Together We Stand: If the New Zealand Left fails to launch a counter-offensive against the, to date, highly successful campaign by the Right to break the Maritime Union and set the scene for the privatisation of the Ports of Auckland, then it will sustain a significant, perhaps historic, strategic defeat. There is much more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of 300 waterside workers.
THE LOOMING CONFRONTATION on Auckland’s wharves will be a test for the whole of the New Zealand Left. If the clear pattern of escalation by the Ports of Auckland Ltd’s (POAL) Board of Directors is not answered by a broad counter-mobilisation from the Left, then not only POAL, but the entire New Zealand Right, will score a significant – perhaps historic – victory. As they were in 1913 and 1951, Auckland’s wharves have once again become the crucible of class conflict in New Zealand.
It is hardly a coincidence that this dispute flared within days of National’s election victory. Hard-liners in the Auckland business community know that if POAL can take down the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ), one of the very few New Zealand trade unions with sufficient strength to protect the living standards and working conditions of its members, then Prime Minister Key and his Labour Minister, Kate Wilkinson, will feel free to introduce a further round of swingeing workplace “reforms”.
And it is not simply at the level of central government that a management victory on the Auckland wharves would free the hands of the Right. If the highly popular, left-leaning Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, can be manoeuvred into a position where he is seen to be acting against the interests of working people, then there is every possibility that his electoral base in the south of the city will desert him in next year’s local government elections. This would open the way for a right-wing council and mayor to take power on a programme of privatising the city’s assets – including POAL.
Clearly, there is a lot more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of MUNZ’s members. The defeat of MUNZ in Auckland will open the way for a further and rapid erosion of trade union rights across the rest of New Zealand, as well as providing additional fuel for the Right’s campaign to privatise what remains of New Zealand’s public estate.
What, then, should the Left be doing?
There is already a measure of co-operation between MUNZ and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Together these bodies have released a fact-sheet on the dispute which puts paid to most of POAL’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the union’s position. But much more than this needs to done. MUNZ should consider seriously “handing over” the dispute to the CTU in the way unions enmeshed in serious disputes in the 1960s and 70s “handed them over” to the National Executive of the old Federation of Labour.
By involving all of New Zealand’s trade unions in the dispute’s resolution, MUNZ would be saying to the POAL management: “This fight is now a national issue.” It would empower the CTU President, Helen Kelly, to speak out nationally on the issues at stake and, as workers’ awareness grew, the CTU’s affiliates could be advised to prepare for large-scale solidarity actions in support of MUNZ’s members.
Because New Zealand’s draconian employment laws outlaw sympathy and protest strikes the CTU’s response (at least initially) would have to be confined to organising demonstrations and raising funds to support striking workers’ families. What the CTU could also do, however, if POAL refuses to negotiate with MUNZ in good faith, is call upon young unemployed workers and students to take a leaf out of California’s “Occupy Oakland” play-book and prepare to occupy the wharves.
Makes more sense than sitting in a pup-tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square.
The CTU and the Occupy Movement should not, however, be expected to fight POAL alone. Mayor Brown, rather than allow himself to be alienated from his South Auckland base, should announce immediately his intention of organising a series of rallies throughout Auckland’s working-class suburbs where he will declare his support for trade union rights, pledge to keep the Ports of Auckland in public hands and ask for Aucklanders’ support in dismissing the POAL Board of Directors should a settlement of the dispute not be effected quickly.
Nor should the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, be allowed to repeat the error of his predecessor, Walter Nash, by attempting to keep the Labour Party neutral in this dispute. Here, before him, lies his “Orewa moment”: a chance to demonstrate to Labour’s electoral base that the Left is far from vanquished.
That “an injury to one” remains “an injury to all”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 December 2012.