In the past year, tens of thousands of workers have taken strike action across New Zealand. On many occasions, it has been the first time that the trade unions involved have taken action in decades. Thousands more workers are also balloting for industrial action in the coming weeks and months.
Nurses, teachers, public servants, railway workers, cleaners, bus drivers, fast food workers, airport workers, dockers and even junior doctors have all stopped work in pursuit of improved wages and conditions. While low wages are a real concern, public sector workers have also demanded more funding for public services.
This increase in strikes comes after a long period of setback for the union movement, with very few strikes taking place over the previous decade, and a declining membership.
For years, the bosses have used a raft of anti-worker laws to help increase their profits. As a result, wage growth has been flat and hundreds of thousands of people have struggled with cost of living pressures. In the public sector, previous governments imposed a total wage freeze.
A Labour-led coalition government was elected in 2017 amidst high hopes that things would finally turn around. The new leader, Jacinda Ardern, promised to improve workers’ rights, tackle poverty and deal with the housing crisis. But she never explained where the money to pay for all this would come from.
Once elected, Ardern refused to increase taxes on big business and instead imposed a regime of ‘budget responsibility’, essentially a nicer name for continuing austerity.
Apart from some token gestures, Labour’s economic policies are not so different to their conservative National Party predecessors. In the past year for example, the wealth gap in New Zealand has continued to increase.
With nothing of substance being delivered, disappointment with the Labour Party has begun to set in. ‘Jacindamania’ has fizzled out against the backdrop of living conditions that continue to go backwards.
This has all happened while the economy is experiencing economic growth. Workers are fed up being lied to about there not being enough money. They are now looking to recoup some of their losses.
As strikes have become more commonplace, union membership has begun to recover. Overall, union numbers increased by 2.6% in the past year. For 25-34 year olds, union membership has increased by more than a third since June 2016!
This younger section of the workforce suffers the most from low pay, casualisation and housing stress, and it is this layer who have often been at the fore of the strikes.
There are lessons in this experience for workers in Australia. Firstly, the only way to address trade union membership decline is to make unions relevant again. This happens when unions actually engage in strikes and struggle over the wealth created. Strikes are the most effective way to reverse the trend towards wealth inequality.
Secondly, we cannot expect the election of a Labour government to solve any of our problems. Just like the New Zealand Labour Party, the Australian Labor Party is a party that serves the interests of big business.
When it comes to the budget, they will always prioritise lower taxes for corporations over increased wages and better public services for working class people. Unions need to reject the old line that “there is not enough money”.
We should demand a significant increase in corporate tax rates and the abolition of big business welfare. If companies say they cannot afford to operate under these conditions, we should demand that they open their books so that we can see where all the profits have gone.
These are all reasonable demands and if the Labour parties of the world will not support them, workers should move to create new workers’ parties that genuinely act in our interests.
Australian unions should follow the lead of their counterparts in New Zealand and take action themselves to win improved wages and conditions. We should not wait for Shorten to disappoint like Ardern has. We should get on the front foot now.
The weapon of the strike has the potential to win major concessions from bosses and governments, in addition to reversing the trend towards wealth inequality. Strikes can also give workers the confidence to fight for a different way of running society. It’s time for workers in Australia to rediscover the strike too.
By Anthony Main