The Socialist Equality Group in New Zealand held a major online meeting last Saturday to discuss the way forward for New Zealand bus drivers in Wellington, who voted on June 23 to reject a sales deal backed by the Union Tramways.
The meeting called for the creation of grassroots, independent and anti-union committees to break the isolation of some 280 drivers and expand the fight for decent jobs, wages and conditions by partnering with other workers. in New Zealand and abroad. It brought together speakers from New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.
the video speeches can be viewed below.
Max Boddy, deputy national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party in Australia, began by drawing attention to the horrific impact of the pandemic, which has killed more than 4 million people. He warned that “criminal disregard for the health of workers and putting life before profit”, embodied in the UK government’s homicidal lifting of all restrictions, “finds expression in all countries”.
Boddy warned Australia and New Zealand remain extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus, which is once again spreading in Australia. Already, the governments of both countries have exploited the pandemic “to oversee the destruction of jobs and the flow of wealth to the super-rich.” The Wellington bus drivers’ stand was “an expression of the global resurgence of the working class against [the] decades-long assault on working conditions, now accelerated by the pandemic. “
Tom Peters, a leading member of the Socialist Equality Group, explained that New Zealand’s bus drivers are among the lowest paid in the country, earning close to the minimum wage of $ 20 an hour. The Tram Union backed a deal that would have raised base rates, while cutting overtime, cutting other allowances and lengthening the working day.
The drivers’ rejection of this surrender was part of the nascent opposition to the pro-business policies of Jacinda Ardern’s Labor government, which Peters said was “falsely glorified as nice and progressive”. A wage freeze in the public sector recently sparked a nationwide strike of 30,000 healthcare workers.
Peters explained how governments and businesses “relied on unions, which are increasingly integrated into state and leadership structures, to suppress working class opposition.”
He cited a memo distributed by the Tram Union to New Zealand bus drivers that sought to pressure workers to accept the sale, saying that otherwise they would lose “public support” and do so. in the face of “prolonged industrial action without any guarantee of success”. These statements caused significant anger among drivers.
Discussing the need for workers to rebel against unions, Peters drew attention to the big strike involving nearly 3,000 Volvo Truck workers in the US state of Virginia. Workers there set up a grassroots committee to oppose both the company and the United Auto Workers union, which last week betrayed the strike by using undemocratic methods to force a surrender deal. The grassroots committee, assisted by the Socialist Equality Party (US) and the WSWS, denounced the union’s rotten maneuvers and served as a voice for ordinary workers; it also gained international support, especially from Volvo Car workers in Belgium.
Peters denounced nationalist statements by Council of Trade Unions leader Richard Wagstaff, who suggested New Zealand-based employers were better than Australia-based Next Capital, which owns NZ Bus. In opposition to union efforts to stoke xenophobia and divide workers, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) called for the unification of workers through an international network of grassroots committees.
James, a worker on Wellington’s commuter train network, operated by French multinational Transdev, explained that grassroots committees would fight to unify all public transport workers against unions seeking to divide them. He summarized the story of the privatization of rail and bus services, starting with the 1980s Labor Party government of David Lange. Local councils, including the Labor-led Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), had contracted out services to companies such as NZ Bus and Transdev to cut costs and generate profits at the expense of workers.
Labor election-time pledges to oppose privatization have repeatedly “proved to be completely worthless,” James said. He called on workers to fight for socialism, including public ownership of transport services, under worker control.
The meeting was also addressed by David O’Sullivan, a UK bus driver and member of the London Bus Rank-and-File Committee, which was founded to oppose the life-threatening working conditions imposed by business and union bureaucracy.
On January 4, 2021, O’Sullivan was fired for informing workers of the dangers they faced. The Unite union âprovided falsified evidence to help me get fired; they falsely claimed that I was leading an illegal strike, âhe said. O’Sullivan described unions as âthe police force on behalf of business and government. The word “union” is a misnomer, it should be called “disunity”.
âAt least 60 bus drivers have already died from COVID, and all of them, it must be said, were preventable deaths,â O’Sullivan said. “Unions have worked with the government throughout the pandemic” and “forced workers to return to dangerous workplaces after the first lockdown ended.” The Unite union even told workers they didn’t need face masks and other PPE.
The speeches were followed by a lively debate.
An NZ Bus worker asked how the global pandemic was relevant to the Wellington conflict. Peters replied that the pandemic had both intensified the assault on workers and demonstrated the reactionary role of unions. New Zealand unions, he warned, “would react in the same way [as their counterparts in Britain] whether there was a serious outbreak of COVID-19 that started killing dozens of workers. “
In response to a question about how workers could replace Kevin O’Sullivan, the leader of the streetcar union, Peters said the problem was not just bad leadership, but the union ‘form of organization’ that had become “fully integrated into the structures of the capitalist economy”. system. âGrassroots organizations were needed to facilitate democratic discussions among workers, share information and establish links with nurses and other sections of workers.
Responding to a question about the risks of victimization for workers if they speak out against bureaucracy on their own, several speakers said this is a real danger, which shows the need for a grassroots committee. , and that SEG stood ready to help workers form such a committee. David O’Sullivan stressed the importance of international collaboration and said the London Bus Rank-and-File Committee could provide advice to workers in New Zealand and Australia based on its experiences.
SEG member John Braddock said the “isolation” felt by NZ Bus workers was the result of deliberate actions by unions, who “went out of their way to keep workers separate from each other, other workers of the same sector and other workers enter into struggle.
Braddock added that workers were faced with political tasks, not “just basic activities related to their immediate workplace”. A socialist party had to be built, like the New Zealand section of the ICFI, to politically separate the workers from the Labor Party and the unions.
Tony Hyland, a member of the Socialist Equality Party in the UK, said the pandemic was fueling anti-capitalist sentiment and “workers want to fight,” but the question was which political perspective they should take. âBusiness and government are ruthless opponents,â he said. “The only way to counter them is for the working class to have its own strategy”, based on mobilization “as a social force beyond national borders”. Workers in New Zealand and NZ Bus had to recognize that they were part of a global struggle against capitalism.