Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Left unity in NZ

by Phil Duncan

Issued: Weekly Worker May 18, 2005
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Since Labour got back into power in 1999, the 200 richest individuals and families in New Zealand have increased their wealth by 250%. Real wages, however, have been stagnant. In fact over the past 20 years, real wages have fallen by more than six percent. In a country of just four million people, hundreds of thousands of work over 40 hours a week, while many tens of thousands of other workers are unemployed and several hundred thousand are under-employed. A third of this country’s children now live in poverty. Clearly, a fightback is urgently needed. The union movement, however, is largely pushing a ’partnership’ model with employers and the state. For instance the CTU (Council of Trade Unions) has just invited top Irish union bureaucrat Peter Cassells to speak on the joys of ’partnership’. One of the few bright spots in terms of organised labour in New Zealand has been the emergence of a new union, Unite, which is organising low-paid and casual workers – especially young workers – in fast food outlets, petrol stations and cinemas.

In Christchurch, Unite is also attempting to organise sex workers following the recent legalisation of brothels. Unite is the fastest-growing union in the country and recently won an important organising and pay battle at Reading Cinemas in Wellington. In the past several months, the Engineers Union (EPMU), by far the largest union but also saddled with one of the most rightwing leaderships and tied to the Labour Party, has been organising a campaign for a five percent pay rise. The NDU (National Distribution Union) and SFWU (Service and Food Workers Union) have also taken up this campaign. Woefully inadequate as this is, it has seen very large stop-work meetings around the country and represents a modest rise in workers’ expectations. It also provides opportunities for us in the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (ACA), which has a small core of members in factories covered by the EPMU, to argue the need for militant struggle and promote our broader politics.

Even more encouragingly, in the past few weeks groups of workers have begun taking action for much larger claims. Auckland bus drivers have gone on strike for a 16% increase. Meanwhile, NUPE (the National Union of Public Employees) – probably the most left union but very small – has put in a 30% claim for the section of health workers it covers.

Over the weekend of May 13-15, the current state of the working class and the task of building a revolutionary movement within the class formed the focus of the second national workplace organising conference of the ACA: Workers Resistance 2005.

The ACA was formed in 2002 by two small Marxist groups and a layer of independent activists and has quickly grown into the largest group on the far left, and the only one which is involved in workplace organising across the country, from Auckland in the north to Dunedin in the south. For instance, the ACA has been the main far left group participating in the Unite organising drives. Most groups have abstained and seem to feel uncomfortable attempting to organise workers as active subjects rather than merely talking about them as objects.

WR 2005 was attended by activists from Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. It featured sessions on the overall state of the working class, including the double oppression of women, Maori and Pacific Island workers; organising the unorganised, including a report on how casualised workers were organised in Sydney in recent years; the history of the Labour Party as a bosses’ party; fighting back (including looking at the modest increase in workers’ struggles in recent months); workers, unions and the law; the importance of internationalism, which also featured a special guest from India talking about the Indian working class; and bosses’ arguments and our counter-arguments, based on a number of scenarios in industrial workplaces. The gathering also featured a session on the importance of our press – we produce a free weekly newssheet, a 12-page paper which comes out every three weeks and a 40-page magazine which comes out several times a year.

After the open sessions, the ACA held a national organising meeting to plan our work over the rest of the year. We will be bringing out pamphlets on the Labour Party, the current state of the working class and a handbook for workplace organising based on our experiences and those of a number of sympathetic union activists. In the 2002 general election we ran in four seats, but our expansion since then means that this year we are able to run up to nine candidates in the four or five main cities. We also decided to organise a winter study retreat in the central North Island and a major national educational conference in Auckland after the elections.

The ACA is very small but, pretty much alone on the far left, it has actually grown since its formation and now has experienced activists in the five main cities. Moreover, blue-collar workers now make up a majority of the organisation. The ACA has also been the site of the only successful far left regroupment to have taken place in NZ in several decades, with the two small left groups within the ACA fusing last year, to form the Revolutionary Workers League. In addition, the ACA overall has attracted a number of former members of other left currents – all of them blue collar workers – who bring extremely valuable political capital to the organisation.