Some have compared the Port of Auckland dispute to the 1890 waterfront dispute, 1913 general strike, and 1951 lockout. They want Labour and the Greens to get involved. Actually, this is no 1951 redux. The POA fight is just about one company trying to undercut another. The net effect on New Zealand is zero. The last thing the workers need is Labour creating an excuse for National to attack them.
Yes, this is a labour dispute on the wharfs, too, but that’s where the similarities with the past great stoushes end at the moment. The first obvious difference is scale: 1913 and 1951 involved tens of thousands of workers on the wharves and in related industries – they effectively shut down New Zealand as a trading nation for weeks and months. No such thing has happened or will happen in the current dispute. Only 300 workers in one port are involved at present and there have been a few hours delays for a handful of ships on the 5 days of striking. Those disputes were about workers trying to win fundamental gains: the right to form unions, the right to paid breaks, the right to a fair pay increase. They were about the fundamental balance of power between capital and labour. There is no ‘national interest’ in POA getting what it demands. This dispute is about a business trying to cuts its wage bill so that it can undercut a competitor.
And that’s why, for now, Labour and the Greens are smart to stay out of this, and why the union wants them to stay out. The parties wouldn’t do any favours to the workers if they turned what is essentially a story of a greedy company and workers just wanting to keep what they’ve got into a national political issue.
That would end up hurting the workers’ interests and probably the parties too – it would justify National going nuclear on work rights; tying the wharfies to Labour would justify National attacking them (hence Farrar and Slater’s desperate attempts to link them). And, frankly, do you back Labour’s PR team to do more good than harm to the wharfies’ cause? I don’t. For the same reason, the Occupy movement should stay clear of the wharfs for now. As much as you might agree with their principals, their public image would hurt the wharfies by association.
[this is where Chris Trotter always falls down. He likes to concoct grand scenarios but never understands how they would actually play out in the real world]
That will change if National tries to use the port dispute as an excuse to attack workers’ legal rights and wages. That would be a political fight that Labour and the Greens, along with the labour movement more generally, would need to be in. That would be part of National’s broad-based attack on anyone who dares to join a union or ask for a fair deal at work. It would be a fight the Left could win.
But you can see the difference in the politics of National taking this issue up to the national political level and Labour and the Greens doing it: National siding with out of touch corporate elite in smashing a group of workers who are doing nothing worse than trying to keep their livelihoods, or National taking on a group allied to its opponents that is trying to hold the country to ransom.
National probably is planning to leverage this dispute into some kind of attack on work rights and a fundamental capital vs labour fight may development but the best way for Labour and the Greens to prepare for that is to stay clear of it for now. They need to have their strategy ready for when the time comes but, in the meantime, the focus should remain on winning the fight as it is: 300 working people who are just trying to make ends meet and an incompetent and greedy management that wants to slash wages.
Win or lose, if the workers can undertake this skirmish without overt support from the parties then a full-scale assault on workers’ rights will be much less politically viable for National, and the skirmish is more likely to be won without the parties getting directly involved.