In 1974 an Auckland shipowner, Leo Dromgoole, went to court to get an injunction against the Seamen’s Union and Northern Drivers Union. The Seamen had a dispute with Dromgoole over his Waiheke Island commuter ship, and the Drivers had been refusing to deliver oil in solidarity their fellow unionists. The Court sided with Dromgoole and ordered the union to stop “interfering”. The unionists ignored the order and so on 1 July their leader, Bill Andersen, was sent to Mt Eden prison. What happened next shocked everyone: thousands of workers – drivers and seafarers, but also factory and construction workers – downed tools when they learned of Andersen’s imprisonment and walked off the job. Thousands of workers marched down Queen Street to Andersen’s hearing the next day. Within 24 hours their action had forced results: Anderson was released, the injunction was a dead letter, and a compromise had been hurried through.
If this seems a world away from 2019, it tells us something important about where real power lies in society. When workers were organised and confident of their strength they could crush an unjust court ruling – and the jailing of one of their leaders – by demonstrating their power. Future attempts to use injunctions against the Northern Drivers Union, in 1979, came to nothing when they were again ignored. Fast-forward forty years, and we see the same principle applied in reverse: no matter how many protections and guaranteed conditions exist in employment law, they mean little in reality to workers without written contracts or the confidence union coverage gives to insist on your rights.
Labour and the Greens claim to be committed to what Jacinda Ardern calls “transformative and compassionate government”. And they ask workers, students and the oppressed to vote for them and then sit tight and wait for that transformation to happen. Be patient, the message goes. As Ardern told The Spinoff last year: “transformation does take time.”
In this, Labour reflects the common-sense idea promoted by academic political science and journalism that it is Parliament and politicians who run society. But the story from 1974 shows how this is only a small part of the truth. More important than who is in government is what is going on outside the Beehive, in workplaces and on the streets.
The most important parts of our life and run in entirely undemocratic ways. Work, where we spend a big chunk of our waking life, is run effectively as a dictatorship. Our bosses decide what we do, when, and how; they determine the conditions in a workplace. Whether we have a job or not makes a far bigger impact on our lives – our ability to feed ourselves and our loved ones – than who is in Parliament. And yet we have precious little control over our own labour power. Waged work then determines how we live, where we live, and in what manner. All of this is outside of the realm of democracy. And landlords and banks can change everything again, all depending on where we sit in class society.
Higher up in society the heads of big corporations, the most powerful in the ruling elite, unelected judges, state officials and military officers all have enormous power in shaping society. Business backlash against the mild reforms proposed by Helen Clark in 1999 led to Labour buckling and spending 2000 wooing the so-called “business community”. Noise about “business confidence” – a totally meaningless phrase describing the ruling-class sulking – was used against Ardern in similar ways last year. The ruling class are hugely wealthy – the Drury family, of Xero fame, have a net worth of $1billion; John Key has a net worth of $70million – and can use their power and privilege to force a hearing. They can buy the attention and the loyalty of MPs, and donations to political parties give them further power. If a reforming government gets out of line then capital flight, disruption, sanctions and interference from other capitalist states can rein them in, or topple them. Just look at the long and bloody history of US meddling in Latin America, playing out just this week in backing for an attempted coup in Venezuela.
That enormous wealth comes from hard work, as the cliché goes, but it’s the hard work of others. It’s the labour of workers, not their bosses, that produces wealth. And this is where the real division in society lies. The fight for real change occurs every time we challenge the bosses’ supremacy and their social priorities in the workplace. We saw this in 2018 with strikes in transport, hospitals, schools, railways, ports. And it is in active contests over power – in workplace strikes, but also in demonstrations, land occupations, and self-activity – that workers make gains.
Labour asks us to be patient, but inactivity gives the rich and powerful time and space to organise and push their own agenda. The reality is that we have experienced almost 35 years of almost one-sided class war, as the rich have been given tax cuts, attacks on union rights, privatisation, user-pays and environmentally-damaging ‘reforms’ under both Labour and National governments. The strikes of 2018 show a different possibility. Workers acting in their own interests regardless of who is in government can hit the powerful where it hurts – in the bottom line. Those victories can then give ordinary people a taste of a world where that potential power could apply in society more generally. In other words, rather than looking to salvation through Parliament, ordinary people exercise collective and democratic control over all aspects of life: in workplaces, homes and communities. Waves of teachers strikes to come offer another powerful example.
Labour and the Greens raised ordinary people’s expectations in 2017, and 2018 saw how those raised expectations gave us the confidence to strike in greater numbers. But 2019 has been full of calls for moderation and patience as the government looks to reassure big business. To avoid demoralisation and more of the status quo we need to rebuild a socialist current in the workers’ movement, and to revive ideas of militant strikes by rank-and-file workers, both to get the changes we so desperately need and to revive real power.