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Interview with Mike Treen, a veteran New Zealand socialist activist, and now a key figure in the Unite union

There are some very interesting developments in New Zealand left politics that are of general interest. The hard left Alliance party that had representation in parliament disintegrated under the pressures arising from joining a coalition Labour government. But there other areas of work are yielding results, in particular the progress of the Maori Party, the UNITE union and the Resident Action Movement. Socialist Worker in New Zealand are seeking to launch a broad left paper, as a prelude to a new broad workers' party.

Socialist Unity Network spoke to Dave Colyer of Socialist Worker, and Mike Treen of the Unite union (below).

Socialist Unity Network: > Can you describe your own political background?

Mike Treen: > My political life began when I joined the anti-Vietnam War movement as a High School student and formed the first Secondary Students Association. My interest in social justice led me to become an active socialist at university where I completed a degree in Political Science. I also served as an elected member of the Auckland University Students Association executive for 3 years - first as International Affairs Officer then as Welfare Vice-President. During these years I was actively involved in campaigns for student allowances, against apartheid South Africa, nuclear warship visits and in support of the Ngati Whatua land struggle at Bastion Point.

In the 1980s I worked in a variety of industrial jobs - including freezing works, car assembly, and chemicals. I involved myself actively in supporting fellow workers on the job and trying to strengthen the union. This was not always appreciated by the management and was twice sacked for my efforts following significant strikes at factories I was working in (on both occasions the company went to the trouble of hiring private detectives to find a reason). Rejecting the Labour party as a force for progressive social change, I remained active in one of the small left wing groups (Socialist Action League - FI group) that developed in that period and edited the newspaper Socialist Action for a period.

At the same time I played a leading role in Central America solidarity work. I was co-ordinator of the Wellington Latin America Committee, national co-ordinator of the Nicaragua Must Survive Campaign and convenor of the national conference for Peace and Justice in Central America. I remain involved in the NZ Cuba Friendship Society. I have also been active in the antiwar movement in Auckland since the US-led assault in 1990.

A switch in career to language teaching took me to Japan for two years and I joined the Alliance on my return at the beginning of 1996 convinced that the Alliance offered the only hope at the time for developing a viable movement for social change. (I left the SAL at the time I left for Japan as it turned in an increasingly sectarian and abstentionist direction).

I stood as a candidate in several elections and at the beginning of 2001 went to work at parliament after the election of the Labour Alliance coalition government. After Sept 2001 and the capitulation of the majority of MPs to support the government decision to send SAS to Afghanistan I resigned and helped lead the resistance to that decision in the Alliance. This debate continued right through 2002 and was resolved finally only with the defection of the parliamentary majority from the Alliance. The Alliance subsequently failed in its bid to return to parliament (getting only 1.5%) although the leader Laila Harre came a close second in a West Auckland working class area.

The Alliance subsequently tried to develop a left wing manifesto and become a more explicitly socialist group. By this stage it was radically reduced in size and the Alliance "brand" had suffered real damage.
Unfortunately the emergence of the Maori Party saw a further deep division and the party that remains as the Alliance has been reduced to a rump of its former self.

Some of us saw the need the reorient the left to the working class if its "programme" was to match its targeted constituency. The then Alliance leader Matt McCarten and myself helped initiate a new union organising drive through a very small (less than 200members) union called "Unite" which was led by some Alliance comrades in a voluntary capacity for workers who didn't fit traditional union structures. In the last two years we have organised over 3000 workers and see no reason we can't organise thousands more.

Over the last few years I have also been one of the main leaders of Global Peace and Justice Auckland which organized the large antiwar marches around the Iraq war and intervention in Afghanistan and tries to network all the groups in Auckland concerned with peace,  justice and globalization issues.

SUN: > Can you describe how the Alliance came about, and what went wrong?

MT: > The Alliance grew out of a left leaning break from the Labour Party in 1990. The 1984-90 Labour Government had embarked on an extreme free market privatisation agenda that had a major negative impact on working people. One Labour MP stood against the tide and split to form the New Labour Party. A large number of activists from the 1970s and 80s who had cut their teeth in various Maoist or Trotskyist groups also joined as did a layer of Trade Union activists who had fought the new right turn in the Labour Party.

This party then formed an Alliance with the Green Party, Mana Motuhake (a small Maori party), and a social credit type party – hence the name Alliance. It was not an explicitly “socialist” party but it’s programme of free education, free health, full employment, protection of the environment was seen as a radical challenge to the policies of both Labour and National (the main conservative party).

At the beginning it drew strong electoral support of over and was challenging the Labour Party in opinion polls. Under first past the post it got two MP’s in 1993 with 18% of the vote and then 13 MP’s under the proportional representation election in 1996 with 10.3% of the vote and 10 seats in 1999 with 7.7%. The Alliances decline was matched by the growth in Labour’s share of the vote as it shifted moderately to the left to regain credibility. The Greens also stood independently of the Alliance in 1999 and got 7 seats with 5% of the vote.

A Labour Alliance coalition government was established that introduced a number of reforms benefiting working people. These included income-related rents (as opposed to market rates) for state house tenants, paid parental leave, an increase in the pension, renationalisation of Accident Compensation Insurance and a new industrial law that gave more scope to union organising. There remained gaping holes however with little action in the areas of health and education and only a slight modification in the market economic policies including pursuit of “free trade” internationally.

The coalition agreement allowed the Alliance to differentiate itself from the government on issues of principle and publicly disagree with decisions it opposed. However the party leader Jim Anderton who was Deputy Prime Minister made sure that was rarely used and the Alliances profile and support in the polls continued to decline.

September 11 produced a de facto split in the Alliance when a majority of the Alliance MP’s opposed the party majority and supported sending SAS troops to Afghanistan in support of the US-led invasion. The faction fight continued publicly for the next year with Anderton and his supporters used their majority in the Alliance caucus in an attempt to control the party. When that failed they defected to form the Progressive Party just prior to the 2002 election. Alliance MP Laila Harre led the party in the election but both the Progressives and the Alliance got less than 2% of the vote. Anderton won his electorate seat and was able to bring one other MP into parliament on the Party List vote under NZ’s proportional system. Laila ran a close second in her electorate but without an electoral seat the Alliance failed to pass the 5% threshold on the party vote for parliamentary representation.

It was a bitterly disappointing end to what had been a period of high hopes for the Left to build a party to the left of Labour. The Alliance had been destroyed from within by the betrayal of its leaders. The Greens again crossed the 5% threshold and have retained a broadly left orientation from their time in the Alliance with some of their MP’s coming from the original New Labour Party.

SUN: > Do you think it was a mistake in principle for the Alliance to go into coalition with Labour?

MT: > The desire to defeat the 1990 to 1999 National led governments was an overwhelming one among working people. The shift left by the Labour Party raised hopes of many that a new Labour-led government could make a difference. The Labour Party had desperately tried to cut the ground from under the Alliance but came to a strategic conclusion that it couldn’t win the government if it didn’t form a coalition with the Alliance. For many working people and left activists this was seen as a victory and they looked to the Alliance to “keep them honest” and carry out the more progressive social policies they were promising. Supporters and members overwhelmingly supported forming a coalition to defeat the Tories and doubts that existed were assuaged by the right to disagree clause in the coalition agreement. We thought we could retain an independent voice in government and campaign publicly against the government policies we opposed. That proved to be a sad illusion.

SUN: > You are active in the Unite union project, do you think it is necessary to by-pass the traditional union structures?

MT: > We need to step back and give some background. In 1990 the newly elected National government adopted a viciously anti-union Labour law called the Employment Contracts Act. The law didn’t even mention unions. All workers were put on individual contracts and unions had to get signed authorisations from each and every one to represent them in negotiations. Unions had no right of access to workplaces to speak to non-members. Solidarity or political strikes were banned as were strikes to get multi-employer agreements. It was illegal to take action during the term of a contract over things like the dismissal of union activists. The new law coincided with a deep recession that saw official unemployment rates hit 12%. The central union leadership refused to organise a generalised fight against the new law and union membership and activity collapsed. From a situation where some 60 percent of the workforce was organised within a few years it was just over 20% overall and 12% in the private sector. Most workers in the service sectors, hotels, offices, retail, fast food and so on became deunionised. Unions held on only in the public sector and larger manufacturing sites.

The Employment Relation Act of 2000 restored some rights though solidarity and political strikes remain illegal as does action during the term of a contract. Unions were given legal recognition and most importantly access rights to workplaces. Since the law was passed however very little reach out organising has been done and unionisation rates haven’t grown despite 6 years of steady economic growth and a fall in official unemployment levels to 4% - the lowest level in decades. Most major unions in the private sector have continued a slow membership decline.

The Unite Union had existed for a number of years run largely on a volunteer basis by some union officials for small groups of workers who didn’t fit the existing union structures. It has a membership clause that covers virtually any worker. With the departure of the Alliance from the parliamentary arena some of us wanted to get back to our roots as union organisers. We also recognised that one of the weaknesses of the old Alliance was that it wasn’t able to sink deep roots into the working class. Unite approached some of us to take on a project of organising the unorganised and two years ago we set up shop to begin that work.

Depending largely on volunteer organisers we have had a huge success organising over 3000 workers and getting collective agreements for workers in hotels, fast food chains like Burger King and KFC, picture theatre chains where the workforce is very young and casualised, call centres, English language schools, and a big Casino in Auckland. We have been able to use the right of access clause in the law to speak to young workers and have found the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The only barrier has been the limitations of our own resources. We have now been able to employ staff, move to larger offices and take on new projects that we are confident see us double our size again in the next year or so. More and more workers are calling the office for help as they find out what we can do.

When we started the project we weren’t sure what we would find. We wanted to use some of the “campaigning” style from the Alliance and experience in social protest movements which we have been a part in our organising efforts. We didn’t believe the existing union structures of the large unions would be ready for this and so welcomed the Unite Union offer to give us the legal framework but none of the bureaucratic barriers that existed elsewhere.

We don’t have a “theory” that this is the way to do things in all places at all times. In NZ in the largely deunionised private sector it has proved successful. A contrary example that is worth mentioning is the recent Nurses Union campaign for a national contract and major pay increase to establish “pay equity” with teachers and police. The union employed Laila Harre to help lead this campaign and tens of thousands of nurses across the country carried through a massively successful campaign that achieved all their goals – including a 20-30% pay rise. The Nurses and Unite are the only unions that have had significant growth over the last couple of years.

SUN: > What is the position of the Maori people in NZ? Are they oppressed, is there racism against them?

MT: > Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand and make up some 12% of the population and a much larger percentage of the working class. Colonisation saw them dispossessed of most of their land with their language and culture suppressed. Racial discrimination was institutionalised and they became a super-exploited section of the working class as they were drawn into manufacturing and construction after World war Two.

The 1970s and 80s saw a revival of struggles over land, language and for affirmative action to expand educational and employment opportunities. A number of gains have been made through these struggles. There has been an expansion in the teaching and use of the Maori Language. Maori radio stations and a TV channel established. Settlements of several hundred million dollars have been paid in compensation to Maori tribes for past injustices and land confiscations. The rulers turned from confrontation to concessions and attempted to draw the leaders into the state machine or corporate style economic projects. A middle class has begun to develop.

But these concessions haven’t touched the fundamental social and economic status of Maori. They remain poorer with higher unemployment rates, and end up in prison in numbers vastly out of step with their population.

The National party has recently broken the rulers’ consensus on dealing with Maori and run an openly racist campaign against Maori “privilege”. They have targeted affirmative action in the state sector, Maori educational institutions, extra funding for schools with large Maori rolls and so on. These attacks generated a jump in polling for the National Party and the Labour government went into damage control by promising to review all these programmes and remove any alleged “racial bias”.

SUN: > What issues led to the formation of the Maori party? And what are its prospects.

MT: > A recent court decision found that it was possible for Maori Tribes to assert their customary ownership over the foreshore and seabed if they could prove a continuous relationship. This set off a racist outcry and the Labour government moved to eliminate Maori legal rights to take such cases to court. This provoked a massive mobilisation of Maori across the country with tens of thousands joining a Hikoi (Walk) to parliament. Tariana Turia a Labour Maori MP announced she was resigning from parliament and would stand in the by-election under the banner of the Maori Party. She won the by-election with over 90% of the votes and 1200 people went to the founding conference in Wanganui on the weekend of the by-election. 13 thousand Maori have joined the party including nearly all the activists in the fight for Maori rights over the last few decades have joined this united movement. Recent opinion polls have them winning at least 5 of the 7 Maori seats in parliament. (7 seats are reserved for Maori in geographical constituencies covering the country).

This is a broad social and political movement. The composition of the Maori population means it has a strong working class imprint. Policies adopted reflect that with calls for a major increase in the minimum wage and free health and education for all.

SUN: > In Britain the Respect Unity Coalition has been criticised for working with leading members of the Moslem Association of Britain, with accusations of "communalism". Has there been similar controversy over the left working with the Maori party?

MT: > When the Maori Party was formed the then Alliance leader Matt McCarten was asked to help direct the by-election. The majority of the Alliance leadership saw this as a no-brainer. We helped and the Alliance and Matt helped and both received a standing ovation from the 1200 delegates to the founding conference.

However a significant segment of the membership reacted with an extreme hostility. Some were comfortable with the new life in a small group talking "socialism" and this new ethnic based (but overwhelmingly working class) movement scared them. Many had a sectarian reaction. Some had links to the union bureaucracies and through them to the Labour Party and feared the disrupting of these relationships. (This also led some to be hostile to the Unite union project as well). Others were simply racist under the banner of working class "unity". In the end the need to develop a working relationship with the new party and its leadership led the majority of the existing Alliance leadership to simply say "goodbye and good luck" rather than go through what was looking to be another year-long debilitating faction fight. This leadership group functions on an informal basis. We will be assisting the Maori Party in this year’s election. We will also be exploring all possibilities of a meaningful working class-based left political movement that can forge alliances with the Maori Party and others breaking from traditional Labour Party politics. Most of the small left groups that describe themselves as “revolutionary” have also reacted in a negative manner to the Maori Party – the honourable exception being Socialist Worker.

SUN: > There is an initiative for a broad left paper - do you see this as the first step to a united broad left party?

MT: > The comrades from Socialist Worker have promoted this idea and it’s a good one. They have taken some initial steps by changing the name of their paper to “Unity” and trying to give it a broader character and attractiveness.  My personal view is that a broad left party project will be driven by the beginnings of a revival in working class activity (including but not confined to the Unite project); further developments around the Maori Party; the evolution of the Green Party (who have the goal of becoming a full coalition partner of Labour); and how long it is before the current business cycle heads down. As these processes interact a genuine broad left paper could have a vital role.


May 2005

New Zealand: Redrawing the political map
The Unite union
Socialist Worker (NZ)

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