Workers Vanguard No. 999
30 March 2012
New Zealand: Auckland Port Bosses Wage War on Union Dock Workers
No Reliance on the Capitalist Courts!
For International Labor Solidarity Action!
The following article was written by the Spartacist League of Australia.
MARCH 26—For more than six months, Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) Local 13 has been engaged in a battle with the union-busting Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL), which is dead set on casualising the workforce on the docks of New Zealand’s largest container port. This showdown is part of an offensive by shipping bosses and capitalist governments worldwide to break dockers unions. Ripple effects from the outcome are sure to be felt all around this island nation, which is highly dependent on shipping, across the Tasman Sea in Australia and beyond. At stake is the very existence of MUNZ—historically one of the most powerful and militant unions in New Zealand, with a membership that includes a sizable number of Maori, the brutally oppressed indigenous population.
Auckland port bosses have decreed that if workers want to keep their jobs they must accept an end to regular shifts and concede complete flexibility in rostering (scheduling). In response to a raft of such ultimatums issued by POAL especially since the expiration of the Local 13 collective agreement in September, the union called a series of short strikes. Fed up with management’s intransigence, MUNZ workers downed tools on February 24 for three weeks and began to picket the port. Port traffic dried up to a trickle. On March 7, the port declared that 292 workers, including 235 striking MUNZ members, would be sacked and their jobs outsourced to three stevedoring companies. In response, unionists and others across the country and internationally—themselves suffering the ravages of the capitalist economic crisis—have rallied to the defence of the embattled MUNZ workers.
A March 10 rally in Auckland organised by MUNZ and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) drew thousands of dockworkers and their backers, including dockers from Lyttelton and Wellington, as well as nurses, firefighters and manufacturing workers. A contingent was fielded by the Meat Workers Union, which is itself fighting a union-busting drive by beef and lamb processor AFFCO. Joining the rally from overseas were a Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) contingent, Australian Electrical Trades Union workers and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the U.S. Spartacist League of Australia supporters in attendance reported a palpable desire among workers at the demo and on the picket line to strike back against these anti-union attacks. In the middle of the rally, there was great applause after 50 Maori union militants spanning generations commenced a haka—a traditional war dance meant to overawe and terrify the foe.
Amid the outpouring of support for Local 13 wharfies (longshoremen), on March 21 POAL agreed to temporarily halt contracting out jobs for four weeks and resume negotiations with MUNZ. But this was a ruse. The very next day, as MUNZ members were preparing to return to work, a POAL statement declared that the port would continue to employ contract stevedores—i.e., scabs—for the next two weeks. POAL’s plan is to then indefinitely lock out the workforce with, in the words of POAL chairman Richard Pearson, the aim of “maintaining an existing right to move to a competitive stevedoring system.” This provocation was followed on March 23 by Pearson’s violence-baiting picketers for “intimidation and threats of physical violence” against the scabs who are doing his dirty work.
If the POAL bosses get their way, conditions at the Auckland port will match those at the notoriously hazardous, privately owned Port of Tauranga, a POAL rival located at Mount Maunganui on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Management at Tauranga has succeeded in fragmenting the workforce into competing units employed by several stevedoring companies. Two of these outfits set up company unions to better control workers and keep out MUNZ and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU). Workers at the different companies are played off against one another, driving down wages far below Auckland levels. Work is heavily casualised, with high turnover, and already dangerous working conditions are getting worse. In less than two years, three workers have been killed on the job. Workers say they hold back from reporting frequent accidents and injuries for fear of being blacklisted.
This union-busting assault can be turned back. The strength of the proletariat lies in its numbers, organisation, discipline and, above all, in the fact that through its labour it uniquely makes the wheels of profit turn in capitalist society. The union has found plenty of allies, both domestically and internationally. But union power has been kept in check by a Labour Party-loyal leadership whose overwhelming fealty is to New Zealand capitalism. POAL is owned by Auckland Council Investments Limited, the investment arm of the city council, which in turn is presided over by Labour Party mayor Len Brown.
A February 3 MUNZ and NZCTU “Port of Auckland Dispute Fact Sheet” declares that “union members are committed to the success of the company, and to building on the performance improvements already achieved.” Such class-collaborationist rot pushes the lie that there can be a partnership between the exploited and their exploiters. In negotiations, the union has agreed to givebacks amid the port’s drive for more “flexibility.” Even under the previous agreement, 20 percent of workers are casual, with no guarantee of work, while 27 percent can count on only 24 hours a week and the entire workforce can be rostered to work any shift, night and day, seven days a week. Predictably, POAL’s response to the givebacks and the grovelling has been to demand more of the same.
The situation cries out for a class-struggle fight, up to and including a national port strike. In response to the bosses’ divide-and-rule schemes, there needs to be a struggle to organise the unorganised—beginning with Tauranga—and fight for uniform wages and conditions at the highest level on an industry-wide basis. Victory to the Auckland dockworkers!
No Reliance on the Capitalist Courts!
Dockworkers elsewhere in New Zealand have been eager to aid their class brothers and sisters in Auckland. Union workers at Wellington and RMTU members at Tauranga refused to handle ships loaded by scabs in Auckland until they were ordered to do so by New Zealand’s Employment Court. Similarly, port workers at Lyttelton announced that they would not service a scab-loaded ship. But while that ship was at sea, the court at Christchurch ruled that it must be worked as usual, and it was unloaded when it called. In each case, the union tops bowed to injunctions issued by the bosses’ courts. Meanwhile, MUNZ president Garry Parsloe has treacherously sown illusions in the very same Employment Court as a tool in the union’s fight against POAL.
Any reliance on the capitalist courts can only disarm and derail workers struggle. The courts, including the arbitration courts, and cops are core components of the capitalist state, which exists to defend the interests of the class enemy. Union struggles that get tied up in court die there.
One need look no further than what happened with the Australian MUA’s fight against the union-busting Patrick Stevedores outfit in 1998. With the backing of the Liberal/National Coalition government, Patrick sacked its entire unionised workforce, sparking a massive show of union power. We wrote at the time that a solid nationwide strike shutting down the ports was necessary (“Smash Bosses’ Union-Busting Offensive in Australia!” WV No. 689, 24 April 1998). But the union tops demobilised labour action, counterposing faith in the courts and the election of a Labor government. The Australian High Court eventually ruled against Patrick’s termination of the whole workforce. But this didn’t stop Patrick from getting rid of hundreds of MUA members and blacklisting others.
New Zealand Labour Party leader David Shearer joined the March 10 rally in Auckland, his posture as a friend of the wharfies made easier by the fact that Labour is currently in opposition. There should be no illusions that the Labour Party represents the workers’ class interests. Labour is a bourgeois workers party, based on trade unions but with a leadership every bit as committed to preserving production for private profit as the National Party, the Greens and other capitalist parties. When in power, Labour directly administers the government on behalf of the capitalist exploiters. Class-conscious workers will not forget the Lange Labour government and its Thatcher-like Finance Minister Roger Douglas, who in the 1980s carried out union-busting privatisations the length and breadth of the country, savagely destroying jobs and living conditions.
In Auckland, MUNZ leaders have repeatedly made appeals to Labour mayor Brown and turned to him to end the lockout, with Parsloe declaring, “Governance at the Ports of Auckland is out of control. It’s time for the mayor and council to step in and sack this board, and replace them with a group who are willing to run this important asset properly” (New Zealand Herald, 22 March). The role of the mayor and other Labour Party politicians is to subordinate workers to the capitalists and their state. As one sign carried at the March 10 MUNZ rally expressed: “Len Brown Is a Scab.”
However much the trade-union bureaucrats might pretend that “Ports of Auckland belongs to the people of Auckland and should remain a public asset that benefits all of us,” the reality is that POAL is a for-profit company owned by the Auckland Council and managed “at arm’s length.” Overseen by Brown, the council, a local capitalist government, takes no second seat to any private facility in its rapacity. Having raked in almost $25 million in after-tax profit from the port last year, the council has projected doubling POAL’s current return on equity from around 6 percent to 12 percent in the next five years. To achieve this largesse, POAL aims to savagely increase the exploitation of all port workers.
Workers of the World, Unite!
MUNZ has received statements of support from unions around the world, and more than 100 MUA and other unionists have rallied outside the New Zealand Consulate in Sydney in solidarity with the Auckland port workers. But what is crucial is international solidarity action—particularly refusal to handle scab cargo. Giving a taste of such solidarity, workers organised by the MUA in Sydney refused to unload the Maersk Brani container ship, which had been loaded by scab labour in Auckland, for 48 hours.
The working-class internationalism required to maintain determined solidarity actions overseas is undermined by the flag-waving patriotism symbolised by the New Zealand, Australian and U.S. flags carried at the March 10 rally. Such flag-waving imbibes the lie that workers have common interests with their “own” bourgeoisie. And in this case, the flags called to mind the ANZUS alliance under which the U.S. and Australian militaries slaughtered millions of workers and peasants in counterrevolutionary wars from Korea to Vietnam. In his speech at the rally, the MUA representative condemned outsourcing to “low-wage countries.” This is protectionist poison—a call for workers to adopt the interests of capitalists at home against their overseas competitors, specifically those of Pacific Rim countries with non-white populations.
Workers in Australia and New Zealand do have an internationalist labour tradition. Following World War II, as Dutch and Allied imperialists sought to move troops and supplies into Indonesia to shore up colonial control, Australian and New Zealand waterfront workers, alongside Indonesian, Chinese and Indian unionists, conducted “black bans” of Dutch shipping—a boycott known as the Black Armada—in support of the renewed Indonesian independence struggle. The maritime unions several times slapped bans on shipping war matériel intended for use against the Vietnamese Revolution, and in 1996 the MUA launched bans against Indonesian shipping in protest against the Suharto regime’s arrests of union activists there.
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
In recent decades, the New Zealand working class, its organisations and allies have been weakened by relentless attacks carried out by the capitalist rulers, including under Labour. Now with POAL targeting MUNZ, the bosses throughout the country smell blood, aiming to escalate attacks against the proletariat and the oppressed as they drive to remove any obstacle to their unbridled pursuit of profit.
To transform the unions into instruments of class struggle on behalf of workers and all the victims of the capitalist rulers requires a leadership that begins from the understanding that the interests of labour and capital are irreconcilably counterposed. Such a leadership would oppose union-busting privatisations and fight for complete independence from the capitalist state and against illusions in arbitration.
A fighting labour movement could attract allies amongst broad sections of the population. Already on hearing of POAL’s lockout, 300 students rallied in Auckland in support of the wharfies, with 60 joining the workers’ picket line. In fighting unemployment and poverty and championing struggles against discrimination, the unions would draw support from youth, women and other oppressed sectors. No less important is the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, particularly those from Asian and Pacific Island countries who are subjected to racist victimisation.
With its significant Maori membership, the MUNZ bridges a key fault line in New Zealand society. Like Australia, the history of New Zealand is marked by deep-going xenophobia and racism. However, unlike Australia, where the Aboriginal population suffered near-genocide through European settlement, New Zealand was officially founded on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi signed by the British Crown and Maori chiefs, although Maori land was later stolen through the Maori Wars. Today, almost 15 percent of the population are Maori. They suffer a special oppression reflected in almost every aspect of society, including highly disproportionate levels of unemployment, homelessness and poverty, and are targeted for racist state abuse and terror. Nevertheless, similar to black people in the U.S., Maori form a critical component of the New Zealand proletariat. A key to the struggle to overthrow New Zealand capitalist rule will be the fight for full equality and justice for Maori people, including restoring stolen land. Future Maori communist leaders will be in the forefront of the revolutionary struggle.
The New Zealand proletariat needs a multiracial revolutionary party. Such a party will be built through a political struggle to split the working-class base of the Labour Party away from the pro-capitalist tops. Under the red banner of communist internationalism, such a party will unleash the power of the proletariat leading behind it all the diverse sectors and layers of society devastated by capitalism in the struggle to expropriate the profit-gouging rulers in a thoroughgoing socialist revolution. Those who labour must rule!