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.
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.
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.
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.