|5000 march in solidarity with locked out dockers. Auckland March 10 2012|
History of attacks on unions
We have seen the affects of this destruction since 1984 when the Fourth Labour Government deregulated the economy and began to deregulate the labour market. The union bureaucracy was directly implicated in this by refusing to fight for fear that Labour would not get elected in 1984. The massive restructuring of the economy meant that the membership of the unions paid the price in lost jobs, pay and conditions. The unions slumped from around 50% of the workforce to less than 20% today. That means that 20% organised labour are trying to fight not only for their own rights and living conditions, but for the rights of the other 80%.
The major attack came in 1991 with the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) that introduced individual contracts but also empowered the bosses to take on and split up and defeat the most militant sections of the labour movement.
The labour bureaucracy reveals it’s rottenness along with the Labour Party when they are in power. The labour bureaucracy acts like a branch of management, for the bosses, and holds down workers who have fighting demands. This was the role of the CTU leadership again in 1991. When they acted in the interests of the bosses, they averted a general strike against the ECA, and acted in their own self interest; they convinced parliament to let them continue as ‘workers representatives’. The labour bureaucracy is the layer which put on the leg-iron on workers and keeps it oiled up.
The ECA was the result of the world economic crisis of falling profits for capitalism. It was the weapon by which the bosses in NZ were given legal rights to attack workers directly; on the job, through wages, conditions, etc. The ECA stripped workers of the ‘right’ and the ability to have a united workforce; a closed shop. It legalised the use of scab labour. A series of big disputes (Carter Holt, Air NZ etc) ended in defeats for the more militant unions laying the basis for a general decline in the labour movement.
The Labour Government in 2000 replaced the ECA with the Employment Relations Act (ERA) but left intact some of the worst aspects of that law. Very few unions were able over this period to resist the long slide towards poverty wages and casualised conditions. Very often plant closures (car, meat, carpet, clothing etc) led to large-scale unemployment. Some of the traditionally strong unions (most of them dating from the days of the Red Fed and who formed TUF when the CTU was formed) such as the Waterfront Workers Union and Seafarers were able to partially resist the worst attacks but even they had to make major concessions over the past twenty because the leaderships used their numerical weakness to oppose breaking the law. As with all other worksites, there has been a push towards de-unionisation and subcontracting of labour to eliminate the gains won in the past and open up labour to complete control by the bosses.
Mass Picket! Make or Break!
The current round of disputes is a make or break class war that only one side is fighting on the basis of its class strength. The NACTs are using their political power in government and their economic power as representing the capitalist owners of industry and the media to force a showdown with unions to concede their last few remaining rights and conditions. They have the law on their side and the big divisions they have made in the working class since the 1990s.
Legally, the ERA is a bosses’ leg iron that means that workers have to obey it or risk being jailed. When workers are locked out or on strike legally the employers are prevented from hiring scabs to take their jobs. The Employment Court may fine them for breaches of section 97 of the ERA (see judgement on POAL) but in the end the law is designed to favour capital and unless workers take direct mass strike action, the employers will win. They have the funds to keep going back to court and to pay fines, which will sooner or later starve out the unions or demoralise the workers into looking for other work or going to Australia.
POAL ignored the law and was only pulled up by the Court when growing organised union opposition locally and internationally to contracting out forced the Port management to back down. But the return to negotiations leaves the workers back at square one. Talley’s the AFFCO owners have been called ‘corporate scum’ because they are anti-union and hostile to basic workers rights such as gender equality. They have locked out 1500 workers to bust the Meatworkers Union. Oceania are refusing to pay their minimum waged Aged Care workers a cost of living increase. The workers strikes so far have failed to budge the employer. In all these cases the bosses are using scabs to do the work of striking and locked out workers!
The only way to stop the bosses drive to bust the unions and casualise workers as slave labour is to build mass pickets to shut down the workplace. Even the threat of this can force the the boss to retreat. The bosses know that once the workers break the labour law they have the power to win. It will force the bosses state to roll out the police and the troops and blow the fiction that the state is neutral and that there is no class war. The recent example of the ILWU struggle at Longview in the US is a good example. But that is only a start, as the only way to defeat capital in the workplace is through workers occupations, ownership and control.
Occupy and the Unions
In the last issue of Class Struggle we wrote about the emergence of Occupy linked to the unions as a new development has opened up for organising the wider working class. We can see this in action in California. The threat of a mass picket at Longview in Oregon forced the EGT bosses mid February to retreat and write a new contract with the locked out ILWU dockers. Occupy Portland wrote that this was a victory for the combined forces of the union and Occupy, but only one battle in the ongoing war against the big corporate.
However there was no agreement to view. Howard Keylor reported in mid March that “this is the worst contract imposed on a longshore local that I have ever seen.” It makes major hire and fire concessions to the bosses granted by the union officials scared that a mass picket that mobilised the unorganised working class would expose their unwillingness to break out of the legal straightjacket of the Taft-Hartley Act that makes penalises unions for ‘wildcat’ strikes.
This proves that it is the union bureaucracy in cahoots with the corporations that is the only barrier to rank and file power united with mass working class support revolutionising labour relations. (see article in this issue on OCCUPY MAYDAY).
The same applies in Aotearoa/NZ. To break out of the legal leg iron of the ERA workers have to resort to the only power they have to fight the bosses, that is their class power to close down production by using mass pickets. Where this has been attempted in the last 20 years the police have been used to break the picket lines and allow the scabs into the worksite. Therefore the only way to prevent this is to have thousands on the picket line to make a police action difficult and at the same time demonstrate to the wider 80% of non-unionised members of the working class what is at stake for them too. And when employers close down worksites in order to make workers redundant, the workers must be organised and ready to occupy and put the sites under workers management and control.
Workers & bosses have nothing in common
Instead of recognising this logic however, the union bureaucracy in the CTU has controlled the tactics of industrial disputes within leg iron of the labour law and persuaded the rank and file that there is no other way. Thus the CTU campaigns to support the striking and locked out POA wharfies and AFFCO meat workers is to play down the class war that is going on and appeal to conservative bourgeois family values of the ‘community’ in general in defence of workers jobs. This is a tactic to pretend that there is no class war, only greedy or stupid bosses.
The problem with this approach is that it is designed to sway public opinion and pressure parliament in defence of a mythical classless family, rather than build working class consciousness and solidarity directly to defend jobs against the NACTs and the tiny ruling class. The union bureaucracy, like the Labour Party which has attempted to distance itself from militant industrial action to appeal to the middle class, thinks that by winning public opinion it can counter the class interests of the boss class that controls parliament and the state forces as well as the media and arrive at a ‘fair’ outcome. This is to put car before the horse. There can be no ‘fairness’ while the capitalist class system remains.
Public opinion right now is confused and mainly dominated by new right propaganda about individual rights especially among the 80% workers who are non-unionised many of whom ‘aspire’ to escape the working class into the ‘middle class’. But there is no escape for most. As we look around the world in crisis today the ‘middle class’ is rapidly sinking back into the low paid or unemployed working class. The unions can only succeed in winning this do or die struggle against the capitalist class fighting for its own survival by standing at the head of the working class in the class war instead of the mythical ‘community’.
The bosses are organised as a class with its control of the corporates, the media and the electoral process. The working class can only win if it too organises as one united class on the basis of its independence of the state and the labour law. This means breaking with the Labour Party and the social democratic ideology of classlessness. The unions will only become a force in the class struggle when they are prepared to break the law and assert the higher law of the rights of labour to claim the full value of what they produce. This means the unions have to be transformed into fighting, democratic unions in the tradition of the famous Red Federation of the early 1900s. The emergence of Occupy as a force among young workers can help in this process of reviving the unions as ‘schools for revolution’. (see OCCUPY MAYDAY in this issue)
Red Fed or Dead Fed
As we wrote back in 2010 in our article ‘Red Fed or Dead Fed’:
“The Maritime Union NZ is back in the parliamentary paddock/ sheep pen. They have renewed their affiliation to the Labour Party, with a conference remit extending MUNZ parliamentary blinkers to any other 'left' ally for Labour. MUNZ members should know well enough that pickets and direct action win fights to protect workers – not courts or circus acts at the beehive. It is the lack of leadership from union officials to take direct action in solidarity of workers in struggle, which leaves parliament looking like the only option.
The union movement might have re-united in the CTU, but only to be the union rump of the Labour Party and to continue to mislead workers into the parliament. That is, voting fodder for the Labour Party and its parliamentary illusion of reforming capitalism. The false hope that it is possible to reform capitalism; to put some 'better' rules on capitalism, to stop those naughty finance capitalists. The leadership of the working class as represented by the union leadership has shown that once again it only works to reform capitalism when capitalism cannot be reformed accept as a result of militant struggle when bosses are forced to make concessions to stay in power.
Mass Pickets and National Strike!
A revived Red Fed would create the working class base for the formation of a new workers party based on Trade Union militants and workers councils that would contest the Labour Party in as many seats as possible and under MMP challenge Labour from inside parliament as well as outside. As the NZ economy reverts back towards a giant farm and mine the only unions that will have any real power are those that run transport and communications. They rather than service workers can bring the country to a halt. But much work needs to be done to unionise this workforce as it has been turned into a subcontracted workforce where workers are forced to compete with one another. MUNZ members have gone along with this subcontracting as much as any union. The rot has to be reversed starting with rank and file democracy!
Marx pulled apart the workings of capitalism and described the economic forces within capitalism that drive it into crises, wars and attacks on the working class. We cannot reform this capitalist beast: we need to overthrow it by taking control – for workers control of all production including the financial system (we might still need some way of accounting).
Revolutionaries fight for such as program inside the unions and any working class party that emerges from the struggles ahead. We call this a Transitional Program of immediate demands such as freedom of expression and assembly (against Search and Surveillance etc) through demands such as jobs for all on a living wage with a sliding scale so that hours are reduced without loss of pay until all those who want to work, can work (30 hour week to start). But capitalism cannot do this, so the fight for such basic needs to survive brings workers up against the need to take power and form a workers government to plan production for human need and not profit.
· Form worker activist networks as a left wing within the unions.
· For a Red Federation of Labour.
· Turn lockouts into strikes, and strikes into occupations of worksites, and set up workers control of each worksite, through elected (and recallable) worksite leaders.
· For Workers Councils: local councils of workers to run the towns and cities. Made up of representatives elected (and recallable) by the local worksites.
· For a Workers Government to plan a socialist economy. (Only by the above demands being met can a real workers government be formed – ie. not through a vote every 3 yrs).
· For a Socialist Federation of the Pacific.”