Among the most exciting
developments discussed at the Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference
held in Sydney at Easter was the rapidly changing map of New Zealand politics,
in particular, the development of the Maori Party, the UNITE union and the
Resident Action Movement.
Several left-wing leaders from New
Zealand attended the conference, including Matt McCarten, who was until recently
the campaign manager for the Maori Party, Global Peace and Justice Auckland
leader Mike Treen, and Dave Colyer and Grant Morgan from NZ Socialist Worker,
who all addressed a feature session on March 28.
Collier explained the background to
the current situation in New Zealand. In the last decade, union membership
declined from 60% to the 22% it is now (10% in the private sector), and most
unions’ rank-and-file networks were destroyed. Colyer also detailed the impact
of this destruction — by 1998, 80% of people were economically and socially
worse off. Thirty per cent of children live in poverty now in NZ.
Colyer explained the background to
this decline, going back to the election of a Labour government in 1984, on the
back of a mass anti-nuclear protest movement. When the new government pursued a
“free market blitzkrieg”, resistance grew, and a split in the New Zealand Labour
Party led to the formation of the New Labour Party, which formed the kernel of
the Alliance party.
In October 1990, the National
government was elected with a landslide victory and proceeded to introduce the
“employment contract act” — a draconian piece of legislation drafted by business
to get rid of collective bargaining and introduce individual contracts — “to
smash the union movement”.
Colyer outlined the strong and
organised rank-and-file opposition to the legislation, and how this was wasted
by trade union leaders. “They refused to organise a general strike. There were
massive street protests, the biggest protests in NZ history, but they never went
over into that mass industrial action that could have stopped the government in
its tracks. As a result, the union movement was severely weakened”, leading to
its state of devastation today.
In 1999, the NZLP was re-elected in
partnership with the Alliance.
“We've had a Labour government now
for six years, we've had a supposedly booming economy for six years, yet the
standard of living for most people is still getting worse — it's not even
staying stagnant; wages are still not keeping up with inflation, poverty is
still increasing”, said Colyer.
It is the growing resistance to this
devastation that is beginning to see a “new map of politics emerging” in NZ.
Collier noted the many fight-backs around different issues over the past decade
— student fees, health cuts, genetic engineering and against the war, as signs
of a changing mood.
Treen agreed that the mood was
changing, arguing “there is a deep disquiet amongst the people who have not
benefited from the boom in the last decade”. He pointed out that the anti-union
laws had been pushed through during a recession, but after six years of economic
recovery wages remained low, and strikes were at their lowest rate in history.
He noted two main exceptions to this
trend — the nurses’ union’s growth after its victorious struggle for its first
national contract and a 20-30% pay rise; and UNITE, which covers mostly
previously unorganised workers, and is now joining 100 members a week in
Treen is involved with UNITE, which
has been organising workers for just two years. “We were told it was not
possible, but we sensed it might be”, Treen told the conference. “We were told
that the most difficult areas were young people, casual workers, fast-food
workers, call centres, picture theaters, hotel workers — all of them utterly and
completely deunionised. The areas that we started organising in have 1%
Treen reported on one of the
earliest areas UNITE began its organising drive — a picture theatre chain in
Auckland where most of the workers were on youth rates: NZ$7.60 an hour (for
workers under 16 years’ old there is no minimum wage). A UNITE organiser went
onto the seven sites in the chain and joined up 300 people — almost 100%
unionisation. There was a delegates’ committee elected and young workers were
soon sitting at a negotiating table with the boss to get a collective agreement.
This is a pattern that is being repeated again and again in UNITE's organising
“Often it's not even the monetary
side”, said Treen, “some of them are just basic things that deal with the
dignity of workers on the job. How they get their rosters, whether they're
notified in advance, whether their complementary tickets can be taken off them
if they do something wrong. We deal with those things and it's a huge difference
for the workers. They feel pride and strength and they love our union and take
their unionism with them when they go to other jobs.”
Treen reported that UNITE receives
many calls from workers who have moved jobs saying “we want UNITE” on their
“We get an overwhelmingly positive
response when we go in with the simple proposition that you can't negotiate on
your own, that you can only negotiate collectively.”
UNITE has a creative approach. When
negotiations had come to a standstill at a theatre in Wellington, workers
reported that most of the money the theatre made was on the popcorn and drinks —
“so part of negotiating the agreement was setting up a picket outside passing
out free popcorn. [Management] came to the table; we got an agreement that year
to get rid of youth rates over the next year or two.”
Having just signed up 600 Burger
King workers, UNITE has begun spreading its organising drive outside of
Auckland. Workers from other industries and sites are also looking to and taking
inspiration from the success of UNITE.
McCarten, a veteran of NZ politics,
addressed the conference on recent developments in NZ politics. Part of the
formation of the New Labour Party, McCarten was a central leader of the Alliance
from its inception to its recent decline. He spoke about the rise and fall of
that party, arguing that its downfall started when it began to accommodate to
the demands of the NZLP when it was in coalition government.
On a more positive note, McCarten
outlined the rise of the Maori Party, explaining that the basis for it was set
when the NZLP failed to stand up to National Party attacks on Maori rights,
instead trying to win some the racist vote by playing a me-too game.
Then, the NZLP introduced
legislation denying Maori land rights to the foreshore and seabed land, after a
court ruled that such rights could apply.
A traditional hikoi protest
march was launched in response to the legislation, and 100,000 Maori joined it
across the country from the far north to Wellington, marching through towns and
holding rallies en route.
A MP holding one of NZ’s seven
Maori-elected seats, Tariana Turia, resigned from the NZLP and parliament rather
than support the legislation. She re-won the seat with 93% and helped found the
Maori Party. According to current polling, the Maori Party will win all seven
Maori seats in the elections later this years. Until now, all these seats have
always been held by the Labour Party.
McCarten told the conference that
the Maori Party is not a separatist party, but arose from the resistance to the
racist attacks, “when Maori are under attack, we stand together”. Their program
also includes working-class policies such as free health care, free education,
housing for all, an end to all wars and a major increase in the minimum wage.
McCarten also outlined the exciting
development of the Maori Wanunga tertiary educational institutions which have
been developing, amongst other programs, basic literacy projects with assistance
from the Cuban government.