The following article is an edited version of a report submitted to the Workers Party internal conference in January 2011 by its National Industrial officer Mike Kay.
The unemployment rate in the September 2010 year was virtually unchanged since the previous year, at 6.4%. Employment had increased by 1.8%, economic growth had been sluggish,and wage growth generally slow. (Although interestingly enough, the annual survey of CEAs by the Industrial Relations Centre at Victoria University found that for those agreements for which they could calculate an increase from June 2009 to June 2010, adult minimum wages in collectives went up by an “annualised” rate of 4.2 percent – the largest they have ever reported. This has been explained by pay rises kicking in for longer-term agreements negotiated prior to the recession.)
The Department of Labour’s Union Membership Report of March 2009 found a 3.9% increase in union membership on the previous year. Unions represented 17.9% of the total employed labour force, and 21.5% of wage/salary earners for that period. More women (59.9%) than men were union members. The most unionised sector was Health and Community Services, followed by Education; Government Administration and Defence; and Manufacturing.
There was a modest increase in work stoppages in the June 2010 year, compared to 2009’s historic low point. Twenty-nine work stoppages ended in the June 2010 year, with the estimated loss in wages and salaries $3.1 million. The number of employees involved (13,829) and the person-days of work lost (17,989) were both significantly up on the previous year. The greatest participation came from two sectors: Public administration and safety; and Health care and social assistance. The year was notable for strikes amongst white collar workers such as radiographers, secondary school teachers and staff in the Ministry of Justice.
Campaigns and Disputes
In both the Pike River Mine disaster and the Canterbury Earthquake, the government (and Key in particular) were quickly able to turn the situation to their advantage. In Canterbury none of the unions except Unite appeared to seize the initiative to raise the class perspective. It is increasingly clear that Pike River was an example of the horrific human consequences of the rule of profit, but the EPMU’s profile and reaction was was not strong. There were problems for the union: not all the miners were members (some were contractors), and the company’s legal team seems to be trying to shift blame onto the employees. Yet if a major union fails to lead workers and their communities in a heartland like the West Coast, something is seriously wrong. With his “other hat” of Labour Party President, the prime concern of Andrew Little appears to be assuring the mining industry that they have nothing to worry about from any future Labour administration.
Significantly, Unite Union did not manage to get 300,000 signatories required to force a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum on whether the minimum wage should be immediately raised to $15 and for the minimum wage to then be legislated at two-thirds of the average wage. This campaign came to a close in May (under law there is a limit of 12 months to complete the petition).
The announcement of further extensions to the government’s anti-worker laws required us to revise our industrial perspective somewhat. In general most comrades were surprised at that these changes were announced so soon - in the first term of the National-lead government - in a period of industrial quietude. However, the government was probably emboldened by the lack of fight from the unions to date, and currently enjoys a stable majority to push through just about any legislation. Our broad assessment of it still holds true: Key does not want a head-on confrontation with the union movement. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the most draconian aspects of the proposed legislation (notably on access rights) have been watered down.
The unions’ response was to call rallies across the country in protest. (There was no action in earthquake-afflicted Christchurch due to the CTU top brass unilaterally pulling the plug) In terms of attendance, these events were successful. Thousands packed in to an arena in south Auckland to hear union leaders speak. Predictably, those such as Jill Ovens of the SFWU promoted returning Labour to office as the answer. The best of the speakers, Robert Reid of the NDU, delivered the most militant sounding speech, drawing applause with his pledge to defy thugs, security guards and police who tried to block union access to the workplace. Yet he still managed to hit a somewhat disempowering note by suggesting that union officials were the “only people who can police your collective agreement.”
Thus we have poor political leadership and limited organisational capacity in our movement. The response of activists seeking a more militant orientation has been to set up groups in various cities, with variable success. The “Solidarity Auckland” group attracted some interest around the Burger Fuel/ 90 day law protest. However, the Burger Fuel campaign was a victim of its own success, a “perfect storm” of: a worker from a staunch union family with a strong case; and a brand-conscious, industrially inexperienced employer with paper-thin margins who was desperate to settle. Solidarity Auckland has been in abeyance for the past couple of months.
In contrast, the “Hamilton Left Initiative” has had some modest success as an on-going concern, despite lacking the launch pad of a high profile local campaign, and drawing on a smaller pool of activists and delegates.
Whether such organisations are able to play a real part in supporting and initiating forthcoming struggles remains to be seen.
Globally, there are signs of a revival of militancy, notably in Europe, where governments have been imposing austerity measures in response to the ongoing recession. In Ireland, social struggles have been sold out by the union leadership, but in France there is more evidence of workers’ self-organisation. Late in 2010, the mobilisation moved from periodic one-day strike actions, into what’s called “reconductible” strikes. A “reconductible” strike is one where workers meet in a mass workplace meeting (called a “general assembly” or “AG”) every morning and take a vote on whether to continue the strike or not. This element of local rank-and-file democracy makes the strike more chaotic, more durable, and much more dangerous. Although Sarkozy’s law raising the retirement age was passed, activists recall the precedent of the 2006 CPE law (cutting employment rights for young people), repealed shortly after being passed due to popular pressure. The slogan is, “what the Parliament does, the street can undo”.
A notable strike this year involved 1,900 workers at the Honda Motors transmission plant in southern China which paralysed production for almost two weeks and raised concerns in international financial circles about the prospect for wider unrest. The Chinese government still tolerates very little dissent when it comes to liberal political opinions. However, the government has increasingly taken a more conciliatory approach towards resolving worker protests and strikes in recent years. Perhaps there are some parallels with 1970s/80s South Africa, where the state maintained heavy repression in the political sphere, but conceded some space for organising in the industrial sphere, which led to the emergence of a militant independent union movement.