Thursday, March 15, 2012

Holier Than thou

If a week is a long time in politics, then it is even longer in an industrial dispute. Last Friday I got an e mail from a rank and file trade unionist whose job gives him an interesting perspective on the conflict between wharfies and Ports of Auckland Limited bosses.

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

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]


Blogger Alex said...

Seriously, is that class struggle board game real? I would love to play it some time. Reminds me a bit of anti-monopoly, the game where to win you have to work co-operatively.

9:21 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Alex,

Bertell Ollman designed and marketed the game back in the '80s, and along the way got involved in some curious situations - he had to deal with ruthless retailers, not to mention striking factory workers, and when he brought out a German-language edition of the game it attracted the interest of Helmut Kohl - which are described in his book Class Struggle is the Name of the Game: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman. There's a bit of info about the game here:

11:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

they don't like it up em

2:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some may think wargamers are warmongers-right-wing hawks with a love of weapons and power. Billings says surveys show most wargamers are well educated and have a relatively high income. Not surprisingly, 99% of wargamers are male. Using one of his own games, President Elect, Billings rated himself', on a scale of 0-Conservative to 100-Liberal, as 60 overall. He was 83 on social views and 50 in foreign affairs. "When you play a wargame, you realize you wouldn't want to be in war."
But the fascination is there. We asked what turned him on: "Charts. Charts with weapons. A list of all your weapons, each tank-about 50 different tanks, and anti-tank guns, the range and the speed of the gun, and the maximum penetration."
Billings is particularly excited about a new SSI game called Colonial Conquest. It's a six-player game, where you play one of the major world powers during the period of your choice: 1880 or 1914. The powers are U.S. ,Japan, Russia, Germany, France, and England. You're out to control the world. Total global dominion. "It's fun to go out there and conquer the world on the screen."

10:52 pm  
Anonymous Keir said...

Perhaps Than ought to put away his toy soldiers, and play some different and more educational game.

Eh, every one has the right to leisure and it would be very very bad form for me to upbraid you for what you do in your spare time. It's pretty scummy to attack someone for having the temerity to have a hobby, especially in such a ridiculously personalised way.

Trotter is as always wrong on the historical facts; the courts in the Australian dispute were driven by primarily legal issues, viz. the fact that there were weird shell games going on, totally obvious violations of the law, etc etc. The idea that somehow the Australian federal courts are more susceptible to pressure from the dockers than the prime minister is not a particularly well-founded one.

What saved the wharfies jobs, as it generally turns out, was a solid strategy revolving around dull things like legal argument and getting injunctions, not sexy things like trying to be Gandhi.

1:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Players and coaches from Australian rugby league team the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have visited Ports of Auckland workers to show their support.

Nearly 300 port workers are facing redundancy after an long industrial dispute.

Bulldogs assistant coach Jim Dymock has a family connection with the Maritime Union of Australia.

About seven players and two coaches visited workers at Teal Park in Auckland on Saturday afternoon, NZ Maritime Union national president Garry Parsloe said.

"It was great. They're all the way over from Australia and came and stood beside working class people that are getting bashed around by their employer," Mr Parsloe told NZ Newswire.

The Bulldogs stayed for about an hour, met family members of the workers and posed for photos.

Workers deeply appreciated the support and solidarity shown New Zealanders and unions around the world, Mr Parsloe said.

The NRL team is in Auckland to play the Warriors on Sunday.

The Bulldogs confirmed the visit with the port workers because of the staff member's personal connection, but said it was not officially sanctioned by the club.

The Ports of Auckland has made 292 striking workers redundant and is contracting out the positions. However, it has postponed implementing the dismissals until the end of a judicial conference with the union on Monday.

The union is fighting the redundancies, with the case set to be heard in the Employment Court on March 26.

11:02 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

"Eh, every one has the right to leisure and it would be very very bad form for me to upbraid you for what you do in your spare time. It's pretty scummy to attack someone for having the temerity to have a hobby, especially in such a ridiculously personalised way"

That may well be, Keir. At the same time, how scummy is it when someone klike Than - who has no direct bearing on an idustrial dispute - can find the time to pass judgement and condemn workers for the temerity to defend their jobs?

It's ok for some to pass judgement (because you agree with them) but not others?

Anonymous said, "Billings says surveys show most wargamers are well educated and have a relatively high income. "

*sighs* If ever there was a clear illustration that intelligenceeducation does not necessarily equate with wisdom...

For those of us who are geeks, and probably SF fans, let me speak in a language we both understand...

I'm reminded of the Dr Who episodes, "The Sontaran Stratagem" and "The Poison Sky"; Luke Rattigan runs an academy for gifted young people. Luke has a vision, to settle a new world with his fellw genuises. In the process, Earth will be destroyed by his alien allies. But Luke cares not; it's collateral damage. Luke is incredibly intelligent - but he has no compassion; no empathy for his fellow humans. Ultimately, it is his downfall, as both Human nor Alien abandon him (though he redeems himself at the very end).

One may be the brightest person on the face of the planet. But it counts for nothing without compassion, insight, and wisdom.

I guess that's why I support workers whose jobs are under threat. It could be me next. But more important - it offends me.

11:29 am  
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