For an Indefinite General Strike Until the Employment Contracts Bill is Withdrawn!

General Strike to Stop the Bill!

A leaflet published by the Permanent Revolution Group, New Zealand Section of the International Bolshevik Tendency, 26 April 1991

The government announced the Employment Contracts Bill and the cuts to the benefits on the same day. It's a package deal with one aim. As well as making those at the bottom pay for the bosses' deficit, the benefit cuts are supposed to force workers to accept lower wages. Meanwhile, the Employment Contracts Bill is a direct attack on the organisations of the working class to the same ends - the idea is simply to weaken the unions, so they're unable to fight for decent wages and conditions. The unions have been pretty weak anyway in recent times, but New Zealand capitalism is in a bad way, and any capacity of the unions to fight is a worry to the bosses.

So the Bill is supposed to end various legal protections unions have had under the law, to push large numbers of workers outside the protection of unions, and to remove all kinds of minimum conditions of employment imposed by the old award system, which the bosses want thrown out. Everyone knows that this is the most significant labour legislation in a hundred years. What the bosses want to do is smash the trade-union movement. And the so-called "leaders" of the working class are letting them get away with it.

We Can Stop the Bill!

We can stop this attack. But we're not going to do it with a few public meetings, the odd street-demonstration and some uncoordinated one-day stoppages. We can stop it only with united, sustained, resolute action. We need a general strike - not national lunch-hour demonstrations. But even a one-day general stoppage wouldn't really change anything - what we need is a general strike which continues until the Bill is withdrawn. And we need general-strike committees organised in worksites around the country to force the union leaderships to move, and to start organising for essential services and supplies as long as the strike has to continue.

The trade-union bureaucrats have misled us in an almost unbroken string of defeats in recent years: against the "Labour" government's Rogernomics they have been almost completely passive. They're based on small, comfortable, upper layers of the New Zealand working class, and they're just not interested in the class war we're stuck in. Their job is to compromise with the bosses, not fight for the needs of workers against bosses.

These trade-union bureaucrats have been so tame for so many years, and kept workers' struggles to such a minimal level, that the government is unprepared for us to take decisive action. It is likely that in the face of a determined working-class stand the government would withdraw the Bill in a few days. A general strike would work, and it is clear that it is what massive sections of the rank-and-file of the working class wants.

We know of no case where the leadership has called for decisive action and the membership have failed to take up that call with enthusiasm and determination. But there are numerous cases where the membership has called for action and the leadership has tried to pour cold water on it.

The trade-union bureaucracy is an immense and dangerous obstacle to the action we desperately need, but nevertheless working people have begun to fight back despite them: there has been a massive outpouring of rage against the government's onslaught. From Kaitaia to the Bluff, and in scores of towns and cities between, hundreds of thousands of workers have demonstrated and struck.

On April 4th the workers in the education sector all over the country struck for the day - not just teachers but also cleaners and secretaries - with localised strikes by workers in other industries in support. And thousands joined protest rallies and marches. It was estimated that on that day over 100,000 workers were on strike or on demonstrations.

In Wellington state-service workers demonstrated on April 5th, health workers on April 9th, and cleaners and service workers on April 10th. And there have been unprecedented demonstrations and strikes in provincial centres, particularly during the Council of Trade Unions' "week of action" between April 3rd and 4th.

Union Bureaucracy: Obstacle to Struggle

The bureaucrats have done everything they can to make sure that the rage of the working class is dissipated in hundreds of separate actions rather than concentrated for maximum effect. What militants must do is use the strikes, marches and mass meetings occurring all over New Zealand to build towards a general strike - a general strike which continues until they drop the attacks on us.

And that is what the Permanent Revolution Group, with its very limited capacities, has been trying to do. Our aim has been to take every opportunity to raise the need for a general strike in our unions, and to argue for the responsibility of the CTU leadership to organise one.

In February a supporter of the PRG moved two motions at a stopwork meeting of the Hutt Valley Post Primary Teachers Association, calling for a limited strike by the PPTA in support of a large demonstration being planned against the benefit cuts, and calling on the Council of Trade Unions to prepare for a general strike. Both motions were passed overwhelmingly, against intense opposition from the top PPTA bureaucrats. (The limited strike was in the end prevented by the bureaucrats.)

In the annual round of Public Service Association's workplace meetings in March PRG supporters successfully pushed for motions calling for a general strike at three different Wellington workplaces.

Health Workers Support Indefinite Stoppage

At a mass meeting of 2,000 Wellington health-sector workers on Tuesday April 9th the bureaucrats moved a resolution in support of a one-day general stoppage. After the set speeches from the top table there was time for a speaker from the floor. A supporter of the PRG, a staff nurse from Wellington Hospital, got up and said:

“I support these moves for a twenty-four-hour stoppage, but I also think it's not enough. We need further action to defeat the Employment Contracts Bill and I think we can defeat it. So I want to put a resolution that goes: That this meeting recommends that the Health Sector Unions initiate an indefinite national strike of all their members, from the earliest possible date, and urges the CTU to extend this strike to a general strike of all its affiliates until the Employment Contracts Bill is withdrawn.”

She received sustained and vigorous applause, and the chair declared that the motion had been carried by acclamation. That motion will now go as a recommendation to the CTU's Health Committee. We wonder - will it ever get any further?

We weren't always so successful. Sometimes the bureaucrats managed to undermine the confidence and militancy of the membership. On Friday April 5th there was a meeting of more than 3,000 PSA members in Wellington. In the face of some waffly leadership resolutions which fell far short of a strategy to defeat the Bill, a supporter of the PRG moved a motion which called for "an indefinite national strike of all PSA members" and which urged the CTU "to extend this strike to a General Strike of all its affiliates, until the Employment Contracts Bill is withdrawn." The applause was vigorous, but the bureaucrats opposed it with some craftiness, and eventually it got only 500 votes to 2,000. Nevertheless, the motion pushed the whole debate to the left and created a climate in which a lesser motion was passed, calling on PSA delegates at the CTU Affiliates Council to argue for at least a twenty-four-hour "general strike".

Like the Wellington health-sector workers, workers have been making similar moves for resolute action all over the country, some of them unconnected with any political group. The momentum for a general strike has been increasing - despite the bureaucrats trying to hold it back. As people become aware of the full effects of the Employment Contracts Bill, as the benefit cuts bite deeper, and as the spectre of the complete destruction of the public health system looms on the horizon, so more and more workers are seeing the need to show their power.

There are now a number of unions who have officially endorsed the call for a general strike, but the union bureaucracy as a whole is resisting this pressure from the rank and file. The CTU tops and most other union bureaucrats have so far opposed a general strike: they have called for isolated industrial actions and a few marches to put moral pressure on the government.

The relative success of the work of the PRG and of individual militants around the country towards building a general strike shows what a few people can do when there is such massive discontent. And it shows how urgently we need a real working-class leadership, a revolutionary party, to push the bureaucrats aside and break out of this maze of defeats they've led us into. We need a leadership that gives direction to the will of the working class to fight, not one which spends its time concocting excuses for not fighting.

Oust the Labour Bureaucrats!

One of the first who has to go is the president of the CTU, Ken Douglas. He has said publicly that the Bill will inevitably go through and that he's against taking a hardline response to it. He's trying to nuzzle up to the government, to make it amend the Bill so that life under it will be easier for bureaucrats like him. He has opposed even a one-day general stoppage, and has been working overtime to prevent anything that looks like a real general strike.

The "left" of the bureaucracy is led by the likes of Pat Kelly in Wellington and Bill Andersen in Auckland. They've been arguing for limited national strikes, one-day stoppages and the like. They want to apply the brakes just like Ken does, but they're afraid that the momentum of rank-and-file militancy is too great and that if they apply the brakes too sharply it will make things skid out of their control. So they want to apply the brakes more gently.

These "left" union bureaucrats can't do much for us, and they too will have to go; but a section of them could still go along with a defensive general strike, despite their fears, if the pressure from the rank and file were sufficient. Of course, they would try to reach a deal with the government and send everyone back to work as quickly as possible. But even now they could be forced to go along with a general strike for a short while - after all, such a direct attack on the unions threatens to destroy their jobs.

The CTU Affiliates Council has called for action against the Bill on 30 April. It'll be a huge event, but it simply won't be enough to beat back an attack of this kind. The Bill is scheduled to become law the next day – May Day. In fact the government is going to have to delay the law at least a week, so there's still time. The bureaucrats have no serious intention of trying to stop the Bill, and the action on April 30th isn't meant to stop it. It's meant only to try and appease the many workers who do want to try and stop the Bill. The bureaucrats want this day of action to be a last symbolic gesture against a defeat they all resigned themselves to long ago. What we've got to do is turn April 30th into a starting-point, a time to get organised and to push the bureaucrats to act or to get out of the way.

Trotskyism & the General Strike

It was clear from the start that a general strike organised around limited, defensive slogans was necessary to defeat the government attacks. But it wasn't clear that it was possible. The Permanent Revolution Group knew that the trade-union bureaucracy, the existing leadership of the working class, stood as a massive roadblock to the necessary action. We knew that there would be some more or less spontaneous waves of working-class militancy despite the bureaucracy's fatalistic acceptance of defeat. And we knew that it was our job to try, to our limited capacity, to give some form and consciousness to that militancy.

In late February we published a leaflet which said: "Any industrial action would be a start, but what we need right now is to prepare for a defensive general strike - not a token general strike for an hour, or a day, but a general strike until the measures of attack against us are dropped." And we ended with the slogan: "Prepare for a General Strike!"

Workers Power & "Pathetic Posturing"

In Auckland there's a small organisation called Workers Power (formerly the Communist Left). Like the PRG, it claims to continue the politics of Trotskyism. They were scathing about our supposed timidity:

“The Permanent Revolution Group's slogan "Towards a General Strike" is confused. It implies that a general strike is not necessary to stop the bill, or may be necessary but is not possible, yet! Either way, anything short of the call for an immediate general strike and all-out action to build it, is pathetic posturing.” (Redletter, n 72)

Workers Power don't mess around: they simply called an "immediate" general strike for April 4th. They publicised their call in their journal, Redletter: "All Out from April 4th!", for "An Immediate General Strike to Defeat the Bill!" We don't know whether or not they actually did anything else to get an "immediate" general strike going - they certainly didn't mention anything they did in their journal.

Small leftist organisations are simply not in a position to offer detailed plans of action to the working class, to make ultimatums, or to set timetables. The job of those who claim to be revolutionaries is to help those elements of the working class they can influence come to the understanding that a general strike is what is necessary. We can't go around the existing organisations of the working class and its existing consciousness, and we can't always know what is possible. We certainly don't have the social weight to lead a general strike or to set the date.

For Workers Power to tie the fight for a general strike to a particular day was simply tactically foolish in a period in which militancy was gradually unfolding and developing. Of course it was clear that April 4th was going to be a day of important working-class action - and it was. It exposed the hypocrisy of the bureaucrats who have tried to excuse their own gutlessness by arguing that it's their members who don't want to fight back. But it was also clear that few in the working class were yet ready to break from their misleaders and stay out beyond that single day. So April 4th came and went with no general strike, and Workers Power faced the risk that those who had heeded their slogan "All Out from April 4th!" would be disoriented: at that point they could well have concluded that the struggle for a general strike was definitively defeated.

In fact the momentum for a general strike continued to build after that point, and revolutionaries had to continue to intervene with slogans which raised the necessity of a sustained general strike within that climate of gathering momentum.

This is what the Permanent Revolution Group aimed to do. Before and after April 4th, the PRG fought consistently for the perspective of a general strike: with a leaflet, by arguing with people in our workplaces and on the left, by fighting for general-strike motions at our trade-union meetings. Whether or not there is one will depend on the consciousness of the working class, and the extent to which it escapes from its misleadership or pushes it to the left. Whether or not there's a general strike, we've done our bit towards one. That's not exactly "pathetic posturing".

Leon Trotsky, writing on the escalating class struggle in France in the mid-1930s, had a thing or two to say on this question:

“But is the general strike possible in the immediate future? ... To obtain an answer it is necessary to know how to question. Whom? The masses. How question them? By means of agitation. ... For the Marxists, the Leninists, agitation is always a dialogue with the masses. ... By means of agitation and probing of the masses, the party must bring into its concepts the necessary corrections and exactitude, particularly in everything relating to the rhythm of the movement and the dates for major actions.” ("Once Again, Whither France", March 1935)

Perhaps more important than Workers Power's attempt to timetable the working class is their attempt to connect the general strike, in an immediate and direct way, with a "struggle for state power". Now this is nonsense - but it has a big enough grain of truth in it to be extremely dangerous nonsense.

Challenge to Capitalist Rule

A general strike is an extremely powerful weapon and it implicitly poses the question: Which class is going to rule - the workers or the bosses? General strikes require the working class to begin taking over some of the functions of the state, and they inevitably lead in the direction of challenging the rule of the capitalists. They can paralyse the bourgeoisie and can lead quite rapidly to violent clashes with the cops and the other armed forces of the state.

But in New Zealand right now, in April and May 1991, when there is no background of intense class struggle, a general strike called for defensive purposes to stop this Bill would pose the question of "Who rules?" in only a preliminary way. A defensive general strike could win an immediate victory, give a preliminary sense of the potential of working-class power, and start to undermine the hold of the reformists over the working class. But it would not be a struggle for state power. And for an isolated section of the working class to prematurely treat it as a struggle for state power would be a recipe for disaster.

By calling for a general strike for defensive purposes, we are calling for a measure which is necessary now and understandable now to broad layers of the working class. It is a call which has the possibility of mobilising the working class behind a strategy which can win on this crucially important issue. And because the labour bureaucrats are opposed to a general strike, and will try to curtail it, compromise it and sell it out, it is a powerful means of setting the rank and file against the bureaucrats at the top.

Traitorous Leadership

But while a defensive general strike is urgently necessary, an insurrectionary general strike is clearly not immediately on the agenda. Neither Workers Power nor anybody else can seriously contend that the political preconditions for a struggle for power exist in New Zealand today. The working class is saddled with a traitorous leadership and there is no revolutionary party prepared as an alternative leadership. Any attempt to bring down the bourgeois government faces the overwhelming likelihood of defeat.

However, posing the immediate aims of a general strike in defensive terms doesn't prevent the expansion of its aims as the struggle develops. All struggles of major importance to the working class, consistently prosecuted, go beyond capitalist limits. And this is clearly a struggle of the most central importance. The task of revolutionaries is to foresee, explain and promote the transition to revolutionary struggle. But it is not the task of revolutionaries to inspire unprepared, ill-led and inevitably defeated putsches.

From Defence to Offence

Moving from defence to offence requires extensive organisation of the working class and a resolute leadership. But to the extent that the old misleadership of the labour bureaucracy is shattered through a general strike, and to the extent that a new revolutionary party can be forged, a general strike can become transformed into an open struggle for state power.

Posted: 08 May 2006