Even dogs are given bones: Rixen women fight back
“A documentary about the dispute in 1981 between the clothing workers at the Rixen factory in Levin, New Zealand and their employer, who decided to close the factory. The women were given short notice of their dismissal, and no redundancy pay. The women, many of whom had worked there for over a decade, wanted the opportunity to take over management of the factory and continue working it as a co-operative. When their employer refused to negotiate terms, they occupied the premises where they lived for 13 weeks, with the support of the Federation of Labour and other clothing workers around the country. Produced by Dyke Productions in association with Women’s Community Video.”
This was the longest workplace occupation in New Zealand history, lasting 13 weeks. It was unsucessful, but inspiring. The 43 Levin women from the Clothing Workers’ Federation did their occupation in the face of threats from the police to evict them (this was soon after the 1981 Springbok tour, and the massive police operation against the massive mobilisation of 250,000 odd people against that tour), and received much solidarity from members of the public, workers, unions and women’s groups. It also shows how class struggle during the time was not about male, white blue-collar workers, as is sometimes thought. Indeed, the strike wave of the time involved thousands and thousands and thousands of women workers, as well as heaps of Maori and Pasifika workers.
Workplace occupations nowadays seem almost an impossibility given the ongoing defeat and decomposition of the working class in New Zealand. The basics of collective organising and building confidence from below seem to be largely lost, and the tradition of collectively fighting back almost gone. There have been probably more redundancies in the last few years than there were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but little fight back. (I don’t have time to go into the reasons for this, as they are complex and multiple – the orthodox Marxist blog Redline usefully presents some of them here and here, but I’d disagree with a fair bit of their analysis). Yet in a different era, and under a different class composition, many did fight back against redundancies. Indeed, the 1980s was the second most strike prone decade in NZ history, just after the 1970s. So it’s important to re-learn that these struggles occurred, and maybe some people out there will find it useful and inspiring. Redundancies are particularly hard to fight back against, as Mouvement Communiste note in their pamphlet.
NZ has never had a tradition of workplace occupations. I can think of only four major ones, namely the sit-ins in the freezing works in Auckland and the Waikato in 1937 (sit-ins which the Labour Party lambasted), the very short occupation by women workers of the Lane Walker Rudkin factory in Greymouth in 1990 (they herded the managers into a room and shouted at them! And then held pickets outside the factory (which had closed down) for six weeks – see Paul Maunder, ‘Greymouth vs Ron Brierley, Labour History Project Newsletter no 52, August 2011), and in 1998 the successful occupations of fire stations in Auckland against restructuring – see this article. There have been maybe a few others that i’m not aware of. There was also a very brief occupation of a canteen by Feltex workers in Christchurch in 2006.
In contrast, a country like the UK has more of a tradition of occupations – and there were numerous occupations in the 1970s and 1980s in Scotland and England. There is a whole book written about by Ken Coates of the Institute for Workers Control called Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy: The Implications of Factory Occupations in Great Britain in the Early Seventies. For example, in 1981, Lee jeans women clothing workers in Greenock, Scotland held a successful occupation. Even in more recent times, there have been a few – such as at Visteon. The occupations in Argentina during and after the 2001 revolt also deserve a mention.
NZ does have rich history of other forms of occupation – especially land occupations by Maori over a long period of time, but also since the late 1960s numerous student occupations, anti-Vietnam War sit-ins of US consulates and ‘occupations’ of visiting US warships and the like, a few occupations by the unemployed (eg, of social welfare offices), a few housing occupation and even an anti-road occupation in Wellington, brief occupations of corporate headquarters by activists (animal rights, anti-capitalists, unemployed) and so on. This tradition, however, is also dying out, and the few occupations that do occur these days are very small and thus easier to repress by the authorities.
Shortness of time prevents me from analysing the multiple strengths and weaknesses of workplace occupations; that is not the purpose of this wee blog entry in any case – the purpose being simply some background to the little known Rixen occupation of 1981 and a link to the excellent wee documentary about it.