Workers, Unions and Class Struggle Today

Abridged from a talk given to the Fightback 2013 Conference. By Grant Brookes, Fightback member and union delegate.

This article offers the perspective of a Fightback member, however perspectives within Fightback differ. Further perspectives on workers’ and union struggles will be covered in the coming months.

Sessions at socialist conferences on “workers, unions and class struggle” usually go along much the same lines. They analyse a fairly narrow set of statistics on strikes, lockouts, wage movements, and then draw conclusions about “the state of the class struggle”.

So, for argument’s sake, what might this data suggest today?

Here are the figures for work stoppages (that’s strikes and lockouts) for the last 25 years.

Fig 1. Number of work stoppages 1986-2011.

Fig 1. Number of work stoppages 1986-2011.

A couple of things clearly stand out. The trend is downwards. And strike activity in New Zealand today is practically zero.

These facts recently led one of our comrades in the International Socialist Organisation to pose the question, “Has the working class lost all fighting capacity?” (

It’s a serious question. After all, the last year that the number of stoppages was this low, half the strikes involved stokers refusing to tend steam engines. That’s how far back in history you have to go to find comparable numbers.

Even at that time, New Zealand was an international curiosity. The Times newspaper of London was referring to this country as “the land without strikes”.

And Lenin was mockingly describing us as “the paradise of the second international”, the one place where labour and capital supposedly lived in harmony in accordance with social democratic theories.

So have we really entered an age where the struggle between classes in New Zealand is basically over? Is the working class finally out for the count?

If this was true, it would be a serious challenge to Marxist theory and to the reason for being of an organisation like Fightback.

According Marx, class struggle is the key driver of historical change. As he and Engels wrote on page one of the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.

Class struggle underpins political shifts, shaping opinion polls, changes of government and social attitudes. And it provides the historical force for the transition to a post-capitalist society.

Capitalism today creates a nexus of many interconnected forms of oppression and exploitation. These include the subjugation of women, proscriptions against expressions of sexuality which depart from monogamous, heterosexual norms, devaluing of differently abled citizens, extraction of wealth from the work of the majority who are compelled to labour, and so on.

In a colonial context, as in Aotearoa, capitalism involves the alienation and domination of the tangata whenua.

Struggles against each and every form of oppression and exploitation are essential for our emancipation. But one particular struggle occupies a central role in our collective liberation from capitalism.

“The emancipation of society”, wrote Marx in 1844, “is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers; not that their emancipation alone is at stake, but because the emancipation of the workers contains universal human emancipation.” (Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

Which brings us back to unions and strikes. Trade unions are the main vehicle through which workers actively wage class struggle.

But as well as uniting workers in common struggle, unions also divide us – by trade, or occupational groupings. They operate within legal frameworks created by the ruling class. They struggle over who gets what share of the wealth, not over who owns and controls the economy.

So they are not agents of revolutionary social transformation in themselves. But they do have a role in that process. They can be, as Marx reportedly described them, “schools for Socialism” (interview with Hamann, Volksstaat, No.17, 1869).

Returning to our question, though, is the class struggle in New Zealand at an end?

To help answer that, let’s look at some other data. This graph shows the share of Gross National Income (GNI) which is being secured for employees, over the last 40 years.

2a. Workers share of GNI

Fig 2a. Workers share of GNI

As you can see, despite the absence of industrial action over the last decade, the share of the country’s wealth going to workers is trending upwards.

There are two important caveats which have to go along with this observation. Firstly, the greater share going to employees conceals widening income inequality between high and low income earners.

And secondly, although recovering, our share of National Income is still not even close to what it was before the neoliberal blitzkreig of the 1980s and 1990s.

Even with these caveats, however, there remains an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, a lack of industrial struggle, and on the other, a rising share of the country’s wealth going to workers. How can we explain this?

Part of the explanation is found in union membership trends.

Fig 3. Union membership

Fig 3. Union membership

The upwards trend here matches the GNI graph.

Again, total union membership does not tell the whole story. The proportion of the workforce which is unionised is showing a gradual decline, down to 20.5% in 2012 from 21.5% in 2009.

And rising membership overall is based on strong growth in the public sector, concealing the continuing decline of private sector unionism.

But the most significant feature of the union membership data is this. Unlike the huge decline in strike action, there has been no corresponding collapse of working class organisation.

Here is another interesting set of numbers.

Fig 4. Collective bargaining coverage

Fig 4. Collective bargaining coverage

As you can see, collective bargaining is also holding up. And within that, there has been a growth in Multi-Employer Collective Agreements (MECAs).

This type of agreement unites workers across into larger groups, and strengthens bargaining power.

So these, I believe, are some of reasons why workers share of the wealth in New Zealand has been recovering slightly from the massive drop in of the 1980s and 1990s.

From these datasets, it appears the class struggle is alive and well.

Two obvious questions follow. Firstly, why are the stoppage figures today so incredibly low? And second, if the class struggle is very much alive, and if workers are not waging it through industrial action, then where the hell is it?

I think the answer to the first question lies in the nature of recent industrial action.

Beginning with the nurses’ Fair Pay campaign in 2003-4, New Zealand unions mounted a small wave of offensive struggles. That is, struggles to gain pay and power over and above what they had before.

These continued with the “5 in ’05” campaign for pay rises of at least 5%, which was initiated by the Engineering Printing & Manufacturing Union, and taken up by some other affiliates to the Council of Trade Unions.

By about the time of the “Healthy Pay for Healthy Hospitals” campaign, waged by the Service & Food Workers Union Ngā Ringa Tota in 2006-7, this wave was coming to an end.

There still are some offensive struggles, such as Unite Union’s current campaign at McDonalds, for parity with KFC workers. But since 2007, union action has been primarily defensive – aimed at retaining existing benefits.

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, there was a shift in the political climate, which I’ll speak about shortly. And secondly, there was an industrial counter-offensive by employers.

Up until 2006, lockouts had been relatively rare events in New Zealand’s industrial history. In the decade preceding, they had averaged less than one a year.

But in 2006-7, there were four of them. After the epic lockout at Progressive Enterprises, manufacturing workers at Amcor Plastics were also locked out, as were coal miners at Rotowaro Mine, and then 800 hospital workers were locked out by Spotless Services.

Recently, there have been high profile lockouts in the dairy and meat industries and at Ports of Auckland.

The outcome of the lockouts in rural New Zealand in 2011-12 were mixed. At the Talleys-owned Open Country Cheese factory and at the AFFCO meat plants, they ended more or less in stalemate. The Dairy Workers Union and Meatworkers Union were not defeated, thanks to a huge solidarity campaign from across the union movement and – crucially – thanks to support from iwi leaders.

At Canterbury Meat Packers, however, the 35 day lockout in Marton ended with the union forced to accept pay cuts, and losing members. Although not as bad as it could have been, the workers were defeated.

Employer attempts to replicate these results in urban areas, however, have failed.

Concerted union struggles, from Progressive Enterprises in 2006 up until Ports of Auckland last year, have seen workers in the cities beat every employer lockout.

The dispute on the Auckland waterfront gave a glimpse of the potential economic power of workers. Over $26 billion worth of exports pass through Ports of Auckland every year. As days of industrial action turned into weeks, support for the port company from nervous businesses started to wane.

Since the defeat of the port lockout in April last year, there have been no further lockouts in New Zealand.

So the reason for the historically low stoppage figures is this. Unions are in a defensive mode, responding only when attacked, and employers have concluded that militant attacks are not in their interests at present.

We are in a period of uneasy industrial peace, as unions and employers pursue the class struggle in another arena.

Where and how, then, are unions and workers waging class struggle today?

As usual, are struggling in the workplace, and periodically in collective bargaining. You can see evidence of economic struggle in bargaining here.

Fig 5. Real wages 1992-2010

Fig 5. Real wages 1992-2010

Wages for workers covered by collective bargaining are rising at a healthy rate. The specific feature of collective bargaining today, though, is that it’s being concluded overwhelmingly without the use of industrial action.

Incidentally, the graph also shows that for the majority of workers who are not covered by collective agreements, real wages have been falling for a long time.

But while struggle in the unionised section of the class continues on the job and at the negotiating table, the front line of the class struggle today is in the political and legal arenas.

There, victories are being won, some of which are fueling the workers’ rising share of national wealth.

The two biggest political campaigns are a defensive one, and an offensive one. The former is against the government’s education reforms. The latter is to make the “Living Wage” a pay benchmark in New Zealand.

The education campaign has seen the teacher unions fighting a near-continuous series of rolling battles with the government for the last three years.

Some of these battles have ended in “points wins” for the government, such as the introduction of so-called national standards in primary schools.

Other battles have delivered knock-out wins for the teachers. Last year’s Budget contained an announcement of larger class sizes, meaning up to 6,000 school job losses. The unions mobilised and expressed a huge community backlash, and the government was forced to scrap that plan within weeks.

The outcome of the latest struggle, the fight against charter schools, is yet to be determined.

The Living Wage campaign, on the other hand, has already succeeded.

Launched by the Service & Food Workers Union Ngā Ringa Tota in May 2012, the aim of the campaign is to pressure employers into paying at least $18.40 an hour.

Last month, The Warehouse announced it would support the Living Wage for thousands of employees with greater than three years service, boosting pay packets by around $2.5 million a year.

Hamilton City Council followed suit, voting to raise staff pay by up to $100 a week over the next two years. Auckland Council and Wellington City Council have also voted for moves towards the Living Wage. These are real gains for our class.

A key feature of all of the new wave of union-led political campaigns has been alliance-building. Unions have formed broad coalitions with community groups, as they broaden out their aims from the narrow defence of members’ economic interests.

This shift has demonstrated in practice the Marxist view that workers struggle contains within itself universal human emancipation.

It is also demonstrating the central role of class struggle in historical change. The broad, union-led political struggles are starting to damage the government, and increase the chances that National will lose next year’s general election.

As well as these political campaigns, the class struggle has also shifted into the courtroom.

The PSA and SFWU won a massive victory in legal action on behalf of thousands of disability and mental health support workers. The so-called “sleepover case”, which ran for four years from 2007 until 2011, is going to deliver $27 million in back pay.

Going forward, some workers will see their pay on overnight shifts quadruple, from an allowance worth $3.77 per hour to the minimum wage of $13.75 an hour, boosting these workers’ earnings by a total of around $50 million a year.

The SFWU is now preparing another major legal challenge, on behalf of women working in aged care, claiming that their low pay breaches the 1972 Equal Pay Act.

Little wonder, then, that after the failure of militant industrial tactics, employers have also moved their struggle into the political arena.

Here, the employers are on more favourable terrain. They are benefitting from the shift in the political climate, consolidated by the election of the National government in 2008 and the dominant policy responses to the 2009 Global Financial Crisis.

Since 2009, employers have successfully secured three rounds of changes to employment law.

First, their government removed protections against unfair dismissal in the first 90 days for workers employed in small businesses.

Then in 2010 they legislated away all employee rights for workers in the film industry. And in a separate move, they changed several dozen laws, including allowing 90-day trial periods in all workplaces and allowing employers to limit union officials communication with members at work.

But these changes did not seriously dent working class power. As we have seen, this is based more on collective bargaining (especially MECA bargaining) and rising union membership, which in turn provides resources for political campaigning and legal action.

But this base is now being seriously attacked in the latest round of amendments to the Employment Relations Act.

These will effectively allow employers to break off collective bargaining, opt out of MECAs and significantly tilt the balance of class forces.

So this time it’s serious. Unions are currently planning action to oppose the changes.

These law changes are reinforced by a general ideological offensive against working class entitlements, under the rubric of “austerity”.

The ideological attacks can, and do confuse workers (both employed and unemployed). They pit us against each other and undermine our confidence to fight back.

And in the background there is a spectre haunting the working class – rising unemployment.

Finally, then, what are the practical implications of all this for activists? There are three main things socialists in the unions should be doing, given the current conditions of the class struggle?

1. We must maximise the ability of unions to unite workers, and overcome divisions between us.

In the first instance, this means defence of MECAs.

It means promotion of cross-union solidarity in struggle. We must encourage our fellow union members to support any group of workers involved in a dispute, and find practical ways to express that – whether it’s a workplace collection or a signature on a letter of support.

And it means fostering coalitions between unions and community groups around broader working class interests.

2. We must maximise the ability of members to act collectively in their own interests.

This means strengthening union democracy.

Socialists in unions should stand for election as delegates. If elected, they should use the position to encourage discussion around issues of collective interest in the workplace, as well as wider class interests.

Delegates should enact collective decisions about what should be done – even if it’s as simple as asking for a meeting with the manager.

Views and decisions of members also need to be conveyed to union leaders. At times, this will include views they oppose.

Within union-community coalitions, socialists can propose actions which involve working class people taking mass action for themselves in support of campaign goals.

3. And we must realise the potential of unions as “schools for socialism”, without ever being doctrinaire about what that means.

Remember, socialism is the system which results from the working class achieving political power. Wins achieved by union members acting for themselves – even small ones – can teach workers more about socialism than a lecture from a book.

At the same time, however, unionists today need to be armed with arguments against austerity, against division and scapegoating.

This necessarily means bringing socialist ideas – from books, or from YouTube or branch discussions or wherever – into the workplace too.

We must help members see that political action is part of being a unionist.

And in special cases where socialists are in leading union roles, and where members are receptive – and I’m thinking particularly of Unite Union – there are special opportunities to make the union a school for socialism, through input into delegate training courses, articles in official union publications, and so on.

In these ways, those of us in unions can contribute to the class struggle for a socialist future today.

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