Holier Than thou
In his message* the trade unionist, who wanted to be identified only by the initials UCR, worried that POAL's aggressive tactics had not received an adequate response from the workers' movement and the left, and urged the beginning of active pickets and the eventual mounting of a mass blockade of Auckland's port.
Last week only small far left outfits like Socialist Aotearoa and the Communist Workers Group seemed to be arguing in an organised way for a blockade, but in the aftermath of last Saturday's large and enthusiastic march in support of the wharfies and an active picket which briefly stopped traffic into the port on Monday morning support for mass direct action on the waterfront is growing.
Chris Trotter is a man with longstanding affiliations to the social democratic wing of the Kiwi left, so his new article 'Only People Power Can Save the Ports' is perhaps a sign of the way the debate about tactics on the waterfront is moving. After remembering the demonstrations which closed Melbourne's port and saved fourteen hundred jobs in 1998, Trotter's piece calls for 'mass, non-violent flying pickets' to prevent strikebreakers entering Auckland's wharves. These pickets would, by their very nature, involve not only the few hundred local members of the Maritime Union, but large numbers of the union's supporters.
As the wharfies and their allies become more confident, POAL and its cronies in the bourgeoisie are becoming shriller and more vicious. In the aftermath of Saturday's large demonstration and Monday's militant picket, POAL has been using right-wing websites like Cameron Slater's Whale Oil and David Farrar's Kiwiblog to leak all sorts of private information about members of the Maritime Union. Slater, who has been accused repeatedly of taking money from POAL for his services, caused particular offence when he publicised the story of a wharfie whose wife died of cancer several years ago.
Karl Marx famously used the term lumpen proletariat to describe the gangs of conmen, adventurers, and thugs who are sometimes used to do the dirty work of the political right. We could justifiably adapt Marx's language, and describe a man like Slater, who has biological and financial connections with the ruling class as well as a violently ungovernable nature, as a member of the lumpen bourgeoisie. By letting Slater off the leash, POAL has shown how determined it is to deunionise Auckland's waterfront.
But it is not only the dogs of the right which have attacked the wharfies and their allies over the last few days. As they begin to contemplate mass direct action, supporters of the wharfies have been treated to a series of criticisms made in the names of those perennial, solemn-sounding abstract nouns, Peace, Morality, and the Law. Chris Trotter, for instance, has been vociferously condemned in recent days in the comments boxes at his own blog for having the temerity to suggest breaking the law to save the jobs of three hundred Aucklanders.
One of Trotter's most regular and ardent critics has been a chap named Than. When he isn't upbraiding the trade union movement and the left, Than uses his online time to maintain a blog with the unfortunate name Solo Wargamer, where he describes his reenactments of some of the bloodier chapters of history on a series of tables in Christchurch. Although Than often seems to play soldiers by himself, he does have at least a few fellow enthusiasts in the south. Here is his report on his attempt to reenact the Russian Civil War with a friend:
I suppose we’ve all endured those awkward moments when an opponent points out that the epaulets on your guard battalion are painted the wrong shade of blue. Well, last night I experienced an interesting variation on the theme. I’d just set up my 15mm Russian Civil War HoTT army (Reds of course!) when my opponent John quipped: “Ah, you’re fielding mixed sex units then are you?”
I was bemused by his comment, so he elaborated: “Well, half of them appear to have breasts…” Dear Reader, I was shocked. I know that my eyesight is becoming a little less acute with the passing years, and that sometimes purchasing ready painted troops on eBay can be a recipe for disaster. But it was a bit galling to realise that I’d mixed up the regular infantry with some doughty members of the Women’s Shock Battalion! Ah well. I can see that I’m going to have to spend an hour or so with a magnifying glass and my rebasing kit...
Than may be a tabletop warrior, but he has not been afraid to condemn Auckland's wharfies as brutes, and to accuse Chris Trotter of attempting to provoke violence. According to Than, Trotter's call for a blockade of the waterfront is 'naive and dangerous', because a blockade is likely to lead to some serious scrapping:
Surely you have seen the aggression on the early morning picket lines over the last couple of days? Do you genuinely believe a gathering of hundreds of motivated, highly charged picketers trying to shut down the port would remain non-violent? Even if a brawl didn't break out while people were trying to get to work, it certainly would once the police arrive.
Kid yourself that it will definitely be the other side that throws the first punch. Kid yourself that it matters. Regardless, you are advocating a course of action that will almost certainly end in violence. Please consider whether what is at stake is worth that much human suffering.
As you may have guessed by now, I find Than's hysterical response to Trotter's article rather amusing, given the obvious fascination for violence revealed by his blog. Than reminds me, in fact, of the late Patricia Bartlett, the 'anti-pornography' campaigner who was responsible for depriving New Zealand audiences of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In television and radio interviews, Bartlett would condemn this or that movie as hopelessly obscene - and then go on to describe the allegedly obscene bits of the offending movie in what seemed like loving detail. But it is worth addressing Than's argument against Trotter, because the same argument is being made at the moment by many self-appointed guardians of the morality of the trade union movement and the left.
Chris has explicitly called for a non-violent but (under the present pro-business Employment Relations Act) illegal blockade of the Auckland wharves. Any mass non-violent illegal action inevitably leads to a bit of pushing and shoving, and sometimes to a good deal more than that, depending on the way it is policed. The 1981 anti-Springbok protests were intended to be non-violent, but violence flared after protesters were attacked by right-wing vigilantes and cops.
Than's position seems to be that Chris' call for non-violent illegal action is immoral, simply because it could lead to violence. Even if the violence comes from the cops, the protesters will, it seems, be responsible for getting their own heads cracked, because they had the temerity to break the law and irritate the police. Following Than's logic, nearly every protest movement in history, including the illegal and violently repressed movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, would have been immoral.
It is worth noting the limits of Than's understanding of violence. He associates violence with war and rioting - with guns being fired and fists flying - but is oblivious to other, more insidious forms of the phenomenon. Violence, after all, can be inflicted by corporations and governments, as well as by soldiers and terrorists.
In the late 1980s and the '90s, under instruction from local and international capitalists, successive governments closed down hundreds of worksites around New Zealand, gutting communities by depriving them of incomes and services. If he drove through Kiwi towns like Moerewa or Kawerau or Ohura, with their boarded-up shops and gutted former post offices and caved-in mills, would Than recognise the rubble and ruined lives left by decades of economic violence? The Key government and its supporters in the business community are now attempting to unleash a new economic war on New Zealand workers, and the wharfies of Auckland are in the front line.
If terrorists or a foreign government had bombed Kawerau or Moerewa, levelling factories and offices, then the likes of Than would, without doubt, be full of indignation and calls for retaliation. When the victims of scorched earth economics try to hit back at their enemies using collective, fundamentally peaceful weapons like the strike and the picket line, though, Than can only condemn them. Perhaps Than ought to put away his toy soldiers, and play some different and more educational game. The distinguished Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman might have a product to sell him. *Here's the analysis of the waterfront dispute I received last week from UCR. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but can vouch for the credibility of the author. Anyone who wants to chat with UCR can e mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
When British Airways unions launched 'major' industrial action not that long ago the company's share prices went up, not down. That tells us a few things.
This is already an uphill, almost rearguard action that is demonstrative rather than decisive. If Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch port workers are taking action over a ship having already been handled by non-union workers in Auckland then the critical point of impact has been negated. Pickets in Auckland have been something other than pickets (i.e. work has been carried out) and weekend rallies will not be the difference, although it is important to have demonstrations in support of besieged workers.
Labour MPs are bound to be there on Saturday but it is their party's legislation, the Employment Relations Act, that makes meaningful and effective industrial action a serious criminal offence. Ports of Auckland Limited and their sponsors don't want a mediated outcome and the Employment Relations Authority offers POAL cover for their pretence of negotiation. You may recall that Australian wharfies claimed legal 'victory' at the time a few years ago after being dragged through the courts but if you go to a wharf in Melbourne or Sydney today they are desolate, maximum security zones with far fewer workers than before.
Hudson, the company advertising for scabs on behalf of POAL, is situated right on the waterfront and a demonstration there - as part of a picket - would have, in my view, been part of a proper escalation. If secondary strikes are unlawful but outright scab herding is ongoing then this a glaring contradiction which should be exploited.
The ports dispute represents a major offensive against labour in this country and others are emboldened: Oceania, AFFCO, POAL...these are all big disputes with a lot at stake and in the current economic situation a point-blank test of organisation. All are being fought very aggressively by the bosses but this is not being met equally by a workforce hamstrung by prohibitions on both primary and secondary industrial action. And if, as February Public Services Association newsletter suggests, 5,000 public sector jobs can be cut in NZ in just a few years is it any wonder we have such hardball being played by employers right now?
The Council is the beneficial interest behind POAL, demanding a 12 per cent return on investment but this is not the legal entity recognised as the employer party. None of this is news for you, I am sure. The Council of Trade Unions assuming 'leadership' of this dispute (which the Maritime Union of New Zealand has been involved in for a while) is literally a kiss of death and reduces the struggle from industrial to a contest for public opinion, donations, sympathy and expensive dead-end legal jousting. Today's online issue of the New Zealand Herald reported Helen Kelly as being concerned about a lack of good faith(!) by the Ports and the Council. Statements like that are a gift for some, unfortunately not for those in the to-be-fired line.
As for other official big wigs, Matt McCarten, while offering some helpful insight into the dispute in his regular column in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday, is, after all, the head of a union representing security guards (auxillary cops), some of whom may be further deployed against wharfies should the dipute be prolonged. Australian unionists have been generous in their financial support for their New Zealand counterparts but often this type of assistance is compensation for an unwillingness to genuinely intensify or internationalise a struggle.
A long dispute for a small union in New Zealand today, however 'strategic' their depiction, will sadly only result in casualties and, in this case, casualisation. This is not being defeatist, just facing facts. In the wash up Gibson may end up up being served up by the POAL Board for damage control - the aggro CEO style of doing things hasn't exactly enamoured the likes of the Chamber of Commerce; they wanted results, not fallout and he might end up being a fall guy, albeit with several hundred thousand dollars of severance pay. Then again he might just get a bonus and take over from fellow job slasher Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]