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When the work-force took over the works!

category aotearoa / pacific islands | workplace struggles | non-anarchist press author Thursday December 01, 2005 07:47author by D.P. Report this post to the editors

Taken from Melbourne Indymedia

Sometimes to know what to do in the future, we’ve got to learn how we won things in the past.

Sometimes to know what to do in the future, we’ve got to learn how we won things in the past. Labour historian Dean Parker looks at the first time workers in New Zealand organised a sit in.

In the back files of the “New Zealand Herald”, Jan 14, 1937, there’s a photo of a crowd standing and seated round a young Maori bloke. The young bloke is strumming a guitar, grinning and singing away. Some of the crowd gathered round are draped in blankets. Some wear hats. The photo was taken inside the Westfield freezing works, just off the Great South Road at Southdown. The occasion was New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, our first workers’ occupation.

A Labour government had introduced a 40-hour working week, but freezing workers found they were still doing a 44-hour week without any compensation in pay. When their grievance was rejected by the freezing companies, the men began a go-slow on the job. The response from the companies was to threaten to dismiss the work-force.

The response to this, from the men, was unprecedented in New Zealand industrial history. After attending a morning stop-work meeting, the men returned to work at one in the afternoon. In the evening, a large number of them went home. But others stayed on in the canteens. By nine o’clock that night practically every man had returned to the works, bringing food and blankets. And then they took over the works.

At Westfield, Southdown, Horotiu and the cool stores on King’s Wharf, they simply locked themselves in, setting themselves up as occupiers. It made absolute sense. If you strike and walk out, your job can be taken by scab labour. Take over the works lock, stock and barrel and the problem simply doesn’t arise.

The men put up hammocks in the fellmongery, played cards by candlelight in the canteen and were visited by wives and girlfriends—who conversed with them through locked gates. “Some of the men listened to the gramophone,” reported the Herald from the King’s Wharf cool stores, “others played cards or smoked, and many tried to sleep on tables or the floor, using coats or blankets to soften their hard beds. “All were cheerful and seemed unworried by the prospect of spending the night in the works.” The freezing companies demanded the police evict the industrial squatters.

But the Labour government, brand-new to office and rooted solidly in the union movement, declined to march in the police. With the occupation heading into its third day, Tim Armstrong, the Minister of Labour, was sent up to Auckland to negotiate a deal. Armstrong was a former miner and union militant. He’d left school at 11 and taken a job cutting fl ax. He’d worked at Waihi where he’d been sacked for organising the mine workers. In Auckland, he promised the striking freezing workers they would get justice.

The freezing companies, however, were adamant. They would not budge on the matter of the extra hours being worked. They refused to concede either shorter hours or better pay. So Armstrong simply imposed a settlement. He directed the companies to pay the men overtime for every extra hour worked. The companies could do nothing but obey. The press was furious. At the General Election the following year, the Labour Party was returned with an increased majority.

Why do Helen Clark and Michael Cullen kow-tow so to business leaders?

Wasn’t it their first year in office that saw them running off to reassure business leaders nothing untoward was going to happen? Wasn’t that Michael Cullen lamenting at the last election about the injustice of business leaders advising a National vote after all Labour had done for them? And now it’s the Greens on their knees in front of the Chambers of Commerce.

Each year over the past five business profits have risen by 11 percent. That’s each year. By contrast, over that entire period, wages have risen just over 8%. Director’s fees for this year alone have risen over 20% while working people work longer hours and get further into debt.

Over the past five years the rich have increased their net worth at a greater annual rate than at any time under National. Meanwhile, according to a UNICEF report, we have the fourth-highest child poverty rate of 26 developed countries.

SO who saved Labour’s bacon?

The hundreds of thousands of south Auckland and west Auckland workers, trudging wearily off to the polls and voting once more for the crowd least likely to harm their lives and their families. Will it be pay-back time, then, from a grateful Labour government? No, we all know it’ll be more of the same. We have to turn to ourselves.

It’s time to put up the hammocks in the fellmongery and tell business leaders to get stuffed. They’ve had their snouts in the trough long enough. We have to set up our own Workers’ Charter with a fighting organisation to go with it, an organisation that we’re part of and which will mobilise behind every worker’s struggle for a decent life.

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