Defeat the Bill! The struggle against the Employment Contracts Bill, 1991

‘We’ll need to go on strike, an ongoing strike.’  That’s how Jane Otuafi, a delegate in the Engineers’ Union, responded in March 1991 to the recently elected National government’s plan for an Employment Contracts Act. [1] ‘A general strike is the only answer,’ job delegate Sa Leutele of the Northern Distribution Union agreed. ‘I’ve had several meetings to explain to the boys that the only way we can fight is to stick together. Otherwise nobody will survive after the Bill.’ [2]

Leutele’s words were prophetic. The Employment Contracts Act, once it passed, had a devastating effect on workers’ rights and living standards in New Zealand. It dealt a body blow to the trade union movement, one from which we’ve never recovered. Union membership almost halved between 1991 and 1995, with union density going from 41.5% to 21.7%, and has staggered in the private sector ever since. Workers’ organisation and confidence – expressed in working days ‘lost’ to strike activity – has been hit harder, with historic low levels of industrial struggle through the 1990s and 2000s. ‘The ECA,’ as Brian Roper puts it, ‘effectively deunionised and casualised large sectors of the workforce.’ [3] The viciously unequal New Zealand we live in now is shaped by the legacy of the ECA: 10% of the population owning 52% of the wealth; casualization and low pay the norm across the service industries; homeless families living in cars a ‘new reality’; and racialized poverty resulting in a Māori unemployment rate twice the national average. [4] The union movement, a basic line of defence for working people, held this back. It’s no wonder, then, that National set out to destroy the unions as effective fighting tools.

The ECA gave employers the right to refuse to negotiate with unions, and made it much easier to use lockouts and scab labour to break workers’ resistance. It’s no exaggeration to say that this had fatal consequences. Union membership in agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry fell by over 90% in the 1990s, leaving workers with little organisation to protect themselves against the bosses’ speed-ups and cut-backs for profits. [5]  We all know the results: 10 men died in 2013 alone, and forestry now has a death rate six times that of the UK’s rate. [6]

Workers knew this was what the ECA was going to bring. They’d lived through a bitter six years of Rogernomics already (including an anti-union Labour Relations Act in 1987), and it was widely recognised that Labour’s defeat in 1990 was more to do with popular disgust at its New Right agenda than with any new-found enthusiasm for National. Workers knew that National was coming at their rights in an act of class war. And that’s why they responded with such determination and enthusiasm to calls for battle against National and the ECA. Hundreds of thousands of workers across the country took part in strikes, demonstrations, protest meetings and stop-work rallies opposing the Bill. Ellen Dannin gives a picture of some of the events that made up this mass action:

 A 24 hr strike by 50 000 education workers on April 4 and 50 000 health workers who engaged in a two-hour stopwork meeting. There was concerted action by members of the Nurses Association, Public Service Association, Service Workers Federation, Local Government Officers Association, and the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. In the private sector, there were strikes by storeworkers, drivers, and engine drivers of the Northern Distribution Workers Federation; the Seafarers Union; the Harbour Workers Union; workers at the New Zealand Steel plant; and a march by the members of the Railway Trades Association.

 Rallies, strikes and marches took place in all the major centres and many minor centres […]          Wildcat strikes drew out meatworkers at AFFCO […] Hutt Valley railway workers; Kinleith pulp and paper workers; and journalists at the Wellington Evening Post, the Dominion, and the New Zealand Press Association […] The ECA cost the country over 50 000 lost working days in the first week of April alone.

Some strikes were spontaneous and there were reports, Dannin records, of fears more wildcat actions might spread. [7]

But it was not to be. The trade union leadership in the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) stymied rank and file pressure for continuing strike action; National won, and the legacy of the ECA shapes our generation’s working world.

2016 marks 25 years since this epic battle, the equivalent of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout for a current generation. For those of us who are, in the words of the poet Bertolt Brecht, the ones ‘born later’, looking back on this battle offers valuable lessons for today.

Rogernomics and After

New Zealand’s economy had, in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, enjoyed unprecedented levels of growth and productivity. This postwar ‘long boom’ led to a stable industrial relations system. Employers, with an eye to high profit rates and an aversion to disruption, were by-and-large happy to work with centralised, national trade union bodies who disciplined their members, kept things predictable and bargained around awards that, if they brought pay increases for workers, never threatened company profits. Unions that bucked this trend – such as the militant and democratic Waterside Workers in 1951 – faced severe repression from the state, and opposition from the union hierarchy, but, for most of this period, ‘moderate’ unionism was the preferred partner of business.

Amidst this, the trade union bureaucracy – that layer of paid union officials whose job it is to mediate and negotiate between capital and labour – became a comfortable part of the system, with many of them passing over, at the top of their career, into the ruling class proper. Tom Skinner, Federation of Labour leader in the 1960s and 1970s, was knighted and became a director of Radio Pacific and was a deputy in the Shipping Corporation. His successor, the more ‘militant’ Jim Knox, was a director of the Railways Corporation and one of the first members of the Order of New Zealand.

The union bureaucracy served New Zealand capitalism well – they delivered a disciplined, cohered movement, kept industrial peace, and offered safe hands for negotiating. Employers, most of the time, found this – and the national system of awards that grew out of it – chimed with their own interests. And for most workers, most of the time, rising living standards and increasing wages made the deal work well enough.

Things started to come unstuck in the 1970s, with the oil shock and the end of the postwar boom. Muldoon’s National government was fought into a stalemate with the unions, and repeated old tactics in the new times. An attempt to push through austerity and a wage freeze in the mid-1970s was beaten by union action, and employer groups spent the late 70s demoralised and confused. But, if workers’ action, often pushed from below, was cracking the old order, there were other kinds of fissures in our side too. Economic confidence – the capacity of workers to strike for wages – was not matched by a clear political programme or sense of what was happening. Both sides were getting ground down, and the mood was increasingly bitter.

The Fourth Labour Government of David Lange and Roger Douglas intervened to force open these cracks with a radical policy of neoliberal reform. Deregulation, privatisation, soaring unemployment, fiscal reform all crashed through the 1980s, part of an employer counter-offensive aimed at decisively shifting power from unions and workers to business as part of a strategy to restore profitability. All of this had a devastating effect on workers’ lives and community confidence. ‘By January 1990,’ David Grant writes, ‘economic ‘restructuring’ and the advent of new technologies had knocked the lid off 67 000 jobs. Between 1986 and 1991 10 multi-chain freezing works were mothballed; others were downsized, collectively destroying the jobs of 17 000 freezing workers.’ Roger Douglas, meanwhile, announced that unemployment was caused by ‘fundamentally good news’ – business rationalisation. [8]

Labour, the party of the trade union bureaucracy and with mass support in the working class, achieved what National could never have dreamed of managing; extensive neoliberal reform with cooperation from the trade union movement. But it tore itself apart in the process, suffering a damaging split in 1989 and churning through a succession of leaders on its way to electoral catastrophe. Labour had done its bit for New Zealand capitalism; now it was National’s turn. As Doug Myers, New Zealand’s richest man in the early 1990s, put it, Labour ‘had started out boldly, accomplished a lot, but never got a coherent programme together and ended up throwing in the towel.’ With workers on the defensive, their organisations ideologically confused, and unemployment at record rates, now was the time for further decisive measures. Myers continued:

By the time the present government came into office in October 1990, the intellectual battle was over, the business community was strongly behind radical change, the government was clear in its thinking about what needed to be done, and had won a clear-cut mandate for labour reform. [9]

Myers was wrong about the ‘clear-cut mandate’, given that National had campaigned under the vacuous slogan ‘the decent society’, and with little mention of the carnage to come. But he was right about a ‘business community […] strongly behind radical change’. Labour had ‘deregulated’ on the economic field, but done so while keeping its links to the unions there to smooth the process. And the union leadership had been enthusiastic participants in this process. An Engineers’ Union submission to the select committee considering the Employment Contracts Bill complained that ‘the Bill will hamper productive efforts by effectively stopping initiatives by unions, in consultation with employers, to create more productive and permissive working arrangements.’ The Engineers’ leadership were boasting here about their usefulness for the bosses in policing workers and driving up profits! Labour’s 1987 Labour Relations Act had softened up the environment, pushing ‘flexibility’ on workers: fully one third of all settlements in each wage round since 1987 had included a change in working arrangements. [10]

Now business planned to go after trade unionism – organised workers’ defence bodies – on the political plane. The ECA was their weapon.

A double assault

If, for around 40 years, unions had been an accepted part of normal industrial life, the ECA aimed to radically upturn that normal order. The word ‘union’ didn’t appear in the legislation, with workers in theory able to opt for any bargaining agent on a level playing field. Individual contracts were to become the norm; collectively won rights and special conditions were all up for abolition; workers were now to face powerful employers as isolated individuals.

National combined this with a savage attack on unemployment and other benefits, cutting benefit levels to below what was required to live above absolute poverty. Higher rates of unemployment, the demonization of unemployed workers and other beneficiaries, and the fostering of a climate of fear around job precariousness and insecure access to benefits were all tools to frighten, divide and unsettle workers in order to make them less confident to fight and more likely to accept any conditions given in order to stay in a job. Organised workers understood this connection, and the actions of Sue Bradford and others in Te Roopu Rawakore had prepared ideological ground for union and unemployed worker solidarity. The movement needed, Tului Fox argued, to ‘link the Employment Contracts Bill and the welfare cuts together because they are interlinked.’[11] But the bosses knew that, in a time of economic recession, they had a powerful disciplining tool in mass unemployment. Merchant banker David Richwhite made the case that

Decentralised wage bargaining and competition between unions as bargaining agents, in combination with substantial reduction in unemployment benefits and tightening of criteria for benefit eligibility, are creating a pool of unemployed and discouraged job seekers. Through this mechanism the pool of unemployed is gradually exerting a stronger influence on wage-setting behaviour. [12]

A ‘pool of unemployed’, unions reduced to competing for members and wages driven down – this was National’s vision. It wasn’t what they had campaigned for, of course: Jim Bolger had dismissed as ‘a lie’ the claim National would go after penal rates when he was on the campaign trail. ‘There’s absolutely nothing,’ he said, ‘in our policy, nor in our intentions to eliminate or reduce penal rates, overtime rates or weekend rates.’ [13] Within six months, however, this was exactly what Treasury, Bill Birch and Bolger were all boasting would be the result of the benefit cuts and the Employment Contracts Bill. Treasury went so far as to advocate abolishing the minimum wage. How would the workers’ movement respond?

Oppose or defeat?

Reading accounts of the struggle, from this distance in time, two aspects stand out. One is the determination, courage, and energy of rank and file workers to fight for their organisations. The other is the determination of the union leadership to smother any genuine fightback. Workers, often organising against their own union structures, showed real energy to resist, but the CTU was determined to lead the movement to defeat.

From the very earliest, the top leadership of the CTU made clear that they were going to oversee our side’s defeat. The CTU had spent the 1980s trying to prove its usefulness to capitalism, attempting to adopt the Australian model of an ‘accord’ between business, government and unions. Instead of organising workers to fight collectively for their interests, the CTU suggested a model of ‘strategic unionism’ that involved ‘shifting bargaining away from occupation and towards enterprise and industry, changing work methods, negotiating around improvements to productivity, and recognising the needs for modern, internationally competitive production systems.’[14] This plan for collaborating in increasing exploitation (‘improvements to productivity’) was never in workers’ interests, and it was only attractive to the bosses so long as they felt the need for a strong, centralised union movement bureaucracy to police rank and file initiative. The Employment Contracts Bill showed they didn’t feel that need; instead, they were offering a direct challenge to the existence of New Zealand unions as a fighting force.

To preach class compromise and class collaboration in a period of open and avowed class war is to promote surrender. This is a simple fact. And that’s exactly what the union leadership did. Ken Douglas, President of the CTU, stated on 21st February that ‘we are not seeking to defeat the Bill, we are seeking to change it.’ Bill Andersen, leader of the Northern Distribution Union, often seen as to Douglas’s left politically, echoed him that ‘we don’t think it can be defeated.’ [15] Angela Foulkes, CTU Secretary, was even more explicit, telling a protest meeting of 5 000 workers in Christchurch that ‘we’ll try to change the Bill. If the Bill comes in, we’ll work within it, and we’ll try to get a change of government.’ [16]

Oppose the Bill was the official slogan of the movement, making clear that what rallies and strikes that were called happened with no intention from their leaders that it might be stopped.

The Socialist Unity Party, a group representing the thinking of leading sections of the bureaucracy and led by Ken Douglas, even so far as to put out a pamphlet – A Worker’s Guide to the Employment Contracts Bill – without one word of advice on how to oppose the Bill! Instead they offered blether about how ‘workers [in Japan] have learnt more about management [to] make their job more interesting’ and how ‘the challenge New Zealanders face is very clear – to be part of a high wage economy’ making ‘huge gains through worker involvement in management.’ [17] ‘Yes, we need labour market reform’ the pamphlet ended, just as National was pushing through the most savage ‘reform’ the country had seen in the twentieth century.

What a contrast between this and the determination of ordinary workers! Across the country groups of workers, often acting in isolation, pushed for concerted action. At a 28 February stop-work meeting South Auckland Post-Primary Teachers’ Association members voted unanimously for a general strike. In the Waikato PPTA members resolved at a meeting to call ‘on PPTA to coordinate all Trade Union bodies and other sectors of the community into a General Strike followed by strong industrial action.’ An open letter circulated from the NZEI branch at St Leonards School in Auckland making similar demands from primary school teachers. Harold Appleton, a delegate with the Pulp and Paper Workers Federation in Kawerau, echoed many when he said ‘there must be a call for a General Strike.’[18]

Delegates’ meetings and protests across March saw thousands respond. 700 delegates meet in Auckland to debate fighting the Bill amidst fierce controversy. 5 000 Northern Distribution Union members packed into Mount Smart Stadium to debate their union’s response, while 2 200 people attended a protest rally at Whangarei’s Okara Park.

Union officials knew they had to respond to this mood to stay in control – some made concessions by calling a week of action in early April, in the lead-up to the Bill’s passage through parliament, while some positioning themselves to the left started to support calls for a 24-hour general strike.

Workers’ response to these calls shows just how much potential there was for a concerted campaign. Consider these rallies in early April: 200 education workers joining with 500 striking Kinleith workers in an illegal march through Tokoroa; 500 in Opotiki; 800 at a protest meeting at Napier’s State Theatre; 300 in Ashburton; 1000 education workers in Invercargill’s Civic Theatre. Add to this the 100 000 strong strike of health and education workers, the march of 6 000 education workers in Wellington, the 2 500 Public Service Association workers who voted for a ‘national stoppage.’[19]

‘The overwhelming weight of the available evidence suggests that a clear majority of rank and file union members supported generalised strike action,’ Brian Roper argues, ‘there is not a single instance amongst the major unions of workers failing to endorse, and by very large majorities, strike action where they were balloted.’ [20]

The CTU leadership was now well to the right of its members, and of the general political consciousness. A one-day general strike was a sufficiently plausible slogan that it was supported by Jim Anderton and the New Labour Party – who issued a press released criticising the way ‘the CTU leadership refuses to live up to its responsibilities’ – and it was taken up by sections of the movement. But, as Gerry Evans, General Secretary of the Seafarer’s Union in Wellington, put it, ‘there should be a general stoppage […] a 24 hour stoppage isn’t going to stop the Bill.’[21]

Tragically, the networks of revolutionary socialists and militants in the rank and file of the union movement who could argue for the politics needed for this kind of general stoppage were far too small to act as a real counter-weight to the deadening politics of the bureaucracy. Where they did organise they got a hearing. At an April meeting of 2000 health workers, a staff nurse at Wellington Hospital who supported the Trotskyist Permanent Revolution group made this intervention:

“I support these moves for a twenty-four-hour stoppage, but I also think it’s not enough. We need further action to defeat the Employment Contracts Bill and I think we can defeat it. So I want to put a resolution that goes: That this meeting recommends that the Health Sector Unions initiate an indefinite national strike of all their members, from the earliest possible date, and urges the CTU to extend this strike to a general strike of all its affiliates until the Employment Contracts Bill is withdrawn.”

Her resolution received ‘sustained applause’ and was carried by acclamation, only to be buried by the CTU’s Health Committee. Another PRG comrade in the Hutt Valley PPTA managed to have her motion calling on the CTU to prepare for a general strike carried overwhelmingly. [22] Similar motions were put up by other small groups or by individual militants around the country. In Auckland the Communist Party – using its paper the People’s Voice – tried to facilitate networks of activists inside and outside its own ranks. The paper gave over more than half of many of its issues to profiling responses to the ECA, and to debating strategy. Individual militants outside of any party came together to argue and plan. But none of these had the social weight needed to fight for leadership against the mis-leadership of Douglas, Andersen and others.

The CTU moves against the militants

Indeed, the lead-up to the ECA saw the CTU crack down on dissent and democratic organisation in the unions. When Wiri bus driver Ally Dworniak brought a motion to try and ‘defeat the Bill’ to a mass meeting she found herself facing disciplinary action brought against her by Auckland Tramways Union officials. Officials Bill Andersen and Laila Harre used manoeuvres to prevent opposing motions from the floor being heard at Northern Drivers Union mass meetings, and militants like Anna Lee and Len Richards were physically kept from addressing a delegates meeting by Andersen in the chair. Ken Douglas even went so far as to write a complaint to PPTA general secretary Kevin Bunker complaining of Richards’ ‘extreme and offensive’ temerity for daring to criticise his strategy!

The CTU leadership had a clear message they wanted to send to business, and they would trample on rank and file members to make that message clear. ‘We are not seeking to defeat the bill,’ Ken Douglas repeated, ‘it’s simplistic analysis to say we can frighten a government…I talk to politicians and I talk to employers and I never threaten them. I say we’re not here to threaten you.’ [23]

The aftermath, when it happened, was sudden. The ‘capitulation of the trade union leadership,’ as Sarah Heal calls it, came at a special affiliates conference on 18 April, when the majority of officials voted down an amendment by Rick Barker of the Service Workers for a one-day general strike and in favour of dispersed, localised action and an awareness-raising campaign. The amendment was defeated by 250 122 to 190 910, with the PSA, Engineers, PPTA, Nurses Association, Post Office Union, NZEI and Financial Sector Union voting against. [24] Brian Roper calls this ‘one of the darkest days in New Zealand’s labour history […] Instead of promoting strike action to defeat the legislation, the NZCTU leadership constantly emphasized compromise, negotiation, conciliation and the powerlessness of workers.’[25] Bramble and Heal summarise it very well:

Faced by the most aggressive onslaught by capital and the state for a full century, the CTU leadership continued to believe that it was facing merely a minor upset in a basically harmonious relationship. The leadership’s failure led to a collapse of morale within the union ranks.[26]

Whatever else came, the government knew – after 18 April – that they had won. The rout was on. Our side has not yet recovered.

Could we have won?

 The standard response from the CTU leadership’s defenders at the time and since has been to claim that there were no prospects of a general strike, that there was no chance of defeating the government, and that workers had no stomach for a fight. The last claim is refuted by workers’ actions through April 1991. What of the first two?

Union leaders at the time put great effort in to demoralising and discrediting workers who thought they could defeat the Bill. Sue Piper of the PSA insisted at the 5000-strong Christchurch meeting that ‘we oppose the Bill. The Bill must be changed to protect workers and their unions’. Elsewhere she described members’ calls for a national stoppage as ‘foolish.’ Angela Foulkes mocked those who opposed the CTU approach as not living ‘in the real world.’[27]

Subsequent scholarly defences repeat these claims. Ellen Dannin suggests that the decision not to support a general strike was ‘based on the accurate assessment that the ECA could not be defeated.’ [28] David Grant, in his biography of Ken Douglas, heaps scorn on those who think resistance was possible:

At its very best, such a strike would have served as a symbol of defiance and would have gone some way to alleviate [workers] frustration. But there was no chance that the National government, with its huge parliamentary majority and its determination to ‘put unions in their place’, would have backtracked on this legislation irrespective of the intensity or size of any protest.[29]

Who knows? Of course a one-off general strike would not have defeated the government, but both Dannin and Grant put the options too starkly. It’s not always a matter, in class struggle, of simple victories or defeats: there are draws, inconclusive battles, skirmishes. Sustained industrial action would have put pressure on National’s backers, and might have galvanised workers’ confidence, thus slowing down other attacks and mobilising more to oppose the ECA. When the unions sent a signal they were serious about fighting they attracted people to their ranks – in April 1991 there were more than 400 public sector workers applying to join the PSA. [30] And the government were clearly expecting more of a fight to come – Bill Birch, minister of finance, had a letter sent to every household trying to promote the Bill, while the Labour Department and State Services Commission had prepared advice for the government warning that the ECA ‘could lead to costly and disruptive industrial action if it was not moderated.’ [31] So the ruling class expected a fight, and were clearly not confident they would get all they wanted. The CTU’s stance – and its actions sabotaging moves for local industrial action – ‘contributed to the government’s ability to pass the Employment Contracts Act with very little difficulty.’[32] As Shakespeare has Julius Ceasar put it, ‘cowards die many times before their death’; the treachery of the CTU leadership led to many slow deaths through the 1990s, as union after union was picked off and defeated.

We cannot know, outside the realms of Science Fiction, what would have happened in the alternate reality where the CTU did lead coordinated and concerted industrial action. But neither can those who claim to know it was doomed to failure. What we can do is look to international incidents in the same period, and see how a commitment to struggle – to fight when the other side is openly attacking ours – made defeat less likely. Thatcher, in Britain, had been brought down in the early 1990s by the riots, mass non-payments and disobedience that broke her government’s commitment to introducing a Poll Tax. In France in late 1995 mass strikes by public sector workers  forced a government back-down on pension reform, and slowed down and complicated ruling-class plans for neoliberal reform in that country. [33]

Industrial action against the ECA might not have resulted in all aspects of the Bill being withdrawn. It might not have won. But capitulation – the preferred CTU position – guaranteed defeat, and defeat on the worst terms possible for workers. An old Australian workers’ slogan needs to be adopted in this country: ‘if you don’t fight, you lose.’

Why did the leaders sell out?

What explains the abject surrender of the union leaders? How could this fighting movement have come to be led by such figures as Douglas and Foulkes? This question is of enormous theoretical and practical significance.

One answer is to do with their position. The union leaders, unlike the rank and file, did not have their jobs and their livelihood threatened by the ECA. Their class exists to mediate between capital and labour – to negotiate – and so felt most comfortable negotiating. When the time came to fight they knew no other way than to plead for more negotiation.

This explains the seeming contradiction of a figure like Ken Douglas – a self-professed Communist, and one-time militant bus driver – acting as such a break on workers’ activity. Union offices, in times of relative industrial peace, are full of left-wing ideas; when the class itself is in movement, however, it’s another story.

Treachery is an insufficient explanation for why our side lost in 1991, but it’s a necessary factor nonetheless. The leaders of the union bureaucracy went over, many of them, to the other side, becoming full-fledged members of the ruling class. Ken Douglas is now a wealthy man, and sat on the boards of Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. At the height of the struggle he was happy to address an $895-per head business function. Angela Foulkes went from the CTU to serve on the board of the Reserve Bank, the Remunerations Authority, and on the advisory panel to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Sue Piper, the defeatist mis-leader of the PSA, became chair of the Local Government Commission.

For their role in overseeing the defeat of the union movement, in other words, these individuals have enjoyed lives of comfort and reward within the system. Not for them casualised shifts in an unorganised call centre without penalty rates, or in forestry.

Douglas and Foulkes are rats, and should be thought of with contempt by all decent minded people. It’s telling that Douglas had to switch his favoured socialising spots from Porirua pubs to the Porirua Club, after an angry worker glassed him in the aftermath of 1991. [34] There was intense bitterness about this needless defeat for years afterwards.

The centrality of politics

But bitterness on its own isn’t enough to explain the defeat. Some other lessons matter.

Firstly, we need to see paid union officials as a separate layer from rank and file workers. Advanced capitalism ‘requires the development of a separate and specialised layer of fulltime officials within unions who negotiate the terms and conditions of employment of union members.’ [35] This layer will become separated, over time, from the members they represent: separated geographically and socially (in their offices and locations); separated from the lived experiences of members; separated – in their roles as negotiators – from the experience of working-class life.

So this layer, whatever the politics of its individual members, will not be a reliable source for leadership of struggle for workers’ interests. When we talk about ‘unionism’ this has to mean the self-activity of working people, and when we talk about unionists we need to mean workers who are members of trade unions.

Unions, then, will be sites of struggle – over politics, over organisation, over power. We need to argue for the greatest possible democratisation of union structures to allow rank and file control of union activity.

Most importantly, we need to argue for a wholly different concept of politics in the unions. The ‘common sense’ that brought about the defeat in 1991 – that social compromise and negotiation are the common-sense and modern way for unions to operate – has led to a further quarter-century of setbacks and stagnation for our unions. The employers treat unions with contempt not because they do not understand their own interests, but because they have no reason to fear us. The other side has been fighting a class war these last 25 years. We need to learn to respond accordingly.

And that means a political alternative. Those militants who had the revolutionary socialist politics necessary to see that ongoing mass strike action offered the only possibility of success were, in 1991, too fragmented, their forces too small, to offer a real alternative. So, as we re-build our unions, we need also to be rebuilding socialist political alternatives, ready to fight for leadership when the next struggle comes along. Douglas, Foulkes and their ilk could pick off and isolate the hundred or so organised militants they faced in 1991. It would have taken a revolutionary socialist party to be able to counter-pose a class-struggle strategy to the defeatism of the ECA.

The Employment Contracts Act represents an historic defeat for the New Zealand working class, and one that has shaped my generation’s experience of work and welfare. It marked the end of one long span of union organisation, from 1951 to 1991, and for the last twenty-five years we have been living with its legacy. The exact circumstances of this struggle will never be repeated, but its challenges for those who want workers to win – around fighting the conservatism of the union bureaucracy, around convincing workers to take industrial action, around offering a clear political alternative to the politics of class collaboration – will repeat themselves in different ways.

It’s our obligation, therefore, to learn its lessons for the struggles to come.


All images are taken from People’s Voice, and have been reproduced with kind permission from files held in the Beaglehole Room, Victoria University of Wellington Library. My thanks to Sue Hirst and the other staff in the Beaglehole Room, and to Don Archer and Barry Lee for their help with sourcing the images in this essay. Sue, Don and Barry are, of course, not responsible for the analysis I advance here.

[1] Quoted in People’s Voice 11th March 1991, p. 27.

[2] Quoted in People’s Voice, 27th March 1991, p. 38.

[3] Brian Roper, Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political Change in New Zealand Since 1935 (Melbourne: Thomson, 2005), p 83.

[4] Alan Johnson, Recent Wealth and Income Trends in New Zealand, February 2015; Simon Collins, ‘Families in Cars New Reality’, New Zealand Herald 18 November 2015.

[5] Trade Unions: Numbers and Membership Trends, NZ Parliamentary Support Research Paper, 2000.

[6] ‘Death Stalks the Forests’, Forestry Journal (UK), February 2014; Rowan McArthur, ‘Forestry Bosses have Blood on their Hands’,

[7] Ellen J. Dannin, Working Free: The Origins and Impact of New Zealand’s Employment Contracts Act (Auckland UP, 1997), p. 146.

[8] David Grant, Man for All Seasons: the life and times of Ken Douglas (Random House, 2010), p. 294. On trade unions and strategy from 1945 to the mid-1990s see Tom Bramble and Sarah Heal, ‘Trade Unions’ in Brian Roper and Chris Rudd (eds.) The Political Economy of New Zealand (Otago UP, 1997). I draw heavily on Bramble and Heal in my essay here.

[9] Quoted in Brian Roper, ‘Business Political Activity in New Zealand from 1990 – 2005’, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences, 1: 2, 161-183, p. 170.

[10] Gordon Campbell, ‘Bill’s Act of Faith’, New Zealand Listener and TV Times, 27th May 1991, p. 20.

[11] People’s Voice, 11th March 1991, p. 22. On unemployed workers’ organising see Cybèle Locke, Workers in the Margins (Bridget Williams Books, 2012), chapter 3.

[12] Quoted in Roper, ‘Business Political Activity’, p. 171.

[13] Quoted in Campell, ‘Bill’s Act of Faith’, p. 15.

[14] Minutes of the Second Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference, quoted in Bramble and Heal, p. 135.

[15] Both quoted in People’s Voice, 11th March 1991, p. 4.

[16] Quoted in People’s Voice, 17th April 1991, p. 16.

[17] A Worker’s Guide to the Employment Contracts Bill, Socialist Unity Party, 1991, pp. 3, 2, 13.

[18] People’s Voice, 11th March 1991.

[19] People’s Voice, 17th April 1991, p. 42.

[20] Brian Roper, ‘Leading from the Rear? A Theoretical Analysis of the Contingent Bureaucratic Conservatism of the NZCTU Leadership,’ Labour, Employment and Work in New Zealand, 1994, p. 270.

[21] People’s Voice, 11th March 1991, p. 21.

[22] ‘General Strike to Stop the Bill!’, Permanent Revolution Group leaflet, 26th April 1991.

[23] Quoted in Chris Trotter, No Left Turn (Random House 2007), p. 331.

[24] Dannin, Working Free, p. 147.

[25] Roper, ‘Leading from the Rear?’, p. 270.

[26] Bramble and Heal, p. 138.

[27] People’s Voice, 17th April 1991, p. 16.

[28] Dannin, p. 149.

[29] Grant, p. 316.

[30] Grant, p. 305.

[31] Grant, p. 306.

[32] Heal, p. 278.

[33] See Jim Wolfreys, ‘France in Revolt 1995 – 2005’, International Socialism, 109, 2006.

[34] Grant, p. 316.

[35] Roper, ‘Leading from the Rear?’, p. 266.