Tony Simpson on the suppression of the general strike in 1991
This is a great piece by Tony Simpson about the notorious right-wing public sector union, the Public Service Association (PSA), and what their leadership got up to in 1991 during the struggle against draconian Employment Contracts Act. Tony Simpson has written a lot of history – including the fantastic oral history of the 1930s depression called ‘The Sugarbag Years’. This piece was given to me by someone I know – I of course believe in respecting copyright – and is published solely for educational purposes. Funnily enough, this piece does not appear in the stories section of the PSA’s centenary website – wonder why?
Tony Simpson, ‘The Employment Contracts Act’ in Mary Ellen O’Connor, The State and the Union, An Oral History of the PSA 1984-2012. Steele Roberts, 2013.
I will never forgive the leadership of the trade union movement for their failure to react to the Employment Contracts Act because to my certain knowledge the workers of the day were ready to have a go, to serve notice on the government of the day. And from my subsequent information, the government was expecting that. They wore absolutely flabbergasted. They couldn’t believe their luck when the trade union movement backed off.
I went to one of the biggest union meetings I’d been to in my life. 6000 in the Wellington Town Hall, packed to the gunwales, every public servant in Wellington, and they voted unanimously for a general strike. I took that back to the national policy council of the PSA (I was a Wellington councillor at that stage), where we voted to go for the strike.
But a senior staff member of the PSA intervened after the vote was taken and said, ‘If you do this, you jeopardise the salary settlement we have just reached with the government.’ I knew this was rubbish, but nevertheless there were enough inexperienced members of council who were influenced by that so the vote was retaken a changed by a very narrow margin. And the PSA was crucial in the CTU decision. If the PSA had come down in favour of the one-day general strike, it would have gone ahead.
Failing to fire shots across the government’s bows over the ECA revealed their own weakness. The trade union movement in this country has always been a balancing act, in which you try to hide your relative powerlessness from people who think you are more powerful than you are. And to be fair to those who decided not to strike, some of them had memories that went back to the 1951 lockout. But, as I said at the time, the difference was that in ’51 the members were fundamentally divided; in ’91 the workers had never been more united. That fear of division was misplaced, it was a blunder tactically. They failed to read the situation and a lot of workers were disillusioned that failure, and in my view that contributed materially to the subsequent weakness of the trade union movement.
The workers said ‘What’s the point of belonging to a trade union? When the chips are down, they don’t defend us and our working conditions.’ (Although employment law had been changed significantly by the previous Labour Government so the trade union movement had already become a bit shaky prior to the ECA.)
I think the trade union movement now reaps the consequence of this decision and therefore the ECA. It is not taken as seriously as it should be. They have tried painfully to rebuild and I applaud their efforts, but they have been marginalised and that is the principal reason in my view why you have this enormous wage gap between New Zealand and Australia. In Australia, they never gave up their system of industrial awards and collective agreements that applied to everyone and they continued to build a wage floor under the workforce.
I was furious after the ECA decision and decided to put a lot more energy into the PSA again. I did not want to see it go down this path. They were developing a very pernicious philosophy, what they called ‘partnership’ with management. In my estimation, that was a mistaken philosophy. Partnership is what the shark said to the minnow. But there were some people in the senior management of the PSA who were pressing it very hard. I saw my role as combating that.
Though I’m not a Marxist, I have a certain sympathy with an opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto which says that the working class and the ruling class have nothing in common. I’ve always taken that as a credo. Furthermore, any power the unions once had had already been very undermined, so to try to enter into an equal partnership in those circumstances was a recipe for disaster. I said so at the time and made myself very unpopular in some quarters. But it gives me no pleasure at all to have been vindicated in my view. It has been a very sterile philosophy and approach, and it has gained workers nothing but a significant fall in wages in real terms.
I don’t think there was any moment that ‘partnership’ was adopted as a policy by the decision-making bodies of the PSA. Senior staff of the PSA just decided that this is what we’ll do from now on. So a lot of members were angry and walked away, and other unions were set up because people found this unacceptable.