Return of the cossacks
I haven't been all that far from fibre optic cables, nor indeed from computers, but I like to pretend, whenever I'm in anything vaguely resembling the countryside, that I've left the apparatus of the global communications grid behind. I like to pretend, in fact, that New Zealand's provinces are full of communications dead zones, where GPS systems as well as internet and cellphone connections give out. Call me paranoid, if you like, but ever since I watched Ridley Scott's Body of Lies the initials GPS and the sight of unsheathed cellphones have made me think of CIA-owned satellites peering down through the earth's polluted skies, and of a fantastically aerodynamic missile waiting to fall from some unseen helicopter onto my bald sunburnt head.
Now that I'm back in Auckland and catching up on the news, I can see that not everyone holidaying in the backblocks has shared my aversion to modern communications. Both Tony Gibson, the union-busting Chief Executive Officer of Ports of Auckland, and Christine Fletcher, the retired Tory MP, have been holed up in remote and salubrious beach resorts, but that hasn't stopped them cellphoning various media outlets and denouncing, in language of Churchillian solemnity, the avarice and arrogance of those well-known scions of privilege, the wharfies of Auckland.
Gibson, who earns three quarters of a million dollars a year, and Fletcher, who married into New Zealand's wealthiest family, have both condemned the refusal of the wharfies to accept a 20% pay cut and the abolition of their collective contract. Sitting by the Coromandel seashore, Fletcher and Gibson have condemned the poor work ethic of the wharfies, who have been standing on a picket line in Auckland's drizzle. These people are so unconscious of their hypocrisy that they make Sarah Palin and Paris Hilton look like paragons of ironic self-awareness. (Perhaps, though, we shouldn't be too surprised: I think it was my old mate Roger Fox who liked to describe families like the Fletchers as the "cream of New Zealand", on the grounds that their members were "rich, white, and very thick".)
No one who cares about the right of employees to negotiate collective contracts will take any pleasure in the campaign that Gibson and his suited thugs have launched against the Maritime Union of New Zealand, but I suspect that at least one well-known historian will see the campaign as an opportunity to interest New Zealanders in their past.
Mark Derby has a longstanding interest in the Great Strike of 1913, which saw wharfies and other members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour clashing with gun-toting cops and drunken farmers riding half-wild horses. Nicknamed 'Massey's Cossacks', in honour of the union-busting Prime Minister who recruited them, the baton-swinging horsemen were tasked with breaking the picket lines wharfies had formed around the ports of Auckland and other cities.
Back in 2006 Mark Derby curated a well-received exhibition which exposed the ferocity of the Great Strike, and he has been interested in producing some new commemoration to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the conflagration. Now that Tony Gibson and his supporters in the National Party are talking openly about a drawn-out war to the death with the wharfies and their allies in other unions, nobody can doubt the relevance of the history lesson Mark offers.
Kendrick Smithyman was the son of a wharfie veteran of the Great Strike of 1913, and in his posthumously published book Imperial Vistas Family Fictions he offers up a series of poems about the conflict and its aftermath. Smithyman describes the idealism and confusion of the men and women who built the 'Red Feds' in the early years of the twentieth century, the epic strike and its ultimate failure, and the subsequent persecution of unionists like his father, who had to be smuggled out of the country in the hold of a ship so that he could seek sanctuary and work in tropical ports like Apia and Brisbane.
I'd better abandon this computer - Skyler is shouting at me to come to bed, and Tony Gibson and his mates are probably aiming a missile in the direction of my study - but here's one of the poems Smithyman wrote about the Great Strike of 1913:
They came in from the farms.
They liked the batons which Government made
for them; some liked better the batons
they made themselves.
Closing on Lyttelton
they found the road carpeted with sizeable
furniture tacks. When they charged in Featherston Street
marbles, glass stoppers, steel bearings
went under them. “A pity about the horses,
not about the Specials.”
Tom Young told an outdoors meeting,
“If they try to hit you, you hit them back.”
In court this became Inciting to Riot,
but that was three weeks later,
and another month before he was sentenced:
three months on The Terrace.
Father ran the office.
The Cossacks rode
home. They were not wiser, but they'd won.
Footnote: Chris Trotter has a useful analysis of the significance of the current battle on the waterfront and some suggestions about how to win it, while the Socialist Aotearoa site is asking supporters of the wharfies to sign an Open Letter to Len Brown and join the picket line.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]