Wharfies, Webblies and Unconvential Action

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Soviet Onion
Joined: 25-02-12
Feb 25 2012 16:20
Wharfies, Webblies and Unconvential Action

Hello, I'm relatively new to this board and thought I'd offer some reflections I had on the ongoing strike by the Auckland wharfies (MUNZ local 13). I may forward this around if anyone thinks it could have some immediate practical value somewhere.


Firing Your Boss (as told by the experts)
As we all know, the current law in New Zealand severely restricts industrial action. Any industrial action taken outside these strict laws can lead to unions copping massive fines, or suspension/instant dismissal of workers. That said, not all industrial action must be mediated by the union, or take the form of a formal walkout. Much of it can be organized clandestinely or by smaller ad hoc groups of workers, or at the very least protected by a veneer of plausible deniability.


Make no mistake, some of the forms of direct described here would be illegal under New Zealand law, for while the Employment Relations Act of 2000 officially recognizes unions, it maintains so many restrictions on striking that effective action is rendered exceedingly difficult; legal strike action is restricted to the period of negotiation for a new collective agreement, and only after 40 days have elapsed since the notification of an ‘intention to bargain’. Health and safety is the only other legitimate reason for industrial action. Strike action during the term of an agreement, secondary strikes and boycotts, and any industrial action for social and political reasons, is illegal and punishable by large fines and jail terms for those that do not comply (although people have gotten away with it in the past, such as when workers at the Feltex carpet plant in Riccarton staged a wildcat strike and occupied their cafeteria for one day in September 2006).

That’s why so many of the tactics described below are sneaky by design. Many have the effect of “striking on the job”, that is, taking industrial action to impair productivity in ways that don’t involve mass walkouts. Nevertheless, any worker thinking about direct action on the job – bypassing the legal system and hitting the boss where s/he is weakest – should be fully aware of labour law, how it is applied, and how it may be used against labour activists.

That said, the contest between MUNZ workers and the Port of Auckland is no rugby game; it’s their lives, and you they are damn well worth fighting for.

The Sick-In is a good way to strike without striking. The idea is to cripple your workplace by having all or most of the workers call in sick on the same day or days. Unlike the formal walkout, it can be used effectively by single departments and skill sets (all crane operators, for example), and in the age of Twitter can be successfully organized even without a formal union organisation or command structure. This method allows one to bypass the legal obligation of strike notification, and can be done with the shortest possible notice and at times when labour is most needed. It is the traditional method of direct action for public sector employees the world over, who are often legally prevented from striking.

Work to Rule
Almost every job is covered by a maze of rules, regulations, standing orders, and so on, many of them completely unworkable and generally ignored. Workers often violate orders, resort to their own ways of doing things, and disregard lines of authority simply to meet the goals of the company. There is often an unspoken understanding, even by the managers whose job it is to enforce the rules, that these shortcuts must be taken in order to meet production quotas on time. Any port facility, with its safety regulations, docking procedures and complex methods of inventory is no exception, and the volume of goods passing through ensures that many of these are being regularly ignored.

But what would happen if each of these rules and regulations were followed to the letter, every single day? Confusion would result – production and morale would fall. The workers can’t get in trouble with the tactic because they are, after all, “just following the rules”, and any boss who tries to get them in trouble can enjoy dealing with the long line of safety inspectors anonymously called in.

Sitdown Strikes
A strike doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Timed and executed right, a strike can be won in minutes. Such strikes are “sitdowns” when everyone just stops work and sits tight, or “mass grievances” when everybody leaves work to go to the boss’s office to complain about something of importance. As with sick-ins, sitdown strikes can be organized quickly through Twitter or text message. Although they lack the plausible deniability of a sick-in (“we all feel fatigued”), they can be triggered on even shorter notice.

Sympathy Action (industrial or otherwise)
Just before the end of the 2006 Progressive lockout, workers at the Maritime Union of New Zealand threatened to stop onloading supermarket goods at their wharves despite the fact that this would have constitute an illegal secondary strike on their part. This was four days after their pledge that each member would contribute one hour’s wages per week in support until the dispute settled, and their continued presence on picket lines throughout the struggle (1).

I think it might be time for MUNZ to call in that favour. In the early days of the US labour movement, it was common for rail workers to stage sympathy strikes rather than bring “scab” replacements in from other location. NDU is now amalgamated with Finsec as the First Union of New Zealand, but the people are still there. Specifically, their Transport and Logistics sub-sector is still there. Somebody needs to drive trucks to transport cargo to and from the port, and drive busses to bring workers to and from the port. And while a secondary strike may be illegal, it’s not illegal to just drive slowly, or stop frequently to observe that safety regulations are observed to the letter.

Looking at the website of Auckland Regional Transport, I also have to wonder just how secure the coding is on those timetables (2).

Monkey-Wrenching is the general term for a whole host of tricks, deviltry, and assorted nastiness that can remind the boss how much s/he needs his/her workers (and how little we need her/him). While all these monkey-wrenching tactics are non-violent, most of them are major social no-nos. For that reason, once again THE PERSON(S) WRITING DO NOT INTEND TO COMMIT, OR INCITE TO COMMIT, ANY ILLEGAL ACTIONS WHATSOEVER.

Disrupting magnetically-stored information (such as cassette tapes, pin drives and poorly-shielded hard drives) can be done by exposing them to a strong magnetic field. Of course, it would be just as simple to “misplace” the items that contain such vital information. You could buy mice at the nearest pet shop, and liberate them in a convenient place. For bigger laughs, give the health inspector an anonymous tip.

One thing that always haunts a strike call is the question of scabs and strikebreakers. In a railroad strike in 1886, strikers who took “souvenirs” from work home with them solved the scab problem. Oddly enough, the trains wouldn’t run without these small, crucial pieces, and the scabs found themselves with nothing to do. Of course, nowadays, it may be safer for workers to simply hide these pieces in a secure place at the jobsite, rather than trying to smuggle them out of the plant.

You could use the boss’s letterhead to order a ton of unwanted office supplies and have it delivered to the office. If your company has an 0800 number, you could have all your friends and allies jam the phone lines with angry calls about the current situation. You could fax them sheets of plain black paper to deplete their toner cartridges, as hackers associated with Project Chanology did to the Church of Scientology in 2008. And while we’re on the subject of hackers, there are an infinite number of things that could be done with rosters, manifests, order forms, inventory listings and shipping schedules if anyone were to crack the port’s computers; good news for any worker that might have ever seen a password or knows where to find one.

With such a focus on securing shipping lines in this business, client confidence and confidentiality is at a premium. A recent example of how this can be turned to advantage comes by way of Anonymous hackers exposing the client details and email information of Combined Systems, productions of riot gear and “less-lethal” weapons used by cops and dictatorships around the world (3).

Open Mouth Sabotage (aka Free Speech)
While it seems trivial to some, the free expression of ideas and information is a powerful weapon in the hands of little people everywhere. Historically, it is has been the single most important weapon of unions. Simply speaking openly to the public about the bosses’ practices and intentions can garner major public sympathy, who’s patronage can make or break a business. That’s why they often try to work confidentiality provisions into contracts.

The established media is more intent on reporting the company’s side (or occasionally grabbing a one-sentence quote from a union delegate), but technology can swing the advantage to our side. We need more interviews that allow workers to speak for themselves, like Simon Oosterman’s article linked below (4). Youtube exists, so let’s use it to full advantage. The port workers have already taken the lead in this by distributing thousands of informational flyers in Auckland (5), but copies can be sent to allies around the country, since there’s no reason someone in Christchurch or Dunedin couldn’t support the effort in their own way. I’m looking at you too, Indymedia Aoteroa.

As Kevin Carson notes:

“The Internet takes possibilities for such “open mouth sabotage” to a completely new level. In an age when unions have virtually disappeared from the private sector workforce, and downsizings and speedups have become a normal expectation of working life, the vulnerability of employer’s public image may be the one bit of real leverage the worker has over him–and it’s a doozy. If they go after that image relentlessly and systematically, they’ve got the boss by the short hairs. Given the ease of setting up anonymous blogs and websites (just think of any company and then look up the URL employernamesucks.com), systematically exposing the company’s dirt anonymously on comment threads and message boards, the possibility of anonymous saturation emailings of the company’s major suppliers and customers and advocacy groups concerned with that industry . . . . well, let’s just say that labour struggle becomes a form of asymmetric warfare.”(6)

Combined with some people’s knack at flushing out internal memos and confidential emails, one can get a lot of distance out of this strategy.

This tactic is not new, though modern technology expands its role. Remember Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, which exposed the horrendous health standards and working conditions of the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. Today, workers at the Jimmy Johns restaurant in Minneapolis affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) successfully blew the whistle on company policies which force workers to prepare food while sick. The company tried to fire them, but ultimately sanctioned for this (7).

Open-mouth sabotage is often the least risky forms of industrial action, as general guarantees of free speech are on your side, and so are the public.

The Industrial Workers . . . of the World Wide Web
It would be a lie to say that I don’t have a larger dog in this fight. I don’t mean to impose my other, less obvious suggestion; that wildcat unionism and hacktivism can complement eachother as part of a combined strategy in which each plays to its own strengths while complementing the other’s weaknesses. In recent years both have made tentative steps in that direction, what with the IWW’s continued use of open-mouth sabotage through the internet, and how Anonymous hackers collaborated with the mass popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and are still in ongoing battles against the Syrian government and austerity measures in Greece.

The truly radical unions of the last century were at the forefront of fights for free speech and free assembly, both in the public square. Many online freedom activists are seeking greater transparency and responsiveness in government (8), which should logically be extended to include those black box institutions that “govern” us for 8 hours a day.

(1) Maritime Union steps up support of locked out workers http://www.indymedia.org.nz/article/72331/maritime-union-steps-support-l...

(2) Auckland Regional Transport website


(4) The Workers: Our Story

(5) Ports of Auckland management attack free speech

(6) The Wobblies and Free Market Labor

(7) In Big Union Victory, NLRB finds in Favor of Six Unlawfully Fired Union Organizers Jimmy John's

(8) The Uppsala Declaration


Maritime Union of New Zealand
- http://www.munz.org.nz/

- http://www.saveourport.com/

Industrial Worker’s of the World’s “How to Fire Your Boss”
- http://www.iww.org/en/about/solidarityunionism/directaction

Joined: 13-04-07
Feb 26 2012 00:39

Hi Soviet Onion,

Some of this is borrowed from an article I wrote on the Progressive dispute, eh? Some interesting ideas although most of this will be familiar to the regular posters/readers on this site (that's not meant as a put down, just to let you know what the general level of knowledge/consciousness is). Where are you based? You should PM me.

Joined: 13-04-07
Mar 4 2012 23:34

Not worth replying?

Soviet Onion
Joined: 25-02-12
Mar 8 2012 09:23

Hey Malcy,

Very sorry for the laxity; much longer weeks while the general mananger is on vacation in Dehli have mostly kept me away from the internet. Both the class war and my Call of Duty skills are suffering horribly.

Thank you for the feedback. I expected that most people here would find this material familiar, since a lot is just cribbed from the IWW's "How to Fire Your Boss" with some attempt to contextualize it. Not too original, but yeah.

And yes, your article on the progressive dispute was an important source (really should have linked . . ). I'm actually not from NZ originally, so after deciding to write this I went searching for some historical accounts to gain a some perspective.