Interview: Right to sympathy strikes

In its platform, the Workers Party (NZ) calls for the unrestricted right to strike. Here Ian Anderson, a writer for The Spark, interviews socialist and union delegate Andrew Tait, on a recent resolution supporting the right to sympathy strikes.

The Spark: Can you talk a little about the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union (EPMU) itself, and how you got involved?

AT: I’ve been keen on unions since I was a kid, back in 1991 when the Nats tried to smash unions. I love the idea that we can work together to make a better world. I’ve also been a socialist since I was a teenager. I joined the International Socialists Organisation in 1994, and have always joined the union at uni or at work. In about 2007 I joined Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union when I started work at the newspaper in Dunedin, and after about four years became a delegate for my floor. The EPMU is the biggest private-sector union and one of the most diverse. It covers posties, airline workers, and timber workers as well as engineers, printers and manufacturing workers. The EPMU is a major supporter of the Labour Party. It’s the biggest private sector union because in the 1990s it merged with a whole lot of unions but it has been hit pretty hard by redundancies, especially in manufacturing. The big loss in Dunedin recently was the closure of Fisher & Paykel.

The Spark: You had a resolution passed on the right to strike. What does this resolution mean?

AT: The resolution was that the union lobby for the introduction of the right to conduct secondary (sympathy) strikes. The immediate inspiration for it was the Ports of Auckland dispute, where Rail and Maritime Union workers were forced to supply the ports when they were run by scab labour. If this resolution became law, the RMTU workers could refuse to supply the port and not be penalised. It would massively increase the industrial effectiveness of strikes.

The Spark: How did you win support within the union?

AT: In our union, there are regional forums every year, which delegates get a day off work to attend. In Dunedin last year about forty or fifty met at Zingari rugby club. The president of the union and other exec members and officials give reports on the politics and the union and there is an opportunity to frame “remits”, which are like motions, or bills, that are sent to the national conference, which acts like the parliament of the union. By voting for the regional remit, it becomes union policy. Next conference, the exec will report on what they’ve done to lobby for this right. My remit was popular in Dunedin because union delegates feel industrial law is weighted against them. The Ports dispute was fresh in people’s minds. In Auckland at the national conference the support of one key official Paul Tolich, the Senior Industrial Officer, swung the vote behind the remit. Tolich is a staunch supporter of the union’s affiliation to Labour, but he also thought the right to strike was too weak.

The Spark: How can the right to strike be used?

AT: At present, only during contract negotiations. This automatically rules out sympathy strikes.

The Spark: Who should be concerned about the right to strike?

AT: The right to strike is the basis of all working class power, and insofar as the working class has been the driving force behind the achievement of the right to vote, to free assembly and speech, to public health and education, the right to strike is arguably the source of all the freedoms we take for granted. There is strength that comes from combining resources in a union and speaking with a united voice in negotiations, but without being able to stop production, there is no reason for bosses to listen.

The Spark: How was the right to strike won in the past?

AT: My remit incorrectly called for the reintroduction of the right to sympathy strikes. The exec pointed out that such a right has never existed, although there have been plenty of sympathy strikes in NZ history. That’s more or less the answer to the question. The right to strike is won by striking and only retrospectively receives the blessing of legality, just as unions were only reluctantly legalised when they were an industrial reality. But that doesn’t mean the battle for legal recognition is irrelevant. Its part of rehabilitating the idea that you’ve a right to strike, that strikes are good.

The Spark: What do you see as the next step in advancing this?

AT: I am hopeful the EPMU will put some pressure on the Labour Party. I have no illusions about “winning it back to its roots” because I think Labour’s programme is not about increased workers power but serving the interests of capital and the state. But it will have an impact on debate in the party and in the left. I would like to see other unions picking up on this campaign (which was originally suggested as a crucial one by Jared Phillips, of Unite and Workers Party), and in general, I’d like to see the left in New Zealand recognise the strike as something of a missing link and do more study and propaganda on them. For instance, the strike rate last year was comparable with that at the height of the Great Depression. This is not a normal time we are living in.

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Comments

  1. ” I’d like to see the left in New Zealand recognise the strike as something of a missing link and do more study and propaganda on them. ”

    Here is some recent historical material for you to study Andrew.
    Among other things, it includes relevant facts about the behavior of union leaders like Paul Tolich.

    From The Spark, 18 May 2004

    The SWO’s Freedom to Strike Campaign reviewed:
    A presentation to the Wellington ACA student club May 2004
    by Don Franks, former SWO and Workers Party member

    “Agitate, educate, organise!” said Lenin. How might socialists carry out this advice in New Zealand today?

    One sustained attempt in recent years was the Socialist Worker’s Organisation’s Freedom to Strike campaign.

    Our “freedom to Strike’ campaign arose out of opposition to National’s union busting Employment Contracts Act. The SWO focussed on the repressive anti strike clauses in the ECA. Prior to the ECA’s passage in 1991, work stoppages in solidarity with other jobs, or over political issues like nuclear ships hadn’t been explicitly legal, but they’d not been explicitly illegal either, and they’d taken place, whenever workers so decided. Union officialdom also oposed the ECA, but did not centre their opposition on its anti strike clauses. Their concern was for recognition as bargaining agents and access to potential fees paying members.
    During 1997 Labour party and top union officials drafteed their alternative to the ECA, called the ‘Workplace Relations Bill’. The bill restored union right of entry , and the right to strike over multi employer contracts. But all National’s restrictions and penalties for solidarity strikes remained, written in exactly the same wording as the ECA!
    Rank and file unionists had no say in forming the WRB, but were expected to support it. At the 1997 Council of Trade Unions conference, delegates were handed elaborate folders about how to promote the Workplace Relations Bill – which no delegate had ever seen. The one copy of the actual Bill at the conference was held by Paul Tolich, who never let go of it. When we finally got to read the WRB, we denounced it as a strikebreaking disgrace to the union movement and began agitating hard against it.
    Writing one year on in a SWO internal bulletin I observed:
    “When Labour is elected to the Treasury benches – as seems very likely- they are sure to pass a version of the CTU’s scab Workplace Relations Bill. Although the Alliance have masdew a few feeblew noises of dissent about the WRB the record shows they don’t think its a big issue and they are not into public attacks on it, let alone trying to arouse mass workers opposition to the bill. Although some union leftists had negative things to say about the bill last year, they seem to have mostly caved in to pressure from the union right and now go along with the WRB for thesake of ‘unity’. Almost all union officials have either lied about the meaning of the WRB, or kept silent about it, so the cchance of the mass of rank and file workers to oppose it has been almost nil- because they’ve been kept in a state of enforced ignorance on the matter. The news media as might be expected have been uncritical of the WRB. This is a shocking situation for the working class in Aotearoa. Because of the bureaucratic onspiracy of dishonesty, cowardice and expediency workers face the danger of having the penalties of the old ECA enshrined in law- as “The bill that unions asked for themselves”.
    Aware of some opposition to their sellout, union bureaucrats were half hearted about pushing the WRB. The fancy promotion kits lay unopened in union offices. Addressing a union really in front of Parliament, CTU leader Ken Douglas never mentioned the WRB, although he was twisting a copy of it in his hands the whole time. I believe his silence on he bill that day was because he’d recognised several militants in the small crowd ready to jeer and interject if he’d tried to openly push his rubbish.
    Eventually the WRB was quietly forgotten and superceded by the Employment Relations Act. , Labour’s current policy. Union officials were more confident and united about pushing the ERA. But it retained the anti strike provisions and SWO campaigning continued. We ran dozens od articles in our paper, and distributed many leaflets, carrying model resolutions which we hoped workers would move at union meetings. They said: “Our union mist campaign for workers freedom to strike, banned under National’s Employment Contracts Act and Labour’s industrial policy. We ask the union umberella bodies( Council of Trade Unions and the Trade Union Federation) to organise nationwide actions promoting the freedom to strike’ . This resolution was carried by some PSA member, freezing workers, Nurses Organisation members and all three regional conferences of the Service and Food Workers union. In almost every case,the vote was unanimous- but in almost every case the resolution was moved by an SWO member. Despite these resolutions, nationwide actions promoting the freedom to strike never happened. My letters on the matter to the Service and Food workers union I belonged to were fobbed off. In February 2001 I wrote to the Wellington CTU local affiliates council, asking for a forum on ‘The right to strike- how can we organise to regain it’. Finally, five months later, the LAC agreed to have a forum on ‘Industrial action in the new Era, where ‘the right to strike thing can be raised’. There was a higher than usual turnout for that meeting, but no subsequent action.
    At his first Wellington LAC meeting as CTU President, Ross Wilson stated: “Getting the legal right to strike around social and political issues is impossible”and “the chance of getting that right from a Labour Alliance government is totally nil. He went on to say that if you have a mass movement on an issue , and resort to civil disobedience, then the legal right to strike doesn’t matter. Ross continued in this militant vein by asking:” Why do we want the government to legally sanction everything we do?” He got himself a bit of a laugh from the crown=d by adding: “If striking was totally legal it would take half the attraction out of industrial action!”
    That sort of brush off from union officials was very common- and often effective. Militant workers would nod their heads and say, yes, that;s right, if we want to go i=on strike, we’ll just go ahead and do it. The difference was, of course, that the militants were sincere and the officials were not.
    Months later, with legal pressure on railway workers to stop their picket in support of the Knleith strike, no union official defied the law- and Ross Wilson did not call for mass civil disobedience. Most of the time union officials found our anti strike law campaign little more than an irritating nuisance. But when too many of their members started listening, they took action. The 1999 CTU conference workshop on industrial relations backed freedom to strike by a large majority. But CTU secretary Angela Foulkes stopped the idea becoming conference policy by refusing to put it to the vote.
    In Paril 2000 i was summoned to a meeting with Darien Fenton, Secreatyr of the Srvice and Food workers union, where our agitation had been getting a positive response from delegates. Darien and her sidekick Don Swann grilled me about the right to strike, trying( unsuccessfuly) to get me to admit that some restriction were necessary, like for ambulance drivers. Finally Darrien said would it ‘make you happy’ if the CTU called for the right to strike over social and economic issues’ I relied that while not enough, that would be a welcome advance on their present position. Next day’s radio news said the CTU had asked the government to allow ‘unions to tke industrial action on social and economic issues’. The request was instantly declined and the CTU took it no further.
    Central to the SWO campaign was a Freedom to strike petition, which many workers signed. In November 2000, to our surprise, the petition was finally endorsed by the National Affiliates Council, top body of the CTU.This was greeted in Socialist Worker as a sign that ‘support is building for the campaign within the union movement. . We called for a ‘broad left hui on the freedom to strike to be held in 2001’. That hui never took place, and, in fact, the CTU leaders endorsement was the effective end of the Freedom to strike campaign.
    CTU leaders were never going to fight for the aims of our petition and the SWO had insufficient base among unionists to make them do so. At the 2001 Wellington Mayday rally CTU president Ross Wilson devoted most of his speech to uncritical praise for the Employment relations Act. At the very same time as Ross was praising the ERA, Carter Holt Harvey was using that act’s provisions to break the waterside workers struggle against casualisation. Socialist Worker noted: ‘”This dispute is the first big test of the ERA and from a worker’s view it has failed completely…the ERA’s laws against pickets and solidarity strikes leave workers powerless. Watersiders can’t win if they abide by the ERA. But they can’t beat the ERA without a assive campaign of illegal solidarity actions from other workers’.
    Today, in Aotearoa, under Labour, workers can still be fined or iprisoned for illegal strike action. The legal right to strike over any issue remains to be wo, and its an ongoing question whether it will actually be won under caoitalism.
    So long as bans on solidarity strikes remain unchallenged by a mass movement of workers, the union movement will remain weak and divided. The Freedom to strike campaign helped keep the flame of union principles burning, but not strongly enough to set the forrest ablaze. Our petition was signed readily enough by most workers we approached. Many agreed, yes, it was scandalous that Labour was pushing such anti worker laws. But masses of workers weren’t moved to take active ownership of the campaign.
    In contrast, National’s threats to the Holidays Act produced far more groundswell, with a fraction of the agitation. To most workers, anti strike laws were a bad, but remote, abstract thing, not the central issue of the day to be active on. The importance we placed on the legal right to strike wasn’t shared by enough people to create a mass movement. The campaign revealed most union officialdom as cynical, undemocratic and deceitful. But I feel that we expended overmuch energy demanding that officials uphold militant unionism. Berating rightwing officials is wasting breath unless you have mass support alongside you. And most left talking functionaries will taker off and leave the socialists to fight alone when the shit hits the fan.
    A positive legacy of the SWO campaign was our detailed submission to the parliamentary select committee on the Employment Relations Bill. This wasn’t made with any expectation of influencing the committee, but to set down a summary of our case. Published as a pamphlet called Workers Freedom to Strike, its essential reading for industrial activist today.
    Most progress in the campaign was made where we had coMrades active in unions and established on jobs. Face to face agitation at workplaces and at mass meetings is a potent form of struggle. Leaflets and papers are useful, but secondary.

    end.

  2. Thanks Don!

    I guess this fits within a wider need to build numbers/consciousness. In part the right to strike will only become a concrete demand when the material conditions reflect it. Things like the GROCON struggle in Melbourne and the wider crisis in Greece.
    Actions speak louder than words they say.

  3. Yes, there is a need to build consciousness on this issue. Around the New Zealand left there is little understanding of the difference between trade unionism and revolutionary socialism. Those two currents are essentially in basic opposition to each other, hence the fierce defence of the strike breaking Workplace Relations bill by the likes of Ken Douglas and Paul Tolich and the attempts of Darien Fenton to deflect the SWO Freedom to strike campaign. For all its several faults the SWO campaign was first and foremost a conscious attempt to advance worker’s revolutionary understanding. The achievement of legal reform was secondary to our main purpose.
    By contrast, Andrew’s main point is the legal reform itself. His hope that EPMU bureaucrats will bite the hand that feeds them is fantasy.

  4. Hey Don,
    I have a great deal of respect for the work done by the SWO (and CPNZ before that) over the years and I acknowledge also Jared’s role in raising this issue – and I should probably have given your brilliant song a plug too, it’s certainly been a constant inspiration.

    But I have to take issue with this bullshit: “For all its several faults the SWO campaign was first and foremost a conscious attempt to advance worker’s revolutionary understanding. The achievement of legal reform was secondary to our main purpose. By contrast, Andrew’s main point is the legal reform itself. His hope that EPMU bureaucrats will bite the hand that feeds them is fantasy.”

    This is what I actually wrote: “The right to strike is won by striking and only retrospectively receives the blessing of legality, just as unions were only reluctantly legalised when they were an industrial reality. But that doesn’t mean the battle for legal recognition is irrelevant. Its part of rehabilitating the idea that you’ve a right to strike, that strikes are good.”

    I’m not talking about legal reform I’m talking about *the battle* for legal reform. You aren’t “more left” than me, so don’t pretend to be.

  5. Andrew, your “battle” here, in your own words is this:

    “I am hopeful the EPMU will put some pressure on the Labour Party. I have no illusions about “winning it back to its roots” because I think Labour’s programe is not about increased workers power but serving the interests of capital and the state. But it will have an impact on debate in the party and in the left”

    The EPMU union official you hope will exert this pressure, Paul Tolich, is a Labour party officer who was a vigilant opponent of the SWO freedom to strike campaign. Paul’s Labour loyalty has not diminished over the years. Last time I encountered Paul was in Willis street, at an airline worker’s picket; when I took the megaphone to speak he rushed up and spluttered that I was not to dare say anything against the Labour party. Neither will he oppose the Labour party now on your behalf.

    In any case, as Ross Wilson observed years ago, the chance of Labour granting workers freedom to strike is nil. So why ask this capitalist party for something they will never give? Some might argue that the request, denied, will expose Labour to the workers. I respect that tactical opinion but don’t share it. I would tell workers up front that its pointless time wasting to ask a capitalist party for laws to empower the proletariat.

    The SWO campaign went beyond limited reform and demanded workers absolute freedom to strike. One of our mistakes was to over focus on the legal right to strike, another mistake was to misunderstand the difference between unionism and revolutionary socialism.

    New Zealand unionism accepts restrictions on workers right to strike. Some unionists would prefer a little more room to move, to bargain better. Most essentially accept the status quo. This is understandable. Unionism is an accommodation to capitalism. Day by day unionism depends on harmonious relations with employers, makes concessions and does deals. If there were no unions we would be worse off, but they are not the hammer which will break our chains.

    Leftists have over romanticised militant unionism, as if it was synonymous with revolutionary struggle. When I first saw Lenin’s assertion that union politics was bourgeois politics I was rather shocked. It took me years to understand what Lenin meant by this.

    I don’t pretend to be more left than you or anyone else. I just think it’s time socialists got serious about trying to understand some basics of political power.

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