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A critical reply to Mike Treen

Len Richards and Victor Billot
 
 

TREEN: We thought we could retain an independent voice in government and campaign publicly against the government policies we opposed. That proved to be a sad illusion.

RICHARDS: The sad illusion was not in believing we could retain an independent voice in government, rather it was in expecting our leadership, particularly Jim Anderton, to play this role. Other leaders and Alliance MPs were reluctant to publicly stand up to Jim's toadying to Labour until it was too late. Some real analysis of their role by Treen would be more useful than the hoary old reference to illusions in the parliamentary road. The left should not be afraid of going into government, but it must know when and how to get out  when it becomes necessary. 

 

TREEN: Depending largely on volunteer organisers we have had a huge success organising over 3000 workers and getting collective agreements for workers in hotels, fast food chains like Burger King and KFC, picture theatre chains where the workforce is very young and casualised, call centres, English language schools, and a big Casino in Auckland.

RICHARDS: Unite, in Auckland where Treen and McCarten are operating, may have organised some previously unorganised workers, but the main thrust of its recruitment seems to be poaching members off other unions. This 'competitive unionism' can only divide the working class and lead to the eventual de-unionisation of workers. The 'big Casino' that Treen boasts about was unionised, not by Unite, but several years ago by the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU). This was one of the big success stories for unions in NZ at a time when unions were under siege and collapsing all over the place. Several hundred members were organised by the SFWU which had adopted the 'organising model' of unionism based on the successful unionisation campaigns of similar unions overseas, particularly in the US. Unite has, just recently, 'organised' (the SFWU says 'poached') a couple of hundred of the more privileged workers at that site who were SFWU members disgruntled by the last wage settlement which gave the low paid workers at the casino a better increase than them. This has led to a split in the workforce at the casino which the boss is revelling in. The Australian owners, I am sure, will be very pleased with Unite's efforts. 

 

TREEN: This is a broad social and political movement. The composition of the Maori population means it has a strong working class imprint. Policies adopted reflect that with calls for a major increase in the minimum wage and free health and education for all.

RICHARDS: (see below)

 

TREEN: However a significant segment of the membership reacted with an extreme hostility. Some were comfortable with the new life in a small group talking "socialism" and this new ethnic based (but overwhelmingly working class) movement scared them. Many had a sectarian reaction. Some had links to the union bureaucracies and through them to the Labour Party and feared the disrupting of these relationships. (This also led some to be hostile to the Unite union project as well). Others were simply racist under the banner of working class "unity". In the end the need to develop a working relationship with the new party and its leadership led the majority of the existing Alliance leadership to simply say "goodbye and good luck" rather than go through what was looking to be another year-long debilitating faction fight. This leadership group functions on an informal basis. We will be assisting the Maori Party in this year’s election. We will also be exploring all possibilities of a meaningful working class-based left political movement that can forge alliances with the Maori Party and others breaking from traditional Labour Party politics. Most of the small left groups that describe themselves as “revolutionary” have also reacted in a negative manner to the Maori Party – the honourable exception being Socialist Worker.

RICHARDS: Treen calls us sectarian while he refuses to confront the situation that actually exists in New Zealand. The Labour Party still maintains allegiance from the vast majority of the working class. The trade unions have 300,000 members (in a country of only 4 million). The real issues facing socialists in NZ is how to break the domination of reformism, how to get people to question the unquestioned i.e.. the capitalist social relations that control and blight our lives. This can only be done through a dialogue with working class people and others under the thumb of capital. This means taking a non-sectarian, united front position towards the organisations of those people i.e.. the Labour Party and the trade unions. Yes, Labour is a 'capitalist workers party', just as (all) the trade unions are creatures of capitalism (including Unite). But it is counter-productive to just attack them. How can workers take the 'left' seriously when all it does is attack the existing organisations of the working class. A defeat for these organisations by the right wing forces, is a defeat for the whole working class. The Alliance supports the election of a Labour-led Government as opposed to the victory of the right. Alliance (and Green) trade unionists are making significant inroads into leadership positions in the trade unions; this surely is confronting Labour, right in its own backyard. And it is a break (to and by the 'left') from Labour, from within Labour. Where else can it happen?  Treen uncritically supports a Maori Party that is likely to support the right wing parties against Labour; how progressive is that? The Alliance has never opposed the formation of the Maori Party. We have, though, criticised its right wing votes in parliament (against extending the term of paid parental leave, against the civil union law, for example) and also its willingness to support a right wing coalition government. The breaks from traditional Labour politics can only come from those in, or supporting, traditional Labour organisations. The Maori Party has not broken Maori from Labour towards a left agenda, but threatens to take many Maori down a dead-end path of race separatism and tribal capitalism. Not all breaks from reformism are progressive; fascist parties in the 1920s and 30s called themselves 'socialists' to win over disenchanted sections of workers. The Alliance is by far the biggest socialist grouping on the left of Labour. We have over 500 members and are standing a significant slate of candidates in the election this year. The non-sectarians in the other left groupings should throw their support behind our efforts in the election if they want to advance the socialist cause.

 

Victor Billot: What bugs me is the absolute lack of ability to look at the full picture, or to offer a balanced view, especially in light of the debacle that took place. There was never a "reaction of extreme hostility" to the Maori Party, it was a reaction of extreme hostility to a small group trying to pull the Alliance off in an entirely new direction
with a complete lack of discussion and openness. The write off of the vast majority of Alliance people as "scared", "racist" or "sectarian" or most bizarre of all "Labour Party union stooges" is really appalling. There's no other word for it.

 

June 2005

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Len Richards and Victor Billot are both Alliance national councillors
 
This is a response to our interview with
Mike Treen of the Unite union

Also of interest might be our interview with Dave Colyer of Socialist Worker (NZ)

and

New Zealand- Redrawing the political map by Kathy Newnam

For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism