Monday 19 July 2010

Protest greets attack on workers rights, but what comes next?

by David

Prime Minister John Key announced a new attack on workers’ rights at the National Party conference in Auckland on Sunday July 18. (Could there be a more appropriate place for the Nat’s get together?)

Of greatest concern are plans to extend the 90-day fire at will law to all workers and restrictions on the rights of trade union officials to visit their members or access a sight to recruit members. These attacks on workers rights are designed to cower New Zealand’s already timid, disorganised and poorly paid workforce even further.

Step out of line in the first three months, perhaps by complaining about poor health and safety or joining a union, and you could be out the door, no questions asked, no reason given.

In response, 500 trade union members protested outside the National’s conference. Here’s a report from one protester:

Despite a heavy police presence, a group of about 40 managed to push through lines of police and Sky City security guards, to enter the lobby of the conference building.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly addressed the protest and commented on the large size of the crowd considering the short notice. She announced an emergency meeting of all trade union leaders on Thursday to discuss a campaign against the proposed law changes.

The head of the Dairy Workers Union speaking to the crowd, made a statement that the DWU have decided that if any new worker in the Dairy industry is dismissed under the 90 day law, that the union would immediately call a stopwork meeting, “Where we will then decide what we would do.”

“If you remove due process you can expect that we will take direct action.” he said.

This militant declaration, from a union not noted for its militancy was met with loud cheers and applause. Of course such action would be illegal under the current Employment Relations Act.

All in all this protest was a tremendous success and a great first start to this campaign.

A protest in Christchurch, called on Friday night, brought together 40 unionists and called an organising meeting for Monday. A Wellington protest is also due to take place on Monday.

The fire at will law was first introduced early last year, but can only be used by bosses with less than 20 employees. Unions made a token protest at that time, but at lot less than they had a few years earlier, when the idea was first raised in a private members bill by National MP Wayne Mapp. One apparent reason for this was that some unions were, at the time trying to cooperate with National around the so-called Job Summit. That spirit of partnership got them about as far as John Key’s cycle way.

Sunday’s spirited protest was a good first response. But what comes next? Will this be the start of a sustained fight to defend workers rights? Or do we just wait for the next election and campaign for a Labour-led government?

Chris Trotter is optimistic union leaders will follow through with their bold words at Sunday’s protest and take to the streets.

Sue Bradford has warned that both the unions and the Labour Party leadership will need to do a better job than they did in response to the benefit cuts and Employment Contracts Act back in 1991.

UNITYblog welcomes readers ideas on how workers and their unions should respond to the government’s attacks.


Anonymous said...

What a lot of tosh Trotter sprayed into cyber space!

“The urge to grind working-class New Zealanders’ faces into the dirt is obviously hard-wired into the rudimentary mental machinery of the reactionary rural bigots and smug suburban fascists that make up the National Party’s rank-and-file.
As I said to the Labour MP, Carol Beaumont, who was present at the rally, the National Party has shown itself to be just like the killer cyborg in the movie The Terminator”

The only thing sillier than Trotters rhetoric is his sentimental faith that life long union collaborators are about to start fighting capitalism.
However, that’s the task required to be done here.

As you say, the question is how?

At the Wellington picket yesterday one demonstrator called for a general strike, which, even in the heightened excitement of the militant occasion did not strike any apparent chord.

I recall the last NZ general strike in 1979. It was on a sunny September day two days after my birthday, in a very different era. Rogernomics and the ERA had not yet gutted the working class. This was in a period of growing class conflict after the election of the Muldoon government in 1975. That government imposed a wage freeze, put penal provisions in industrial legislation and made moves against compulsory unionism. The government and especially the prime minister was widely hated by union militants and many workers generally. The then pm had no friendly reasonable public face like John Key. He had some constituency among politically backward workers - "Rob's mob", but was often referred to as a "dictator" or "the pig". It was very common to hear workers on a job saying " someone should shoot Muldoon", and there was a novel written around that theme. In a way, the demonization of Muldoon put a brake on understanding the workings of capitalism, but it existed as a popular form of class hatred.
The central union body reflected some of the militancy from below and had a bolshier culture and rhetoric than today's CTU. They elected a communist as secretary,ok, it was Ken Douglas, but he had yet to reveal the depths of his treachery and was the first communist to win a top union position. There was general pressure from below for wage increases and in 1979 Muldoon passed the Remuneration Act, to stop the the FoL taking a general wage order. The Fol response was to call a general strike in September that year.

My point is that even back then, when workers were far more organised and had far higher sense of entitlement, and the government was widely hated, the general strike was patchy. The mobilisation was big enough to save face but was not overwhelming.
In the unlikely event of the CTU calling such a strike today, the result would likely be farcical.
What we have to work with today in official union terms is 10% union density in the private sector.

I think we have to do two things. Within the limits of our resources, we should keep up a constant campaign of demonstration and agitation against the laws, always trying to mobilize as many workers as possible. There is always the possibility that this may be an issue which seizes the imagination of large numbers of workers, in which case they will move very quickly. If that happens our job will be to keep up with them and help deflect the inevitable top union office attempts to dampen down the movement.
Secondly, we need to improve our socialist anticapitalist analysis and agitation. This problem is capitalism, not eternal Tory malice. We need to be ideologically strong and well as organisationaly strong, otherwise we may remain forever ineffectually sniveling about the Terminator as we go further down the toilet.

Don Franks said...

I wrote the above comment, it accidently came through unsigned,

Don Franks

David said...

Hi Don

Thanks for mentioning the 1979 general strike. There are always lessons to be learned from past struggles, although today’s battles always take place under different conditions. The 1979 strike is one I’ve heard very little about. 1991 is the point of reference that has dominated since I became an activist – or 1951 or 1913.

At Monday’s Christchurch meeting someone mentioned the successful campaign against Max Bradford’s Holidays Act reform, I think that was the summer of 1998-1999, but it might have been the year before. You may remember taking me to a union meeting at the top of a tall building in Wellington where various union leaders planned a big rally and pondered whether to stop the trains, but decided they’d be needed to bring in other workers to the rally. A bit top down perhaps, but it also made you realise the power a united union movement still has.

But even then I think rank and file unionists probably had more confidence, they knew the National – NZ First coalition was on borrowed time.

Don Franks said...

Yes, there was more worker confidence at the time of the Holidays struggle and also quite a lot of deeply felt indignation.

There were downsides.

Union officials went in for a lot of silly childish demonisation of "Mad Max" Bradford. That sort of crap, like the hysterical "fascist Muldoon" nonsense before it actually puts a brake on the development of political understanding.( I see Chris Trotter is now describing National party members as fascists.)

I recall the big rally you mention and being surprised at all the EPMU members there in their overalls. I was impressed untill I learned that most of them were there on pay, by agreement with the bosses. Who would need the favour returned at some future point.

For all that it wasn't a bad struggle. Lets see what we can do in the present difficult circumstances.