Unions as sunday school picnic associations: the NZ response to the international day of action on the right to strike

I don’t normally post polemical pieces on this blog. But something recently irked me enough to write one. 18 February 2015 was an international day of action on the right to strike. It was sponsored by the International Trade Union Confederation. Over 60 countries participated with 100 forms of action around the globe.

Image result for right to strike

Yet what was the response in little old New Zealand, tucked away in its little south seas bubble, largely disconnected from the rest of the world? The CTU responded massively. Massively. Let’s quote them:

As part of New Zealand’s support for the international campaign “Our Right to Strike” the CTU wants to highlight the behaviour of Business New Zealand at the International Labour Organisation, where they have been active in the campaign by the global business lobby to undermine the right to strike in international law.

Wednesday 18 February was International Right to Strike Day. By entering your details below and clicking send you will forward a message to 20 of New Zealand’s biggest businesses – who are all members of Business New Zealand – asking them to hold Business New Zealand to account for its involvement in the distasteful attack on workers rights at the ILO.

Please send a message and show Business New Zealand that Kiwis accept the right to strike is an international human right and understand that in many parts of the world the failure to uphold that right is costing people their lives. (see http://union.org.nz/our-right-to-strike)

Yes, that is right folks. In response to Business NZ lobbying to make strikes illegal, on an international day of action about the right to strikes, they send in a bloody email to Business NZ! That will tell them! I am sure they want to listen.

In the past, the right to strike was something supported by not just leftist bureaucrats, but also right wing bureaucrats. While Tom Skinner of the FOL and some of the Catholic right wing bureaucrats who ran unions like the Electricians only viewed strikes as a last resort, at least they did use them when pushed. And they could use them effectively. The CTU seems to be further to the right than these leaders. As Tu’u’u Ieti Taule’alo, former president of the Samoan PSA once said during the Samoan general strike of 1981, without the right to strike ‘a union is a Sunday school picnic association.’ That sentiment used to be common…

Most unions in NZ are now Sunday school picnic associations. Striking is pretty much off the agenda these days. The lack of struggle from unions has directly led to cuts in pay, overwork and stress, longer work hours, intensification of exploitation, more precariousness, job losses, and a generally shittier and more stressful and more commodified, plastic, hollow life…the list goes on. And many workers have become alienated and disenchanted with unions due to their inability to stop or even mitigate the continual restructuring of the workplace (and society) by capital and the state for a long time. Yes, there are still 3-4 strikes per year (I am kidding, but in some recent years it has been that bad), and mostly they are inneffectual ‘show strikes’ where workers go out for a few hours at a time at best.

The purpose of the show strikes is not to disrupt capital’s imposition of work, nor hurt capitalists in the pocket, but to hold public rallies (often at lunchtime) or ‘pickets’ (ie. a few people holding placards outside a business) which are supposed to shame employers into paying workers more. Unite, which is probably the most militant union in NZ, specialises in these sorts of strikes. But the right-wing pro-partnership business union PSA does too. They occasionally get the point where they are facing such drastic attacks from their partners in the government that they take tokenistic, inneffectual action. Nowhere do I know of is there a genuine attempt to build from below grassroots organisation. My experience is that delegates and rank and file members are only given somewhat of a free reign during a strike to organise local actions. At other times they are simply viewed as those who must follow orders from above.

There is a sad paradox here: how during a period when striking has become more and more necessary and vital, it has almost dissapeared.

NZ has become virtually strike-free (in fact, there was a right wing group called strike-free in NZ, it has got its wish, sadly). NZ used to way ahead of largely conservative countries like West Germany in the strike ladder. Now Germany, despite being under threats of severe restrictions of strikes, experiences large strikes by railway drivers, posties and airport pilots, and has also seen some strikes in new areas, such in warehouses (by Amazon workers) and fast food joints. NZ is way behind.

But at least Unite, which is a fairly unique union in NZ in that it is solely based on precarious service workers, ironicially held a strike at Wendy’s in Christchurch on Feb 18 over the use of zero hour contracts among other issues. Sure, a show strike, but hats off to them.

Their blog said:

18 February 2015 has been designated by the ITUC General Council as a global day of action in defence of the right to strike, which is under attack by employer groups at the ILO.

The right to strike is a basic human right, which was won through struggle – yet all over the world this right is under attack. Unions exercising the right to industrial action are routinely met with repressive measures ranging from sackings, detentions and arrests to violence and even murder. The ITUC’s Global Rights Index shows that the right to strike is frequently restricted in law and violated in practice around the world

But that doesn’t mean we ought to get tangled up in a legalistic fight for bourgeois rights and freedoms, nor try to organise more strikes based on upsetting capital’s spectacle and branding. The real struggle is to get to a situation where all the restrictions on striking, and in NZ there are many, are overcome through struggle, through workers ignoring the law and taking matters into their own hands. This used to actually happen in NZ fairly regularly, only 30 odd years ago. Workers and even some unions would try to find ways to go around the law, or simply ignore it. For example, political strikes were banned in 1976, but large-scale strikes against the visits of nuclear ships and even some bans on land development in support of Maori struggle occured. The 1979 general strike was illegal, but the govt. simply could not prosecute the hundreds of thousands that took part.

Sure, we can’t turn back the clock. And strikes aren’t the only answer. Other forms of struggle can be more effective and important, as the anti-austerity and Arab spring movements of the squares overseas has shown (tho I think that community-based struggle ought to supplement and supports workplace-based struggle, rather than being a substitute for it). And for sure, the struggle to overcome all the chains heaped and double-heaped on workers has to come from workers themselves, rather than unions and union bureaucrats. And the working class at the moment is in a state of prolonged decomposition. Many of are simply struggling to get by with huge rents, lack of employment and precariousness (including zero hour contracts), and even though we get treated like shit at work we put up with it because of the threat of unemployment.

But that doesn’t mean struggle does not occur: it occurs in a myriad of everyday subterranean forms at the workplace, where a battle is still waged between workers trying to minimise and avoid their workloads, and management and capital trying to maximise them.  These struggles still exist, even if they are subdued, isolated, fragmented, and often individualised ways of coping with work, rather than collectively resisting it. We may have lost the strike culture that was passed down through generations of militant workers, but everyday pockets of resistance remain, and that culture can be re-learnt and updated for today’s conditions. Well, at least I hope so…


~ by vomitingdiamonds on 22/02/2015.

3 Responses to “Unions as sunday school picnic associations: the NZ response to the international day of action on the right to strike”

  1. Hi VD,

    Thanks for the post.

    Your article could also be called “Cuddle Based Unionism vs Struggle Based Unionism”. “Reactive Based Unionism vs Struggle Based Unionism” is probably more correct.

    We definitely don’t wield strikes enough in Aotearoa. When it is wielded, it is usually reactive and protective rather than proactive (i.e. Talleys Affco lockout and the Progressive lockout). However, where workers are willing to strike, encouraging a lockout is often strategic as locked out workers get WINZ and more public sympathy where strikers don’t. Public support isn’t a substitute for industrial muscle, but it helps, especially in keen but industrially weak worksites.

    I’ve always found we’ve had either a don’t strike, all-out or media/campaign-as-substitute-for-strike strategies. There are very few sites strong enough to take all-out strike action for prolonged periods of time. The all-out-strike mentality often ends up justifying the don’t-strike stance because workers are rarely keen to take prolonged action. The media, social media and leaflets etc rarely provide significant leverage and it can’t be welded all the time. Using this and getting no-where is demoralising, especially when its token campaigning and the organising plan has no way of measuring leverage (as opposed to thinking a single media story is enough).

    We’ve got to start where workers are, build their confidence and escalate accordingly. Symbolic forms of action like media, social media, public rallies etc can be used to help build the confidence of otherwise industrially inexperienced or cautious workers, but the end goal has to be moving people to take direct action. I think SupersizeMyPay.com, which was proactive, still is a good example of how to mix the two. We didn’t have the muscle on the ground, but we use the symbolic power of the media to boost confidence and support to make change industrially and politically. The long-term weakness of the strategy was shown, however, when youth rates where brought back. But the lessons are still valid.

    I think Jared Abbott from First Union is a good example of an organiser who is using striking succesfully. You’re probably not familiar with his actions because they aren’t large scale or always public. But he shows succesful proactive strike action is still possible and works.

    Kind regards,

    • Thanks for your comments. The nub of it is where workers are at, and building from there. Some seem to think workers are passive because of the lack of overt struggle, and duped by the ideology of capital; there has been a recent article on redline arguing that. But it is more complex and contradictory than that in my experience – that peculiar intermixture of submission and informal resistance that exists at the same time. Many workers, esp. young workers, are angry, pissed-off, while at the same time being cynical and seeing no hope for change; while some suck up to bosses and side with them and stuff over fellow workers, others don’t and disobey or find away around the bosses orders and support fellow workers; some do and don’t at the same time; etc. We live in strange times.

      But yes, overall a prolonged period of class decomposition. No one has the solution to that. It is the biggest problem facing people into class struggle.

      I take your point all-out strikes are very difficult to hold these days. I don’t have an answer to that. But while overt resistance is very difficult these days, and most strikes symbolic, it seems to me maybe informal resistance is still possible and still goes on in a patchy way – and is easier and more immediate. There are still informal go-slows, work to rules, sabotage, absenteeism, and other forms of subversion. I should have been more careful and said this is what i mean by strikes (not just overt strikes, but also covert stoppages). It is something to build upon rather than be dismissed or manipulated as part of a top down union strategy. The problem is that much of the neoliberal restructuring was aimed at breaking up this informal resistance, and the solidarity it was founded on, by eg. imposing strict managerial discipline, breaking up informal groups, coopting informal groups and informal leaders through ‘team work’ (Toyotaism and its antecedents) etc. Plus recent legislation aimed at curbing sickies and also go-slows.

      If a revival of class struggle in workplaces will happen, it will need to come from below, and be linked with this informal resistance to everyday conditions. When I hear about union strategies, they all seem to be top-down, looking at how to move workers around like chess pieces, how to manipulate the media etc. A minor problem but maybe relevant is that a lot of union organisers have never worked in the industries they organise, they are career union organisers.

      My rant was not meant as a ‘Cuddle Based Unionism vs Struggle Based Unionism’ article, but guess it can be interpreted that way. Certainly I think struggle based unionism is much preferable. But only a start. And no offence intended, struggle-based unionism has its own problems – bureaucracy, top-down approaches, and they dont seem to struggle all that much these days. Not to mention struggle-based unions are also businesses, just like business unions. Unions are in the end contradictory, as much a product of capital as resisting capital.

  2. To clarify, I meant the “all out strike” strategy ends up being a “don’t strike strategy” because the person calling for it will use peoples unwillingness to strike for five days as justification for doing nothing as opposed to building something up. I think this happens sometimes when an organiser genuinely wants to fight, but because of time pressures etc there wasn’t time to prepare. And preparing on the fly isn’t always the best thing to do. Better we plan for action in advance rather than use it reactively.


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