In its platform, the Workers Party (NZ) calls for the unrestricted right to strike. Here Ian Anderson, a writer for The Spark, interviews socialist and union delegate Andrew Tait, on a recent resolution supporting the right to sympathy strikes.
The Spark: Can you talk a little about the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union (EPMU) itself, and how you got involved?
AT: I’ve been keen on unions since I was a kid, back in 1991 when the Nats tried to smash unions. I love the idea that we can work together to make a better world. I’ve also been a socialist since I was a teenager. I joined the International Socialists Organisation in 1994, and have always joined the union at uni or at work. In about 2007 I joined Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union when I started work at the newspaper in Dunedin, and after about four years became a delegate for my floor. The EPMU is the biggest private-sector union and one of the most diverse. It covers posties, airline workers, and timber workers as well as engineers, printers and manufacturing workers. The EPMU is a major supporter of the Labour Party. It’s the biggest private sector union because in the 1990s it merged with a whole lot of unions but it has been hit pretty hard by redundancies, especially in manufacturing. The big loss in Dunedin recently was the closure of Fisher & Paykel.
The Spark: You had a resolution passed on the right to strike. What does this resolution mean?
AT: The resolution was that the union lobby for the introduction of the right to conduct secondary (sympathy) strikes. The immediate inspiration for it was the Ports of Auckland dispute, where Rail and Maritime Union workers were forced to supply the ports when they were run by scab labour. If this resolution became law, the RMTU workers could refuse to supply the port and not be penalised. It would massively increase the industrial effectiveness of strikes.
The Spark: How did you win support within the union?
AT: In our union, there are regional forums every year, which delegates get a day off work to attend. In Dunedin last year about forty or fifty met at Zingari rugby club. The president of the union and other exec members and officials give reports on the politics and the union and there is an opportunity to frame “remits”, which are like motions, or bills, that are sent to the national conference, which acts like the parliament of the union. By voting for the regional remit, it becomes union policy. Next conference, the exec will report on what they’ve done to lobby for this right. My remit was popular in Dunedin because union delegates feel industrial law is weighted against them. The Ports dispute was fresh in people’s minds. In Auckland at the national conference the support of one key official Paul Tolich, the Senior Industrial Officer, swung the vote behind the remit. Tolich is a staunch supporter of the union’s affiliation to Labour, but he also thought the right to strike was too weak.
The Spark: How can the right to strike be used?
AT: At present, only during contract negotiations. This automatically rules out sympathy strikes.
The Spark: Who should be concerned about the right to strike?
AT: The right to strike is the basis of all working class power, and insofar as the working class has been the driving force behind the achievement of the right to vote, to free assembly and speech, to public health and education, the right to strike is arguably the source of all the freedoms we take for granted. There is strength that comes from combining resources in a union and speaking with a united voice in negotiations, but without being able to stop production, there is no reason for bosses to listen.
The Spark: How was the right to strike won in the past?
AT: My remit incorrectly called for the reintroduction of the right to sympathy strikes. The exec pointed out that such a right has never existed, although there have been plenty of sympathy strikes in NZ history. That’s more or less the answer to the question. The right to strike is won by striking and only retrospectively receives the blessing of legality, just as unions were only reluctantly legalised when they were an industrial reality. But that doesn’t mean the battle for legal recognition is irrelevant. Its part of rehabilitating the idea that you’ve a right to strike, that strikes are good.
The Spark: What do you see as the next step in advancing this?
AT: I am hopeful the EPMU will put some pressure on the Labour Party. I have no illusions about “winning it back to its roots” because I think Labour’s programme is not about increased workers power but serving the interests of capital and the state. But it will have an impact on debate in the party and in the left. I would like to see other unions picking up on this campaign (which was originally suggested as a crucial one by Jared Phillips, of Unite and Workers Party), and in general, I’d like to see the left in New Zealand recognise the strike as something of a missing link and do more study and propaganda on them. For instance, the strike rate last year was comparable with that at the height of the Great Depression. This is not a normal time we are living in.