When the National Party, traditionally the main capitalist party in New Zealand, was defeated at the polls in November 1999 workers breathed a collective sigh of relief. After fifteen years of neo-liberal ’reforms’ the new Labour-led government was elected promising to oppose any further moves to privatisation, halt cuts to health, education and welfare spending, and scrap the hated Employment Contracts Act – which had led to trade union membership being more than halved over the period since it was introduced in 1991.
After years of relative quiet, more and more workers in New Zealand are taking industrial action, including recent wildcat strikes by teachers and rail workers and action by health sector employees. The New Zealand working class has no choice but to resist: the recently elected Labour coalition government is pledged to follow the neo-liberal ’consensus’, even if it projects less anti-worker language and posturing, and the bosses are even more determined in the context of world economic slowdown to exploit workers. This follows a decade or more of neo-liberal political policies that have led to the alienation of many people from the main parties and a searching for an alternative.
Tim Bowron, from the CWI in New Zealand, writes on the background to the recent upsurge in strikes.
CWI Online, 30 October
A new upturn in industrial struggle
Although there was certainly no prospect of radical change, the temporary suspension of the ruling class offensive did at least allow workers some space in which to organise and rebuild their shattered forces. This was reflected in the fact that between 1999 and 2000 total trade union membership actually increased by 5.7% – from 302, 900 to 319,000 – the first time this had happened in well over a decade.i Since then there has also been a small but significant rise in the level of industrial struggle.
Whereas during the second half of the 1990s we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of workers taking part in strikes – from a peak of 42,307 in 1996 to a record low of 2,632 in 2000 – the last two years would appear to represent a reversal of this trend. In the year ending December 2001, the number of workers involved in strike action was 22,022, while just in the first two quarters of 2002 the combined total was 5685.ii
Just as important as the change in the official statistics however has been the growing mood of militancy among some sections of the working class. While most strikes are still tightly controlled by the conservative trade union leadership, in the last six months we have also witnessed a number of wildcat strikes by secondary teachers and Tranzmetro railway workers, which have in each case resulted in small but important victories being won against the employers.
Teachers’ wildcat strikes
The teachers’ pay dispute that began in March this year was the first real sign of this increased confidence and competitiveness among workers. The attempt by the government to introduce a new qualifications framework – the NCEA – without adequately compensating secondary teachers for the extra workload that it would bring, combined with the fact that for the last ten years teachers’ salaries had failed to keep pace with inflation, led the PPTA (the union representing secondary teachers) to reject the pay offer of 3.5% plus 3 hours of paid non-contact time per week.
On the 8 May, wildcat strikes broke out at schools in South Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Palmerston North, Wairarapa, Marlborough and Lower Hutt after the Ministry of Education took out a full-page advertisement in all the main daily newspapers blaming teachers for the industrial dispute. A week later the PPTA leadership recommended a new pay offer from the government of 5.5% over 3 years (less than the rate of inflation) with a small additional allowance for administering the NCEA. This deal met with widespread opposition from the rank-and-file members, and a further round of wildcat strikes followed at schools right around the country. PPTA president Jen McCutcheon condemned the actions of the striking teachers as "irresponsible" – but despite this union members still voted by a wide margin to reject the government’s offer. Many secondary teachers were outraged by Jen McCutcheon’s decision to attend the Labour Party conference in Wellington on the 18 May, and saw her attempt to force through a negotiated settlement as nothing more than a cynical ploy to boost Labour’s chances of a second term in government two months away from a general election.
School student walkouts
As if determined to deliberately sabotage the industrial campaign, the PPTA executive decided on the disastrous strategy of imposing a ban on all extracurricular activities as an alternative to strike action. This in turn provoked mass walkouts and strikes by secondary school students in all the major urban centres. Thousands of students took to the streets to protest the ban but at the same time they also called on the government to address the teachers’ grievances.
Jen McCutcheon did her best to destroy any possibility of effective staff-student solidarity however when she described the wave of student strikes as "anarchy" and demanded that all secondary school pupils return to classes immediately.iii With an election looming, the PPTA was persuaded to call off their industrial action and accept arbitration. On the 19 August the arbitration panel handed down its recommendation for a 12.1% pay increase over 3 years – however those secondary teachers without a degree qualification were not included in the settlement. As a result, up to 25% of teachers may be forced back into industrial action in order to get their claim settled.
Teachers’ gains inspires others
However, notwithstanding all of these tactical errors on the part of the PPTA leadership, the fact remains that the secondary teachers’ dispute represented a significant breakthrough for the working class in New Zealand after years of demoralisation and defeat. It has also had an important flow-on effect in terms of inspiring other groups of workers to take industrial action – such as the academic and clerical staff at the University of Otago who went on strike in September for the first time in the history of that institution. Four weeks of rolling stoppages and a protest march by 800 staff and students down the main street of Dunedin (the largest demonstration seen in the city since the 1999 education campaign) forced university management to more than double their original pay offer of 1.5% in order to reach a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile academic staff at Waikato University, on the North Island, have voted to reject a 2.5% salary offer from their employer and look almost certain to take industrial action over the coming weeks.
Health workers take action
Of potentially even greater significance though has been the recent wave of strikes by workers in the health sector. In late September nurses at five North Island hospitals voted by a margin of 92% to take strike action in support of their claim for a multi-employer collective agreement (M.E.C.A.). After a vicious campaign in the corporate media accusing the nurses’ union of "putting patients’ lives at risk" the strike was called off, but not before a new dispute had broken out – this time involving radiologists employed by the Auckland District Health Board. On 29 October the Auckland radiologists began a five-day strike in protest at the District Health Board’s take-it-or-leave-it 2% pay offer. This followed a two-day strike by orderlies at Wellington Hospital in the previous week and ongoing industrial action by cardiac and respiratory technologists in Auckland.
Faced with this revival of industrial struggle the response from the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions has been to issue a report calling for a new "social partnership" between unions, business and the government in a bid to increase productivity, in the belief that this will automatically translate into higher wages and better working conditions.iv
Building a socialist alternative
Unfortunately countering these ideas is hampered by the absence of a mass socialist alternative in New Zealand. But this does not mean the workers will not support a Left alternative, if it is on offer. The recent general elections saw the collapse of the Alliance party, which previously attracted youth and workers as a ’Left opposition’ to Labour, even if its programme was, at best, of a broadly reformist character. This support evaporated once the Alliance entered the last coalition government with the Labour Party and supported neo-liberal policies that hurt the working class most. The Alliance failed to capitalise on its initial widespread support as an alternative to the Labour Party and to build on clear, independent class lines during the 1990s.
The task of socialists and trade union activists in the coming period must be to work at the grassroots level in order to expose the rhetoric of class collaboration and campaign for a more democratic, fighting union movement. Undoubtedly the recent upsurge of industrial disputes is creating a new breed of activists and militants who will increasingly fight for a new union leadership that really represents the interests of the shop floor.
It is also necessary to fight for the redevelopment of the political arm of the working class. The CWI in New Zealand calls for the establishment of a new mass party of the working class, armed with bold socialist policies. Such a party must be open, democratic and inclusive, if it is to win over the new generation.
Tim Bowron, NZ CWI, Dunedin, 30 November 2002.
i ’Unions: The Beginning of the Recovery?’ in Socialist Review of Aotearoa/New Zealand issue 8, Spring 2001
ii Statistics New Zealand – Work Stoppages (June 2002 quarter) – Media Release
iii Otago Daily Times 15.06.02
iv Unions, Innovation & Sustainable Development, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions publication, September 2002