From Land Wars to Union Battles!

Ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake!: Rewi Maniapoto’s words from the Waikato Wars of the 1860s rang through the twentieth century and into our own. Maori resistance to colonisation and land theft has never ended and the Maori struggle for self-determination has continued across the generations.

Importantly, this struggle has fed in to the fights of non-Maori workers, too. The economic boom following World War Two led to a rapid urbanisation of the Maori population. Maori are a central part of the wider New Zealand working class – while it’s important to realise, and scandalous to consider, Maori over-representation in unemployment and poverty statistics, it’s also important to remember that this urbanisation led to Maori becoming leaders in the class. Across the country, and in the blue-collar industrial working class such as in the freezing works in particular, Maori workers formed the vanguard of the militant trade union movement.

Rogernomics, and then the Bolger National government, hurt Maori workers particularly hard, concentrated as they were in forestry, the meat industry, manufacturing and other sectors that suffered the most through the 80s and 90s. A generation has grown up inheriting casualised, low-paid and often un-unionised jobs. But now these workers – the focus of fighting unions like UNITE – can continue the traditions of Maori working-class struggle.

Maori struggle can’t be reduced to the class struggle, but it can’t be removed from the class struggle either. Right wingers are desperate to paint Harawira and the Mana Party as contradicting themselves when they talk about a movement for Maori and the poor. National party supporter and right-wing blogger David Farrar wrote on his Kiwiblog on May 17 2011 that “all the Mana Party policies focused on non-Maori issues.” But how are poverty, low wages and asset sales “non-Maori issues?

Joint Struggle

Throughout the history of capitalism on these islands the two struggles – for Maori rights and for the working class more generally – have been intimately interconnected. An upsurge in one has fed in to build or revive the other: it’s no accident that the 1970s saw a prolonged wave of strikes and workers’ militancy and birth of the modern Maori protest movement, of which Harawira is a product. Activists were often trained in both movements. Two of this country’s most important intellectuals, Tama Poata and Hone Tuwhare, illustrate these connections: Poata became a unionist and socialist while working on the Roxburgh hydro project and went on to be a militant in the Drivers Union. He’d go on to be a leader in the new wave of Maori protest in the 1970s and, later, wrote the screenplay for Ngati. Tuwhare was for many years a member of the Communist Party, and stayed a leftist and unionist throughout his life.

These struggles’ connections intensified as a result of post-war urbanization, but they’ve been part of the working class movement’s culture from its formation. The Shearers’ Union in 1887, for instance, printed its union rules in Te Reo Maori. Union secretary W.G. Spence reported that “we had the rules translated and printed in Maori. We enrolled a considerable number of that race and found them staunch Unionists.”

As Maori have led and shaped working-class struggle, the education of involvement in unions and contact with socialist politics has also pushed non-Maori workers to the left, leading them to identify with and support Maori struggles. Many unions offered concrete support to Ngati Whatua’s epic occupation of Bastion Point / Takaparawhau in the 1970s; when police arrested 222 people as they smashed up the occupation in May 1978 over half of those arrested were Pakeha and Pasifika.

These two examples are just some from many in the history of our side. The challenge for us building a socialist organization is to deepen this connection; in a country founded on land dispossession and theft, it’s impossible to imagine a socialism that doesn’t champion Tino Rangatiratanga. As recent events show, though, and as the sorry history of the Maori Party’s coalition with National reminds us, visions of Tino Rangatiratanga need socialism at their core.