On 15th June workers in ‘French’ Polynesia ended a general strike, which was sustained for over a week. The strike was organised by a coalition of 11 unions using the name ‘Collective for Peace’. With deteriorating social and economic conditions in the already poor territory affecting a wide range of workers, the strike gained support and achieved some degree of success but fell short of its potential.
The strike was built around bread-and-butter calls for an end to job losses, better wages, secure pensions, unemployment insurance and health cost repayments for locals suffering from the effects of past nuclear weapons tests. When negotiations broke down, the strike was declared and workers moved swiftly to picket the main domestic and international transport links. This included the disruption of international air flights and the harbour operations in Papeete especially key ferry links between Tahiti and Moorea. Workers at Mamao Hospital also joined, with essential emergency services being maintained throughout. The public sector teachers’ union STIP added its support to the strike despite impending examinations. STIP argued that in current circumstances it would be pointless for students to have exams and then no jobs to go to when they graduate.
The strike was finally called off during its second week, after President Gaston Tong Sang agreed to ask the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation to investigate the possibility of establishing an unemployment fund. While this could be considered a partial victory for what was a defensive strike to maintain and extend basic living conditions, there were clearly flaws in the strike. On a positive note, by workers in strategic sectors taking the initiative, they showed where real power lies, since nothing can operate for long without transportation and socially significant facilities such as hospitals and schools. On the other hand, major trade unions in the private sector failed to support the strike and groups such as the Union for Youth tried to discourage student involvement. Without universal recognition that an injury to one is an injury to all, no strike can succeed for long let alone provide a springboard for greater action.
Likewise, though it is possible to make small gains here and there, putting faith in union leaders, governments and the UN to solve the deeper problems of the economy in Tahiti or anywhere is misguided. Professional union leaders often use their positions as a means of personal advancement and take direct control out of the hands of those they claim to represent. Governments whether elected or not are comprised of a minority of parasites that rely on the labour of the vast majority for their positions. As for the UN, it has always worked in the interests of the elite within the rich countries, with nothing being done unless it suits them and often with terrible results as in Iraq. The requirements of the poor on a remote neo-colony don’t feature highly on their list of places to bother with. The only people with a genuine interest and ability to deal with the fundamental cause of economic decay are those suffering its effects at the bottom internationally, not those who perpetuate the system that creates that decay.
The workers of Tahiti have shown what is possible when the working class organise to defend the limited benefits we possess. That’s a start. The task ahead in ‘French’ Polynesia, in Aotearoa/New Zealand and globally is to extend such struggles with the aim of overturning the whole system of capitalism.
This article is from the July 2010 issue of Solidarity, free monthly newsheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. Read the rest of the issue online or download a .pdf at the AWSM website.