The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Monday, January 16, 2006

wailing on those wailing on the whalers

Yesterday DPF posted some criticism of the decision by the Maritime Union of NZ to stop working the ships involved in the Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. In particular he cast aspersions on the democratic decision-making of the union involved, implying that members had no say in these kinds of political decisions.

I emailed Victor Billot, who works at the Maritime Union of NZ (MUNZ), to ask how the decision to withdraw labour from these ships was made. Below is his response, which he has given me permission to publish:

The Maritime Union is a democratic working class organization. The national leadership of the Union is elected by a direct ballot of members every three years: this includes the General Secretary, a fulltime official, and the President, Vice President and Assistant General Secretary. Each branch of the Union is directly accountable to the members through elected executives as well.

The elected General Secretary is responsible for the day to day running of the Union, and has authority to represent the Union as a collective organization, with final decisions on major issues made by the National Executive of the Union, represented by elected delegates from all port branches.

In this instance the General Secretary cleared the decision with the elected branch officials in the ports most likely to be affected.

I myself attend bi-monthly stopwork meetings at Port Chalmers (my home branch) attended by up to sixty Union members, of several hours in duration, where full and frank discussion of all Union activities is held, with rank and file members questioning their elected officials and putting their own views. I would say the Maritime Union is one of the most democratic organizations in New

The Maritime Union has a proud history of political involvement including refusing to work ships loading metal for Japan in the 1930s, international workers struggles, the anti-nuclear movement and anti-apartheid movements. Maritime unionists realize that solidarity and collective democracy are their best tools in the constant struggle to defend their rights and dignity as workers and citizens.

As far as democracy goes, I would suggest that if there are any concerns, people should question why large businesses join organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, who wage a ceaseless propaganda war against job security, decent wages, the environment, an equal society and so forth.

I don't believe the vast majority of employees of these businesses are asked if they wish to support organizations which act against the interests of the working class. Yet those employees are the people who create wealth for the business, and society. Where is the democracy there?
Victor Billot
(Communications Officer, Maritime Union of New Zealand)

All of this further underlines the lack of understanding by some on the Right of the democratic nature of unions. As I outlined in #3 of my union myths series, unions are quite different from businesses, in particular in regard to their decision-making structures.

Workers are entitled to make collective decisions about their lives. Get over it.

Related links:
Frogblog has a good response to the But-Whales-Are-Just-Like-Lambs argument, most recently propounded by Stephen Franks, but popping up all over the place lately.


maps said...

The two unions that fused to form Munz have a long history of taking industrial action in support of progressive causes, and hopefully this latest action shows that that tradition is not dead yet.

After 9/11 the Auckland seafarers were one of the few union groups to pass a resolution against the invasion of Afghanistan, after one of their stopwork meetings was addressed by a member of the Anti Imperialist Coalition.

A year or so after that some AIC members tried unsuccessfully to get the seafarers to take industrial action against NZ's involvement in the build-up to war against Iraq - we wrote a leaflet for some sympathetic seafarers to distribute which recalled some of the union's history of anti-war activity, and in particular its blacking of scrap metal bound for Japan in the 1930s. The metal was going to be used to build tanks for the Japanese to use in China.

Later, someone who had studied that period of New Zealand union history raised the concern that the ban on scrap metal was mainly driven by racist anti-Japanese feeling, rather than internationalist solidarity with Chinese suffering the effects of Japan's occupation of their country, and that we might therefore be misrepresenting it.

There is a very strong strand of nationalism and national chauvinism in the history of the New Zealand union movement, and there must be a concern that this latest action owes a little to that. Like so many other unions, the seafarers and wharfies have been weakened by the defeats of the 80s and 90s, and this has reinforced a tendency towards nationalism and passive lobbying of the government.

Such a tendency was reflected in the unsuccessful 'cabotage' campaigned of 2003-2004, which saw Munz producing pamphlets and posters showing New Zealand surrounded by ships flying foreign flags above the slogan 'Isn't there one flag that's missing here?' At least one Munz press release in favour of the campaign warned, in language befitting Winston Peters, that New Zealand risked being 'swamped' by 'cheap' foreign labour. Other propaganda talked up the danger of terrorist attack on New Zealand, and claimed that cabotage could play a role in defending the country.

By making it compulsory for ships sailing in New Zealand waters to use local labour, cabotage would have led to job losses amongst foreign seafarers. For understandable reasons, Munz did not try to get support for the campaign from seafarers in other countries. Instead, it lobbied the government and appealed to some of the worst instincts of New Zealanders. (Incidentally, Victor Billot was a vocal defender of the whole camapign for cabotage from critics on the left)

A cynic would ask why the union has now chosen to take a such strong stance over this relatively trivial issue, rather than other far more important ones - the government's complicity in the invasion of Iraq, for instance, or the theft of the seabed and foreshore, an issue directly relevant to Munz. I fear that there could be a whiff of cabotage-style nationalism involved. The nightmare scenario is an orgy of mindless nationalism like that which greeted the French nuke tests in the mid-90s. Let's hope I'm wrong and what we're seeing is part of the internationalist tradition that was reflected in the vote against the invasion of Afghanistan four years ago.

ZenTiger said...

"In this instance the General Secretary cleared the decision with the elected branch officials in the ports most likely to be affected."

What does that mean exactly? Did he inform them, and they agreed? Did he give them time to reply? Was it in writing, and officially recorded.

You asked a reasonable question and the leeter was pure waffle with this single line reply. I'd be interested in a bit more detail.

Oh well, if the members are happy with the consequences (and they may be minimal - I don't know)...then all fine and good.

Victor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Victor said...

Two quick points.

Could you detail the press release where you say MUNZ claimed "New Zealand risked being 'swamped' by 'cheap' foreign labour." They are all on the website.
The exploitation of labour being moved around the world to undermine wages and conditions continues to grow. This I would have thought would be of more concern to you than the use of a New Zealand flag on a leaflet.
The efforts to defend the cabotage campaign were almost entirely against the free market, capitalist
Right. I recall you were the only critic on the left.

Mr ZenTiger:
My letter was not pure waffle, it explained how the Union functions quite clearly.
Also the point being the decision making structures of the Union are the concern of its members, not you.

Anonymous said...

"Workers are entitled to make collective decisions about their lives. Get over it."

The problem is that the workers would have appeared to agree that they would work for the port company, but have now changed their mind about an aspect of it. Would it be OK for the company to do something equivalent, say agree to pay the workers and then decide not to?

The port companies are there to provide services in return for payment. That is the reason for their being.

Once again this is a case of a union flexing its muscle and losing its credibility. Surely the union is there, first and foremost, to improve the lot of its members. Secondarily, it could be argued that it could improve the lot for other workers.

How does this action help its members? It doesn't.

Victor said...

The problem with Gary's view is that it places the complexity of human existence and the fundamental rights of human beings as being subservient to a legal contract.

The "logic" of this argument is soon revealed as inadequate when taken to its "logical" conclusion. That is something may be legally right, yet morally wrong: a situation that arises often.

The only credibility the Union has lost is with controlling capitalists who see workers as compliant tools.

The opposing view of course is to see workers as human beings who have the right to withdraw labour in the event that they are being told to carry out a morally wrong task against their wishes.

The progress of the human race and modern democratic rights are largely the product of people who "broke the law" – a law which is often used to protect the interests of the powerful.

Finally, the Maritime Union is a political Union, and always has been, back to the early days of seafarers and waterfront workers. Although the self-interest philosophy has its hold amongst sectors of the middle class in modern New Zealand, the Maritime Union takes its wider role for promoting a democratic and environmentally aware society seriously.

Anonymous said...

Victor, surely an employer can expect that a legal contract means something. After all, he/she has a contract to pay the employees for the work they do. If this goes against a perceived "fundamental right" of the employer, can he/she refuse to pay?

The problem with your arguement is that these fundamental rights you write about are not defined. Exactly which fundamental right is being violated by expecting that a person would service a supply ship belonging to a fishing company?

Your arguement can also be taken to a "logical" conclusion for the employer's benefit, and I'm sure you wouldn't be too happy with that.

Victor said...

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. " – Anatole France

A legal contract has a meaning, a legal one.

However legal contracts can be broken. The way, and the context, in which they are broken is somewhat important.

Failing to supply a ship is obviously not the issue here, except in a narrowly legal sense. The real issue is that ship may be being used to carry out an action (assist bogus "scientific" whaling) that is wrong. You may not think it is wrong, however the Maritime Union as a collective organization does.

The employer in the case of the port companies is a legal entity, usually owned by the public anyway, albeit managed as a capitalist enterprise. The withdrawal of labour for a political statement in an orderly and disciplined way, harms no one. It may reduce the profit of a legal entity. There is, I believe, an important distinction.

My suggestion is the employer may choose not to pursue the matter in a case such as this, which of course would be the sensible course of action on their behalf.

More importantly, the issue is based on context. If an employer refused to pay workers, this would create immediate hardship and deprivation. Of course, this is a straw argument in any case.

In the maritime industry (and other industries), due to casualization, many companies (especially non-unionized) have their workers on call as casuals, which effectively means not paying them a regular wage anyway. (Perfectly legal, even if a bad situation for the employees.)

If workers refused to work a ship that was involved in some overtly bad area (say for example, loading weaponry that was being legally exported to some military dictator) then their action could prevent harm. It would be highly unlikely to have a major negative effect on the employer or anyone else except in the sense of reducing their profit.

This I suppose is a class-based view that looks at the reality of relations between human beings and the structures they create, rather than a legal view of the world which sees structures as having a life of their own that are more important than people, or in this case, the natural world.

The idea that "I am just following orders" went out after World War 2. One may be legally right and at the same time be doing wrong.

The law can be wrong. If it is, some will choose to break the law, and pay the consequences in fines, imprisonment and the like. One such person is Nelson Mandela. The American Revolution broke the law. So did the suffragettes fighting for votes for women. Or, for example, in the modern context, whistleblowers may act illegally yet be justified in their actions.

This does not reduce such people to the status of a self-interested or violent thug, in case this needs to be pointed out. Neither does it necessarily mean a disrespect for the law in general.

Could I suggest that your support for "the law" is more a support for a particular social and economic system that is intended to maintain and defend unequal power relationships?

Anonymous said...

Victor, you can suggest it if you want, but that doesn't mean you are correct ;-)

I think the whole basis to my argument is that the relationship does have unequal power. The employees would appear to have the power to opt out of a legal agreement, but I cannot imagine how the employer could, except in a case of bankruptcy. The employee would always have the ability to take legal action.

I'm sure we could both go on and on about how one side has power/advantages over the other. I actually believe there is a place for unions, but I also believe they do not always act in the best interests of their members.

Span said...

I think that Gary is talking about legal liability and Victor is talking about morality and the decisions that individuals or groups can make to take an action based on their morals rather than the legality of a situation.

Clearly MUNZ, and presumably its members, could in fact face legal liability for their refusal to work those ships - Victor has mentioned in his latest comment that he thinks it unlikely that the employer in this situation will go down the legal route.

So this isn't actually a situation where the employer can't take the employees to court.

Victor said...

On the issue of legal agreement, it is interesting you bring the case of bankruptcy up. One major stevedore in New Zealand did go into receivership in the 1990s, leaving many of its employees out of pocket and out of jobs. The owners re-established the business, and re-employed some of the workers in the new company (under inferior conditions.)
The legal action taken by employees only achieved minor compensation.

If employees opt of a legal contract, they will be penalized under the law, just as an employer. Of course, outside the fantasy world of legal fictions, the real effect of these legal penalties will be far harsher on a living person than a legal person (ie a limited company.)

I feel there is a lack of awareness of the ruthlessness of globalized capitalism, especially in the maritime industry, as the most appalling situations occur, and due to the fact they often occur off the coast, there is very little awareness of what is actually happening.

The idea that global corporations are being stood over by a minority of unionized workers is simply ludicrous.

The abuse and exploitation of labour onboard Flag of Convenience vessels that come to and from New Zealand is a serious problem and a source of great shame.

These maritime workers often have no protection as they are un-unionized, and rely on organizations such as MUNZ to assist them. The issues of overfishing and environmental degradation are an intrinsic part of "globalization in action" as well.

I am pleased that you think there is a role for Unions. Like any organization they are not perfect. Whether or not they act in the interests of their members is a question best answered by those members, through the democratic structures of the Union – democratic structures that are entirely absent from the corporate system.

maps said...

The Communist Workers Group, Anti Capitalist Alliance and the International Socialist Organisation made public criticisms of the campaign for cabotage in their papers, so I'm not sure why Victor thinks I was only the person on the left to oppose it.

The bosses were far from unanimous in opposing cabotage. In fact, the campaign for cabotage was waged jointly by Munz and New Zealand shipowners. Unions famous for their stand against these bosses in 1951 teamed up with them to try to stir up all sorts of reactionary feeling and get a law passed that would strip poorly paid foreign workers of their jobs. The hypocrisy of Victor's comments about vulnerable workers on flag of convenience vessels in Kiwi waters is breathtaking. You don't help these people by robbing them of a livelihood!

On indymedia Victor made himself look silly by defending the campaign for cabotage as 'a tactical alliance' with 'progressive' business. Victor would do well to examine Alliance co-leader Len Richard's recent indymedia article attacking Engineer Union boss Andrew Little's use of the same sort of rhetoric. Partnerships with the bosses have cost New Zealand unions dearly over the past twenty years, and the campaign cabotage has been no more successful than the Engineers' farcical attempts to use the partnership model to defend jobs at airports and paper mills.

I'll put a post on my blog when I have time giving sources for all this stuff and references to the anti-cabotage literature produced by the socialist left in 2003-2004.

maps said...

PS: I went to chase up a few old Munz press releases, but found the link to them is dead:

They don't appear to be archived online elsewhere, but maybe Victor can help us out.

There are, however, a few bits and pieces online which give a pretty clear indication of the character of the campaign. Here, for instance, is a quote from one of Munz's first cabotage campaign press releases which was inserted into a news article:

"Since the former National Government allowed foreign and flag of convenience shipping in, we have had cheap Third World labour being employed in New Zealand waters while New Zealand seafarers are put out of work."

This sort of rhetoric is simply racist. We don't tolerate it from Winston Peters, so why should we tolerate it when it comes from a trade union, especially one with a history like Munz's? Jock Barnes must have been turning in his grave...

Victor said...

Well, the useful thing about having the Fourth International go over your website is they are very good at finding missing links. Thanks to Comrade Maps, I have now updated the MUNZ website with all archive press releases, accessible through:

No, the above statement Maps quotes, it's not racist. It is simply stating a fact. There is no reference to race in any shape or form in that entire quote.

Local workers do have a right to be employed on reasonable wages and conditions in their industry. In the case of certain stevedores within New Zealand who used de-unionized casual labour, MUNZ members resisted their attempts to get into South Island ports. Is this racist? Of course not. The Maritime Union has never blamed overseas workers for the situation. In fact many of our members spend a lot of voluntary time assisting them.

The fact remains that if overseas labour is used to break down terms and conditions, local workers will try to defend those terms and conditions. We can attempt to help others on an international basis, but the nation-state is still a reality.

There is absolutely no chance that many of these Third World workers will be unionized in the short term due to the fact that they are from (and their ships are flagged) in authoritarian, poor countries. Without a strong local industry and a union in New Zealand, we will not even be able to offer the small assistance we do at the moment for maritime and fishing crews.

Thus it is important that a "national" fleet be returned under New Zealand laws, wages and conditions – and that overseas crews gain these same conditions in our waters. It is vital that a strong independent Union exists that can actually have some control over the industry. If there is no local employment or industry, then there will be no strong Union. Revolutionary fantasies aside, this is the best course of action to advance the cause of workers nationally and internationally.

I don't see Maps clambering on board Red Chinese freighters and doing the organizing, anyway.

maps said...

'It is vital that a strong independent Union exists that can actually have some control over the industry.'

I agree. But you don't build a strong union by forging a partnership with the bosses who own the industry against a section of the workforce in the industry. Surely the abject failure of the partnership model of unionism, as pursued by outfits like the Engineers, has shown us that? No vision of international socialism is more fantastic than the idea of 'progressive' bosses which underlies the campaign for cabotage.

Munz should make a partnership not with the bosses but with seafarers' and wharfies' unions in other countries - it is these unions, and not the bosses, which have been reliable alies in the past. Rather than seeking to sack them, Munz should try to unionise foreign workers working in New Zealand waters and help them press for better wages and conditions. Isn't that what trade unions are supposed to do?

Victor said...

Firtsly, the Maritime Union has never engaged in any partnership model that I am aware of. It does deal on a day to day level with employers based on the realization that we are living in a capitalist society. It has a common interest with a small number of businesses in maintaining a New Zealand shipping industry, I suppose. There would be somewhat different motives behind this shared goal.

There is no idea of progressive bosses, merely a practical understanding that no New Zealand maritime industry or shipping will mean no New Zealand maritime workers or Union for that matter.

In which case, our discussion would move even further into the abstract realm.

It is unclear from your suggestion – following the disapperance of a local maritime workforce – who will act as union organizers for the foreign crews, or even keep an eye on their interests.

It won't be New Zealand maritime unionists doing the work, as there will be none left. If there are, they will be too busy hanging on in their on their own account to carry on much international solidarity. The overseas crews are not in much of a position to do much on their own from my experience, except occasionally try to make a run for it.

The Maritime Union has a long history of solidarity with overseas unions. Unfortunately most of the foreign seafarers are drawn from nations which are either outright dictatorships, authoritarian states or extremely undeveloped nations with a non-existent or underground union movement. Naturally enough this is where the shipping companies seek to draw their labour force from.

We are not seeking to "sack" overseas workers. Retaining a local industry with good conditions is the right of workers in a local or national area, wherever in the world they are.

The cabotage system, if introduced, would not mean the end of overseas-owned and crewed vessels visiting New Zealand. International shippers would still make up the great majority of shipping.

It would however lead to a viable national fleet being built up, crewed by unionized local workers working the coastal trade. This in turn would have a roll on effect in terms of the power of organized labour, and our ability to influence the conditions experienced by overseas crews.

maps said...

I don't understand the argument that the introduction of Cabotage would not create major job losses for the crews of foreign-owned vessels. Munz propaganda refers repeatedly to the prioritising of New Zealand workers over foreign workers. For instance one press release says:

'This media release outlines a national activist campaign by Maritime Union members to restore 'cabotage' and *reserve New Zealand domestic and coastal shipping to New Zealand seafarers*.'

But let's leave that question aside for a moment, and face the fact that there is very little chance of the government acting to introduce Cabotage, because the section of the New Zealand capitalist class which supports its introduction is weaker than the foreign capital that dominates the economy. There is no comparison with the US or Australia, where the domestic capitalist classes are infinitely stronger.

Munz and the shipowners were not even able to convince Kiwi manufacturers to support the campaign for Cabotage. The campaign is now so dead in the water that even its website has fallen off the net.

Given the inevitability of a continuing influx of foreign-owned vessels worked by cheap labour, Munz faces a choice. It can either side with the diminishing number of local shipowners, and continue ineffectually to lobby a government which will not listen, or it can abandon its alliance with local bosses and make an effort to recruit the workers of foreign-owned vessels. Of course there are major logistical difficulties involved in this task, but there really is no alternative.

Victor said...

Ah, the "inevitability of a continuing influx of foreign vessels" – I am losing track of whether I am debating one of the Tories or one of the Trotskyists here.

There is no doubt our strategy faces an uphill battle, which does not mean it is wrong. However, your strategy faces an even bigger uphill battle, as it has even less support behind it.

"Major logistical difficulties" is an interesting way of describing organizing flag of convenience vessels. THERE WILL BE NO ONE LEFT TO DO THE JOB. How can it be made any clearer? The Maritime Union is a fraction of the size its constituent unions once were. Like most Unions in NZ, its energies are largely taken up just with holding the line locally.

However, the point is that it is not an either/or situation. My argument is that cabotage on coastal vessels is necessary to maintain a strong local base to build on, which can then assist with organizing overseas crews (who would still be visiting New Zealand on international vessels.)

maps said...

I can't do anything about the fact that New Zealand shipowners are being marginalised by foreign capital, any more than I can do anything to defend the dairy down the road against the stealthy advance of Star Marts through our neighbourhood.

Small and medium sized Kiwi-owned business is going the way of the dodo in the face of globalisation, and any trade union which allies itself to local business is going to go the same way.

New Zealand capitalism is increasingly dominated by foreign capital, and by a 'comprador bourgeoisie' which administers that foreign capital but which lacks the productive base and organic links to New Zealand that older companies like Fletcher's had in the pre-1984 era.

Foreign capital and its local reps still have an interest in state ownership, or at least regulation, of a number of key assets. The roads and Air New Zealand are obvious examples here. Nationalisation of Air New Zealand became necessary because the neo-liberal reformers had gone too far, and created a situation where vital operations of business were being put at risk.

No such situation is likely to arise vis a vis shipping and see the reintroduction of cabotage. There are two basic reasons for this. In the first place shipping is far less important to exporters and importers than it used to be in the days before long-distance air freighting.

In addition, it is much, much easier to organise a shipping line than an airline. There aren't the enormous start-up costs and the demands for efficiencies of scale. If one shipping service collapses another can quickly take its place. There's not likely to be the emergency that might occur if Air New Zealand went down the tubes.

The only members of the New Zealand capitalist class which favour the reintroduction of cabotage are, predictably enough, the New Zealand shipping companies who would get greatly increased business from cabotage. This tiny fraction of the capitalist class is not going to be able to pressure the government to deliver cabotage and hand Munz large numbers of new members on a plate.

Victor says that it is impossible to unionise ships with foreign crews that operate in New Zealand waters. I certainly wouldn't want to trivialise the difficulties involved but, as severe as they are, I don't think they come anywhere near to comparing to the difficulties that have been overcome by union recruiters in numerous countries overseas.

An example which comes to mind is the amazing success of Iraqi trade unionists in recruiting hundreds of thousands of members and staging numerous strikes over the past couple of years, despite unbelievable persecution at the hands of the occupiers and the puppet government on one hand and reactionary parts of the resistance on the other.

As Victor points out, Munz is already helping some of the workers on the worst foreign-owned ships operating in New Zealand waters. At present Munz appears to dispense charitable aid to these workers and use them as exhibits for its argument for the reintroduction of cabotage.

What if it instead made an active effort to make contact with crews on foreign-owned ships and get them to form union branches, or at least cells of some sort? Is this idea really unthinkable? Munz and the CTU could demand the extension of the provisions of the ERA to foreign-owned ships operating in New Zealand waters. I'm aware that none of these things would be easy to achieve, but they seem to me to be at least possible.