When Comrades become Cossacks: Betraying the 1913 General Strike

This November is the 90th anniversary of the 1913 General Strike. As the most revolutionary event in NZ’s history we have a duty to commemorate the dedication and bravery of the workers involved, to remember those workers who died, and to continue to draw the lesson that the police and the state forces are the class enemies of workers. The Exhibition “Cossacks and Comrades” jointly sponsored by the Auckland University of Technology Institute of Public Policy and the NZ Police, along with a number of unions, to ‘commemorate’ the “1913 Waterfront Dispute” is a falsification of history that seeks to relegate class struggle to the museum and promote the bosses’ agenda of ‘class peace’. For unions to co-sponsor and fund such an event is an act of class betrayal.

On Monday the 24th of November rank and file members of UNITE union and their supporters picketed the Comrades and Cossacks conference and exhibition at Auckland University of Technology. The 20 or so picketers objected to the way union bosses and the police were co-sponsoring this 'commemoration' of the 1913 General Strike, an event which saw state violence against workers on a scale never equaled in the rest of New Zealand history.

Comrades and Cossacks had as its centrepiece the release of new police research on the 1913 strike. In a press release promoting the event, academic Cath Casey, police ‘strategic analyst’ Cathie Collinson and police spokeswoman Catherine Gardner described the research as a contribution to “The international review of police of models of reservism”. An article in Auckland's Central Leader paper quoted Cathie Collinson "This is a crucial piece of research because we need to know what works for different policing styles." The Central Leader stated that Casey and Collinson are visiting various police forces and research institutes around the world to “further their understanding of policing methods”.

The General Strike of 1913 has much to teach the student of policing. Anxious about the growing appeal of the 12,000-strong and openly revolutionary ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, the Massey government of the day mobilised all the forces at its disposal to defeat the wharfies and miners who spearheaded the strike. As the police patrolled with long batons and the army set up machine gun posts in the large cities, thousands of farmers were turned into ‘special’ police, and put to work attacking workers and working the waterfront.

Comrades and Cossacks comes at a time when ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation is giving the New Zealand state sweeping new repressive powers, and the New Zealand police are aggressively persecuting opponents of New Zealand’s part in the US’s War of Terror. The lockup of Ahmed Zaoui and the persecution of anti-war activists like Bruce Hubbard (see article), Jarrod Phillips and Paul Hopkinson gives the talk of Collinson and Casey a chilling ring.

Comrades and Cossacks has caused a furore amongst unionists and left activists around the country. In an attempt to defuse complaints, exhibition supporter and Alliance leader Mike Treen e- mailed Global Peace and Justice Auckland (GPJA) members to tell them that 'Comrades and Cossacks' was not sponsored by the police. In fact, as an angry GPJA member pointed out in a reply to Treen, the police logo was plastered all over the promotional material for the exhibition.

UNITE leader and Alliance member Matt McCarten e-mailed GPJA members to tell them that UNITE's rank and file members were 'ignorant', and were only planning to picket the exhibition because they wanted to 'suppress working class history'.

On the day a number of the unionists who had been scheduled to appear at the exhibition did not turn up. Others walked out in solidarity with the picketers. About a dozen uniformed police attended the exhibition, and there was a police presence outside to stop the picketers gaining access. Matt McCarten emerged from the exhibition dressed in a business suit and flanked by two well-built cops, and proceeded to abuse the picketers, shouting 'you're not real workers - go away!'. After being confronted by angry picketers McCarten retreated behind the boys in blue, with whom he joked and chatted before disappearing back into the exhibition.

In the aftermath of this furore, UNITE members around the country are holding the Unite leadership to account at a number of AGMs. The Alliance also faces an embarrassing internal debate now that key members of the Alliance ‘left’ like former Trotskyists Mike Treen and Len Richards who would like to see the Alliance become a ‘Socialist Alliance’ have been associated with the Exhibition.

The involvement of Alliance leaders in Comrades and Cossacks is no surprise. After all, from 1999 to 2002 the party helped to run a capitalist state, as the junior partner in a Labour-led government. Alliance MPs voted for the anti-strike provisions of the Employment Relations Act, for the denial of summer dole to students, and for the participation of New Zealand troops in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The Alliance’s social democratic ideology made its leaders believe they could reconcile the interests of bosses and workers by taming the capitalist state. When the interests of workers and bosses inevitably collided, they chose the interests of the bosses, and used the state against workers.

The Anderton-instigated split and the electoral disaster of 2002 have made some Alliance members reconsider their ideas, but the leaders of the party have continued on the old path. Ex-MPs and their staffers have moved from government into the bureaucracy of the trade union movement and have merely promoted a slightly more activist-orientated, ‘left’ version of the same old social democracy. These bureaucrats played a leading role in Auckland’s anti-war movement, helping to ensure that the movement stuck to lobbying the Labour government to act against the war rather than mobilising workers and their supporters to take direct action against US government and military facilities in New Zealand.

Recent support for the racist cabotage campaign (see article) and for the ANZAC-led occupation of the Solomons shows that Alliance party policy is still based in a misplaced faith in the common interests of New Zealand workers and New Zealand capitalists. Comrades and Cossacks only symbolises the bankruptcy of the party’s social democratic politics. Alliance members should learn from history, dump social democracy for revolutionary socialism, and get rid of Beehive retreads like McCarten and Treen.

We need a real Socialist Alliance that pushes workers’ direct action in New Zealand and links up with and learns from with the revolutionary movements shaking South America. Socialist groups already in existence can show Alliance members the way forward by forming a nationwide United Front to campaign on burning issues and show the revolutionary alternative to the discredited ideology of social democracy. It’s time to rediscover the militant labour heritage of 1913, and the revolutionary Marxist heritage of 1917.

From Class Struggle 53 November 03/January 04

No comments: