Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Socialist Voice0
Socialist perspectives for Aotearoa / New Zealand
Produced by Committee for a Workers International (Aotearoa / New Zealand)
The purpose of this document is to give a broad analysis of economic, political, industrial, and social processes in New Zealand today. In our view this type of analysis and understanding of processes can help make socialists and social justice activists better prepared for future class struggles and for building fighting organisations.
The world and New Zealand in crisis
Since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 we have been witness to seismic shocks throughout the world. The financial crisis has given way to a worldwide economic, social and political crisis. Every corner of the globe has been touched in some way, shape or form.
For example throughout Europe there has been intensified class struggle, perhaps most dramatically illustrated in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. In South America we’ve witnessed the return of mass movements in Brazil and a formidable student movement which took the stage in Chile. Millions have been on minimum wage strikes and demonstrations in Indonesia. While in both India and England we’ve seen the biggest general strikes in the history of those countries occur over the last few years.
In the Middle East and North Africa we’ve seen a revolutionary wave sweep through the region while in Egypt and Tunisia new workers organisations have developed. In South Africa, after the massacre of striking mine workers in 2012, we are now seeing allegiances shifting away from the ANC and a new dawn of socialist political representation for the masses. This will only be amplified by the passing of Nelson Mandela whose legacy is one of the last things holding the ANC together in a positive light.
In the United States, the centre of world capitalism and where the financial crisis started, we have seen an unprecedented public sector workers battle in Wisconsin and the development of the Occupy movement from New York. Now low paid retail and fast-food workers are taking action for living wages. In Canada we saw a gigantic student movement which took to the streets in 2012 to protest dramatic increases to university tuition fees.
Class struggle has definitely been put back on the agenda as a result of the crisis. The common theme of the period is that governments and employers have sought to make working people pay for the crisis via cuts, layoffs and austerity. While private profits have been protected, ordinary people have had their living standards reduced.
While people have struggled against these attacks the problem is that the working class is lacking a leadership with the foresight to challenge the capitalist system itself – the real source of all the underlying problems. This is a problem facing working people both in New Zealand and internationally.
While New Zealand did suffer a recession after the financial crisis it was not hit as hard as many other advanced capitalist countries. As a result class struggle has been at a much lower level than in places like Europe or the US.
New Zealand faces a somewhat unique situation thanks to its economic relationship with both China and Australia. Trading relations with these two countries, that are still experiencing growth, has given New Zealand some breathing space but this will not last as both China and Australia are facing a series of problems themselves.
If either or both of these countries was to suffer from a downturn New Zealand’s fortunes would be seriously impacted and the government would be forced to embark on austerity measures of European proportions. This in turn would have an impact of people’s attitudes to struggle. The truth is that under the surface the situation for capitalism in New Zealand is quite fragile.
New Zealand’s economic position
At the moment New Zealand is experiencing only anaemic growth. Of New Zealand’s capitalists, exporters have fared better while those who rely on the internal market have been squeezed. Recent figures show that around one-fifth (18%) of New Zealand businesses generated income from overseas enterprise. That figure however obscures the extent that heavier industry is also connected to the international market.
For example 39% of New Zealand manufacturing businesses reported overseas income, as did 29% of agriculture, forestry, and fishing businesses, 41% of wholesale trade businesses, and 37% of information media and telecommunications businesses.
Despite that overseas engagement the crisis has not had such a dramatic effect on New Zealand because much of that integration is with Australia and China whose economies remained relatively stable for the first years of the crisis. Of New Zealand businesses with overseas income 76% report income generated from exports, provision of services, and production in Australia and 30% report such income from China.
That 30% in relation to China is not high on the face of it as there are more business engagements with both the US and combined other Pacific nations. However the relationship with China has more impact in three ways.
Firstly, of businesses which engaged in overseas production in 2011 46% reported that they had production in China. That’s the highest number of engagements and is followed by Australia in which 43% report that they have production.
Secondly, in terms of exporting this year China has for the first time become New Zealand’s number one export market. This is a position which has long been held by Australia. Sales to China rose by 42% to $9.42 billion. This made it both New Zealand’s biggest export destination, and the country’s biggest trading partner.
Thirdly, Australia has a narrow export base and its economic standing is closely linked with that of China which is a major investor in Australian mining and also receives 21.8% of Australian exports, which is also mostly mining related. These relations with China and Australia make the New Zealand economy very vulnerable to a slowdown as both of these countries are facing major problems of their own.
Most commentators agree that the mining boom in Australia has already peaked. This is impacting on the government’s tax revenue and already they have begun to implement cuts. The non-mining eastern states are already suffering from a crisis in manufacturing and lower growth and higher unemployment is expected in the coming years.
At the same time China is also facing a slowdown. It has a major crisis of over-capacity and a huge property market bubble. While it is experiencing growth in the order of around 7.5% that is a significant decrease on the double digit growth it experienced throughout the 2000s. Its major export markets of the US and Europe are mired in recession and its internal low wage economy means that domestic consumption can not take up the slack.
Socialists in New Zealand need to follow events in both Australia and China very closely as what was once a benefit to New Zealand capitalism could soon turn into its opposite.
While New Zealand has been sheltered from the worst of the world economic crisis it has still been affected. The government is clearly under pressure from the capitalists to offload the financial burden onto the working class.
This is why the government is selling shares in assets, privatising state housing, carrying out welfare counter-reforms against beneficiaries, and so forth. Our view is that if the government is applying this pressure to people now then we can expect much more as the situation gets worse.
Unfortunately the situation will probably get worse before it gets better. The truth is there is no real basis for the world economy to grow significantly in the coming years. The ruling class cannot find any profitable outlets and their attempts to impose austerity measures only feeds the crisis by reducing demand.
With a small domestic market and exports increasingly coming under threat we cannot expect that New Zealand will be protected for much longer. As this period of low growth and high unemployment drags on governments and employers will continue to try and make working people pay in an attempt to protect their profits. Increasingly the only option available to the working class will be to fight.
Asset sales challenged
The struggle against asset sales has been a significant factor in politics since early 2011 when the government indicated that it wanted to sell 49% of various state-owned enterprises including three major power companies, plus Air New Zealand, and Solid Energy.
In a statement Prime Minister John Key expressly linked the asset sales with weak global growth in Asia and Australia. He said weak growth would put pressure on our economy which, in 2012 was expected to grow slower than in the previous year. This means that the government has openly admitted that it is selling off the assets in order to buffer the effects of the crisis.
Asset sales have been met with strong resistance on the streets where people have marched in their thousands. Many of these demonstrations, and a hikoi (long protest walk), have been led by Maori. Unions and socialists have also participated. Maori also took a lead role in the struggle over the sale of Mighty River Power (MRP) by claiming ownership rights over the water in the Waikato River which generates MRP power.
A broad coalition also gathered enough signatures (10% of the national general electorate) to force a referendum on whether the assets should be sold. An early 2012 poll found that 63% of people opposed the sales. The referendum was held and the results came out in December 2013 showing that 67.2% of people oppose the sales. As expected the National Party has suffered a bloody nose from the referendum and its authority has been diminished after it announced it would be ignoring the public’s views.
The campaign against the sales will continue and it’s important for socialists to take the right position. It has been important to challenge the nationalist aspects of some in the campaign against asset sales. These people carry the assumption that ownership by New Zealand capital is somehow more favourable for ordinary people than ownership by overseas capital. Such a view blurs the class lines and can disorientate people taking their focus away from the real enemy.
At the same time it has been important to avoid an ultra-left view which holds that because the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are run for profit it makes it okay for them to be sold, and socialists should show indifference. Proponents of this view put forward an ‘alternative’ that is unconnected to the concrete issues and is merely a vague academic idea.
Genuine socialists cannot take an abstract view that SOEs are state capitalist and are therefore not a concern of ours. Socialists need to take processes into account and instead argue that the SOEs being used to generate profits should be brought under public control, harnessed, and made socially useful as part of a planned economy.
While the campaign against asset sales has had some weaknesses, socialists have to be part of it. Not participating would essentially mean surrendering important issues to moderate or bourgeois forces and cutting ourselves off from thousands of people who are potentially open to socialist ideas.
Housing struggles developing
The government is also selling off much of the state housing stock, especially where property values are climbing. This is another way in which the government has sought to make ordinary people pay for the crisis. Most controversially this has occurred in the East Auckland suburb of Glenn Innes where violent clearances (bashing down pickets and towing away people’s homes) have been met with resistance by the community.
State houses are desperately needed. Between 1991 and 2012 home ownership fell to a 50-year low and it continues to fall. The lack of a capital gains tax has contributed to housing and property being an area in which profits can be made easily. The lack of a capital gains tax, coupled with the fact that capitalists seek ways to create profits without entering production, has led to the housing market becoming an area of competition for the monopolisation of wealth.
As well as becoming a key area of wealth monopolisation, owning a home or two homes has become the manner of acquiring retirement savings for middle earners. The effect of this is that there is now a significant portion of the population who are completely at the mercy of high rents and often bad living conditions.
Government intervention in housing has gone from contributing massively to the housing stock in the 1930s through to a situation now where the state provides accommodation supplements which essentially become a subsidy to private landlords. It also provides income rent subsidies for those occupying the depleted state housing stock. State housing is now for the poorest families only, moderate priority families are no longer even being placed on the waiting lists.
Auckland has acute housing problems. There is currently a shortfall of 15,000 dwellings with people often living in overcrowded houses, sheds, garages and caravans. There is an emerging trend of purchasing or renting small self-contained one person units and placing them in the backyards of home-owners in exchange for rent.
In Christchurch 44% of people in rental accommodation say that they are having extreme difficulties in finding new accommodation because of a lack of rental properties. The Real Estate Institute of New Zealand surveyed 11,500 Christchurch rental properties and found that very few were available. The mainstream TV show ‘Campbell Live’ has focused on Christchurch housing and has burned into the national consciousness various images of families living in tents and working people living out of cars.
In both Auckland and Christchurch there will be continued opportunities to campaign on housing issues over the coming years. Nationally, it’s foreseeable that with the growing number of people being excluded from the housing market, the need for a movement for renter’s rights will develop to combat the absence of standards and poor conditions in rental properties.
Employers’ legislative response to the crisis
New Zealand employers are seeking to maintain their profits by increasing productivity. In most cases this means people working harder and faster for less money and fewer conditions. Very little is being invested by employers into research and development.
For example in 2011 only 17% of businesses with 100 or more employees invested in research and development (R&D). Of the businesses with 50-99 employees only 13% of businesses invested, while just 10% of businesses with 20-49 employees put funds towards R&D. New Zealand employers prefer to continue their efforts intensifying the exploitation of the working class.
Since the onset of the crisis employers lobbied the National government for industrial law changes which have been passed including the implementation of 90-day work trial periods without rights to grievances for unjustified dismissal, the narrowing of the interpretation of unjustified dismissal, and the narrowing of prospects for reinstatement where a dismissal is held to be unjustified. Such measures are designed to make labour more flexible for employers and to further discipline working people for the employers’ needs.
Other changes, such as enabling the employer to require a medical certificate for only one day of sick leave (previously employers were only able to require proof on the third consecutive day), have the stated aim of improving productivity. They are also about increasing employer control over the workforce.
A range of changes have encroached more directly on union rights such as the tightening up of union right of entry to workplaces. This is now only with the permission of the employer and the burden placed on unions to prove an employer is being unreasonable by denying access.
The reintroduction of youth rates – ‘starting out’ rates – will not impact on worksites where unions, notably Unite and FIRST Union, have written youth wages out of union agreements but it will increase the exploitation of thousands of young workers in unorganised workplaces.
The government also changed the review process for the adult minimum wage by limiting consultation to only the Council of Trade Unions and Business New Zealand. It has narrowed the factors that should be considered in the annual reviews by excluding social factors and wage relativity factors.
This is an attempt to send a clear message out against sections of the union movement, like Unite Union and the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU), which have run Living Wage campaigns. Firstly Unite ran a campaign to have the minimum wage to be indexed at 2/3rds of the average wage, with an immediate increase to $15 per hour. Next, the SFWU has lead a public campaign which has got traction for a living wage which would allow for a decent standard of living and the ability for ordinary people to properly participate in their communities.
Due to the pressure of these campaigns both Labour and the Greens have accepted the need for a $15 minimum wage. If they do come to power in 2014 the claim for $15 which Unite pushed in the 2009 to 2010 period will be less relevant. Workers have moved on from the $15 per hour demand and organised low paid workers are now looking for considerably more.
If Labour and the Greens take power they may make some minor changes to the minimum wage but against the backdrop of a fragile economic situation they will be under intense pressure from employers to ensure these changes are mere window dressing and that there are various factors that would allow employers to opt out. The only way a real living wage will be won will be via a union-led industrial campaign.
At an institutional level the government has made the major change of merging the Department of Labour, the Department of Building and Housing, the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Ministry of Economic Development into one Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment. This has set the tone for the function of the former Department of Labour to become more business orientated with the stated aim that “The purpose of MBIE is to be a catalyst for a high-performing economy to ensure New Zealand’s lasting prosperity and wellbeing…. We are working to support the government’s Business Growth Agenda.” The false idea of the prosperity of business being synonymous with lasting prosperity has been pushed by this government. But there has been no increased prosperity for ordinary people.
Lastly, the government is now in the process of passing legislation that will enable employers to declare that bargaining is frustrated and they will not be required to conclude bargaining. This is essentially removing the right of workers to a collective agreement. The ILO says the proposed legislation would contravene their principles. There has been a huge amount of union submissions so far but the government announced in December 2013 that it is proceeding to the second reading regardless.
The trade union response to legislation changes
The main form of opposition to the changes has consisted of public rallies held after work hours, stop work meetings, and legal action to secure the best possible interpretations of the changes. On some occasions union leaders made bold statements about mounting a more serious opposition, in 2010 for example one union leader said there would be “chaos in the factories” if the extension of the 90-day legislation to all workplaces came to pass. Unfortunately this sentiment was short-lived and the leaderships continue to be conservative on the question of strikes.
Clearly these new laws need to be challenged with industrial action. Public rallies held after hours and brief stop work meetings do not sufficiently impact on the employers profits and should be seen at best as a starting point to build towards more generalised forms of strike action. The role of socialists is to establish an organisation with the type of authority in the working class from which we can competently argue such basics.
The problem is not one of union resources or worker apathy. The problem is political, that unions have in large part become wedded to pro-market and capitalist ideas. The attachment of some unions to the Labour Party, which proposes no economic alternative to neo-liberalism, means that those unions don’t fight for a fundamental alternative to the system either. Without being tied to Labour’s politics, and by linking with other fighting organisations, these unions could play an exciting part in producing deep social change.
An increasing number of union and left activists have become defacto apologists for the conservative perspective in the bureaucracy by arguing that the economic conditions are not right for strikes or that there is not the right attitude amongst workers. Others say there are too few resources or not the right information. The truth is that most unions have plenty of resources and most workers respond well to campaigns that will improve their work conditions and living standards. The problem is purely political.
The bulk of union leaders today do not adhere to an alternative to capitalism. Such an alternative is the only thing that can provide relief and the necessary changes for working people.
What we need most is a new type of politics to dominate the union movement. This means a return to socialist ideas which provide a genuine political and economic alternative to the profit driven system. When people have a vision for a better type of society this translates into a more fighting attitude on the ground.
Therefore the task of rebuilding the union movement along fighting lines will be best done in combination with the tasks of building a serious socialist political organisation as well as a new workers party that can challenge Labour’s grip. These ideas will get the best reception from those who have the most to gain – the union rank and file.
Bosses seeking to undermine traditional sectors
During the last upturn the employers sought to increase profitability by placing emphasis on increasing absolute surplus value. For example, in 2004 workers in New Zealand were working longer hours than in any OECD country except Japan. In more recent times however employers are now seeking to increase surplus value by further rationalising and flexibilising the labour process.
In particular, the employers in the traditionally unionised sectors want access to the flexibility and casualisation that exists in other sectors. This is what was behind the 2012 attacks on the conditions of meat workers throughout the country. It is also what is behind the attacks on port workers in Auckland – an ongoing situation where there is currently something of a stalemate.
The link between profitability and the recent attacks on meat workers shows the way in which the employers want to offload their profit woes on to workers. Beef and sheep still accounts for over 15% of New Zealand exports. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has stated that there have been profitability difficulties in the industry since at least 2009. In fact profitability issues for the meat sector go back decades, hence the decline in beef and sheep farming and exports.
The locking out of over 100 CMP company meat workers in the Manawatu area from late October 2011 to late December 2012 was followed by the locking out of over 800 AFFCO workers in several meat processing plants for more than three months in 2012. The lockouts represented a new level of employer hostility in that the lockouts weren’t started as retaliation to union-led industrial activity but were started to attempt to force union workers to accept deep cutbacks.
Talleys purchased the AFFCO plants in 2011 and were demanding more flexibility in the workplace. The company’s demand for greater flexibility was connected to its requirement for more control over the workplace. Greater flexibility is then imposed and used to increase exploitation and therefore squeeze more profits out of the workforce.
Many AFFCO plants are now antiquated. Instead of resolving efficiency problems through investing in plant and machinery to create state of the art workplaces, New Zealand capitalists have focussed on making the workforce leaner, making it work harder and faster.
At the Ports of Auckland Limited the employer attacks against the wharfies (stevedores), including lockouts, have been fundamentally about trying to reduce the conditions and power of workers in traditional union jobs and force them down to the flexibilised conditions of the broader workforce in New Zealand.
A TV report about the dispute, in January 2012, said that “Businesses say it’s a battle between old and new work practices” and Kim Campbell of the Employers and Manufacturers Association said, “I think it’s do or die personally, and that really is a serious matter…”. The Auckland ports director told TV3 News that “Our singular focus is on addressing old-fashioned workplace practices that are a handbrake on flexibility and productivity.”
Essentially employers are now going after core industrial workers in an attempt to make those workers subject to the neo-liberal workplace conditions of job insecurity, work insecurity (less guaranteed hours of work), income insecurity, individualisation of bonus’s and benefits and other elements of the neo-liberal work environment. When other parts of the workforce are unorganised and working in these conditions then the core workforce is more vulnerable to the types of attacks that are happening now.
In the stalemate at the Ports of Auckland the Maritime Union employment agreement has expired and the employer has attempted to gain traction for a scab union. This dispute needs to be seen as a wake up call to the union movement. A set back for one of the most well paid and highly organised sections of the working class is a set back for all workers.
Service sector workers struggle for income security and job security
Care-workers have also been struggling over the last two to three years with strike action taking place at the workplaces one of the country’s largest rest home companies. Additionally, in this period, the Service and Food Workers union has won an important legal decision which held that overnight stays must be compensated at the minimum wage. Unite Union has continued to progress and build amongst fast-food and cinema workers, and this included a long round of strikes and other actions at McDonald’s outlets throughout the country. As always the key demands of Unite members have been around secure work and guaranteed hours.
Key slogans for the workers movement
Service sector struggles are connected with the struggles of workers in traditional union jobs. The service sector campaigns are generally offensive campaigns against already existing casualisation and flexibilisation. The struggles at the ports and in the meat works were defensive struggles against casualisation and flexibilisation which the bosses have sought to impose.
In order to unify the struggles of the working class over the next period unions should adopt a general slogan along the lines of “Secure Work, Secure Hours, Living Wage”. Joint industrial action, across sectors, should be organised. This type of campaign would be the best way to win improvements to the minimum wage and give workers the confidence to challenge the existing anti-worker laws.
A feature of some industrial disputes of late has been the unwillingness of union leaders to blockade or put ‘hard’ pickets on workplace entrances to defend against scabs and to stop the supply chain. This is a concerning trend apparent during a number of recent disputes. There have been some situations where there has been a systematic allowance of scabs through the gates and the normal operations and supply have continued.
This is dramatically different to only seven and a half years ago when, in the National Distribution Union versus Progressive Enterprises dispute, key warehouses were systematically blockaded and flying pickets were established to stop the operation of make-shift dispatch centres with force. Similar tactics were used by other unions at the time. Socialists must fight for the restoration of militant tactics in the trade union movement. This is not a mere ideological point. With employers becoming more aggressive militant industrial tactics are necessary.
School teachers may yet play a lead role
In 2013 we noted that teachers were confronted with a perfect storm. It consisted of four problems.
Firstly, the government sought to increase class sizes from year two up to year ten classes and to standardise class sizes at a ratio 27.5 students per teacher. As well as intensifying work and lowering the quality of education, school principals said that such ratios would lead to job cuts. Some said that of up to three teachers would need to lose their jobs to meet the ratio. The policy also upset the public and faced 89% opposition. The policy was defeated and it was the beginning of the end of public favour for Minister of Education Hekia Parata.
Secondly, the government moved to close 11 primary schools in quake affected Christchurch and merge 24 of them. Christchurch’s teachers and public schools had made heroic contributions to the community in the aftermath of the earthquake and again the public was shocked at what the government assumed it could get away with. The teachers voted for generalised strike action in Christchurch – in the knowledge that it would be termed an illegal strike because it would not have been carried out in pursuit of a collective agreement. Unfortunately the strike did not go ahead. However a significant march did take place and we can see a process whereby the crisis and the government’s actions are beginning to draw a stronger response.
National and the Act Party agreed to implement charter schools as part of their coalition government arrangement. The introduction of publically funded privately run schools will take resources off poorer schools and is intended to attack the influence of teachers unions in the education sector. In September of 2013 the government green-lighted the first five charter schools to open in 2014. This is the third issue faced by teachers.
The other problem is that Novopay, contracted by the Ministry of Education to distribute pay to teachers, has made a living nightmare for teachers since it was introduced in August 2012. In its first week Novopay paid 5000 teachers incorrectly, since then 90% of schools have had to deal with errors, sometimes using their own budgets to keep teachers afloat. The Ministry of Education has made a mockery of fixing this and has failed to cancel the Novopay contract despite clear breach of contract.
Pressure has been building up against teachers and the education sector more generally in such a way that it appeared that the education sector was shaping up to become a key area of industrial struggle in 2014 and beyond. This still may not be ruled out, however it is clear that the National-led government understood that teacher and public discontent was making it vulnerable in election year. Therefore at the beginning of 2014 the government announced a $359 million of salary bonus packages.
The problem is that the increases are in the form of individualised bonus’s for new high-ranked teacher and principal roles. The Post-Primary Teacher’s Association has the view that it can offset that divisive aspect of the additional funding through discussions with the government and a union-friendly implementation of the funding. In our view the result of such incentives schemes will be the longer term individualising and atomising effect on teachers. This will be in accord with the intentions of the right-wing, to break the power of teachers unions and collective bargaining over a longer term. As a result of the package it is likely that there will be a pause in the momentum of the teachers’ struggles, but it is possible that there will be growing discontent – starting out from the rank and file – against additional funding being made available only to a minority of teachers.
A period of high unemployment
The official rate of unemployment was 6.6% in the March quarter of 2012. By the September 2012 quarter the percentage had risen to 7.3%, which represented the highest rate of unemployment in New Zealand since 1991.
At the same time as the highest unemployment in decades was being recorded the government set out to create tougher measures for beneficiaries to gain access to welfare payments. In particular they have targeted domestic purposes benefit recipients. Modest protest actions resulted, including a national day of action against welfare reform.
National’s Future Focus package of counter-reforms against the unemployed and other beneficiaries has particularly focussed on victimising women and young people. For example unemployed women have been targeted while young people now have benefit payments advanced directly to landlords and are given cards which regulate where they can spend money. During the 2012 day of action for beneficiaries’ rights it was noticeable in a lot of cities that women including sole parents were carrying out key leadership roles in the protest and at meetings. This was a result of government targeting against women, children, and youth.
Unfortunately some of the material and slogans used in the protests incorrectly portrayed the issue as a minority issue affecting only the most oppressed or marginalised people. In the present climate, with the world economy expecting sluggish growth at best, there is a good opening for socialists to show how unemployment is a mass issue and a class issue. We can point to Greece and Spain where unemployment is at around 30% and youth unemployment is around 50%. We have to strive to present unemployment as a class issue. This is the way to break down the distinction between those currently in work and those currently unemployed or underemployed. Trade unions need to take this issue up and strive to organise the unemployed to cut across the divide and rule tactics being used by the government and bosses.
So socialists have to be conscious of not capitulating to the moral slogans being put forward by some well-meaning people in the movement. The truth is that almost anybody in the working class is at some risk of unemployment.
The focus of the movement’s slogans needs to be the right to work with an emphasis on the fight for decent jobs. This has the effect of breaking down the prejudices that exist against the unemployed.
We call for a public works program to build homes, schools, hospitals, public transport etc. This type of initiative would both create jobs and address many of the social problems ordinary people face. Such a program could be paid for by nationalising the banks and other major sectors of industry. On the basis of democratic control and a sustainable plan of production we could quickly move towards raising living standards across the board.
By approaching the issue in this way we are attempting to point a way towards socialist solutions rather than the prevalence of profit driven capitalism of which unemployment is an ongoing and necessary component.
Redundancies in manual industries
We also have to draw the connection between the government’s treatment of the unemployed and the wave of industrial job losses caused primarily by the economic crisis. In 2012 around 100 workers were made redundant at the Tasman pulp and paper mill in Kawerau, 100 workers were made redundant at Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, over 350 Solid Energy mine employees in the West Coast were made redundant and 120 jobs were lost at the Solid Energy mine in Huntly.
At the same time KiwiRail continues to lay off people not only in its engineering workshops but now track maintenance workers are also being cut back. Between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012 an astonishing 17,000 manufacturing jobs had been axed.
2013 also began with many employers announcing layoffs including at NZ Post (100 jobs lost), Mainzeal Construction (at least 200 jobs), Contact Energy (approximately 100 jobs) Summit Wool Spinners (192 jobs), and Norske Skog/Tasman Pulp and Paper (110 jobs). The employment situation is very serious and is feeding into other social problems.
The union leaders often insist that ‘the government must step in to do something’. Most often what they mean by this is that the government should subsidise employers, i.e. provide corporate welfare. In our view this is a fundamentally flawed approach. In reality it means using taxes paid from workers wages to maintain employer’s profits.
We argue that there should be no subsidies to employers. We need to move to a position where job losses are fought with industrial action. If a company says it needs to close down or lay off staff we first of all say ‘open the books’. Show the workers and the public where all the profits have gone. Rather than handing public money over to private operators we say that these firms should be brought into public ownership and control and used to benefit society.
Again these demands point the way towards the need for a socialist planned economy to meet society’s needs.
New Zealand is a small imperialist country with a sizeable indigenous population which has significant social weight relative to indigenous populations elsewhere. Of course this is because of particular historical circumstances and the position of Maori has been carved out through various forms of struggle including land wars, protests, and various legal struggles.
Despite being an oppressed minority the social weight of Maori has been highlighted in a number of recent struggles. For example in the AFFCO meat dispute Maori played an important role. The employer’s unrelenting attack on the meat workers, in the end, was stopped by iwi (tribe) influence on Maori farmers who put pressure on the company to end the lockout.
The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and Tiriti of Waitangi agreements form a point of reference for many progressive Maori demands and forces. The slogans ‘honour the treaty’ and ‘the treaty is a fraud’, which are put forward by some Maori, are closely aligned with one another. The treaty and tiriti documents are seen as a fraud by many because they have not been honoured by the crown. The role of the treaties as points of reference was seen in the struggle over asset sales.
Before selling the assets the government had to place the assets under the new Mixed Ownership Model Act. This was because under the State Owned Enterprises Act, which the assets were held under, the government had to abide by the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi which would create additional problems for the sale of the assets to private interests.
The Maori and workers movements have always overlapped and Maori have often been integral to the workers movement in blue collar industries. However in periods of deepened class struggle that relationship has usually intensified, including during the struggle for Bastion Point in the 70s and in solidarity struggles against apartheid in South Africa in the 80s. Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of that fighting spirit.
Socialists do not view the question of self determination in isolation from the class struggle. While we support the right of Maori to self determination, we give support to all that is progressive in national movements while offering no support to backwards features or bourgeoisie elements – what some have dubbed the ‘Brown table’.
The tensions between the Mana and Maori parties which continue to be unresolved provide a modern example of the way in which different views of tino rangatiritanga (self determination) manifest. Socialists have a class approach to the question of self determination and therefore we distinguish between different forms of tino rangatiratanga.
Ultimately we point out that genuine self determination can not be achieved under the capitalist system. The fight for self determination and the fight for socialism are one in the same. Socialism means taking the major sectors of the economy into public ownership and running them democratically. Socialism means no privileged elite, only the right of people themselves to manage their own affairs.
The working class are the only real guarantors of their national and democratic rights as well as their economic liberation. Our goal is to unify all sections of the working class in action to fight for a system based on respect of difference and in which all national and minority rights would be guaranteed.
Socialists need to approach the question of Maori liberation sensitively and skilfully and should seek to work in a way that respects all the tikanga (practices, customs) which emphasise collectivity, reciprocity, and kotahitanga (solidarity).
The question of treaty settlements has entered a new phase. Whilst there is an uneven development across the motu (islands, across Aotearoa/New Zealand) as far as treaty land claim settlements go, it is clear that we are now entering a post-settlement phase. In 2011 the Maori economy held assets of 36.9 billion dollars or 8.1% of GDP. Many Maori are born into iwi or hapu (groups of families) which hold, in corporations, hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.
The question has moved on from twenty years ago where some socialists were arguing that treaty settlements and Maori nationalism would not deliver material benefits to Maori. With variations, there are now many material benefits going to Maori in some iwi and hapu in the form of financial assistance, scholarships, control over whenua (land), local job creation and so forth which socialists would be very wrong to oppose.
At the same time we recognise that there is no inherent link between Maori corporate ownership and progressive work practices. In fact within some iwi-owned operations there are work practices with very high levels of exploitation. This can be seen most clearly in the fishing industry, in which Maori have large fishing quotas, and in which overseas workers are often exposed to slave-like conditions on foreign charter vessels.
Regardless of who owns the corporations we need to stand opposed to the inhumane working conditions. At the same time this issue highlights the class divisions within Maoridom. The vast majority of Maori have interests in pushing for workers control in iwi corporations. Their interests are in large part opposed to the thin layer of rich Maori who are getting rich off exploiting others.
Another issue, which is a quite a different problem, is that Maori trusts and corporations often have large shares and/or ownership over blocks of forestry in which a sub-contracting system of employment is resulting in serious injury and loss of life for workers. This is the case in both iwi and non-iwi owned forestry. As with the meat works dispute, it is possible that Maori owners and/or shareholders in the sector could take a lead and take a progressive approach by cutting across against the practices of the employers of the sub-contracting firms.
Socialists need to take a class based view towards Maori corporatism. We argue for the democratic ownership and control of iwi corporations with the equitable distribution of resources as part of beginning to resolve social problems faced by many Maori. Also, Iwi leaders should have their salaries capped so they are paid like ordinary people.
Despite having equal rights on paper, women workers in New Zealand are still, in general, paid less, are more highly represented in insecure work and are more likely to be discriminated against. It is important for socialists to have a focus on the gendered wage gap and other struggles for equality and women’s’ rights.
The backwardness of the ruling class towards these questions was highlighted two years ago when the Employers and Manufacturers Association boss Alisdair Thompson claimed that the gendered wage gap resulted from women having lowered productivity because of what he called “their monthly problem”.
The 2011 legal victory which gained minimum payments for care workers who do sleepover work (the bulk of whom are women) was an important step forward for pay equity in New Zealand. This has given confidence to many others who are still struggling for equal pay and conditions.
The Labour Force Participation rate contained in a 2011 Household Labour Force Survey revealed that participation in the workforce by women of working age was 62.7% whereas males of working age had a 74.8% participation rate.
The percentage of females in part-time work who wanted more hours worsened in 2011, increasing by 0.8% on the previous year from 18.9% to 19.7%. At the same time the number of part time males wanting more hours decreased. The current rate of unemployment (not ‘jobless’, but those defined as actively seeking employment) was 7.2% for females and 6.2% for males. The gendered wage gap continues to be 12%. These statistics show that the economic aspect of women’s oppression is still consistently present and as the economic situation worsens women tend to bear the brunt.
Whilst women’s movements and struggles have made significant advances for women in both formal and real terms, full equality is not something that can be delivered within the constraints of a system that seeks to divide people. While arguing for and fighting for every reform possible socialists seek to link the fight for women’s liberation to the fight for socialism – a system that is based on real equality and economic justice.
The passing of the equal marriage law was one of the few social movement victories of 2013. While ultimately socialists do not advocate marriage or other bourgeois conventions we do support the right of all people to marry if they wish. We support the passing of this law as about claiming rights over our cultural traditions (including the right to change them) and breaking down bourgeois institutions.
The presence of vibrant GLBT movements – including movements led by socialists – in the major centres contributed positively to the equal marriage movement. Firstly it showed that the reform was not a solely parliamentary affair. Secondly it pointed to the need to continue to struggle for the rights of GLBT people, and not just leave GLBT struggles at the stage of achieving marriage rights.
As socialists we stand with GLBT people to fight over questions of bullying, police violence, and other forms of discrimination that will need to be addressed in the coming period.
The fight against rape culture
2013 was a big year for the fight against rape culture in New Zealand. There have been especially important developments on the issue of sexual violence against women and children. Over the last few years there has been more and more people coming out against sexual violence and what has been dubbed “rape culture” – the treating of rape and other forms of sexual violence as something trivial in society. This has been expressed in Slut Walk events and in other ways.
A scandal that was uncovered in late-2013 propelled the issue of sexual violence into the public spotlight. The police had failed to prosecute a gang of mainly privileged young men who have been systematically getting underage women drunk, raping them, then ‘bragging’ about it on social media.
This caused a lot of public debate about rape culture. There were sizeable marches in all the major cities against rape culture and in some instances against the way the police handled the complaints. Many who have defended rape culture have been pushed to the side. This movement has helped force a positive change of attitudes in the public, we support these developments and recognise that more must be done.
Annual crime statistics show a steady increase in sexual violence where the number of reported offences in 2013 is the highest in over a decade, an increase of more than 10% since 2012. There is a masculine sense of power and entitlement over those more vulnerable and the failure of the police and justice system to address these crimes. Movements attempting to make a lasting change will need to call for more sweeping changes in our public institutions and challenge the pre-conceptions of many in our society.
Linking the struggle
We welcome the rise of movements against the oppression of people along lines of gender, sexual orientation, racial and cultural difference. At the same time we emphasise how these are rooted in the division of society into classes. There is a need to widen the struggle and link up with other sections of the working class in order to achieve lasting social change.
In many ways the rise of these movements can be seen as a precursor to more generalised struggles developing. Consciousness goes through different phases in the context of a crisis. In many cases people first struggle around specific issues before they see the need to identify and struggle as part of their class.
2014 general election
The general election will be a major backdrop to developments in New Zealand over the course of 2014. Many people will be thinking and talking about politics, questioning if the election can be used as way to buffer them from the effects of the crisis. With recent polls showing neither the National government nor the Labour/Greens opposition able to win a majority the role of minor parties will be crucial.
The development of the Mana Party or Mana Movement provides an important opportunity for reframing a pro-worker and pro-Maori political agenda. Mana was formed in 2011 as a Maori radical and leftist split from the Maori Party, led by MP Hone Harawira. The split finally took place after the Maori Party, in government with the ruling National Party, supported an increase of the general services taxes which disproportionately impacts on workers and the poor.
Since then the Maori Party has shifted to the right and in many respects has become a circus. Most of the media attention about the Maori Party has been about its leadership disputes. Meanwhile Mana has had a consistent and strong presence on issues such as child poverty (with actions and events around Harawira’s Feed the Kids Bill), asset sales and housing. Mana has been very visible in key industrial disputes, particularly in the meat industry disputes.
Harawira has said “Mana is what the Maori Party was supposed to be – the independent voice for Maori, the fighter for te pani me te rawakore (the poor and the dispossessed).” Mana plays a good role in local communities and in the parliament. The development of the Mana Party should be seen as an important step in the process of building a mass working class party in the future.
At the moment Mana has democratic space for socialist participation and while its leadership is not socialist it is comprised of many respected class fighters. Its base is almost exclusively working class and there is scope for socialist ideas to take root both inside and outside the party.
Hone Harawira has won the last two elections for the Te Tai Tokerau seat for Mana. It will be important to put other people alongside him in the next parliament as well as developing the party’s structures and its ability to intervene in struggles. Mana came close to winning Waiariki in the 2011 general elections. Its candidate also made a strong showing in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election in mid-2013, gaining 26% of the vote. They lost out to Labour but beat the Maori Party.
As the Maori Party diminishes and Mana develops there is a possibility of Mana establishing a base real base across four North Island Maori electorates of Te Tai Tokerau, Tamaki-Makaurau, Waiariki, and Ikaroa-Rawhiti. Work in these areas will be become increasingly important in the coming period.
However, the key issue in the long-term for Mana is two-fold. Firstly, it needs to maintain itself as a party of struggle over the long term and not succumb to an electoral focus. The maintenance of a struggle-based approach is always a question for any organisation of the oppressed. It is a question which has to be taken seriously and consciously. Secondly, it needs to be clear that it will not enter capitalist government coalitions.
It is possible that an opportunity arises for Mana to participate in a Labour and Green led government after the next election. The character of this government would be pro-capitalist from the outset. Neither of those two parties have an economic or political alternative to capitalism. While their style may differ to National they too will be forced to adhere to the demands of big business and the finance markets. At the end of the day they will also implement policies that make working people pay the price for the crisis.
In our view if Mana entered into government with those parties it would become trapped or absorbed into a regime that fundamentally represents the interests of the ruling class. They would be forced to vote for budgets that include cuts and other attacks against the people they are supposed to represent. As was seen with the Alliance a decade ago wrong decisions in regards to coalitions with capitalist parties can destroy small fledging parties.
Some prominent left populists within or aligned with Mana, who do have some influence, are aggressively pushing for a Labour-Greens-Mana government. Some people in other socialist groups who also participate in Mana have similarly encouraged this position by creating illusions in Labour.
In our view it would be a mistake and a distraction from the work of building movements from below for Mana to participate in a capitalist government. Real support and growth will not be built from inside parliament house but from leading campaigns. If Mana avoids entering the traps of government or supporting supply agreements then it is possible that it can play an important role in pushing back assaults on our rights and living standards.
Socialists must warn that Mana is facing the possibility of a real turning point and decisions in 2014 can be key to the party’s future.
Labour and the Greens
Amongst the world’s former social democratic parties New Zealand’s Labour Party has the shameful distinction in that it was the party which pioneered neo-liberal counter reforms in the mid-1980s. This agenda was continued by National from 1991 through till 1999. Labour assumed another 9 years of power from 1999 through till 2008 in which – over that near decade – it continued a pro-capitalist and fundamentally neo-liberal approach.
There were some relatively minor changes to industrial relations and while those changes satisfied some of the needs of union leaders the constraints that were left in place meant that the divide between rich and poor continued to widen. Union struggle in New Zealand has become something of a lost art that must be rebuilt and relearnt.
Labour, in opposition again since 2008, has been through a long leadership crisis which reflects its political crisis; its commitment to maintaining capitalism ensures that it cannot provide an effective opposition to National. David Shearer, the second of Labour’s “leaders of the opposition” in this period, polled as low as 8.5% for preferred Prime Minister in early 2013. This is just one indicator of the historic lows Labour has had to contend with as it continues to lose consistent working class support.
Recently the leadership issue has been resolved though a new voting procedure in which Labour’s five affiliated unions now hold 20% of the vote for the leader, whilst the party membership holds 40% and the party’s MPs hold 40%. Previously MPs held all the votes. David Cunliffe romped home with union and party membership support, which contrasted to the MPs vote wherein the majority voted for another candidate.
Cunliffe gained such support amongst the members through rhetoric about real change, the poor and even socialism. After his election he spoke at a Council of Trade Unions conference about recreating a red Labour Party rather than a pale blue one. At a media interview following Labour’s November 2013 conference, his first as leader, Cunliffe remarked that his policy would be left-wing enough to keep Unite Union happy. This is a bold statement given that Unite has carved out a role as an organisation that expresses working class concerns and the harsh conditions of the working poor in New Zealand.
However, at the very same November party conference, a remit for Labour to abandon its policy of increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67 failed. This is just one example that illustrates the real nature of Labour’s direction. In this case it is to the right of the National Party which has not been prepared, so far, to erode electoral support with such a policy.
The major blow for the hopeful union affiliates was that the party conference failed to oppose New Zealand’s signing up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. A ‘neither for nor against’ position was reached. Just over a month later a high-ranking MP has spoken publically in support of the trade agreement. Put simply, Labour’s political stance does not match Cunliffe’s populist rhetoric to union affiliates and other supporters.
In regards to both of these issues the trade union lobby within Labour saw the policies adopted as being an advance over what already existed rather than a “defeat”. However what was shown most clearly is the gap between the rhetoric and practice of the party.
As with the 1999-2008 Labour government, if elected in 2014, Labour will probably make some minor adjustments to industrial legislation. While every progressive reform is to be welcomed these changes are merely tinkering at the edges. Neither increased rights nor addressing the real issues of wealth inequality and job security have featured in Labour’s ‘red’ rhetoric. It should not be ruled out that Cunliffe will continue with Labour’s soft anti-migrant agenda which was shown in David Shearer’s Kiwibuild proposal which sought to put stronger limits on home ownership for non-residents. This was not a hard anti-immigrant stance, but a blundered attempt at kiwi populism which found little-to-no uptake from the public.
Labour, a party that has been transformed into an out and out capitalist party, is incapable of developing the policies and program necessary to address the real issues ordinary people face. Labour will continue to disappoint people because it seeks to preserve the system rather than change it.
With the world economy set for a long term decline any party that defends the system will eventually be locked into a programme of counter-reforms. That is why it is urgent that the working class builds a struggle based party that fights for an economic and political alternative to capitalism – a party with a socialist vision that prioritises human need and the environment rather than profits.
Any increases in Labour’s fortunes at the next election will not necessarily come from any genuine enthusiasm for the party but rather from people voting for them as way to get rid of National. The union leaders will likely push the idea that Labour is a lesser-evil. Socialists need to point out that the ideas of lesser-evilism are a trap and the only way to break the cycle is to build something new.
Unions should break their link with Labour and instead come together with progressive community groups and left parties like Mana to build a new mass political force for the working class.
Labour’s closest allies at the next election will be the Green Party. At the 2011 general elections the Green Party took 11% of the party vote, which was a climb for the Greens while Labour got a historically low 27% party vote. In reality the increase in the Green vote represents dissatisfaction with Labour. Moving in on disaffected Labour voters is a core part of Greens strategy.
While the Greens stand to the left of Labour on paper they are steadily moving to the right. Their key left figures through the 2000s, MP’s Sue Bradford and Keith Locke have both left parliament, with Bradford going over to stand for the Mana Party in 2011 and to help rebuild unemployment activism. While the Greens played a key role in achieving the numbers required to force a citizen’s initiated referendum on asset sales they have failed to outline a viable economic alternative. While they claim to be against asset sales they have not undertaken to renationalise assets or put them under public control.
The public mood against asset sales and the referendum campaign pushed the Greens to the left for a period, but so long as they stay wedded to the profit driven system this will be little more than a bend in the road on their longer march to the economic right.
The New Zealand First party won a surprisingly high 7% of party votes at the 2011 elections. The party is essentially a Keynesian-memorial and populist party which has been able to gain traction by romanticising the social democratic past. Due to its stance on protecting New Zealand assets this party has projected itself as an opposition to National. Labour and the Council of Trade Unions seek to present New Zealand First as a viable coalition partner. We are not in the business of telling Labour who to line up with but our view is that working people should avoid NZ First like the plague. Its anti-immigration stance is designed to divide working class people. Rather than blaming migrants for society’s woes, increasingly working people will continue to deepen their rejection of anti-migrant politics and blame the system itself. Our interests lie in uniting working people and developing socialist policies as opposed to previously failed attempts at tweaking capitalism. NZ First is thoroughly opportunist and it may side with National in the lead up to, or after, the election.
National’s coalition partners
A developing weakness for National is that its coalition partners are collapsing around it. The so-called ‘common sense’ United Future party, with one MP, almost lost its party funding and party-leadership funding when the electoral commission found that the party had less than 500 members. This meant that for a period its MP was acting as an independent, until a campaign was conducted to re-register the party. This is almost never heard of in a mid-term period. That MP, Peter Dunne, is unlikely to regain his seat in his electorate.
The economic liberal Act Party has gone from weakness to weakness. Its current leader John Banks has been in court facing charges of failing to declare large donations from internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom during Banks’ Auckland mayoralty campaign. Kim Dotcom had treated Banks to large political donations, luxury events and hotels, and so forth.
After Kim Dotcom was besieged by New Zealand police in a military style operation, on account of his allegedly breaking file sharing and copyright laws, Banks failed to assist him. Since then Kim Dotcom has exposed a lot of the parliamentary right’s dirty laundry. The extent of all of the wealth and privilege has been off-putting to ordinary people. In the late 2013 Christchurch East by-election Act secured only 58 votes, falling one vote behind the Legalise Cannabis Party who are mostly regarded as a joke party.
The Maori Party’s woes continue with a long and bitter leadership dispute taking place throughout 2013. Most of these disputes seem to be about preserving people’s careers rather than policy. Achieving less votes than Mana in the Ikarao-Rawhiti by-election was a real shock to the Maori Party. It shouldn’t be ruled out that they are eliminated from parliament at the next election.
With the fate of these parties settling-in for John Key and National, they are being forced to consider the emerging Conservative Party as a future ally. This is a socially conservative party that is so backwards that its leader Colin Craig thinks humankind’s landing on the moon was a conspiracy! All of these sideshows with National’s coalition partners and potential coalition partners are an example of the political instability that exists in New Zealand.
The socialist position going into the election
Given the lay of the land in the electoral arena it stands to reason that socialists should support Mana in the 2014 election. Side by side with campaigning for the Mana vote we also have to use the election to begin explaining the type of party the working class needs to solve its problems.
Currently a vacuum of political representation exists because of Labour’s shift to the right. We need to fill that vacuum not just in the Maori electorates but throughout the entire working class.
A new mass party of the working class can only be born out of struggles and can only be formed by organisations and groups that are resisting cuts and austerity and fighting against job losses. We support initiatives that will bring together anti-poverty groups, unemployed groups, left parties like Mana, community organisations and the trade union movement. While any new formation will probably not be socialist from the outset we would fight for it to take on socialist ideas as the best way out of the crisis.
Prospects for struggle
While the class struggle in New Zealand is still at low levels compared to many other parts of the world it is likely that in the next period we will see increasing resistance to the capitalist offensive.
The New Zealand economy will not be cushioned forever. The situation in Australia and China is changing significantly. While it has been the case that these two economies have provided a buffer to New Zealand capitalism, in the future it is likely that they will become a drag on what is already a fragile situation. It is only a matter of time before the full effects of the world economic crisis catch up with New Zealand.
With the domestic economy already weak this will put whichever coalition that comes to power in 2014 under pressure. In order to satisfy the needs of big business the new government will be forced to implement cuts and austerity just as every other capitalist government around the world has done.
This will further undermine people’s living standards and force many more people to engage in politics and question the system. With limits on what people can, and will, put up with it is inevitable that people’s attitudes will change and struggle will come back onto the agenda in a real way.
That said resisting the capitalist agenda will not be straight forward particularly given the weakness of the trade union movement and the absence of a mass party that working people can use as a vehicle of struggle. In this period we have the double task of both resisting cuts, job losses and austerity while also building the organisations we need to adequately fight.
In short socialists need to be involved in the day to day struggles of the working class while also campaigning for a solution to the crisis of working class leadership. In this document we have outlined where we think the key day-to-day struggles will take place, or continue to take place in the next period.
In many ways this crisis in more pronounced now than at any other time in history. Given the depth of the crisis, and the obstacles we need to overcome in regards to the crisis of leadership, now is not the time for lax approach to politics. We desperately need to strive for political clarity and to develop a method that can facilitate a way forward in the shortest possible time.
We need to strive to analyse the political and economic situation with the aim of better understanding the processes that are taking place. On the basis of a deeper understanding of the situation we will be better placed to anticipate events and intervene in a timely and precise way. It is only from a thorough understanding of the situation that you can begin to develop the political program and the type of organisation that is necessary to fight for a socialist society free of economic crisis, exploitation and oppression.
These are the aims of Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) supporters in Aotearoa / New Zealand and around the world.
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