Saturday August 21st saw thousands of workers rally in the main centres across New Zealand against the National Government's proposed changes to employment laws. The Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement has previously produced a backgrounder to the attacks - Workers Set To Face More Attacks - and some ideas for resistance - Let’s Kill The Bill!
Up to 2000 people gathered in Civic Square in Wellington on Saturday 21st August, in one of 4 nationwide rallies organised by the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in opposition to the National Government’s proposed changes to employment laws. On a surprisingly warm winters day, members of dozens of unions, political parties and groups and others came together to publicly display their stance against the disgusting proposals which will, if passed, serve to further lower wages and conditions, lessen job security and make it harder to collectively fight back against bosses.
Unfortunately, the decades the CTU has spent discouraging mass action have taken their toll, as it seemed they no longer actually knew how to organise a rally. The sound system used was so poor that perhaps as many as half the crowd could not hear any of the speeches from the stage. The rally was dominated by unionised workers, and it seemed that few non-unionised workers were in attendance. This reflected the advertising for the rally, which was done primarily within unions. Few attempts were made to attract non-unionised workers, even though all workers will be affected by the proposed laws. This was also reflected in the venue chosen which is effectively closed off on all four sides by buildings and has little foot traffic passing through it, so hardly anyone who wasn’t coming to the rally would have even known it was there. 2000 people shouldn’t be laughed at, but with the resources the CTU has available, it should have been able to muster many, many more.
Still, for those who turned up, it was a nice day in the sun. There were plenty of children in attendance, who seemed to be enjoying themselves with balloons and face painting, while plenty of people were fed by the non-stop sausage sizzle. On the stage, there were speeches and entertainment from two workers who had been fired under the 90 day fire-at-will law, union officials, a stand-up comedian, a choir and a dance troupe. Everyone there also walked away with a handful of leaflets, fliers and postcards from a variety of groups and causes.
Following the rally, about 40 people marched on the street up to BurgerFuel and held a noisy demonstration. A Burgerfuel store in Auckland recently fired a worker after 89 days using the 90 day fire-at-will law, simply for asking for the breaks she was legally entitled to. The demonstration sent a clear message to BurgerFuel and any other employer that wishes to use the 90 day bill that they cannot fire workers without any repercussions.
Billed by the CTU as a celebration of ‘Fairness at Work’, the Auckland rally on Saturday August 21st attracted over 1000 workers, though most weren’t there to celebrate. There was the inevitable brown nosing of the Labour Party as Helen Kelly gave a shout out to those MPs scattered throughout the crowd, but a speech from the National Distribution Union (NDU) rep Syd Keepa and the music of Tigi Ness countered the CTU message and made it clear that worker’s power, not parliamentary power, was needed to win this fight.
Keepa made the connection between beneficary bashing and attacks on workers rights, noting that John Key, a representative of the rich, was leading an attack on the poor. It was clear Keepa felt a show of worker’s strength was the only means to counter this attack, stating that in his opinion we should be having a general strike. His suggestion was meet by a hearty cheer from many in the crowd who shared his frustration and anger.
The rally ended with songs by Tigi Ness calling for workers to ‘get up, and stand up for their rights’ in defence of their whanau and their communities. A nationwide action has been called for Wednesday 20th October, as the struggle continues.
The Dunedin rally in the series of nationally co-ordinated rallies organised by the CTU took place on the Sunday due to there being a capping parade the day before. Approximately 500 people assembled at the dental school to march to the Octagon; twice the number of the previous day of action. Unions represented included the PPTA, EPMU, NZNO, RMTU, DWU, Unite, PSA, SLGOU, SFWU, TEU, and NZEIEI. The marchers were led in chants by members of the International Socialist Organisation, who, unlike the local CTU, own a large number of megaphones. Chants included, “WHEN WORKERS’ RIGHTS ARE UNDER ATTACK, STAND UP – FIGHT BACK” and “UNION! POWER! WORKERS! POWER!”
When the crowd reached the Octagon they were greeted by Glenda Alexander, the chairwoman of Unions Otago, the local CTU affiliates body. Glenda is hoping to stand as Labour candidate for Dunedin North in next year’s elections and it looks like her campaign is already under way as the podium was surrounded by Labour Party placards. Radical folksinger, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, David Rovics, was in attendance to entertain the crowd. The first song he did was “Which Side Are You On?”, the Florence Reese classic about organising in the Kentucky coalfields in the depression. This added a nice touch of explicit class consciousness to the proceedings in contrast to the CTU’s fairness rhetoric. The rally was then addressed by CTU secretary Peter Conway before being turned over to the local speakers. These included a nurse, teacher, fast food worker, and wharfie who had travelled all the way from Bluff. Most spoke about the very damaging effects the proposed amendments to the ERA and Holidays Act will have on workers’ day-to-day lives. The teacher spoke about the very high rate of trainee teachers leaving the job before they are even qualified because of the lousy conditions they are forced to work under. Attacks to union access and the 90-day law will undermine these even more. The rally ended with Rovics singing ‘The Internationale’, anthem of international working-class solidarity. Apart from the attempt to stamp the Labour brand on the rally, the day was a reasonably encouraging first step in the campaign to stop the bills from going through.
Over a thousand people assembled in the Square on July 21. A few marched to the rally as an anti-capitalist bloc. As with the other rallies, the CTU rally went on for a couple of hours, and featured speeches, music and entertainment. Afterwards, a small group of people marched to the Manufacturers Employers’ Association building, but decided to call off their proposed tour of other targets (such as the Labour Party offices and Canterbury Chamber of Commerce) due to lack of numbers.