|Supermarket workers during lockout in Auckland|
A staunch struggle of the workers whose guts and loyalty to the union could have seen them take control of the dispute out of the hands of NDU leadership with its loyalty to the Labour Party and the legal partnership model of industrial relations where workers and bosses negotiate outcomes in the employment court, better known by revolutionaries as ‘class collaboration’.
On the face of it this dispute ended in a draw since the workers who stayed staunch survived the vicious lockout by Woolworths (Australian owner of Progressive Enterprises in NZ) and returned proudly to their work on better conditions than they left. But at the same time Woolworths came out of it with a sweeter deal than it deserved and has a more dominant position in the industry then before with its manoeuvre to block Stephen Tindall’s plan to expand the Warehouse as a major competitor. The only clear winner was the NDU leadership and the Labour Party with the embedment of the ERA and its class collaborationist philosophy of ‘partnership’ between business and labour.
It could have been an outright win for the workers
A number of aspects of the struggle were bad. From the start the workers didn’t run the show. It was run by the NDU leadership of Laila Harre and her allies from the Alliance, Matt McCarten and Co. That meant that it was always going to stay inside the legal limits of the ERA. So when the boss locked the striking workers out, Harre countered with law suits. One to challenge the lockout, one to challenge the use of ‘scabs’ to do the jobs of the locked- out workers, and one to challenge Woolworths refusal to agree to ‘conciliation’.
This is what we would expect a union leadership committed to a ‘partnership’ with the bosses to do. Substitute the class struggle for a legal struggle within the bosses’ law. Insofar as the law can be used to strengthen the workers fight, of course we should use it. But when it stops workers from using their class power then workers need to be in the position to weigh up their options themselves. This did not happen. The legal route meant that the lockout dragged on for 4 weeks without any real workers involvement in the decision making. It got bogged down in a legal battle played out in front of the media where Laila Harre tried to pressure Woolworths into a settlement by turning public opinion against the Aussie company. In other words, the NDU leadership showed that it had no faith in the power of the union membership by using public opinion to pressure the boss and the Labour Government.
Meanwhile Woolworths ignored the pickets at its distribution centres and set up ‘hubs’ or scab-run distribution centres at key supermarkets. The workers attempts to counter this were limited by the officials to token ‘flying pickets’ of NDU workers and assorted supporters of supermarkets and distribution centres with flyers appealing to drivers and the public to boycott Woolworth stores. While many truck drivers themselves members of the NDU or in solidarity with the NDU workers refused to cross these token pickets, most of the goods got through.
If the NDU leadership tactics did produce a settlement where the workers didn’t lose pay and conditions, it failed to get its central demand of a MECCA, and it let Woolworths off the hook when its custom was on the wane. If the lockout had been run by the rank and file much more could have been won. It was necessary for a rank and file strike committee to have been formed from the outset to let the striking workers democratically decide what tactics were necessary to shut down Woolworths and defeat its vicious lockout.
Winning tactics have to be ‘illegal’
First, the union should have abandoned the restrictions of the law when the bosses did. The bosses ignored the law to employ scabs. Instead of challenging the bosses in court, the rank and file could have mobilised mass pickets against the scab distributional centres. Once the bosses locked the workers out, instead of challenging this in court and keeping a picket outside the now abandoned distribution centres, workers could have been delegated into flying pickets to go to all the major worksites around Auckland and recruit workers to form the backbone of 24 hour community pickets around every Woolworths supplier, hub and supermarket.
Second, to hit Woolworths where it hurt it was necessary to build mass ‘Community’ pickets at all the major outlets and supermarkets to stop the trucks. These pickets were illegal under the ERA, but mass numbers of hundreds of unionists organised by local NDU rank and file teams could have had a major impact. The NDU leadership obviously rejected this tactic as undermining the legal challenges it was mounting in court. But the rank and file should have been able to weigh up these two tactics themselves and make the decision.
Third, the decision of the NDU officials not to try to involve the supermarket workers, also in the process of negotiating an agreement, was entirely based on the legalities and public opinion. They judged that the support of supermarket workers would have been weak given the low level of union membership, and that the loss of members due to the supermarket managers hostility to the distribution workers strike, may have led to a rejection of strike action, or worse a strike that led to a second lockout. On top of that the NDU officials wanted to sign off on the supermarket agreement anyway and would have been worried how the court would view a sympathy strike.
A rank and file strike committee could have changed all that. Mass pickets at the supermarkets would have tested the level of support from supermarket workers and made the opening of a second front against Woolworths a possibility. In that event, whatever the outcome, the union could have forged links at the level of the rank and file as a base for unity at the next rounds of negotiations.
Get rank and file control of the union!
Had a rank and file strike committee existed, and had these ‘illegal’ tactics been adopted, the company (which abused the law anyway) would have been under much more pressure to concede not only a MECA but much better agreements than the workers got in the end. The ERA would have been invoked by both the company and the NDU leadership to enforce a settlement, but the gains would have been won outside labour’s industrial law leg-iron, and outside the control of the union officials who are the bosses’ police inside the labour movement.
However, before this sort of victory can happen, the rank and file need to assert their democratic right to run the union and to elect delegates and officials that are mandated by the rank and file, recallable immediately when they fail to follow the members’ mandate, and paid no more than the average wage on the jobsite.
Break with the class collaborationist partnership between bosses and the CTU!
Break with the Labour Party aligned CTU bureaucracy.
For militant, democratic unions under the control of the rank and file!
From Class Struggle 69 Oct/Nov 2006