


  1. Great piece Don You may want to amend your comments on Luxembourg ‘s death – she was killed by proto-Nazi Freikorps stormtroopers during the German Revolution in early 1919 after the Armistice of the previous November ended the fighting of the Great War. Of course the killing didn’t stop – in Ireland, Russia and Germany to name but three places -but now it was violence born of revolution and vounter-revolution.

  2. Wikipedia, not infallible but usually reliable, notes: “In response to the uprising, the Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert ordered the Freikorps to destroy the left-wing revolution. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured in Berlin on 15 January 1919 by the Rifle Division of the Cavalry Guards of the Freikorps (Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision).[25] Its commander Captain Waldemar Pabst, with Lieutenant Horst von Pflugk-Harttung, questioned them under torture and then gave the order to kill them. Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by the soldier Otto Runge, then shot in the head, either by Lieutenant Kurt Vogel or by Lieutenant Hermann Souchon. Her body was flung into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.[26] In the Tiergarten Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue.”

    (A lesson there about how Labourites respond to workers’ uprisings.)

  3. Nice comparison by Don of the relevance of workers action and imperialist war

    re strikes and struggle/organisation in general; “if we fight we might lose-if we don’t fight we will definitely lose!”

    • Yes Alec very true . Even if we lose we leave something inspiring to our class. There will be no stirring songs in recollection of unions vote not to strike against the ECA.

  4. thanks to Don for alerting me this article.

    “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.”

    Wow, that is a pretty full on and right wing statement. So feminisation of the union movement means workers shouldn’t strike? And it is more mature not to strike? Rubbish. Women have always been involved in strikes, more so in the 1970s and 1980s when many women lead minor strike waves, like the cleaners and other low-paid workers who led strikes against the 1982-84 wage freeze, without much support from the big male dominated militant unions i might add. And more recently in some recent strikes from First Union women have also been quite involved.

    That type of thinking in the PSA – the preference for partnership over struggle – has directly led to a steady erosion of conditions and wages in the public sector, with most public sector workers experiencing a big pay gap with like jobs in the private sector, and overwork, constant restructuring etc.

    Strikes and struggle are so necessary – the question is how to bring them back in a climate of low solidarity and demoralisation.

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