The fatal logic of class collaboration

My recently-published novel, The Chain, is set in the freezing works (meatpacking plants) of the Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, in the 1980s, and draws on my experiences when I spent five years working in one of these plants during those years. Since it was published, I have been interviewed at length by two serious labour historians, who are currently researching the upsurge in union struggles that occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. The unions of freezing workers were right at the centre of these struggles. Both these historians were born after that time, and were interested in my book as a historical record.

Both had high on their list of questions one of the big questions of recent labour history: why did it all come so abruptly to an end at the end of the 1980s?  Why is it that the Meat Workers Union, which had been strong enough to face down and defeat a series of interventions by the government in the seventies and early eighties, suddenly crumble in the late eighties and nineties? Why did membership of unions in New Zealand go from around 85% of workers in the 1980s to around 15% today?   The answer commonly given by the union officialdom today is that the National Party government elected in 1990 undertook a massive assault on the union movement, and succeeded in passing an anti-union law called the Employment Contracts Act, which stripped unions of many of the legal rights they enjoyed up to that point, and since then, unions have been powerless to resist the assault.

Gear Meat workers striking in their own class interests, Petone, 6 April 1981
Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Evening Post Collection (PAColl-0614) Ref: EP/1981/1406/30A-F

The real answer to that question is not to be found in the character of the party or government in power. The union movement had continued to press forward in the early 1980s despite determined efforts by the avowedly anti-union government of Robert Muldoon and despite a series of anti-union laws passed during his term of office. On the other hand, the retreat of the union movement had begun well before 1990, in fact it clearly began under the Labour government of David Lange elected in 1984.

The key to both the period of union militancy in the 70s and 80s, and its abrupt end, lies in the class-collaborationist outlook shared by all the various currents within the union leadership at the time. Consciously or unconsciously, the union officialdom tied the interests of workers to the prosperity of their capitalist employers. Throughout the 70s and 80s, New Zealand capitalism was expanding, and profits were generally high, in the export meat industry especially. In such conditions, the union leaderships fought – and on occasion, fought hard – mobilising union power to win a share of those profits. Some sections even raised broader demands, such as the fight for a shorter workweek to share the available work to combat unemployment.

But the real test of union leadership comes when business is no longer so profitable, and some employers are failing and going bankrupt.  Do you keep fighting for workers’ interests, refusing to subordinate them to the dictates of capitalist profitability?  Or do you accept the idea that if the boss doesn’t make a profit, ‘we’re all going to be out of a job, and that’s even worse’?  This was precisely the situation faced by the meat workers unions in the middle 1980s, following the international financial slump of 1982-83 which hit New Zealand capitalism hard. Without a single exception, the union leadership took the latter course. This idea has a fatal logic, and the union leadership took it to its conclusion. At first a halt was called, then a retreat and a passive acceptance of the bosses’ demands for cutbacks. By the end of the 1980s it had become a stampede. Hard-won, historic conquests of the working class, such as the forty-hour workweek and national uniform rates of pay, were given up largely without a fight.  The Employment Contracts Act merely registered in law what had already been lost, and cemented the new relationship of forces in place.

Meat workers make common cause with their employers. Protest against live sheep exports, Timaru, 1986. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection (PAColl-7327)  Reference: EP-Labour-Meatworkers-01

Meat workers make common cause with their employers. Protest against live sheep exports, Timaru, 1986.
Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection (PAColl-7327)
Reference: EP-Labour-Meatworkers-01

It’s not that workers never attempted to fight. There were strikes and defensive battles. The mobilisations to stop the Employment Contracts Act were some of the largest and most widespread mobilisations of workers in New Zealand history. But at every step, the union officialdom undermined, derailed, and blocked such actions, and argued their case: if you fight, you will end up worse off. That was the logic of class collaboration, and they believed it deeply.

I recall a situation that occurred when I was working at the Nissan car assembly plant in Auckland in 1986. The company sacked the head union delegate, who had been responsible for building up a militant and democratically-run union organisation in the plant. The workers immediately met and voted to strike until the delegate was reinstated. The next day, the entire union executive – the top ten national officials – descended on the plant and called a meeting, at which they attempted to persuade the workers to end the strike and accept the sacking. After a discussion lasting a whole day, a vote was taken: the vote was to continue the strike. Nevertheless, the union leadership declared the strike ended. The union officials were prepared to destroy the union themselves – the real union – because it was a threat to the profits of the company. Such was the fatal logic of class collaboration in a period of capitalist downturn.

meat workers join Maritime Union protest, March 2012

meat workers join Maritime Union protest, March 2012

The industrial ‘peace of the graveyard’ has lasted, with few interruptions, from that time to the present. De-unionisation and casualisation of the workforce is the order of the day.  Workers are not weak and powerless to act. When, by way of exception, the Maritime Union mobilised its membership to resist a union-busting assault on the workers at the Ports of Auckland last year, they won widespread sympathy and support from other workers, and succeeded in beating back the assault, at least for now. But in general workers remain hamstrung by the prevailing class-collaborationist mentality of their leadership, which acts to impose the bosses’ prerogatives on them.

Cracks will appear in this monolith as more widespread resistance develops. Workers will find ways to enter the road of struggle. They will turn towards class-struggle currents that develop in other parts of the world, and will also look for precedents in the history of their own organisations.

One such precedent was the class-struggle current that developed in the Australasian labour movement a hundred years ago, known as the Red Feds. One of the central leaders of that current, Harry Holland, will be the subject of future posts.

6 responses to “The fatal logic of class collaboration

  1. This piece is very interesting and there’s nothing in it that I disagree with.

    However, two things are missing James.

    One is that your group, the SAL/CL, played a passive role in terms of workers’ struggles in the era you are talking about, often simply tagging along behind ‘progressive’ union leaders. One of the outcomes of this is that you folks were taken by surprise when militant union figures in, for instance, the meat works suddenly surrendered without a fight.

    The other gaping hole in the piece is that, while it identifies the union retreat and collapse as beginning under the 4th Labour government, it says nothing about the way in which the unions’ links with Labour, and the subordination of workers’ interests to the Labour Party, was a major factor in the collapse.

    Of course, at the time, the SAL supported the Labour Party – they were still calling on workers to vote Labour in 1990 and denouncing the NLP as some kind of “petty bourgeois” diversion – and argued that the road to a mass class-struggle left wing in the labour movement *of necessity* involved a fight *within* the Labour Party. They had no understanding at all that the LP-union link was a conduit for capitalist austerity ideology to pass from the Labour leadership into the unions; instead they thought the links would be the conduit for worker militancy to be passed into the Labour Party!

    Will you be writing some sort of critical reflection on how the SAL/CL got it so wrong and why this was? After all, when your group’s long-term strategy in relation to the Labour Party was proven totally wrong in practice, it was the beginning of the end of the SAL/CL. It wasn’t just the unions which collapsed; your current collapsed as well because of its extraordinary misreading of the Labour Party and the period.

    For a Marxist analysis of the New Zealand Labour Party, see:
    This work also discusses the errors made on the left here in relation to this particular capitalist party.


    • No Phil, I won’t be writing the ‘critical reflection’ you seek. The first criterion I apply when deciding what to write about is that it must be something that interests me deeply. I’m afraid the prospect of re-hashing the communists’ reading or misreading of the Labour Party question in the 1980s fails that test.
      I think we can agree that the New Zealand Labour Party today is an ordinary capitalist party, which presents no openings for communists to engage with a wider audience of workers. Whether the Labour Party has ever been anything other than that, and whether, even as a bourgeois labour party, it might have been a fruitful arena for communist propaganda work; these are interesting and important questions. However, to make any sense of those questions, we will need to use a wider-angled lens than one which focuses on the minutiae of communist strategy in bourgeois elections in the 1980s.

  2. I never suggested anything so daft as merely focussing on “the minutiae of communist strategy in bourgeois elections in the 1980s”. I suggested the *whole strategy* of the SAL in relation to Labour, built upon the now-discredited idea that working class upsurge would find its reflection in Labour and the growth of a “class-struggle left-wing” in the Labour Party as well as the unions, was wrong. Calling for votes for Labour, even after the experience of the fourth Labour government, was simply “the icing on the cake”.

    It’s odd that you are unprepared to critically engage with that period, and the politics you followed during it, when you insist we can learn lessons from, for instance, Harry Holland of 100 years ago!

    Still, yes, we can agree on the nature of the Labour Party today.

    But, as I said elsewhere, the role of Marxists is not simply to “draw lessons” after an event; it’s also to see events coming and to prepare for them in advance. This the SAL failed to do. It might not matter, except I can’t see that most of the ostensibly Marxist left have learned much from that period. Most of the ‘Trotskyist’ groups here, for instance, will, in some form or another, line up behind Labour. And so round and round things go, albeit in ever-diminishing circles.

    As I said, I agreed with everything you wrote in that article. But there was a hole in it, because the union leaders’ subordination – and their subordination of workers’ interests – to the Labour Party and the way union-Labour links worked against workers’ interests, wasn’t dealt with.

    Lastly, I have to say, this issue also goes to credibility. If you want this blog to be taken seriously in its declared aim of combating bourgeois ideas, you would need to establish some sort of politically credible record for yourself and the people whose ideas you channel. (Even better, you could stop channeling those office leaders in New York, folks who’ve never even worked a proper job or ever been involved in any sort of serious struggle, and just think for yourself.) So far all I can see is a load of errors – on the Labour Party, on the South African revolution, and so on and on. So some critical reflection might help you establish a bit more political credibility.

    Until you do start some critical rethinking, I think I’ll leave off reading your blog and commenting further.

    Good luck with your fiction. You’re a good writer and I’ve enjoyed reading that, anyway.


    • In response to your comment “It’s odd that you are unprepared to critically engage with that period, and the politics you followed during it, when you insist we can learn lessons from, for instance, Harry Holland of 100 years ago!”

      The reason for that is simple: 100 years ago the labour movement in this country was in the midst of its greatest ever struggles and forward motion; workers were confronting and solving all the central problems that workers will face in the next upsurge of struggle. Such are the conditions under which the opposing political courses can best be tested in action, lessons drawn, and errors corrected in mid-flight.
      The period of the middle-1980s onwards, while it is more recent, is also, in contrast, a period of virtually uninterrupted setbacks and defeats, culminating in a rout of the union movement in the late 80s and early 90s. In such conditions it is very difficult to test the different political courses and to probe openings, since, right or wrong, they all equally end in defeat. The only political currents who feel confident in such conditions are the political sects. Standing outside the movement of the working class, they thereby avoid being driven back along with the class. Generously proclaiming defeats and betrayals on all sides, they invariably end up being proved ‘correct’. The political sects thrive on defeats.
      It is true that communists must settle accounts with all of history, including the defeats. However, for the purposes of examining the big issues confronting the working class, the periods of upsurge and struggle are a far more fruitful place to start than the periods of defeat.

  3. I really will leave it here, with a final comment. James, the period from 1981 (Springbok tour) to the fight against the 1991 Employment Contracts Act was a decade of intense struggle. A Marxist current in NZ *should have grown* through those huge struggles. Instead the SAL/CL ended that period smaller than at any time in its history. That might exercise your mind (and your obviously considerable talents). Why did that happen?

    Your say that periods of upsurge and struggle are more fruitful to examine than periods of defeat. But you have written an entire pamphlet on the defeat in Indonesia in 1965! So, clearly, you have no problem in dealing with *other people’s defeats* where they belong to other political currents. You really can’t have it both ways.

    Moreover, the period of militancy in the early 1900s ended in defeat too. The defeat of 1913, a defeat which paved the way for the Labour Party. Marxists clinically examine defeats, the point of course being to do better next time.

    Also, you talk about errors being able to be corrected in mid-flight in periods of upsurge. But this is in contradiction to what you said about Nicaragua and South Africa. In those cases you said that no conclusions could be drawn until the processes were complete. Keenness about correcting errors in mid-flight, would have led to a reconsideration of the course followed by the ANC long before your current finally stopped the cheer-leading (same in relation to Ireland).

    You’re concerned about “political sects” but a lot of people on the left see the Barnesites as not merely a sect, but a cult. Moreover, the Barnes operation in the US continuously stands outside the actual mass movements, like the mass movement in the United States against US imperialist interventions, and just lambasts it. Given the failure of your own movement – and surely you would wish to avoid such future train-wrecks – critical reassessment starts at home.


    • Yes, I believe we have more or less exhausted this discussion. But since my urge to have the last word is at least as strong as yours, I will add that my Indonesia pamphlet is almost entirely about a period of upsurge – the long growth of anti-colonial struggles from 1917 on, and struggles against landlords and capitalists, which only came to an end in 1965. The whole point was that there were several precedents for the catastrophe, in both China and Indonesia itself. I wrote the pamphlet because I found that the otherwise excellent movie “The Act of Killing” has an important weakness in that it concentrates exclusively on the defeat, and leaves the viewer with no explanation for the massacre. The catastrophe in Indonesia was a great deal more sudden than the decade of galloping retreat in New Zealand, but all proportions guarded, the same considerations apply to Indonesia. I suspect that by about the beginning of 1965, if not earlier, there would have been nothing much even the most prescient Indonesian Bolshevik could have said or done to prevent the catastrophe. Still less could they have expected their current to grow out of this defeat, no matter how correctly they had analysed the situation. I find your contention that a Marxist current should expect to grow in the midst of a massive working class retreat the clearest indication of a sectarian bent on your part. Did the Bolsheviks grow in the period of the defeat of the 1905 revolution? No, in spite of their clear analysis, they suffered demoralisation, disorientation among the membership and defections, and shrank drastically in membership. On the other hand, the religious sects did grow. The communist vanguard grows and decays correspondingly with the advances and retreats of the working class as a whole, and wishing it could be otherwise will not change that fact.
      I agree that the pre-WWI period of militancy ended in defeat, with unions back in the shackles of arbitration and a bourgeois labour party (although not without lasting gains too.) I hope to look at the whole picture, including critically analysing Holland’s evolution and the causes of the defeats, in my forthcoming biography of Holland. I will post some of the ideas in embryonic form on this blog, and would welcome your further input on these. We may not end up in agreement, but I’m sure we (and any others who may have scrolled down this far!!) can learn from the exchange.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s