Reclaiming the right to strike and how it’s essential for rebuilding workers’ power


The following article is a shortened and edited version of a Workers Party internal document by Jared Phillips  printed in The Spark February 2010

 Initially socialist organisations in New Zealand responded to the anti-strike laws contained in the Employment Contracts Act and Employment Relations Act with some vigor, including in The Spark. In response to increased strike restrictions put in place by the Labour-led Labour-Alliance coalition in 2000, the Socialist Workers Organisation conducted a campaign in some workplaces and in the public centered around a petition, which was significant as far as petition campaigns extend. 

Casino workers on strike 2008 during bargaining

The new legislation (ERA 2000) included a ban on solidarity strikes and political strikes. In summary the legislation, still in place, from a working class point of view, is this, ‘We can only strike for our own contract, only when negotiations have broken down, and if we do engage in an unlawful strike (i.e. a strike for any other reason), there could be severe damages penalties against us and the union’. It is concerning that the left has withdrawn its activism from the issue because, as the comparison goes, this is the new ‘leg-iron of labour’. 

Withdrawal from the issue over time

 Opposition to the restrictions hasn’t been discussed properly by the far-left since the Progressive Enterprises lockout, in mid-2006, almost four years ago, whereby the situation neared the threshold of necessity for solidarity striking for the defense of a large number of workers. In fact there were small spontaneous labour withdrawals, in accordance with the ERA, in which workers refused to do the work of striking workers, and one such action was led by a Workers Party member who recalled a crew of stores workers who had been called to a site at which they would not have otherwise worked.

 However, the Workers Party has not engaged on the right to strike question as a political issue since May 2005, when Don Franks presented on the issue in conference, and highlighted its importance.

 In 2009, in the face of two significant lock-outs (bus and dairy factory), and a major restructure/redundancy dispute (lines engineers) the question was hinted at by Pat O’Dea (Socialist Worker) and Omar Hamed (Unite, Socialist Aotearoa). However, their idea was to place demands on the CTU to co-ordinate generalised working class action, and the problem with this, of course, is that the CTU has had no interest – beyond the then-regime’s reluctant adoption of a resolution pushed up by SWO in the early 2000s – in generalising the class struggle.

 The Labour Party, i.e. the party of the top union bureaucracy, including the CTU and top bosses of most unions, is the party that inflicted strengthened strike restrictions against workers. Those who called on the CTU are too far behind developments. The CTU’s refusal to act shows that at least a decade ago the CTU was exhausted as a means for promoting the right to strike and generalised struggle.

 For our part, the Workers Party was relatively silent on the issue of a generalised class fight-back against these 2009 developments and that in my opinion is probably because we grasp the impossibility of the union leadership adopting such a path, and because the far-left and union militants do not have the general leadership or support within the working class that is required to provide the leadership for a generalised fight-back. So in my opinion we shrunk from the task of telling the truth, that a generalised fight-back was necessary to establish clear wins or a defense of position in these circumstances.

 For example, take this quote from a Spark article regarding the Telecom lines-worker restructure struggle, published in December 2010:

 A high-stakes battle like the Telecom dispute, which was about totally redefining the employment relationship, required more than business-as-usual trade-unionism. In retrospect the decision of the EPMU to keep picketers penned behind the cordon at the AGM picket instead of trying something more daring was a wasted opportunity.

 While it’s true that a heightened action, such as an occupation, would have produced more pressure against the employer, the more important point is that because of the strike restrictions the struggle could not be extended outwards, leaving the workers engaged in a set-piece battle. Therefore, as a party, we have started overlooking a central question.

 While the need for solidarity strikes to defend workers in defensive struggle is obvious, a more significant point to draw out is that the anti-strike legislation is the main legal restriction on rebuilding a militant workers’ movement. Moreover, the legal restriction hinders the overcoming of other restrictions on rebuilding, including in the areas of collectivism and consciousness.

  The right to strike and rebuilding the workers’ movement

 Clearly, the Workers Party recognises the importance of the right to strike in its political platform. However, despite the right to strike being present in the party’s platform, we have not pursued it in any meaningful way – including even interrogating the question – for a long while. The right to strike should not be viewed only in terms of principle, demand, or programmatic consideration, but should also be appreciated as being almost exclusively important as a concretely necessary means or vehicle, for a) re-establishing working class power and working class confidence and b) redefining the form of class struggle.

 Rebuilding class power

 Strike-levels are commonly used by the Workers Party as a key indicator of the level of class struggle, and in tasks and perspectives documents it is the main objective measure presented to evidence the minimal level of class struggle. If strike levels are the key measure, then the legal limitation on strikes must surely have an equal correspondence of priority within the analysis for addressing the objective measurement of the downturn.

 In terms of the partial and interim goals – rebuilding a militant and class conscious workers’ movement – the more progressive elements of the existing union movement (including the officialdom) as they stand can do little more than build the right kind of apparatus for workers to take hold and exercise.

 The required quantitative growth alone cannot be achieved by the efforts of the more progressive elements of union officialdom. The more significant private sector union recruitment efforts have been undertaken by Unite and the NDU. Unite retains a focus on recruitment as its means to offset its 70-80% annual turnover and to preserve steady modest growth. Without that focus, the union’s membership would collapse. The NDU employs a section of staff charged specifically with growing the union through recruitment. The evidence is that this has prevented a decrease in membership but no reportable significant growth. Both approaches – and they are the better of the approaches currently applied by wider officialdom – reflect the practice of rebuilding the union movement one recruit at a time, punctuated with short bursts of quickly doing so. And therein lies the evolutionist approach to practice in the workers’ movement. Whilst there are commendable and courageous efforts, they are not yet meeting the challenge.

 As noted, it is possible with genuine leadership to form the right type of apparatus to rebuild working class levers of power. But in order for the labour movement to expand in this environment (entrenched neo-liberalism), working class self-organisation is required. This presents an immense problem because the most critical weapon for working class self-organisation has been outlawed by the employer class and decommissioned by the union bureaucracy.

 Going back, the fourth Labour government’s Labour Relations Act (1987) cemented in law the individualisation of workplace grievances in Part Nine – Personal Grievances. This earlier legislation was central to the undermining of strike action for the resolution of issues not pertaining to wage negotiations. It significantly weakened the strike muscle. Now, decades later, unions have become more professionalised and in many ways more bureaucratised and serve primarily as instruments of bargaining (led by officials), and as legal instruments pertaining to the PGs (led by officials and lawyers).

 It is near impossible for the working class to regenerate its activity and take charge of its activity without its most vital instrument. For each unionised workplace or firm, the weapon can be picked up every one, two, or three years, at the end of the term of agreement, but even then it’s unlikely.  Without re-examining the role of the right to strike, we would be overlooking an impossibility. The impossibility is the re-emergence of a collective movement by the use of individualist measures and site-specific measures, both led by largely external bodies that unions have become. In essence, these union structures administer past gains but have no power to win further gains or expand the workers’ movement.

 Rebuilding consciousness

 As well as citing reduced strike levels, the Workers Party’s Tasks and Perspectives document has linked industrial action with class consciousness:

  In New Zealand, industrial action by workers remains at an all-time low and class consciousness – ie consciousness of the working class as a class rather than each worker seeing her/himself as an individual – is also very weak.

 On the one hand it can be, with strong evidence, asserted that the wider working class lacks the required consciousness to take the necessary industrial action. This can lead to an exaggeration of the weakness of the working class and downplay the extent to which it continues to be misled, mis-trained and mis-organised by a professionalised leadership. As is well-known this misleadership was expressed in a condensed way at the time of the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act (1991) when many thousands of workers took to the streets but whose initiatives were quashed and not galvanized by the then-leadership.

 Conversely, it could be reasoned that when workers feel strongly enough to take an action over an individual or site issue, they will do so in spite of the law. This view was represented by former CTU president Ross Wilson in his deflection of the right to strike campaign. Wildcats have occurred from-time-to-time but certainly without any conscious intention to forge solidarity with other working class sections or to rejuvenate generalised class struggle.

 The problem with both lines of reasoning is that there is a relaxation and giving-in to spontaneity. If our perspective is to wait for workers to either break with the bureaucracy and challenge it, or if our perspective was to be content with a minute number of odd disconnected pockets of workers taking un-influential wildcats; if either of these formed our perspective, in future we will not find ourselves operating as a vanguard or part thereof, but rather as an organisation unable to meet the needs and leadership requirements of our class.

 As revolutionaries we know that class consciousness is only realised when workers willingly defend oppressed sections of society outside the workplace. A further point with regard to the redevelopment of class consciousness is that the economistic dimension of the workers’ movement is reinforced by the conditions under which workers can only strike over issues pertaining to bargaining. The workers’ movement can define itself as the champion of oppressed sections when it lends them tangible support. There are many examples, such as the Australian Builders Labourers’ Federation which carried out green bans on behalf of communities against poor environmental planning and also industrial action in support of persecuted gay students. Union magazines can promote this or that cause, but without being able to provide tangible support, the workers’ movement can’t regain its true political character and generalized  leadership of the oppressed.

 Lastly, on the subjective side, it must be pointed out that consciousness won’t drop from the sky and won’t necessarily be prompted by up or down economic movements. Consciousness is only formed through action, which is only formed through leadership (leadership not being synonymous with officialdom, but reflecting aspects of correct officialdom, left political forces, and the expansion of rank-and-file initiatives). Mass industrial action is formative of class consciousness. Too often the distinction between trade union politics and revolutionary politics is not given the right treatment, and the separation is over-emphasised. Engels’ dictum, that unions should be viewed as the schools of class struggle gets lost.

 Re-establishing the right to strike issue

 As well as focusing on the solidarity strike as a necessity for victory in defensive campaigns, we have to press for recognition of the central role that non-bargaining strikes can have in regard to regenerating collective processes, regenerating union consciousness, and regenerating working class ownership of the union movement. There is also a strong connection between the right to strike and rebuilding class consciousness. As clarified in the discussion, the official trade union leadership is not fit for the tasks ahead and the leadership to take these matters forward can only be advanced by the genuinely radical elements within officialdom, left political forces, and spontaneous militants. In mid-2010 the Workers Party will be initiating a campaign on the two related principles of the right to strike and freedom of action/expression at work.

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