NZ Workers Charter movement supported by Socialist Workers

Green Left Weekly’s PETER BOYLE interviewed GRANT MORGAN the General Secretary Socialist Worker-NZ and DAPHNE LAWLESS, the editor of Unite.

A Workers Charter political movement was launched at an Auckland conference, attended by more than 100 activists, on October 22. A draft charter (see was endorsed and will now be taken around the country for further discussion and amendment at another open conference in a year’s time. Regional branches will be organized and a broad left newspaper will be launched next year. The Socialist Worker group was among the initiators of the Workers Charter process.


GLW: There have been a number of other new political initiatives in NZ over the last two decades that have promised to open up a broad break from the National and Labour domination of politics, such as NewLabour, the Alliance, the Greens and the Maori Party. What is new and different about the Workers Charter initiative.

Grant Morgan: There have been these important breaks to the left of Labour over the last decades. The Greens tapped environmental concerns and the Maori Party tapped flaxroots concerned about the new foreshore laws and deep Maori frustration and anger at their poor social status. Over the last decade the Alliance has been in decay. What has the potential to make the Workers Charter different is that the workers pay revolt along with the flaxroots Maori revolt suggests hat the conditions are opening up for a strategic rather than just a sectional challenge to Labour’s pro-corporate politics.

So it is not the genius of the initiators of the Workers Charter that have opened this possibility up but rather the widespread actions of workers themselves who are showing their anger at low pay and corporate arrogance in the biggest strike wave since 1991. These grassroots upsurges have opened the door to the possibility of building a mass political movement that can challenge corporate politics and corporate politicians.

I expect that the Workers Charter movement will grow rapidly as has been our experience over the last two months. It started as an idea that was discussed by a handful of radical left activists but we have since begun taking it out to a wider audience and receiving a good response. We hope it will develop as a mass focus for grassroots discontent.

GLW: What other political forces, besides the Socialist Workers, helped initiate the Charter?

Morgan: The other forces were union comrades involved in the organizing drive among young casualised workers in Auckland who had built the Unite workers union into a 4600-strong organization. Also included were long-time union and social movement activists. Early on we started to get support from a layer of union delegates and lower-level union organizers and also from environmentalists, social justice activists and a number of other socialists.

GLW: So Socialist Worker will be playing an important role building the Workers Charter but what distinct role as an organization of revolutionary socialists in the new situation?

Morgan: Socialist Worker is a small group and numerically we are already an insignificant quota of people within the Workers Charter. The important role that SW comrades can play is to contribute our members’ experience in grassroots organizing. They can help to cohere regional branches of the Workers Charter. We can also provide the vision that a Marxist workers organization can offer for the independent interests of the working class against that of the corporate bosses and politicians.

We saw in the rise of the original Labour Party in NZ in 1916 that the socialists who led that parliamentary challenge to capitalism had within a decade morphed into social democrats who tried to put an acceptable face on capitalism rather than change the system to socialism. That happened for two key reasons. First, the original Labour party based itself in Parliament rather than in the jobsites and in the unions. Secondly, there was no independent Marxist group within and alongside the original Labour party to make sure that that did not happen.

So we see retaining Socialist Worker as an independent Marxist group within and alongside the Workers Charter is essential for both the immediate and longer term. Socialist Worker will continue to do what we have done up until now and that is go out and build the Workers Charter movement alongside other activists. We also realize that in these new conditions, Socialist Worker will have to operate differently to avoid undermining the long-term need of the working class to stand up against the whole capitalist system just in order to look after the short-term interest of building a Workers Charter movement. The short-term and long-term interests of the working class has to to be served from the outset.

So we want to unite the broadest possible number of grassroots people in this country around the rights expressed in the Workers Charter, to win as many reforms as possible -- as soon as possible -- to increase the confidence of grassroots people to stand up and fight back as an independent force.

We also want to unite as many people as possible to a long-term challenge to global capitalism as well as around all the immediate reforms we can win because, in the end, without overthrowing the system the very existence of humanity is threatened.

GLW: Unity magazine is having a makeover. Can you describe what the new Unity will be like and why Socialist Worker has decided to make this change?

Daphne Lawless: The new format for Unity comes directly out of the decisions made at the first Workers Charter conference. That conference decided to publish a newspaper - monthly at least - as an organiser and educator for activists and militant workers who will be coming together around the Charter. As such, this would be a "broad left" paper rather than a Marxist publication. So Socialist Worker, as a Marxist organisation working within and outside the Workers Charter movement, needs its own publication.

Since 2002, Socialist Worker has published its own monthly magazine, first called Socialist Worker Monthly Review and this year renamed Unity. Before then, SW - and its predecessor, the Communist Party of New Zealand - published a variety of fortnightly and weekly newspapers. The monthly format magazine has always had to play a bit of a balancing act - combining the tradition of outreach to workers of the older fortnightly, combined with more in-depth analysis and debate around the central issues facing the workers' movement. As the editor of this magazine for its last year, I was very conscious of the contradictions between the two goals, and that sometimes the magazine "fell between two stools".

With the new Workers Charter paper taking up the burden of reportage, agitation and outreach to the workers, the new Unity will be an "activist's journal" - a forum for debate for those already in and around the Charter movement, but published by a Marxist organisation. Each issue will have a central "theme" around which contributions will be solicited, which will hopefully be directly relevant to the essential question that the movement faces. Our first issue will be based around the question of "What sort of organisation do we need - a broad party or a narrow party?"

I hope that the new Unity will become a "must-read" for everyone on the left of politics in New Zealand, and for comrades in other countries interested in learning from our experiences. It will hopefully be a forum for robust and comradely debate, but most importantly it will have to be tied directly into the political practice of the Workers Charter movement. It should be a bridge between Marxist theory and concrete political practice on the ground in Aotearoa.

GLW: As an editor of a revolutionary socialist publication, do you detect a new interest and openness to Marxist ideas in New Zealand today?

Lawless: After Seattle 1999, the idea of "anti-capitalism" became part of mainstream vocabulary - the idea that capitalism was not the final perfect embodiment of human society. However, to a large extent even left-wing activists still hold to the common-sense idea that "Marxism is discredited" by the experience of the bureaucratic regimes in Russia, China etc. The predominant form of thinking of anti-capitalists and working-class militants tends to be some form of reformism, some form of anarchism or a combination of the two.

However, the experience of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements over the last five years has revealed the limits of these ideologies, based as they are on categories already laid down by bourgeois "common sense". So Marxist ideas - provided that they are intimately linked to solutions to real problems that the movements face - certainly have an opportunity to prove themselves in practice that they haven't had in a long time.

This process has sadly not been helped by the tendency of small Marxist groups to turn in on themselves over the dark days of the last few decades. For most activists, a "Marxist" is someone who tries to sell you a paper full of jargon-filled diatribes on why some other Marxist group has got it all wrong. The essence of Marxism has to be the fusion of theory and practice, and the various sects are marked by their total disassociation from anything resembling practice (i.e. real intervention in the actually existing workers movement, and work alongside activists who might not agree with them).

In helping build the Workers Charter movement, Socialist Worker has certainly come up against a lot of suspicion of our motives, based on other activists' experience of sectarian antics in the past. But our solid practical work has begun to open an audience for our Marxist ideas among a broader layer of activists with real credibility in the working class. The new Unity will hopefully continue that process, and open up space for the debate that's necessary to drive our project forward.