The protest rally, organised by the Council of Trade Unions, involved many unions including the Public Service Association, the Nurses Federation, the Service and Food Workers Union, the Maritime Union and Unite to name but a few. The many coloured flags, balloons and barbeques created a family friendly environment that seemed almost carnival but the mood of the workers was anything but.
Many speakers spoke with outrage of workers who were sacked under the 90 day law without explanation, often within hours of their 90 day trial period expiring. Workers were being threatened with redundancy or dismissal if they refused to accept cuts to their pay and working conditions. And, workers belonging to a union were being threatened with dismissal if they remained members of a union.
Though they were very quick to criticise the National government they failed to mention that, under Labour, in real terms wages and living conditions of the working people did not generally improve . Apart from a few minor increases in the minimum wage and the introduction of paid parental leave Labour did virtually nothing for the working people. Most of the more punitive aspects of the Employment Contracts Act were incorporated into Labour’s Employment Relations Act, such as restrictions on the right to strike and a ban on sympathy strikes.
Other speakers spoke of growing unemployment figures with one speaker mentioning that the 1999-2008 Labour-led government had reduced the unemployment rate to around 16,000 but the National-led government’s policies had led to the unemployment rate escalating to about 160,000 people. Though these speakers were trying to claim that Labour had created nearly full employment they failed to mention that most of these workers were employed in minimum wage jobs that provided little, or no, job security, few rights and wages that didn’t even cover the basic necessities of life. Even before the 2008 recession most of the emergency assistance being provided by Work and Income (such as food grants and power re-connections) was being given to working people, not beneficiaries.
The workers at the protest rally came from a wide diversity of backgrounds and ethnic groups, including Pacific Islanders, Maori and women. It is the industries in which these groups are most strongly represented that have been hit hardest by the recession, mass redundancies, wage freezes and cuts and the 90 day law: the government, hospitality, service and retail industries. The situation being faced by these workers isn’t being helped by the news that the United States is facing a double dip recession and the Chinese economy is slowing down as growth rates decline.
Though the CTU organised protest in Wellington was the largest turnout for a protest of any sort in Wellington since the Hikoi on the Seabed and Foreshore several years earlier it simply lacked any fire, any hint of militancy or real strategy for defeating this attack on workers.
This was in direct contrast to a small, but determined, group of bus drivers at the Paraparaumu Railway Station took part in protest on August 31st in protest at the poor wages the drivers were paid - $14 a hour – and the demand by their employer, Mana Coach Services, that they work shifts of up to 14 hours a day for 13 straight days in a row.
These bus drivers were further incensed by the news that the manager of Mana Coach Services, Jeff Norman, sacked a driver who was ten minutes late for work because he had spent all night in hospital with his seriously ill son. Some of the protesting bus drivers had mentioned that Mana Coach Services had threatened staff with dismissal if they did not resign from their union.
To the shame of the company they used scab workers to run the buses on the Kapiti Coast during the protest but the impact of the protest was sufficient to result in buses being late and certain services being cancelled.
However, the bus drivers had a lot of support from many people driving past on State Highway One who beeped their horns in support of the strikers as passenger numbers were lower than normal as some passengers boycotted bus services in solidarity with the strikers.
If these protests reveal anything it is that a growing number of working class New Zealanders are fed up with falling wages and declining working conditions at the very time when the cost of living is set to increase due to ACC and GST increases. What is even clearer is that threatening workers with the sack or redundancy if they don’t submit to the demands of employers is no longer working as a tactic because workers know they’ll be made redundant anyway.
If history has taught us anything it’s that people with nothing less to lose make the most formidable opponents.
At the end of the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx wrote “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose except your chains.” Never has this been more true than now.
Workers have been under attack here in New Zealand and in Greece, South Africa, and the United Kingdom and only by uniting in solidarity within trade unions and other workers organisations can they resist the assault on their freedoms, their working conditions and their wages.
It is also time for the CTU to call for a 24 hour General Strike to send a very clear message to the bosses and the government that the workers are willing and able to fight back.