The Strike Returns to New Zealand

February 5, 2019 6:48 am

The Strike in New Zealand

Strikes have been a major feature of New Zealand history, defining the course of the nation’s trajectory over the past two-hundred years and occurring at key turning points in New Zealand’s political and economic history. In 1821, Maori timber workers employed by Europeans refused to work until they were paid for their labor with money or gun powder.

Among the first settlers in 1840, Samuel Duncan Parnell refused to work more than an eight-hour day, sparking the eight-hour-day movement in the country. In the late nineteenth century, as settlement expanded and industries developed on the country’s mines, waterfronts, forests, and farms, workers formed the first unions and took the first mass actions.

While the state introduced arbitration measures to reign in union militancy, workers grew increasingly frustrated with the limits imposed by the system and, influenced by global labor currents such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), chose direct action and industrial unionism, threatening New Zealand’s reputation as a “working man’s paradise” and as a “country without strikes.” But the upsurge in union militancy proved short-lived.

In 1912, striking miners in Waihi were defeated and driven out of town, with one worker beaten to death by police. In 1913, the “Great Strike”  closed factories, ports, and mines and lead to street battles between unionists and police. It was the closest New Zealand came to a revolution, but it ended in defeat for workers.

But the long-term result was the gradual development of a social-democratic party, the Labour Party (whose leadership was made up many of those leading the strikes of the early twentieth century), which finally won an election in 1935, during the Great Depression.

The Labour Party was the most radical party of its kind in the English-speaking world and introduced a broad Keynesian program of social security, universal health care, the welfare state, and compulsory unionism. Unions became part of the state apparatus and, bolstered by legislation and compulsory membership, played a significant role in the wage growth of the period and the minimal gap between rich and poor that defined these boom decades.

Apart from the 151-day waterfront lockout of 1951, the period after 1935 was quiet for workers, especially during the of buoyant global economic conditions that gave rise to what New Zealanders referred to as the “golden weather” years of the postwar period.

But as economic growth slowed and profits declined in the 1970s, workers increasingly took direct action to resist the erosion of wages that the Keynesian economic system could no longer guarantee — a development that shaped the US labor upsurge in the same decade. The 1970s and 1980s saw the highest number of working days lost to strikes in New Zealand history.

Today, with quiescence among workers the new normal, we tend to forget the importance of trade unions in the political world of the 1970s and 1980s. Across the world, unions toppled governments, were at the center of key ideological battles about the future of economic policy,  and became involved in political and social movements. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, workers also struck in solidarity with other workers and international social justice movements.

For example, the Federation of Labour (FoL) acted against the Vietnam War and played a vital role in persuading the Labour Party to take a stronger stance on opposing the war and New Zealand’s involvement in it. In 1976, the FoL imposed a five-week ban on handling cargo to and from South Africa following the Soweto Uprising, just one of many examples of the unappreciated role of unions in the global anti-apartheid movement. In 1978, when Māori protestors were evicted from Bastion Point, workers in the country’s meat plants walked off the job in protest.

But union militancy failed to survive into the late 1980s and 1990s as a neoliberal policy revolution introduced by both National and Labour Parties fundamentally transformed New Zealand society. Forced to reckon with a swiftly changing political and economic environment, unions retreated and were undermined by legislation that removed their legal rights and ability to strike.

These developments, which have parallels across the world, heralded the beginning of emerging trends in the world of work: falling union membership, labour’s declining share of income, rising inequality, and increasingly precarious employment. New Zealand embarked on a radical experiment with neoliberalism. While inequality rose everywhere in countries that adopted such policies, it rose fastest in New Zealand.


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