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Christchurch event: History of New Zealand’s labour movement

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

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During a visit to New Zealand in the late 19th century the American labour activist Henry Lloyd declared: 'We think of New Zealand as a new country but the fact is that by 1890 New Zealand was one of the oldest of the modern societies in economic iniquity and sin, and in some things the oldest…The concentration of land, capital and other machinery by the few, which has taken half a dozen centuries in Europe, needed only a decade or two under the sun of New Zealand.'

Migrants to New Zealand hoped, as did their counterparts who headed to Lloyd’s country, to build lives in the 'New World' free from the exploitation and oppression of the 'Old World'. What they found on arrival was a testing physical landscape and nascent ruling class who were intent on establishing a South Pacific capitalist haven away from the 'evils' of Chartism and other progressive working-class movements. Moreover, as is common to colonial countries, the riches of the New Zealand ruling class were accumulated not only through the exploitation of labour but also through the systematic and violent dispossesion of the resources of the indigenous people. Nonetheless, determined to start afresh, workers in New Zealand built a vibrant and internationalist labour movement which left a permanent impression on New Zealand society and culture.

The image of New Zealand as an egalitarian society – while only a partial reflection of the social realities – is held by many New Zealander’s to be a central aspect of their cultural identity. In the past several decades this image, along with its concrete manifestations (e.g. full employment, welfare etc.), has come under sustained attack. As a condition of New Zealand’s participation in the global market economy, workers have been forced to accept severe curtailments of traditional rights that were won through long and hard-fought struggle. Workers today around the world are facing greater hardship than their parents’ generation; with stagnant real wages and precarious labour, made worse by the recession following from global financial crisis, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate for many. However, there are international social movements developing at present that are beginning to question economic orthodoxies and suggest alternatives.

This talk will give an overview of the history of the New Zealand labour movement from 1840 to the present day, describe the conditions that gave rise to the movement and explore the parallels with today, and, finally, suggest a route forward for organised labour and progressive movements in the context of growing global discontent with late capitalism."

Ciaran Doolin is a member of the UC Marxist Studies Network and participates in Fightback Aotearoa. He recently won first prize in the Labour History Project essay competition which can be found here.

The UC Marxist Studies Network is a student group formed to explore radical ideas and counter hegemonic critiques of capitalism and existing social relations.

Gold coin donation to help cover the cost of room hire would be appreciated.

7pm, Friday 20th December
WEA 59 Gloucester Street, Christchurch
[Facebook event]


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