Nationalise Feltex under Workers Control!

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Abandoned carpet looms at Feltex mill in Riccarton, Christchurch

ANZ bank put Feltex into receivership and it is bought by Godfrey Hirst. ANZ gets its 160 m back but the shareholders (boo hoo) and workers get the shit end of the deal! What this proves is the rule of Aussie finance capital in NZ. ANZ and Hirst conspired to get the best deal for them both. ANZ came out of it with its loan repaid, and Hirst got Feltex at a bankruptcy fire sale price. Hirst was then able to take over Feltex without any obligations to the workers. It’s a model of how finance capital work, destroying the value of less efficient competitors, grabbing whatever assets are worth something, and selling off everything else.

When Feltex was put in receivership the workers at Riccarton (Christchurch() responded with a brief occupation of the canteen to get their redundancy payouts protected.

A member of the CWG wrote a letter in support of the occupation Indymedia:

“As a former spinner who worked at the Riccarton Plant many years ago, I support the workers occupying the factory AND keeping it in production. By keeping it producing they prove that it is the workers that run the company not the incompetent management or the big banks.

It doesnt matter which capitalist company ends up buying the bankrupt firm, the workers will get screwed. The Aussie banks, Godfrey Hirst and the kiwi Bros Turner are all in it to make a profit from the workers labour. Its the workers value that built up the company and it is the workers who should reap the rewards of their labour not the bosses or the banks.

They should follow the example of workers in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela and demand that Feltex be nationalised with no compensation to the ANZ or to the shareholders who are only gambling with the labour and lives of the workers.

Nationalisation would require the state to refinance the company to make it viable and competitive. But what could be a smarter investment decision by this Labour Government than to add value to the wool off the sheep’s back?

But this process needs to be under the control of the workers themselves. After all the state works in the interests of the bosses not workers. The workers must insist that instead of the investment going as a subsidy to the bosses (so that the firm can be sold off later), it should be a public shareholding that is held in trust for ALL wage workers and does not get allocated to individual workers so they can flog it off on the stock exchange.

The workers should decide how much of the earnings of Feltex could then be shared out equally among the Feltex workers to pay a living wage and the rest would go to finance growth and build up the public shareholding.

I'm sure the workers at Feltex, with support from other workers, have more than enough guts, experience and ingenuity to figure out how to make this a goer and work out what needs to be done along the way. Like what our Latin American brothers and sisters are doing, it could be the start of something big.” 

Feltex employed 785 staff at yarn spinning plants in Lower Hutt (200), Feilding (85), Dannevirke (150) , a woven carpet manufacturing plant in Christchurch (170), and a scouring plant in Kakariki (45). The receivership meant that those made redundant lost most of their redundancy payouts. A union delegate talked about the reaction of the workers to this news.

(Oct 5) “Stuffed around for 2 years” says Feltex Delegate at Kakariki, while NDU officials offer support and condolences:

‘Workers from the closed Feltex scouring plant in Kakariki are shocked and angry, says site delegate, Joseph Murray.

The 32 plant workers, all members of the Meat Workers Union, from the scouring plant near Marton, went back to work for the last time this morning to pick up their possessions under the watchful eye of security guards.

"I feel bloody sorry for the other guys, especially those who have recently gotten a mortgage. Now where are they going to go? There aren't any jobs in Martin and there's a 10 week WINZ stand down."

Mr Martin said that the workers could receive $15,000 in redundancy from the Godfrey Hirst deal. However, like many of the long term staff before the receivership, he was entitled to a redundancy of up to $35,000 based on his annual earnings. He said that is was a double blow, as his redundancy would have been higher two years ago as his annual earnings had dropped significantly due to the poor board management of Feltex over the past two years.

Representatives of the 750 National Distribution Union and Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union Feltex members visited the worksite today to give them support and condolences.’

The CWG posted another comment on Indymedia (now edited and enlarged)

“The NDU leadership can’t win this one because the Aussie banks and companies it loves to hate have legally locked them out of the future of Feltex.

When the receivership hit the NDU was already on the 'back foot' demanding that the redundant jobs should be sold at the highest price! To get on the 'front foot', the NDU should be demanding that its mates in government back the nationalisation of Feltex in lieu of lost redundancy payouts. At the very least this will create a debate about why Labour is talking ‘buy kiwi' but not defending its own kiwi workers jobs, even in the SOEs or in Air NZ (see article).

Of course we know that Labour will not do this unless put under huge pressure (pay up for the pledge card!). The government owns the majority of Air NZ and its not protecting the 100s of jobs at risk there. Why should it nationalise Feltex when it has an interest in seeing Godrey Hirst restructure Feltex to make it efficient and win more export orders?

It will only intervene if the workers themselves take a stand and get huge public support for a state buyout. They would really have to go on the 'front foot'. Facing closure they would have to decide that it is better to occupy and fight than go down the road to look for other jobs.

If the NDU swings a higher redundancy (its mates may cough up to make the NDU look good) then that may close off this option. If not, it will depend on how many want to fight and who will support them. That's something that only the workers concerned and their supporters can decide.

The time is long overdue to demand that the Labour government backs its own statements about keeping production in NZ and developing kiwi design and technology. All those privatised workers in the 1980s and 1990s that went down the road never really got the chance to fight for their jobs. This should not be motivated by NZ nationalism i.e. protecting 'our' jobs from foreigners, but as a step towards workers control of production internationally.

None of the factory occupations in Argentina or even Venezuela (under a sympathetic government) were straight forward or happened overnight. In most cases workers had to occupy for months or even years facing long legal wrangles and often evictions. Some lost, some won. The main example in Naomi Klein’s documentary ‘The Take’, a heavy engineering shop, was not typical. 'Brukman' was more typical. That was basically 30 women machinists putting up one hell of a fight with 3,000 supporters. Now instead of making designer garments they make working clothes.

What could Feltex do with 100 workers and 10,000 supporters?” 

Postscript: (8 November)

The occupation of the Riccarton workers fizzled out quickly. They went back to work so that those not made redundant would be re-hired on the same pay and conditions. That took some steam out of the fight! And no doubt there are some other jobs out there for redundant workers that took further heat off a serious occupation. Obviously NZ workers are not feeling the total devastation that has led to occupations of factories under workers control in Latin America. And most still have illusions in the ability of the unions to negotiate better redundancies and conditions under the bosses ERA. But the ruthless lockouts and closures of the imperialist monopolies that now own most of NZ business outright will increasingly become the norm, and it is now time for the militant sections of the union movement to start making plans for a national rank and file movement to challenge the class collaborationist leadership of the CTU. For a National Rank and File movement to Challenge the class collaborationist CTU leadership!

From Class Struggle 69 Oct/Nov 2006

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