Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | News Flashes | Scoop Features | Scoop Video | Strange & Bizarre | Search


Wealth for World’s Workers: History of NZ’s labour movement

World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers: A history of New Zealand’s labour movement

Notes from a talk delivered by Ciaran Doolin (Fightback, UC Marxist Society) in Christchurch.

1821 – The first recorded wage dispute in New Zealand was in the Bay of Islands in 1821. Māori timber-workers stopped work because they wanted to be paid ‘for their labour in Money, as was the case in England, or else in Gun Powder’. They were probably being paid with food and other goods, and felt this was unfair.

29 July 1839 – barque Cuba leaves London with survey staff from NZ Company. They discuss working conditions and propose an 10 hour day. But one Arthur Heywood, a socialist, managed to convince them that 8 hours was sufficient. In contrast in Britain at the time men and women were working up to 16 hours a day.

Petone, February 1840 – Samuel Parnell refuses to build a storehouse unless his day was 8 hours. Parnell’s leverage came because there were only 3 other carpenters in the settlement at the time. Other tradesman followed his example and they subsequently met incoming ships at the port to tell new arrivals of the working conditions.

Dunedin, 1849; Auckland, 1857 – agitation gains 8 hour day in these cities

1860’s – First unions like Printers’, Engineers’ and Tailors’ formed. This early phase were largely skilled-worker unions

1876 – Auckland Trades Council formation symbolises first step towards solidarity of labour

1878 – unions had no legal standing until the passage of the Trade Union Act in 1878. Even after the passage of the Act however unions tended to be short-lived and would reform on an ad hoc basis. They would form to agitate for better conditions or pay, or to conduct a strike and would disappear as quickly if they were defeated

1879 – first working person, the plasterer S. P. Andrews, enters Parliament. His election encouraged the formation of the Working Men’s Political Associations.

1885 –Trades and Labour Conference, first national labour assembly. 43 delegates attended inaugural conference representing 3,000 workers

1886 – John A. Millar, a charismatic ship Captain, is elected to secretary of Seamen’s Union.

1887 – When the Auckland-based Northern Steam Ship Co. in July announced a reduction of wages and abolition of overtime payments, those seamen who refused to accept the new conditions were fired and replaced with non-union labour. The usual union response would have been to pay wages out of the strike fund, however, with a worsening depression Millar had to innovate to have a hope of winning. He conceived of a scheme where the union would charter two vessels and engage in a trade war with the shipping company. Both sides ran at a loss but the union held on until November 1888. The shipping company gave in and agreed to take on union labour at union rates. A Wellington paper declared: “Employers and capital had better look out. If the strikers are left masters of the position, whose turn will come next?”

1888 – The depression of the 1880s had led employers to cut corners. Sweating among female works became common. Sweating was the practice of workers taking their work home and being paid reduced wages. In September 1888 a prominent Duniden Clergyman delivered a sermon denouncing sweatind as “The Sin of Cheapness”. The ODT followed this up by an investigation in January of the following year. The result was the formation of the Tailoresses Union in July, the first trade union of female workers.

1889 – A new organisation, the Maritime Council, was established uniting seamen, wharfies and West Coast miners with Millar elected secretary becoming de facto leader of the labour movement nationally. While the stated goals of the organisation were moderate, the Council quickly began to develop a momentum of its own and pose a challenge to the wage system. Millar spoke of a great cooperative commonwealth and held that the route to achieving it would be through the solidarity of labour: “Labour is one, and an injustice to one is an injustice to all.” Quickly unions, affiliated or not, began handing over disputes to the Council and the first half of 1890 saw a series of resounding successes

1880’s – first national unions start to form like the Federated Seamen’s Union of New Zealand. Trades Councils formed or revived, but called Trades and Labour Councils because unskilled workers were now admitted. Union membership surged towards the end of the decade – in 1888 3,000 workers were unionised, but by 1890 63,000 were.

1890 – A Royal Commission on “sweating” reveals the exploitative nature of industrial NZ. The commissioners fid “boys of ten, eleven, and twelve working in factories without any attempt at concealment, while the regulation as to the hours of employment was quietly ignored” and endorsed the power of unions as a means to protect workers: “The evidence as a whole goes to show that in whatever branch of industry a union has been forms the condition of the operatives has improved, wages do not sink below a living minimum, and the hours of work are not excessive.”; women workers were for the first time organised into unions, in Dunedin and Chch the Domestic Servants’ Unions came into being.

Maritime Strike, August-November 1890 – Strike originated in a dispute between the Aussie Maritime Council and the Shipowners’ Association. Millar tried to avoid a strike but the Union Steam Ship Co. which was affiliated to the Aussie Shipowners’ refused to halt trans-Tasman trade. When its Sydney agent engaged non-union labour the NZ crews spontaneously walked off without waiting for instructions. The Council called a general strike of seamen who were followed quickly by nearly all the affiliated unions. However the Council was young and had limited strike funds. Moreover the summer was beginning which meant demand for coal was low. The employers had few problems finding non-union labour. The employers were determined not to compromise with the unions however. “The unions are becoming so oppressive in their actions, we think the present an opportune time to knock down the whole system for we shall never have a better chance” read a telegram for a leading Hastings freezing company, Nelson Bros. After the employers refused to meet with the Council in formal negotiations, Millar was forced to send the workers back to work in a staggered fashion. By 10 November the Seamen were back at work. The Council was completely defeated and quickly disintegrated, as did the affiliated unions. The strike lasted 56 days.

1890 – Election saw influx of labour candidates. Balance, the new Liberal premier, appointed four unionists to the Legislative Council

1891 – Employers take revenge for the “excesses” of the Maritime Council. The Miners’ suffered badly, by the end of the year all West Coast unions had ceased to function. Watersiders’ were the same and it took 5 years for a union to be revived. National organisations collapsed, and links with Aussie were only maintained by the Seamen’s union. Wage and condition improvements won in 1889-90 were lost, membership had declined to 8,000 by 1894; Bureau of Industries established, soon to become the Department of Labour, and led by the avowed socialist Edward Tregear who oversaw the introduction of a raft of progressive of labour legislations.

1894 – Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act introduced and unions were encouraged to register under it. The Act appealed to long-sighted employers and unionists alike.

1896 – When William Pember Reeves left for London in 1896 to become Agent-General the reform program of the Seddon administration decelerated

1895-1900 – wages were steadily increasing out of the depression of the late 70s/80s, well ahead of the cost of food. However these benefits extended to only a narrow section of the workforce: skilled workers. Country workers, retail trades and watersiders’ were not included by the Court until after 1900, while general labourers were not even organised in unions by that time.

1900s – Between 1902 and 1907 the gains made under the Court had begun to falter. Although general prosperity continued minimum wage rates increase very little and remained stagnant for unskilled workers. In 1904 Tregear wrote “It is beyond doubt that the advantages bestowed by progressive legislation are gradually being nullified and will eventually be destroyed by certain adverse influences.” Chief among these influences were “the unbridled covetousness of a few”.

1906 – Dissatisfaction grew among the most exploited sections of the labour movement. In 1906 the Auckland Tramwaymen, tired of the egregious pedantry of their employers, reacted to the dismissal of a number of conductors by striking. Auckland tram traffic was motionless for 3 hours before the employers conceded to the union’s demands. The dispute was small in magnitude however it was the first strike in 12 years. The successful act of defiance electrified the labour movement. Within 3 months 140 Wellington slaughter men were on strike.

1906 – Pat Hickey returns to his native NZ after spending a number of years working in the US where he had been a member of the Socialist Party and the Western Federation of Miners. He started work at Denniston where he met Paddy Webb, a young Aussie miner. Their agitation soon brought them in conflict with the mine managers and forced them to leave Denniston and they moved on to Runanga state mine where they met Bob Semple. These three men were to have indelible impact on the labour movement in the coming years.

1908 – Hickey and Webb started work in the Blackball mine in January 1908. At their first meeting union meeting they raised the question of “crib time”. Miners had only 15 minutes to each their lunch, and had to do it underground in the hot, cramped and unsanitary pits they worked in. They wanted a 30 minute break. The union sent an ultimatum to the Company and the next day, with the mine manager standing over Hickey with a stopwatch, Hickey refused to stop eating when 15 minutes were up: “But look here, Boko, I haven’t eaten my pie yet”. Hickey was charged under the Mining Regulations but the agitation continued. The manager finally dismissed Hickey, Webb and five others, the entire committee of the newly formed Blackball branch of the Socialist Party, whereupon all 120 men at the mine ceased work. The Labour Department initiated proceedings under the Arbitration Act against the miners’. As Hickey related, the proceedings were a farce. “Our solicitor…in addressing the Court, referred to the ‘crib’ allowance of fifteen minutes as being altogether too short; His Honour remarked with a frown that he thought fifteen minutes ample time. He then glanced at the clock, noticed that the time was 12.30 and stated that the Court stood adjourned for lunch till 2 p.m.” Millar, veteran of the Maritime Strike, and now head of the Labour Department was eager to gaol the men, but Tregear protested and threatened to resign. There was wide support for the miners across the country with £1,000 raised for the strike fund. After three months the company gave in. The victory had a unifying effect. The NZ Federation of Miners was establishing adopting the preamble and objects of the Western Federation of Miners. The second conference in October of 1908 adopted the American motto “The World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers” and resolved to cast aside arbitration and register under the Trade Unions Act.

1909 – Demand was high for the services of the Federation and unions outside mining wanted to affiliate. So the name of the organisation was changed to the New Zealand Federation of Labour, soon be dubbed by the Evening Post in Auckland as the “Red Feds”.

1911 – Trades and Labour Councils form their rival national organisation claiming a membership of 45-50,000 workers as compared to the 7-8,000 of the Red Feds. However what the latter lacked in numbers they made up for in fighting spirit.

1912 – Bargaining in January by the Transport Section of the Federation vindicates the decision to affiliate as a record wage increase is obtained in wharfies wages. By the middle of the some 15,000 workers were members of the Federation out of a total unionised workforce of 67,000. This meant a fifth of the workers in NZ were rallying behind an organisation which openly promoted class struggle and the overthrow of the capitalist system. In May the organisation restructured itself along the lines of the IWW with eight departments responsible for different branches of industry. They also adopted the IWW preamble which declared: “It is the historic mission of the working-class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organised not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism has been overthrown. By organising industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society in the shell of the old.”

Waihi Miners’ Strike, May 1912 – Waihi miners had ceased work after a breakaway union was formed by a minority of engine drivers and fireman. Fraser and Savage called for all-out support for the strikers up-to and including a general strike. Failing that they wanted to call off the strike. Webb and Semple opted for a middle road, containing the strike to Waihi. The Federation raised £35,000 in support of the miners but a change in government, from Liberal to Reform, tilted the tables in the employers favour. Massey sent a large number of police to Waihi and the leaders of the strike along with 70 other unionists were gaoled. The new arbitration union, with police protection, then recruited enough members to restart the mines. Once they outnumbered the strikers the authorities gave tacit approval for the arbitrationists to unleash a reign of violence on the strikers. They beat up strikers in the streets, looted the union’s store and at the height of the “Black Week”, on November 12, stormed the Miner’s Hall with support from the police. In the ensuing scuffle one of the unionists on picket duty Frederick George Evans was batoned to death. The arbitrationists drew up a list of those unionists who were to be driven out of town under the threat of violence. Some 1,800 workers with their children and families were forced to leave. By the end of November the strike was off. While the Federation membership fell as a result of the strike, it was the first time the State had openly intervened on the side of the employers and the labour movement as a whole saw itself as under attack by Massey.

1st Unity Conference, January 1913 – The conference established two new orgs: the United Federation of Labour and a Social Democratic Party.

2nd Unity Conference, July 1913 –At both conferences was the recently retired Edward Tregear who had become disillusioned with the arbitration system he himself had engineered: “Without the strike, barbarous as it is, the working class would have been crushed utterly under the heal of the employing class.” He proposed a strike clause which was, after some discussion, passed.

Great Strike 1913 – With agreements with the watersiders and seamen due to expire in February 1914, at the height of the export season, employers feared a major strike by the Federation. There were unsubstantiated rumours that the Feds intended to launch a general waterfront strike. So the employers decided to attack pre-emptively. On 6 October Taupiri Coal Co. at Huntly dismissed 16 miners including two members of the union allegedly due to seasonal work shortages. Within a fortnight, all 560 miners walked out in protest. At the same time a dispute involving shipwrights developed in Wellington. They stopped work over a travelling time claim. The watersiders held a stop-work meeting on October 22. But when they returned to work they found that they had been locked out, the employers claimed that they had violated their agreement. A second meeting concluded with 1,500 workers walking off the job. Stop-work meetings had been held before without issue, but the union was technically in the wrong. The issue on which the watersiders took a stand was not conducive to wide public support and it came at the worst time of the year, with the approach of summer work on the wharfs and in the mines was slackened. Other unions spontaneously joined the strike abd before long all the wartersiders and miners unions affiliated to the UFL ceased work, with the seamen following shortly after. The strikers occupied the wharfes but the Government responded by calling on its supporters in the country and enrolled thousands of young men as special constables, dubbed “Massey’s Cossacks” by the strikers, who proceed to clash with strikers in running street battles. Royal Navy marines paraded on the wharfs armed with bayonets and set up machine gun nests at strategic locations. On November 5, 70 specials were employed on the Wellington wharfs and a new arbitration union was established. They were escorted to work by armed artillery men. In Auckland, when specials occupied the wharfs on 8 November the local unions declared a general strike involving 7,000 workers and bringing the city to a virtual stand-still. Buoyed by this the UFL called a general strike on 10 November but the response outside Auckland was negligible. The government retaliated by arresting several of the strike leaders, including Semple, Fraser, Holland and Young on charges of sedition. In all 16,000 – 2,000 seamen, 4,000 miners, 5,000 watersiders and 5,000 others – workers struck (not including those rendered idle by the strikes), which was almost a quarter of organised union strength. After a week the general strike began to falter and the government, sensing victory, rejected all compromise offers by the Federation. They were determined to settle for nothing less than the destruction of the Federation. On 12 December the last nail in the coffin was hammered in. The Supreme Court ruled that unions could not use funds in support of a strike, depriving the Federation of its main revenue stream, and secondly, a bill reintroducing penalties for unions striking outside the Arbitration Act passed its second reading. On 21 December the Federation was forced to unconditionally call off the strike. Most returned to work immediately, although the Huntly miners managed to hang on until mid-January of the following year. The strike lasted 58 days. As the Maoriland Worker summarised, “The odds against us were too great, the requisite tactics too little understood, the method of organisation too incomplete to meet the forces of the employers, the farmer scabs, and the armed and legal power of the state.”

1914 – The UFL went through internal restructuring with accusations firing left and right, with the socialist object in the constitution and the strike clause replaced.

1916 – With the outbreak of war, militancy was at ebb and most workers accepted that “country not class” was the priority. However when conscription was introduced in 1916 activism revived and in 1916 an Anti-Conscription Conference was called by the UFL. However, the organisation was already being out flanked by the recalcitrant watersiders and new federations organised by industry.

1917 – Miners impose a go-slow in opposition to the Military Service Act. Government responded by arresting union leaders and prosecuting under war regulations, but this merely led to a widespread stoppage. After 3 weeks the government brought it to an end by agreeing to exempt the miners from conscription and not push for penalties for the arrested miners. With the Russian Revolution agitation again reared its head and the Government extended its wartime restrictions of civil liberties and immigration.

1919-20 – By 1919 the UFL was effectively finished (although it wasn’t formally disestablished until 1920) and was replaced by the Alliance of Labour. The 1919 election saw the Labour Party win 8 seats.

1920s – The Alliance remained a largely ineffectual organisation through the 1920s fight rear-guard actions. Meanwhile the Labour Party and the Communists (emanating from the West Coast) were on the rise vying for the loyalties of the working class.

1926 – A Unity conference was called for by the miners who wanted to form a new national organisation with more rank-and-file control. The Alliance had no problems getting its proposals accepted but after the conference miners met with the Alliance officials and agreed to affiliate under certain conditions. Hence the Labour-Communist rivalry was imported and was headlined by Big Jim who led the watersiders and the Alliance, and had by now had gravitated towards the Labour Party, and Angus McLagan who led the United Mine Workers and led the Communists.

1927 – McLagan gains a valuable ally when Fintan Patrick Walsh and his supporter take control of the Seamen’s Union after marching on the union’s office and forcibly removing Tom Young. Walsh had resigned from the Communist Party but was still close.

1930s – The onset of the Depression saw unemployment rise rapidly and correspondingly unionisation fall. In 1928, 100,000 workers were in unions but by 1933 it was down to 70,000. In the latter year there were more unemployed than unionists. Militancy fell rapidly – even the miners and seamen were on the defensive – and the Walsh and McLagan had to break completely from the Communist Party who expected unrealistic feats of agitation from the workers. Unemployed Workers’ Movement was established. To the government balancing the budget was everything and the easiest way to do this was to reduce expenditure. It cut civil service salaries by 10 per cent and drastically reduced relief rates for the unemployed. The Court ordered a 10 per cent reduction in all awards. The unemployed workers, by now the most radical, called for a general strike. These cuts continued. In 1932 they removed the compulsory requirement from the arbitration act. Public servants for the first time became militant. In April there were major riots of unemployed and starving men and women after they were denied access to the trade hall. Shop windows were smashed a goods were looted. Other riots took place in Wellington and Dunedin. The government responded with repressive legislation including the Public Safety Conservation Act and inserted a clause in the Finance Act which allowed for the summary dismissal of public servants. A young public servant, Harold “Jock” Barnes, was dismissed for involvement in the agitation. Courts handed out harsh punishments while the unemployed workers on relief were moved out of the city to work in miserable conditions in remote camps. In 1934 there were hunger marches in Northland and down the East Coast to Wellington.

November 1935 – Labour Party wins landslide victory in election and Savage is first PM with Tim Armstrong, a former Waihi miner, as Minister of Labour. One of the first things they did was introduce a xmas bonus for the unemployed. Compulsory unionism and arbitration were introduced. A forty-hour week and basic wage were added to statute. A vigorous public works programme paid for a t standard rates was introduced which gradually absorbed the unemployed. The number of unionised workers swelled from 80,000 in 1935 to 230,000 in 1937. In 1937 the cleavage between Roberts and Walsh came to a head and it took the intervention of the government – who desired a strong and united labour movement that could be relied upon to not damage the political prospects of the Labour Party – to unify the two factions. Out of the dispute emerged a new organisation with an old name, the Federation of Labour.

War Years, 1939-45 –Government rushes through an amending Act to allow the Minister of Labour to deregister a union which shad struck under the Arbitration Act. With compulsory unionism this meant that the government could completely destroy a union. The 1940 Conference of the Labour Party affirmed a manifesto requiring the government to prevent profiteering and share the burden of sacrifice across the community. Strike and Lockout measures were passed which made all work stoppages illegal. These were not repealed until 1951. In practice it was easier for the government to direct labour than to prevent profiteering. Price Stabilisation policies were effective at keeping wages and the cost of essential goods down. Resentment grew among workers because of they felt they would have got higher wages on the open market. Industrial unrest continued throughout the war. As the war drew to a close a new spirit of militancy was abound in the labour movement. Communist influence was on the rise.

1946 – Walsh recommends the extension of stabilisation policies. This was condemned by the left-wing as against the objectives of the Federation to “socialise the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Watersiders’ immediately responded by threatening a nation-wide stoppage. They asked for guaranteed daily attendance payments as a step towards decasualisation, and they refused Federation support. When the waterfront control commission rejected their claims they refused to do overtime work. Next the watersiders’ presented a full economic programme for the whole union movement in opposition to the Federations. After calling off their boycott the watersiders’ entered into direct negotiations with the government and received favourable results.

1947 – In a 1947 Federation Conference Walsh was defeated in a vote for the vice-presidency by the more militant Bill Richards. This marked the high-point for the left-wing within the trade union movement – after which the right wing rallied and effectively destroyed the movement as a force for social change.

1949 – Slow-wage growth for Auckland carpenters forced a go-slow which brought construction to a stand-still for a few days. The employers were about to give in when the government – imbued with Cold War ant-communism – interceded on the side of the former and the Federation, although initially sympathetic to the carpenters, joined them. The Communist led carpenters went down to defeat and were deregistered. The Labour Party bitter and divided lost the election later that year. During the dispute Barnes and Hill sent a strong letter to Federation executives accusing them of “strike-breaking” and “gross betrayal of the affiliated unions” while acting as “agents of the employing class”. The Federation executive demanded that the letter be withdrawn. The 1949 Federation Conference became a showdown between the executive and Barnes. Barnes refused to withdraw the letter. The conference also voted to withdraw from the Communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions. The watersiders’ refused to follow.

1950 – Federation Conference in April asked Barnes to withdraw the offending letter by the end of May or face expulsion from the Federation. Barnes and 68 other delegates representing 75,000 or a third of the Federation’s roll walked out. They established the rival Trade Union Congress. They referred to Walsh as “Mr Facing-both-ways”. Their watchword was “It’s in or out! Progress or Reaction!” In September, in a dispute over lampblack, the watersiders’ won the right to negotiate directly with employers. By now the government was becoming convinced that a showdown could no longer be avoided. Barnes, through super-militant tactics, had alienated the public and much of the labour movement. They were aware of the dissatisfaction with wage pronouncements by the Court and they could have mobilised a large measure of support but Barnes didn’t seem interested; he felt they could go it alone.

1951 – In January the Court announces a general wage increase of 15%, widely considered totally inadequate. A dispute developed around how this was to be passed on to the watersiders. Employers argued that an earlier waterfront authority increase should be included in the latest increase. The watersiders’ disagreed. On February 10 the workers began to refuse overtime. When the employers demanded they return to normal work, the workers refused and they were locked out. The government then stepped in calling for the workers to return to work and submit to arbitration. When they refused they suspended the waterfront industry commission and declared a state of emergency under the 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act. This gave the government sweeping powers to suspend awards, seize union funds, use the armed forces to strike break, prohibit picketing, processions, meetings, and the display of posters and made an offence to support the strike in any way, including by writing favourably about it or by giving food to the strikers’ children. The government then gave an ultimatum: return to work by the 26th or see the regulations enforced. On the 27th the Waterside Workers’ Union had their registration cancelled and their funds and records were seized. Seamen, drivers, freezing worker, miners and other unions struck in sympathy – in total 22,000 were out. On March 8, after the government made it clear it had no interest in negotiating with the watersiders’, condemned them publicly and called for them to place their dispute in the hands of the Federation officials. Had Barnes swallowed his pride and submitted he might have saved his union, but he was committed. After this some of the other unions started to drift back to work. The government meanwhile kept raising the stakes, ignoring tentative attempts by the watersiders to negotiate. By April the Communists, accused of dominating the watersiders, were actually calling for the workers to return to work. At the end of April strikebreakers around the country formed new unions and quickly built up a membership. After April it became a war of attrition. Hopes of a coal shortage that would force the government into retreat proved futile. On July 15, after 151 days, a resumption of work was called for. The watersiders were completely defeated. The role of the Federation was crucial. In 1960 Keith Holyoake told Parliament the National Party had been “fortunate in that the Federation of Labour, the responsible workers’ leaders, stood firm with the Government. The task would have been impossible without the Federation’s aid.” Victimisation was rife following the strike with the nearly 2,000 strikers excluded in Auckland.

1968 – Nil wage order. The Federation sought a general wage order from the court and produced evidence of a decline in the living standards of its members. The court acknowledged that the Federation had proved its case but refused to order a wage increase because of difficulties in the economy. Thousands of workers took part in stopwork meetings and marches. Consequently the Employers Federation offered to submit a fresh application with the Federation of Labour for a 5% increase. The two nominated members of the court outvoted the Judge effectively discrediting the Court. Unions now preferred direct negotiation.

1974 – With penalties for striking now being rarely enforced the employers turned to civil injunctions. In 1974 an Auckland Shipowner obtained a Supreme Court injunction against the Seamen’s and Drivers’ Unions which ordered them to stop interfering with oil deliveries to his ships and hydrofoils. The unions ignored the orders and their secretaries were arrested. Thousands of workers walked off the job. A march then proceeded to the Supreme Court where Bill Anderson, the drivers’ secretary, was due to appear. Anderson was released and the unions resumed work

1979 – Concerned with the wages unions were obtaining through direct negotiation with employers the government again tried to assert its influence over the wage-fixing process. This was the cause of the 1979 general strike. The drivers’ were negotiating a new award and were asking for a 20% increase, while employers offered only 9%. The drivers’ held a 48-hour strike but the deadlock continued. In September an agreement was reached on a basic 11% increase but 36 hours before the agreement was due to be signed the government intervened issuing a statement that the settlement was unacceptable and “clearly inflationary” an threatened to cutback the increase to 9.5%. In response to strong rank-and-file pressure the Federation of Labour called for a 24-hour general strike. After the strike the Arbitration Court awarded a 10.5% increase to the drivers’

1960-70s – The 1970s are often remembered for the rise of new social movements and identity politics. As a result, the significant strike waves and union movement of the 1970s have often been neglected. Many unions took a muted radical turn in the 1970s, and many were involved in political struggles. For example, there was much union action against visiting US nuclear warships and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) bill in 1977. Unions also supported the occupation of Bastion Point. The mid-1970s experienced the highest amount of officially recorded strike activity in the history of Aotearoa, even more than 1951. In 1976, 201,085 workers, representing 19% of the workforce took part in strikes, the highest participation rate since figures have been kept. In contrast, 37,458 workers took part in strikes in 1968, 86,005 in 1971 and 115,865 in 1973. Increasing numbers of white-collar workers took action. The strike was in response to Muldoon’s threat to nullify a wage increase of 11% for drivers, an increase which the Drivers’ Union and employers had already mutually accepted. Much union activity was largely successful, such as the stopping of the wage freeze of 1976, the general strike of 1979 and the Kinleith dispute of 1980. Sometimes disputes arose between the bureaucratic FOL leadership and rankand-file unionists. Some discontented workers decided to organise on the job themselves, forming autonomous site committees and sub-branches of unions, such as the Combined Council of Delegates, which was formed in opposition to the conservative Timberworkers’ Union. The government attempted to clamp down on this activity.

1987-88 – The CTU was formed in 1987. It represented a new breed of trade unionism, more bureaucratic and close relationships with the government and capital. The new character of the organisation was revealed early on with the suppression of rank-and-file dissent over the “Compact” with government. The compact was entitled “Agreement for Growth” and provided for a ceiling on wage settlements in return for a reduction in interest rates and the promise of talks between government, capital and the unions.

1991 – Card voting occurred on the Service Workers Federation amendment and the amendment was defeated by 250,122 to 190,910. Those unions which voted against a general strike included the Engineers Union, The Public Service Association, Post Primary Teachers Association, Nurses Association, Post Office Union, Education Institute and the Financial Sector Union. Many of the trade union officials who voted against a general strike were also voting contrary to the wishes of their members. For example, 87% of Nurses Association members had voted for a twenty-four hour stoppage. Similarly, even where workers were not balloted, high attendances at stop-work meetings should have indicated to union officials that the issue of a general strike should, at least, have been discussed with their members. Bill Birch said that it was “obvious to all New Zealanders that strike action could not be justified”.

2006 – In August 2006 more than 500 supermarket distribution workers in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch went on strike for a nationwide pay agreement. They were then locked out by their employer. Soon stocks of some items began to disappear from the supermarket shelves. However, the locked-out workers received many donations of cash and gifts of food. They returned to work after four weeks when the employer promised to sign a national pay agreement.

2008 – In June 2008 more than 2,000 house surgeons and registrars at public hospitals around New Zealand went on strike for 48 hours, after their pay negotiations broke down. Thousands of patients in hospitals around the country were affected, and hospitals asked people to avoid using emergency departments unless absolutely necessary. Four months after the strike, employers agreed to an increased pay deal with the union representing junior doctors.

2011 – Ports of Auckland became engaged in an industrial dispute with workers represented by the Maritime Union of New Zealand, after negotiations broke down over the expiry of the existing collective contract, and plans by the port to contract out its services to casual workers. Port workers struck and were subsequently locked out. The Port Authority has since been fined for employing strike-breakers and the dispute remains unresolved.


Growth is now expected to hit 3.6 per cent compared with 3 per cent previously, putting the NZ economy in the OECD top 6 performing economies. Unemployment is forecast to fall below 6 per cent next year and continue sliding to 4.7 per cent by 2018. Despite the brighter picture, the Budget Policy Statement warned that there would be no return to a time when government spending rose with economic growth. Moreover, real wage growth is going to continue to stagnate with less than 1% growth in the coming years. With housing price inflation possibly having peaked and interest rates tipped to increase next year the prospects for workers are looking little better than before.

What can workers then expect to see in the coming years? The trends of the last several decades are likely to continue. The share of national income going to wage and salary earners has dropped from 60% in the 1980s to 45% by 2002. Presently the top 1% owns 3 times more wealth than lowest 50%, and owns 16% of total wealth while bottom half owns 5%; average household income of top 10% is nine times that of the bottom 10%; income gaps are the greatest since records began in 1980s and are widening at a faster rate than any other developed country. The gap between incomes and living costs has increased significantly with private debt soaring from around 60% of disposable income in 1991 to 140% now (the bulk being mortgages). Meanwhile the tax for those on the top rate has been halved, now sitting at a rate less than almost every other developed country.

The effect is that we now have double the number of poor compared to the 1980s with 170,000-270,000 children in poverty. According to UNICEF, we rank 25th out of 34 developed countries in terms of child poverty.

Recent research by the IMF – hardly a bastion of progressive economics – has suggested that inequality may in fact be stifling long-term growth. The former IMF chief economist has even gone so far to say that inequality was a key cause of the financial crisis.

NZ has been fortunate to avoid the worst effects of the GFC be we should be clear that this has been largely through luck. The Australian banks through a combination of good policy and luck managed to ward off risk of systemic failure of their financial system. With NZ dependent on the Australian banks we just rode their coat tails. However, internationally the situation is much different and the crisis continues. With Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal having needed been bail-outs, and Italy and Britain teetering precariously on the edge the future of the Eurozone looks uncertain, hinging on the stability of Germany. The austerity measures, on which the bail-outs were conditional, have spawned enormous and radical social movements – particularly in Greece and Spain – that are challenging fundamental economic orthodoxies. However, the role of organised labour remains unclear. In general the most radical demonstrators so far have been students and young graduates – the so-called “youth without a future”.

I think perhaps the hardest thing for those generations who were around before the 1980s is to come to terms with the fact that social democracy is dead. It simply can’t function in the neoliberal political economy. This should, however, come as no surprise. The changes of the ‘80s could fairly be described as a revolution. The reforms of the “economy” were in fact reforms of the political system and they were deeply anti-democratic – not simply in the way they were carried out (e.g. little consultation, legislation passed under urgency), but also in their object. The essentially took what little influence the public had in the process of government and put it into the hands of capital.

The result is what Victoria University academics Sandra Grey and Charles Sedgwick term a “democratic deficit”, in their recent study of the attitudes of civil sector organisations towards government. They conclude that while these organisations “have in the past been a strong and necessary voice for the most marginalised of our society, since the 1980s their place in democratic conversations has come under challenge” from both Labour and National governments “almost to the point where for some groups the only option is to remain silent.” A telling illustration of this shift was the recent leadership election of David Cunliffe. While the affiliated unions and party membership voted overwhelmingly for Cunliffe a large section of caucus were staunch in their opposition to him.

Change, if is going to happen at all, will come from outside of parliament. The question of what role the unions are to play in that is an open-ended one. A central issue is precarious work makes it difficult for conventionally organised unions to build membership and strength. However, I think these issues can be overcome. In fact, as I hope my talk has illustrated, it was very similar conditions which gave rise to the labour movement in the 19th century. The unions rose organically out of tight working-class communities and built their strength not only through battles with the bosses but also through mutual aid and sociality. Any challenge of the neoliberal capitalism will have to address the question of work at some point, and I think the best way to bring this question to the foreground is to start by re-building our communities.

Above all, we must take hope. For if it is true that in history there is an Iron Rule of Oligarchy, then there is a corresponding Rule: ordinary people will fight back.


© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


David Swanson: Torture Is Mainstream Now

As Rebecca Gordon notes in her new book, Mainstreaming Torture, polls find greater support in the United States for torture now than when Bush was president. And it's not hard to see why that would be the case. More>>

Uri Avnery: In One Word: Poof!

Poor John Kerry. This week he emitted a sound that was more expressive than pages of diplomatic babble. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: The Poverty Incentive: Making The Poor Carry The Refugee Can

The poorer you are, the more likely you need to shoulder more. This axiomatic rule of social intercourse, engagement and daily living is simple and brutal enough: the poor shall hold, conserve, preserve. More>>

Nureddin Sabir: BBC Misreports John Kerry On Talks Failure

For once, US Secretary of State John Kerry was not mincing his words when he blamed Israel for the breakdown of talks with the Palestinians. But you would not have known this if you were following the story from the BBC News website. More>>

Gordon Campbell: On Narendra Modi, And The Elections In India

On the upside, the gigantic election process that began yesterday in India is the largest exercise in democracy on the planet. Reportedly, a staggering five million people are employed, directly or indirectly, in the election process. The likely outcome is not quite so welcome... More>>


Ramzy Baroud: Kerry’s Looming Deadline And The Peace Process Industry

As the US-imposed April 29 deadline for a ‘framework’ agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority looms, time is also running out for the American administration itself. More>>

Harvey Wasserman: Fighting Our Fossil-Nuke Extinction

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster has brought critical new evidence that petro-pollution is destroying our global ecosystem. The third anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan confirms that radioactive reactor ... More>>

Shobha Shukla: Rise In Global Health Financing, But Funding Priorities Shift

A new research done by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), at the University of Washington, indicates that globally the total development assistance for health (DAH) hit an all-time high of $31.3 billion in 2013 (a year-over-year ... More>>

Get More From Scoop

Top Scoops
Search Scoop  
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news