By Ian Powell
WELLINGTON - New Zealand's largest protest for a decade stunned the National Party government on April 4. Around 100,000 people participated in nationwide demonstrations which were part of the Council of Trade Unions' April 3-9 week of protest against the anti-union Employment Contracts Bill.
The new law, scheduled to operate from May 1, would replace the Labour Relations Act, which is the legal foundation of union recognition and collective bargaining in New Zealand.
Under the new law, unions would have no more legal recognition than sporting or social clubs, awards defining minimum wages and conditions would no longer exist, and there would be new restrictions on the right to strike.
The abolition of awards would particularly affect employees in small businesses and the retail, tourist and chemical industries.
The core of the April 4 protest was a 95%-solid strike by education workers including school teachers, child-care workers, teacher aides, clerical workers, cleaners and caretakers. Slogans included "United we bargain, divided we beg".
The previous day, health workers organised a mass protest in Auckland, and health workers in the rest of the country were scheduled to protest later in the week.
The April 4 strike, unprecedented in the education system, reflected workers' concern that the bill would give local education boards excessive power over their conditions.
Around 50,000 of the participants in the April 4 protest were education workers, while teach-ins at polytechnics and teachers' colleges drew another 30,000 participants.
The education workers are also concerned about secretive education reviews being prepared by the government.
Education minister Lockwood Smith has set up committees to review a range of matters such as class sizes, funding, special education and the future of small schools. Unions and parent bodies have been excluded from these committees on the grounds that they are "vested interests".
In contrast, a review of private schools, also initiated by Smith, includes representatives of these schools.
Teachers suspect that the government's hidden agenda includes transferring public funds to private schools.
At the 6000-strong Auckland protest, effigies were burned of labour minister Bill Birch, finance minister Ruth Richardson and social welfare minister Jenny Shipley. Richardson is the government's ideological driving force and Shipley was responsible for brutal cuts to welfare benefits, introduced on April 1.
When it introduced the bill last December, the government probably calculated that rampant unemployment and pervasive pessimism about New Zealand's economic and social future would minimise resistance, but it miscalculated.
Bill Birch and Lockwood Smith, along with Prime Minister Jim Bolger, tried unsuccessfully to head off the protests with accusations that union leaders were misinforming their members. It seems parents and students were generally supportive of the strike and protests.
Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party was caught with its pants down. While it had made many statements against the bill, deputy leader Helen Clark fudged the issue when asked if a future Labour government would repeal it.
This response reinforces National Party claims that it is "completing the job" begun by the former Labour government. Both parties adhere to monetarist policies.
Labour was further embarrassed when a radio journalist revealed that some Labour MPs have privately expressed sympathy for the bill.
It seems the problems of the government are far from over, as health workers are presently holding stop-work meetings and a ballot on strike action later this month. The proposal seems to be winning overwhelming support.
As well, the maritime unions are planning action, and there have been spontaneous protests in other industries.
Reprinted from Green Left, weekly progressive newspaper. May
be reproduced with acknowledgment but without charge by
movement publications and organisations.