When I tuned into the news yesterday, though, and heard that Ports of Auckland was laying off nearly three hundred wharfies, and blaming them for their dismissal because they have had the temerity to go on strike, all that well-meant advice from the baby whisperers went out the window.
What I find outrageous about enemies of the wharfies like Ports of Auckland bosses Tony Gibson and Richard Pearson is not their desire to cut costs by deunionising their worksite - that sort of agenda is to be expected from bosses, when a right-wing government sits in in Wellington and a global recession is tightening the labour market - but their unctuously hypocritical rhetoric. I complained a few weeks ago about the way that Gibson, who earns three quarters of a million dollars a year, had phoned journalists from the luxury Coromandel resort where he was spending his Christmas holidays to denounce the wharfies as a bunch of overpaid loafers.
Over the last week Gibson and his supporters on the political right have found a rich new vein of hypocrisy to mine. In press releases and interviews, they have condemned the support given to our wharfies by Australian and American unions as 'outside interference' in New Zealand affairs. By sending members to thicken the picket lines in Auckland and by refusing to work ships loaded here with scab labour, organisations like America's International Longshore and Warehouse Union are, according to Gibson and co, undermining the autonomy of this country's institutions and the integrity of its economy.
Gibson's characterisation of Aussie and American solidarity with the Auckland wharfies as some sort of devilish globalist plot to undermine Kiwi sovereignty is rather unconvincing. Since taking up his job as Chief Executive of Ports of Auckland last year, he has argued that the demands of globalisation make the casualisation of labour on Kiwi waterfronts a necessity. According to Gibson, international shipping lines determined to get the best deals and rival ports with lower wage costs both make the old collective contract at Auckland, with its rostering of the hours wharfies must work, untenable.
The truth, of course, is that Gibson, like the National government from John Key down, is in favour of globalisation when it serves the interests of big business, and opposed to globalisation when it benefits the subaltern classes. The right believes that capital should be able to move freely from one nation to another, as investors buy up farms or factories in one place and send the profits somewhere else, but opposes the international cooperation of trade unions, and the staging of international boycotts and strikes.
Unfortunately for the right-wingers, Kiwi maritime workers have been in the vanguard of cross-border union campaigning for more than a century. Because they work on the high seas and in the doorways between New Zealand and the rest of the world, seafarers and wharfies routinely fraternise with the peoples of many different nations, and have always been aware of the international contexts for economic and political trends in this country.
In the 1930s Kiwi wharfies reacted to the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia by raising money for the International Brigades which fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and by refusing to unload pig iron made in parts of China which had been conquered by Japan. After World War Two the Waterside Workers Union angered successive governments by campaigning against military conscription in this country, and helped to found the movement against sporting contact with apartheid South Africa. In the 1970s the Seaman's Union joined demonstrations against the Vietnam War and went on strike when nuclear-powered American vessels visited Kiwi ports.
I found out about the internationalist heritage of the wharfies and seafarers firsthand when I was involved in the Anti-Imperialist Coalition in 2002 and 2003. The AIC was formed to oppose the wars which George Bush began in the Middle East after Al Qaeda's attacks on America. At the end of 2001, after listening to an address by AIC member and former seafarer Steve Hieatt, Maritime Union members voted to oppose the deployment of Kiwi troops in Afghanistan. A year later a group of Maritime Union members took a stack of AIC leaflets opposing the coming invasion of Iraq and distributed them to the seafarers working ships in New Zealand waters. It is commonplace now to consider the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as disastrous imperial adventures, but in the eighteen months after the 9/11 atrocities those who spoke out against Bush's wars were often derided, by sections of the public as well as by the political establishment, as de facto supporters of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The Maritime Union's early decision to oppose Bush's wars was courageous.
In October 2002 the 'War on Terror' became an excuse for the repression of unionism in America, as Bush used the Taft-Hartley Act, a draconian piece of legislation concocted in the depths of the McCarthyite era, to break a strike by the wharfies of California, Washington, and Oregon. Citing 'national security concerns', Bush sent the army to unload the West Coast docks in place of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Along with other workers' organisations from around the Pacific, our Maritime Union gave its strong support to the American wharfies. The AIC produced a leaflet explaining Bush's union-busting actions, and held a public meeting to further publicise the issue. Now that the wharfies of Auckland are under attack, it is only natural that their comrades in Australia, America and elsewhere are offering them support.
After having my attempts at Zen-like post-natal tranquility ruined by yesterday's news, I hunted down a copy of the leaflet the Anti-Imperialist Coalition produced about Bush's attack on American wharfies back in 2002.
Support US workers attacked by Bush’s War of Terror
President Bush has decided that the West Coast ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) port workers struggle to renew their industrial contract is a threat to US internal security. The port employers locked out the longshoremen, and Bush threatened to call out the National Guard. Now he has imposed the Taft-Hartley Act to force the ports open for 80 days. Bush is using the war on terror to target the enemies of the US ruling class at home as well as internationally. This proves that the war on terror is a class war and that only the working class can stop war. Our first task is to build international solidarity with the locked out workers and put union bans on scab ships.
What’s behind the current attack on the ILWU?
The ILWU, representing 10,500 dockworkers at 29 major Pacific ports, is embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing the shipping lines. The longshore workers’ contract expired July 1 and the ports have been operating on the basis of day-to-day contract extensions ever since. The key sticking point involves management demands for concessions that would allow for the introduction of new technology. Wages and benefits are not the issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from $27.68 to $33.48-about the same as a plumber or electrician. What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union, the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container; clerical workers who use computers to help track container movement, and drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports.
Workers in these jobs have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its good wages. The union wants to include them to replace the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who track cargo manually. Negotiators for the PMA have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of survival.
The union has already made concessions to the employers to accept new technology that would see around 30% of the clerks lose their jobs. But that is not enough for PMA that also wants to claw back hard-won health conditions and freeze pensions.
According to a ILWU leader Steve Stallone, the US Labor Department told the union early on that unless it meets the employers conditions the Bush administration would invoke the seldom used Taft-Hartley Act that can delay any strike by 80 days, use the Railway Labor Act to force the union to bargain port-by-port and bring in the army or navy to run the ports. The government has threatened the union with a "PATCO-type scenario," referring to President Reagan’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. This week after 10 days of the lockout, Bush delivered on the first part of his promise invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and forced the ports open for 80 days.
Bush is backed by big business to smash unions
Why has a labour dispute been dragged into Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’? Bush is seizing the post September 11 clampdown on democratic rights in the US to attack the longstanding rights of unions. Both the Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield have told the union that strikes are a threat to ‘national security’ at a time when the extreme right wing Bush Administration considers that the US is at war.
Bush’s right wing agenda is to use the war on terrorism to try to make US workers pay for the crisis of the US economy. Bush is supported by the WCWC, (West Coast Waterfront Coalition) made up of big businesses such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Ikea, Nike, Target and The Gap. The WCWC wants to prevent any strike action that would affect the $300 billion worth of goods that flow through the Pacific ports each year.
The Los Angeles Times reported a June 5 memo to Bush from the WCWC whose members "met with key Bush Administration Officials to convey the message that there is a need both to obtain labour concessions at the West Coast ports that will allow the application of technology and to avoid labour disruptions on the West Coast this summer that could stall a fragile economy."
Bush is following a precedent set already with federal employees. He used the pretext of the war on terrorism to strip 170,000 federal employees being transferred to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security of their rights as public service employees and union representation.
Rank and File solidarity undermined by officials
What has been the response of organised labour to Bush’s threats to smash the ILWU? The rank and file Longshoremen have responded with militant actions up and down the west coast. There has been huge support from unions and workers all over the world. In NZ, Seafarers and Watersiders Union officials have visited the lockout ports, and taken resolutions to ‘black’ any ships loaded by scab labour or the military.
However, the response of the official leadership of the ILWU and the AFL-CIO (main US national labour organisation) to the Bush administration’s threats has been to appeal to the Democrats in Congress to put pressure on Bush and to claim that the ILWU is fully supportive of his patriotic war on terrorism.
The Democrat representatives hope that they can get Bush to back down by promising that the union will accept the bosses’ terms, in particular the job losses following the introduction of new technology. This has been the record of the ILWU leadership over the last few decades as thousands of jobs have been sacrificed with hardly a fight. In Seattle of 2,400 workers in 1963 there are only 550 left today. The union officials admit that today workers handle 10 times the cargo with one-twentieth the workforce.
The rank and file of the ILWU have to break from their officials to win this fight. If workers allow patriotism to replace working class solidarity they will lose. The union is saying "Fight terrorism, not workers". The official union line is that the workers are much more patriotic than the bosses who are importing cheap Asian goods at the expense of American jobs. So they call for worker boycotts of foreign made goods.
But this attempt to prove the workers’ loyalty to the US prevents any real working class solidarity with workers inside or outside the US. It allows Bush to shift the blame for the state of the US economy off the bosses onto the longshore workers.
By supporting the US imperialist policies of a preemptive strike against Afghanistan, Iraq or any country designated ‘terrorist’ by the Bush administration, the ILWU workers unite with the class enemy, at a time when Bush is using the ILWU dispute to unleash his union-busting domestic drive for the same reason that he is promoting the war on terrorism abroad.
US imperialism is crisis-ridden and can only be revived by massive military spending on war, and the driving down of labour conditions at home. The ‘permanent’ war against US enemies abroad and the domestic war against its own working class are one and the same. The US ruling class must resort to the super-exploitation and oppression of workers at home and abroad to survive.
What should NZ workers do?
The ILWU is a strong union with a history of struggle. It opposed the Vietnam War. It closed down Long Beach and San Francisco ports to scab ships during the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) dispute in 1998. New Zealand workers have a clear duty to take solidarity action in support of the West Coast port workers. Multinationals like Carter Holt Harvey have tried to bust the NZ Waterside Workers Union and replace workers with new technology. Only by uniting internationally can workers become strong enough to take on the global corporations that dominate the world economy and win the fight against imperialist oppression and war.
The NZ Terrorism Suppression Bill passed on October 10 is modeled on US bills like the Patriot Bill introduced after September 11. It has provisions that will allow the state to designate industrial action a threat to national security. This includes solidarity action taken by NZ workers in support of locked-out wharfies in the US. We can petition the government to respect our rights as workers, and oppose Bush’s attack on Iraq, but it will be the ability of organised workers to go on strike that wins these rights and defends Iraq from further attacks.
The recent court acquittal of the killer of Christine Clarke shows that workers can place no reliance on the protection of the government and the police to win their struggles. Quite the reverse. As NZ’s history of militant struggle proves, state forces were used to smash strikes in 1913, 1951 and every other major dispute. Mass pickets are what is needed, supported by international action to stop the state from using scab workers or the military as strike breakers.
Solidarity with the locked out US workers!
For a union ban on scab US cargo!
Rally on October 26! 12 noon QE2 Square
Stop the Attack on Iraq
[Posted by Maps/Scott]