“We have to start drawing some lines in the sand”

Redline interviews James Robb from Workers Now, a group standing candidates in the coming general election

Redline: What prompted the Workers Now initiative?

James Robb

In the immediate sense, this was prompted by the comments by Adrian Orr, the governor of the Reserve Bank, in November, in which he frankly admitted that the goal of his decisions on raising interest rates was to engineer the economy into recession. Many other central banks around the world are taking a similar course, but Orr spelled it out more bluntly than most: they want a recession, they want major cuts to workers’ real wages, they want to send a bunch of struggling small businesses to the wall, and they want thousands of workers to lose their jobs and their homes. That is how they intend to solve their inflation problem – by making workers pay the price. And when I say ‘they,’ I mean the small elite of very wealthy families who own the banks, the big corporations and industries – the capitalist class. 

As shocking as Orr’s comments were, equally amazing was the response, or rather lack of response, from the political leaders. There was not a word of opposition to this forced march towards recession from any of them – not from the ruling Labour Party, nor the opposition National Party, the minority parliamentary parties like the Green Party, Act, and Te Pati Maori, nor New Zealand First – not a peep out of any of them! They all agree on this course of solving the inflation crisis by taking it out of the hides of working people. They all take safeguarding the profits of business as their starting point, their primary responsibility, and subordinate the well-being of workers to that, well down their list of priorities. 

This is not entirely new, of course, but what is new is the depth of the crisis we are heading into. The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09 was serious, but its worldwide effects were softened by the fact that China continued to surge ahead, carrying the rest of the world economy with it to some degree. This time round, there are strong indications that China will be fully drawn into the crisis too, with its real estate market looking particularly vulnerable. 

The problems are not just economic. Every institution of this society is affected. The health system is stretched to breaking point. In education, schools face major truancy problems, while universities are incapable of organising a reasoned discussion on the science curriculum.  An ideological drive against women, which obscures the distinctions between the sexes and robs women of their rights to single-sex spaces in toilets, hospital wards, even their own refuges against male violence, even seeks to obliterate the words ‘women’ and ‘mothers’ from the vocabulary of midwives and other professionals. Our ability to discuss these matters is threatened by an army of censors, especially in the big business media and social media, who police our discussions in accordance with the whims of this or that billionaire, supported by liberal lynch mobs on social media, backed up by ever-widening laws against “hate speech” and “misinformation.” 

In this situation, a slate of candidates who are prepared to stand clearly in defence of the class interests of workers is needed more than ever.

What is needed is a campaign for the wage workers, whose labour creates the wealth of society – in the factories, warehouses and workshops, on the construction sites, on the roads, railways and ships, in the hospitals, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and bars, in the forests and on the land. Workers both in the cities and in small towns and rural areas. 

Workers are not the only ones who create value – there are also small producers who do productive work – the family farmers, share-milkers, and fencing and shearing contractors on the land and forests, and the owner-drivers, independent tradies, cleaning contractors and the like in the cities – who are exploited mostly through debt to the banks. These are our natural allies, along with the lower layers of the professional middle classes – the teachers, nurses, civil service employees and so on, who create no value but who perform essential and socially useful jobs nonetheless.

Redline: You’ll probably get very few votes so what’s the point?

It is true that as long as the Labour and National Parties hold together, they will continue to take the lion’s share of the votes, and small voices like our own will get very few – but the chances of those parties holding together are looking increasingly dim. What the future holds for Labour and National is crises like those wracking both the Tories and the Labour Party in the UK, and both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the US. These long-established parties are shattering before our eyes, and the same can be expected in this country. In the absence of any significant working class voice, the rightist and conspiracist forces have made gains from this situation – we are already seeing that happen here. 

Redline: Many on the left are saying if National get in they’ll be much worse for workers than what we’ve got now, wouldn’t you be better advised to support a Labour government return?

The differences between National and Labour are smaller than they have ever been. There is very little difference between what they say, and even less when it comes to what they do in power – that is why the entire discussion in parliament is focused so exclusively on leaders, competence, and ‘leadership’. Both parties are entirely committed to placing the demands of profit first, and when profit rates are falling, as they are now, it allows very little wiggle room for different policies. So yes, things will get much worse for workers if National get in. But things will also get a lot worse for workers if Labour gets in – and if you have invested your support by voting for them, it makes it just that much harder to fight their attacks.  The sooner workers break with supporting Labour politically, the sooner we will unbind our hands to fight the attacks from all the parties of profit. As the US Socialist Eugene Debs said a hundred years ago, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want – and get it.”

Redline: Aren’t you really just recycling failed old socialist demands that haven’t worked in the past?

Some of our demands have never been implemented by any government anywhere in the world, as far as I know – such as automatic wage increases equal to the rate of inflation. 

Those of our demands that have been implemented to some extent in the past – such as the programme of state housing construction, which was under taken by the Labour government of 1935-49, were extremely beneficial to the working class. Today the Labour Party refuses to undertake a similar housing construction programme, because they fear that to do so would trigger a collapse in real estate prices, and that would have a drastic effect on profits throughout the economy. Once again, they place the profit needs of the super-wealthy ahead of the social needs of workers. And yet, the collapse in real estate prices is coming even without their help!

Redline; The rich will never accept hefty taxes on their profits so what’s the point of calling for them?

The point is that we have to stop taking what the rich will accept as the over-riding principle which decides what we fight for. We have to start drawing some lines in the sand on what we as workers are prepared to accept, because the alternative is to lay down and get slaughtered. The rich will never accept any part of our programme without a huge fight, we should have no illusions on that score. It will take much more than an election campaign to achieve these things, no matter how many votes we get. And it will need to draw in much broader forces into the battle than our small numbers – unions and other mass organisations of workers will need to take to the streets in their thousands. But at some point, we have to begin that fight in the political arena. The need is already urgent now. 


  1. James was in the South Auckland car industry many years ago, and he is a socialist for sure, he was in the same Nissan plant as me for a while.

    Workers Now though really seems more a form of adventurism, because it dodges two key urgent requirements–reforming a united NZ Communist Party, and rejuvenating the central labour organisation into a fighting class left one. The NZCTU and end of the NZFOL was a significant class error of the late 20th century for the NZ working class.

    Many of the previous NZ marxist groups had a tilt at standing for the bourgeois Parliament to little effect usually. What is needed is to get new gens politically involved, and community organise, Te Pāti Māori is doing a reasonable job of that at the moment. 40 years of dog eat dog have done immense damage to Aotearoa NZ and only the working class and certain allies can turn it around with direct action.

  2. Hi Alec, thanks for commenting.
    Webster says ‘adventurism’ is ‘ improvisation or experimentation (as in politics or military or foreign affairs) in the absence or in defiance of accepted plans or principles’. So I wouldn’t disagree with your description of our venture. There seems to us be be a complete absence of working-class politics in the parliamentary arena , so we’re having a go at making a contribution there.
    In my view reforming a united NZ Communist Party is too tall an order to contemplate in the present circumstances and I’m not even sure if it’s desirable. The Leninist model, which I’ve tried on four different occasions to try and help implant, has always struggled in New Zealand, even at the height of the international communist movement’s influence and power.
    I agree with you that the NZCTU has been a poor substitute for the previous FoL structure.
    When the system of regional trades and labour councils was dismantled, worker’s democracy and organisation took a severe blow, from which it has yet to recover. In my opinion the present central labour organisation is beyond rejuvenating. It exists as an advocacy service for a minority of workers, captive to the Labour party machine and totally in agreement with the laws of the capitalist state. As remaining union militants can attest, fighting class left organisation is anathema to the well paid bureaucrats who run the NZCTU. I believe the New Zealand working class will have to create new organisation to properly defend their future interests.

  3. Yep, we should not try and fight yesterday’s battles again in the digital era. I understand where you are coming from Don–but–we still have class war to deal with one way or another.

    We are to some extent prisoners of our times, and in analogue days the various marxist groups were well penetrated by state snoops and informants, which is why the NZSIS will generally not release peoples files at all, or un-redacted.

    I am putting an idealist view really, but think back to COVID lockdowns. The NZCTU should have been centre stage arguing for direct payments to working class people not via employers. What the capitalist media channels delivered was endless wailing from the petit bourgoisie about opening their cafes and travel plans! Hopefully new gen workers will push something different than the Labour hacks passivity.

    Anyway if Workers Now gets some support for class struggle it will be a positive element in 2023.

Comments are closed.