Hard on the heels of Air NZ threats to outsource the jobs of over 600 engineers, it now proposes to outsource the jobs of 120 cleaners, and is looking at doing the same to over 400 administration and cabin crew – over 1200 in all. The Engineers union (EPMU) has totally failed to defend workers jobs, selling some jobs in the hope of keeping others. All along it has relied on appealing to the public to put pressure the government to stop the job losses on the grounds that Air NZ is the national carrier. This is a strategy doomed to failure. It will not stop future jobs losses. The 200 jobs saved now could go next year. The time has come for Air NZ workers to reject the unions ‘partnership’ with Air NZ management and the government and to build a rank and file strike committee across all the unions involved. But rather than walk off the job and leave the airline to lock them out and replace them, workers need to look at what workers in Latin America have done, and workers in the US are planning, workplace occupations and work to rule.
We need an all-up national Congress to debate the way forward!
Air NZ attacks its workforce
After 600 jobs were threatened by Air NZ management in October, in February the Engineers union EPMU came up with a deal to save 300 engineers jobs by sacrificing more than 200 jobs, shift conditions and wages. At that point it looked like a done deal so Air NZ management announced the redundancy of 120 cleaning staff. But then a handful of Christchurch Engineers refused to sign up. The wage cuts and loss of conditions were not acceptable. Air NZ’s response was to threaten to close the Christchurch workshop.
Within a day the workers voting ‘no’ had folded and the deal was done. 300 Engineers jobs would be saved because the frame maintenance would not be outsourced overseas. No sooner had this been confirmed, Air NZ announced a further body blow to workers. 470 administration and cabin crew are to be made redundant and some of their jobs outsourced to foreign workers.
Air NZ management’s approach is a typical capitalist response to the situation many airlines are in. They are driven in their role as agents of capital to restore profits for the owners. Worldwide airline industry profits have fallen over the last decade, as part of the general trend, (Marx described this as the ‘tendency for the rate of profit to fall’). Basically the airlines have to spend more on fuel and replacement aircraft (constant capital) while the airline workforces are cut through decreased staffing levels, casualisation (variable capital), yet the workers are the only source of new value!
The capitalist class takes their crisis to the workers. The airlines try to restore profits through cuts to the workers wages, conditions and through efficiency gains – to increase the rate of exploitation. Airlines have also sought alliances, amalgamations, and buy outs to gain efficiency through greater economies of scale (Marx - the concentration and centralisation of capital). Their struggle to restore profits, at the expense of workers, is the guts of the capitalist crisis. Maintaining, cleaning, stewarding and flying the aircraft are jobs that can be done by outsourcing to the cheapest labour.
Air NZ management hope to restore profits by making workers redundant and finding cheaper ways to maintain, service and operate their aircraft. These are attacks on all airline workers, but more than that the whole working class, as the defeats of airline workers in any country weaken the international labour movement. Typically, the response of the unions, in particular the EPMU that covers most of the Engineers, is to negotiate the loss of some jobs to save others. They appeal to patriotism by blaming foreign workers for taking local jobs. They demand that the government (especially when it is the majority shareholder) acts in the national interest to ‘save jobs’.
The EPMU response is a sell out!
The Engineers union (EPMU) response to the crisis has been get a consultant in to respond to Air NZ management’s proposal. Essentially the union has said: ‘we can restructure the workforce better than employers can. We can restore profitability and do it without as many jobs losses as Air NZ management proposed’. Like it has done on other occasions the EPMU is doing the job of management or employers in response to a crisis of profitability.
Should the working class be grateful that the EPMU and the Airline cooperated to save 300 jobs by selling another 200 jobs? Or that the remaining workers will have to work harder, longer, more unsocial hours for less pay? Loss of jobs or conditions is a loss, and a failure of the union to offer anything better. If jobs go or if conditions of overtime and regular work hours are lost, that is a sell-out by the EPMU. To protect some jobs at the loss of others (jobs and conditions) is trading the livelihoods of those workers.
So when some of the Christchurch engineers voted ‘no’ to the union/management deal to ‘save jobs’ they were told they were the ones selling out the 300 jobs! This is where divide and rule gets you. NZ workers pitted against Chinese workers, and Auckland workers pitted against Christchurch workers, instead of everyone being united against the boss!
And while the Engineers are infighting over the price of jobs sold, the other Air NZ workers, cleaners, cabin staff and other in the firing line, are left to fight alone. Why is this? Why does a union operate like it knows better than the boss how to run the company?
Why, because in the EPMU, the union is in a ‘partnership’ with the employers. In the view of Andrew Little, a view shared by the CTU top officials, there are ‘good’ capitalists (the ones they can work with) and ‘bad’ capitalists, (the ones where the unions can do a better “management” job). This is the usual practice of a union that is part of the union bureaucracy and functions as the labour lieutenants of the capitalists in the labour movement. It is a union that is locked into the capitalist system and fails to challenge the capitalists’ attacks on workers. But like a new paint job on a less fuel-efficient airplane, the EPMU leadership cannot hide from workers that rates of profit are falling. Capitalism demands from the working class ever increased efficiency and ever rising exploitation.
The need for rank and file control of unions
The treacherous leadership of the Labour Party and the EPMU has left workers with no choice but to organise independently of the established leadership. The real union saying: “An injury to one is an injury to all”, takes a class approach to the attacks on workers. Any cuts will do lasting damage to workers as a class – those jobs, and the conditions sold out will be lost forever. Jobs will not re-appear at Air NZ for the next generation of workers. When workers return to work in the coming months, and look around themselves, then they will see less workmates, and worse conditions.
To change this, workers need to be independent of the state. The response of the government to the Air NZ deal proves that the state belongs to the capitalists. This exposes the capitalist nature of the NZ State and the Labour Party. The NZ Government remains the majority shareholder of Air NZ, a hangover from the last time it was baled out by the government. But this was just to rescue Air NZ to prepare it for privatisation. At no time has the Labour Party leadership taken any action to protect workers jobs; instead they give their backing to the strategy of the EPMU to cut jobs and restore capitalist profits. The whole point of this massive job shedding and cost cutting is to get Air NZ ready to be snapped up by one of its much bigger rivals.
Overseas the one sure way that workers have protected themselves from the collapse of inefficient or unprofitable capitalist companies has been to occupy and run the workplaces themselves, sometimes demanding no compensation to the bankrupt capitalists.
In Argentina when factories and Hotels went bankrupt, workers took over and ran run the places as cooperatives. In Venezuela, whole industries like oil, aluminium, paper etc are now led by plants run jointly by workers and the state. But instead of fighting union by union, or plant by plant, these occupations combine the unions and draw in wide support from working class communities. The struggle over how these occupations can go from occupations to genuine socialist property is then up for grabs.
A similar strategy applied in NZ would see unions stepping outside the ERA provisions which put strict limits on strike action, to back one another up. Occupations of Air NZ workshops would quickly bring the airline to a halt. The wider working class can offer support to Air NZ workers. Picket lines of hundreds or thousands of unionists in Auckland and Christchurch, activists from other unions (NDU, SFWU, Unite etc) and unorganised workers could defend the engineering sites for the benefit of the whole working class.
If all airline workers came out together they could return to work on their terms. They could prove that they could keep the airline running efficiently and safely. The rising cost of jet fuel could be solved by doing deals with Venezuelan workers who operate its oil industry, or with China which is currently doing huge bilateral deals for oil, gas, soy beans etc with the Latin American governments of Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela and soon, Evo Morales in Bolivia.
The whole thrust of workers control is to replace the capitalist management and its union ‘partners’ with industry that is democratically planned to meet social needs rather that private profit.
All-up Congress of rank and file unionists to defend jobs and conditions!
- Because the EPMUs deal signals only the start and not the end of job selling, a strike committee made up of rank and file representatives of all Air NZ workers is urgently needed. But this fight cannot be isolated to the airlines.
- Build links with other workers whose jobs are also in danger like at Fonterra. Prepare working class support for self-defence pickets.
- What is needed is an all-up congress of rank and file unionists to debate the way forward.
- Prepare to occupy the engineering workshops and hangars!
- For working class communities to build mass pickets to defend the occupations!
- Put aircraft maintenance, service and operation under workers control, without compensation to the private shareholders of Air New Zealand!
From Class Struggle 65 Feb/March 2006