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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Sit down, fight back in 2012

"At Westfield, South Auckland, in 1937, freezing workers went on strike but stayed in the building – stringing up hammocks to sleep in. This was New Zealand’s first ‘stay-in’ strike, and it was successful. The workers were objecting to increased working hours with no extra pay. After the government stepped in, they won a bonus." - Te Ara

The union movement in Aotearoa has entered 2012 beset on all sides by attacks.

Auckland's waterfront, no stranger to industrial hostility, is now the site of an epic conflict between on one hand the despicable CEO of Ports of Auckland Tony Gibson and the complicit Mayor Len Brown, and on the other the members of the Maritime Union, fighting against the casualisation of their jobs.

In South Auckland the NZEI is reporting that there is no support for the privatisation of public schools from principals there.

Meanwhile firefighters' industrial action is dragging on, as Fairfax media tries to ramp up anti-union sentiment in an online poll.

The result of the Marton meatworkers' dispute shows that the New Zealand union movement is too slow to respond to disputes and fails to hit the employers hard enough by shutting down the capitalists operations.

In Marton workers were starved back to work on reduced rates (a defeat any way you look at it) after spending most of their time on the picket line watching scabs enter the plant. The 100 plus workers could have won the dispute if they had marched into the plant, sat down and refused to move.

The tactic of the sit-down strike is one of the most effective tactics available to workers to win disputes. The 1937 wave of sit-down strikes begun in an autoplant in Flint, Michigan 75 years ago involved half a million workers in 1000 sit downs.

The sit-down strikes rapidly changed the balance of class forces in America. As one activist noted, "Enduring union organisation was forged in just a few years. Vast numbers of workers were radicalised. As Noam Chomsky put it, “They had a huge effect. They terrified owners and management, and there’s a very good reason for that. A sit-down strike is just one step before taking over the factory, kicking out the bosses and the managers and saying, ‘We’ll run it ourselves’.”

The sit-down tactic had also been used to great effect in 1936 by the French working class "Wage rises of 7-15% were won. CGT leaders, however, had difficulty selling workers on the agreement and ending the strike wave."

In 1937 they even spread to an Auckland freezing works exciting great fear from the country's employing class but stopping the employers from imposing a wage cut on the freezing workers. On the 75th anniversary of the first use of the sit-down tactic in Aotearoa freezing workers are heading back to work in Marton with wage cuts after failing to use direct action tactics to stop the production at CMP.

Sit-down strikes at the port, in schools threatened with privatisation and in fire stations could beat back the attacks of the richest 1% and the anti-worker National Government and turn around the steady decline in union membership and growing wealth inequality the country has seen for the last twenty years.

Yet if sit-down strikes are going to take hold union activists will have to learn how to organise networks of workers across industries and unions who can defend themm like the networks of activists who have led the Occupy movement and built the Arab Spring. It is in the coming together of networks of militants outside of established bureaucracies and hierarchies that people can work collaboratively together to, "outwit the police, to beam their message into the newsrooms of global media, and above all to assert a cool, cutting-edge identity."

Seventy-five years after the first wave of sit-down strikes swept the world it's time once again for workers around the world to sit down and fight back.

In 2009 on the UK's Isle of Wight a small occupation in a wind turbine factory called Vestas that was being closed down turned into a massive struggle that nearly saw the UK government buy the factory and keep it running. As one of the worker occupiers described the dispute, "It’s about the government not keeping their promises, and it’s about renewable energy and global warming."

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