The Spark September 2010
Since the August issue of The Spark a second wave of activity has crossed the country’s major centres in opposition to the employment law changes. Ian Anderson, a Workers Party member in Wellington reports below on activities in the capital.
Over August, two major events were organised in Wellington against the government’s attacks on workers. There was a public meeting against anti-worker laws, and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) Fairness at Work rally.
Organised by a group including Workers Party activists, unionists and others, Thursday’s “Anti-Worker Laws” public meeting was a success. Due to heavy promotion including posters, leaflets, a Facebook event and a press release, turnout was good with around 60 people showing up. The CTU refused to promote the event, although they did take the opportunity to put up posters promoting their rally on Sunday.
The event was held in St John’s on Willis. Starting at 7:30, Bill Logan of the International Bolshevik Tendency introduced the event with an overview of the new laws, introduced by Kate Wilkinson that very day, and their implications for the working class. Logan emphasised that this was not simply a “workplace” issue, but a class issue that affected families and children’s welfare.
Don Franks then launched into a rousing rendition of his new song Class War, which details the daily war waged on the working class as a whole, whether at work or in the WINZ queue.
The first speaker, Lisa Stoneham, gave moving account of being sacked last year from her telecommunications position at HRV, under the 90- Day Act, which at that time extended only to small work-sites. Lisa was not given an explanation, and to this day has not received one.
However, she did contact Unite Union, who held a rally outside her former workplace. Lisa noted that as employers did not have to give a reason, and there was no chance of redress, employers could use this policy for seasonal hiring purposes, or to discriminate against workers. Finally, she stated her intention never to be sacked again with no reason given, opposing the introduction of this 90 Day “hire and fire” policy to all workplaces.
The second speaker, Toby Boraman, spoke on his experiences fighting a public-sector wage freeze, as a delegate for the PSA. Boraman spoke on the tough situation of many white-collar workers citing the insecurity and low wages of many public-sector staff. As the recession set in the government aimed to make thousands of public sector workers redundant, and freeze wages all across the public sector.
This would constitute a drop in real wages, when inflation and raising prices are considered. Workers in the Ministry of Justice were the first to take illegal strike action against this policy. Boraman highlighted the blitzkrieg tactics utilised by the PSA, including 2-hour strikes organised by text. He also highlighted tensions within the campaign, with many workers seeing the PSA as having traditionally undemocratic practices and not doing enough for their members. Additionally, many could not afford even a two-hour strike. Despite these shortcomings, the campaign ended in a partial victory, ending the wage freeze on the Ministry of Justice, but also accepting 70 redundancies. Boraman emphasised that the right to strike is essential in opposing attacks on workers.
Health-care assistant and Workers Party activist Heleyni Pratley spoke third. Pratley put the new law changes changes in context as part of an assault on the working class first launched under the Fourth Labour Government, with the balance of forces favouring the ruling class ever since. She also emphasised the need to understand these changes as a part of the capitalist system, and serving capitalist interests: while Lisa’s sacking might seem random, capitalists need to control the labour market and be able to hire and fire at will. Pratley underlined the importance of strike action in political campaigns, and the need to fight for the unrestricted right to strike.
Finally, Kay Brereton spoke from the People’s Centre, formerly the Unemployed Workers’ Union. Brereton moved on to explain the implications of these changes for unemployed workers: as these laws make it easier to sack workers without explanation, this makes it harder to qualify for the benefit or find further work. Brereton finally called for a revival of collectivism, stating that the decline of unionism has had a deeply negative impact on the working class.
With the speeches concluded, the floor was opened for discussion. Pat Bolster spoke for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) outlining their intention to educate workers on these changes. Discussion focussed largely on whether the CTU strategy was sufficient, with many favouring more militant action. Don Franks heavily criticised the Fairness at Work slogan, pointing out that workers will not receive fairness at work under capitalism, and do not expect to either.
There was also discussion of legal restrictions, and whether workers or unions should comply with them. A speaker for the PSA stated that any industrial action against these changes would take place during contract negotiations, as stated by law. A Workers Party activist pointed out that the right to strike was only won historically through illegal strike action. In general, there was agreement that workers and unions must take militant action against these changes.
A couple of specific ideas were put forward. Firstly, that Saturday’s Fairness at Work rally conclude with a march on Burger Fuel to oppose their abuse of the 90-Day Bill. Secondly, Warwick Taylor of the Wellington Residents Coalition put forward a motion that this meeting condemn these changes as an attack on the welfare of the majority, and convene an organising meeting at Trades Hall. Another comrade put forward an amendment, that “welfare” be changed to “welfare and well-being” to reflect people’s mental health needs. This amendment was accepted, and the motion was passed unanimously.
“FAIRNESS” AND FIGHTBACK
Saturday’s 2-hour Fairness at Work rally, held in Civic Square, initiated by the CTU, saw a turnout of around 1,500. With officials and rank-and-file from the Maritime Union, Service and Food Workers Union, Unite Union, and various others, the sea of flags and banners was a reminder that the working-class movement is not dead, only sleeping. Various left activists marched into the square with musical accompaniment by the Brass Razoo Solidarity Band, and a Workers Party banner stating: “This is Class War: Smash the Anti-Worker Laws.”
However, the event itself was a fairly limited and top-down affair. The choice to hold a rally, in the closed confines of Civic square, rather than a march, meant that the action could not have much impact beyond those already organised into unions.
Advertised on Facebook as a “party,” the event featured pop songs and a dance routine. Additionally, the political content was typically compromised, and for a two-hour event there was very little participation from the crowd. The CTU seems unlikely to provide the leadership necessary for this fight-back.
At the end of the event, an assortment of workers and activists from Unite Union, Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement and the Workers Party initiated a march. This gathered supporters as it left the square, and around 40 activists marched up Cuba Mall and Courtenay Place, finally settling on Burger Fuel.
Burger Fuel recently used the 90-Day Act to dismiss a worker who asked for a 15-minute break, although they gave no explanation for the dismissal. Activists occupied Burger Fuel for a short period, using the megaphone to explain the situation to customers.
The picket lasted about half-an-hour, chanting slogans such as “boycott Burger Fuel,” before concluding that we would return to picket any business that unfairly dismissed its workers.