Interview with Mike Treen, a veteran New Zealand socialist
activist, and now a key figure in the Unite union
There are some very interesting
developments in New Zealand left politics that are of general interest. The hard
left Alliance party that had representation in parliament disintegrated under
the pressures arising from joining a coalition Labour government. But there
other areas of work are yielding results, in particular the progress of the
Maori Party, the UNITE union and the Resident Action Movement. Socialist Worker
in New Zealand are seeking to launch a broad left paper, as a prelude to a new
broad workers' party.
Socialist Unity Network
spoke to Dave
Colyer of Socialist Worker, and Mike Treen
of the Unite union (below).
Socialist Unity Network: > Can you describe your own political
Mike Treen: >
My political life began when I joined the anti-Vietnam War movement as a High
School student and formed the first Secondary Students Association. My interest
in social justice led me to become an active socialist at university where I
completed a degree in Political Science. I also served as an elected member of
the Auckland University Students Association executive for 3 years - first as
International Affairs Officer then as Welfare Vice-President. During these years
I was actively involved in campaigns for student allowances, against apartheid
South Africa, nuclear warship visits and in support of the Ngati Whatua land
struggle at Bastion Point.
In the 1980s I worked in a variety of industrial jobs - including freezing
works, car assembly, and chemicals. I involved myself actively in supporting
fellow workers on the job and trying to strengthen the union. This was not
always appreciated by the management and was twice sacked for my efforts
following significant strikes at factories I was working in (on both occasions
the company went to the trouble of hiring private detectives to find a reason).
Rejecting the Labour party as a force for progressive social change, I remained
active in one of the small left wing groups (Socialist Action League - FI group)
that developed in that period and edited the newspaper Socialist Action for a
At the same time I played a leading role in Central America solidarity work. I
was co-ordinator of the Wellington Latin America Committee, national
co-ordinator of the Nicaragua Must Survive Campaign and
convenor of the national conference for Peace and Justice in Central
America. I remain involved in the NZ Cuba Friendship Society. I have also been
active in the antiwar movement in Auckland since the US-led assault in 1990.
A switch in career to language teaching took me to Japan for two years and I
joined the Alliance on my return at the beginning of 1996 convinced that the
Alliance offered the only hope at the time for developing a viable movement for
social change. (I left the SAL at the time I left for Japan as it turned in an
increasingly sectarian and abstentionist direction).
I stood as a candidate in several elections and at the beginning of 2001 went to
work at parliament after the election of the Labour Alliance coalition
government. After Sept 2001 and the capitulation of the majority of MPs to
support the government decision to send SAS to Afghanistan I resigned and helped
lead the resistance to that decision in the Alliance. This debate continued
right through 2002 and was resolved finally only with the defection of the
parliamentary majority from the Alliance. The Alliance subsequently failed in
its bid to return to parliament (getting only 1.5%) although the leader Laila
Harre came a close second in a West Auckland working class area.
The Alliance subsequently tried to develop a left wing manifesto and become a
more explicitly socialist group. By this stage it was radically reduced in size
and the Alliance "brand" had suffered real damage.
Unfortunately the emergence of the Maori Party saw a further deep division and
the party that remains as the Alliance has been reduced to a rump of its former
Some of us saw the
need the reorient the left to the working class if its "programme" was to match
its targeted constituency. The then Alliance leader
Matt McCarten and myself helped initiate a new union
organising drive through a very small (less than 200members) union called
"Unite" which was led by some Alliance comrades in a voluntary capacity for
workers who didn't fit traditional union structures. In the last two years we
have organised over 3000 workers and see no reason we can't organise thousands
Over the last few
years I have also been one of the main leaders of Global Peace and Justice
Auckland which organized the large antiwar marches around the Iraq war and
intervention in Afghanistan and tries to network all the groups in Auckland
concerned with peace, justice and globalization issues.
SUN: > Can you
describe how the Alliance came about, and what went wrong?
The Alliance grew out of a left leaning break from the Labour
Party in 1990. The 1984-90 Labour Government had embarked on an extreme free
market privatisation agenda that had a major negative
impact on working people. One Labour MP stood against the tide and split to form
the New Labour Party. A large number of activists from the 1970s and 80s who had
cut their teeth in various Maoist or Trotskyist groups also joined as did a
layer of Trade Union activists who had fought the new right turn in the Labour
This party then
formed an Alliance with the Green Party, Mana Motuhake (a small Maori party),
and a social credit type party – hence the name Alliance. It was not an
explicitly “socialist” party but it’s programme of free education, free health,
full employment, protection of the environment was seen as a radical challenge
to the policies of both Labour and National (the main conservative party).
At the beginning
it drew strong electoral support of over and was challenging the Labour Party in
opinion polls. Under first past the post it got two MP’s in 1993 with 18% of the
vote and then 13 MP’s under the proportional representation election in 1996
with 10.3% of the vote and 10 seats in 1999 with 7.7%. The Alliances decline was
matched by the growth in Labour’s share of the vote as
it shifted moderately to the left to regain credibility. The Greens also stood
independently of the Alliance in 1999 and got 7 seats with 5% of the vote.
A Labour Alliance
coalition government was established that introduced a number of reforms
benefiting working people. These included income-related rents (as opposed to
market rates) for state house tenants, paid parental leave, an increase in the
pension, renationalisation of Accident Compensation Insurance and a new
industrial law that gave more scope to union organising.
There remained gaping holes however with little action in the areas of health
and education and only a slight modification in the market economic policies
including pursuit of “free trade” internationally.
agreement allowed the Alliance to differentiate itself from the government on
issues of principle and publicly disagree with decisions it opposed. However the
party leader Jim Anderton who was Deputy Prime Minister made sure that was
rarely used and the Alliances profile and support in the polls continued to
produced a de facto split in the Alliance when a majority of the Alliance MP’s
opposed the party majority and supported sending SAS troops to Afghanistan in
support of the US-led invasion. The faction fight continued publicly for the
next year with Anderton and his supporters used their majority in the Alliance
caucus in an attempt to control the party. When that failed they defected to
form the Progressive Party just prior to the 2002 election. Alliance MP Laila
Harre led the party in the election but both the Progressives and the Alliance
got less than 2% of the vote. Anderton won his electorate seat and was able to
bring one other MP into parliament on the Party List vote under
NZ’s proportional system. Laila ran a close second in her electorate but
without an electoral seat the Alliance failed to pass the 5% threshold on the
party vote for parliamentary representation.
It was a bitterly
disappointing end to what had been a period of high hopes for the Left to build
a party to the left of Labour. The Alliance had been destroyed from within by
the betrayal of its leaders. The Greens again crossed the 5% threshold and have
retained a broadly left orientation from their time in the Alliance with some of
their MP’s coming from the original New Labour Party.
SUN: > Do you
think it was a mistake in principle for the Alliance to go into coalition with
The desire to defeat the 1990 to 1999 National led
governments was an overwhelming one among working people. The shift left by the
Labour Party raised hopes of many that a new Labour-led government could make a
difference. The Labour Party had desperately tried to cut the ground from under
the Alliance but came to a strategic conclusion that it couldn’t win the
government if it didn’t form a coalition with the Alliance. For many working
people and left activists this was seen as a victory and they looked to the
Alliance to “keep them honest” and carry out the more progressive social
policies they were promising. Supporters and members overwhelmingly supported
forming a coalition to defeat the Tories and doubts that existed were assuaged
by the right to disagree clause in the coalition agreement. 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.
SUN: > You are
active in the Unite union project, do you think it is necessary to by-pass the
traditional union structures?
We need to step back and give some background. In 1990 the
newly elected National government adopted a viciously
anti-union Labour law called the Employment Contracts Act. The law didn’t even
mention unions. All workers were put on individual contracts and unions had to
get signed authorisations from each and every one to
represent them in negotiations. Unions had no right of access to workplaces to
speak to non-members. Solidarity or political strikes were banned as were
strikes to get multi-employer agreements. It was illegal to take action during
the term of a contract over things like the dismissal of union activists. The
new law coincided with a deep recession that saw official unemployment rates hit
12%. The central union leadership refused to organise a
generalised fight against the new law and union membership and activity
collapsed. From a situation where some 60 percent of the workforce was organised
within a few years it was just over 20% overall and 12% in the private sector.
Most workers in the service sectors, hotels, offices, retail, fast food and so
on became deunionised. Unions held on only in the public sector and larger
Relation Act of 2000 restored some rights though solidarity and political
strikes remain illegal as does action during the term of a contract. Unions were
given legal recognition and most importantly access rights to workplaces. Since
the law was passed however very little reach out organising has been done and
unionisation rates haven’t grown despite 6 years of steady economic growth and a
fall in official unemployment levels to 4% - the lowest level in decades. Most
major unions in the private sector have continued a slow membership decline.
The Unite Union
had existed for a number of years run largely on a volunteer basis by some union
officials for small groups of workers who didn’t fit the existing union
structures. It has a membership clause that covers virtually any worker. With
the departure of the Alliance from the parliamentary arena some of us wanted to
get back to our roots as union organisers. We also recognised that one of the
weaknesses of the old Alliance was that it wasn’t able to sink deep roots into
the working class. Unite approached some of us to take on a project of
organising the unorganised and two years ago we
set up shop to begin that work.
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. We have been able to use the
right of access clause in the law to speak to young workers and have found the
response has been overwhelmingly positive. The only barrier has been the
limitations of our own resources. We have now been able to employ staff, move to
larger offices and take on new projects that we are confident see us double our
size again in the next year or so. More and more workers are calling the office
for help as they find out what we can do.
When we started
the project we weren’t sure what we would find. We wanted to use some of the
“campaigning” style from the Alliance and experience in social protest movements
which we have been a part in our organising efforts.
We didn’t believe the existing union structures of the large unions would be
ready for this and so welcomed the Unite Union offer to give us the legal
framework but none of the bureaucratic barriers that existed elsewhere.
We don’t have a
“theory” that this is the way to do things in all places at all times. In NZ in
the largely deunionised private sector it has proved successful. A contrary
example that is worth mentioning is the recent Nurses Union campaign for a
national contract and major pay increase to establish “pay equity” with teachers
and police. The union employed Laila Harre to help lead this campaign and tens
of thousands of nurses across the country carried through a massively successful
campaign that achieved all their goals – including a 20-30% pay rise. The Nurses
and Unite are the only unions that have had significant growth over the last
couple of years.
SUN: > What is
the position of the Maori people in NZ? Are they oppressed, is there racism
Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand and
make up some 12% of the population and a much larger percentage of the working
class. Colonisation saw them dispossessed of most of
their land with their language and culture suppressed. Racial discrimination was
institutionalised and they became a super-exploited section of the
working class as they were drawn into manufacturing and construction after World
The 1970s and 80s
saw a revival of struggles over land, language and for affirmative action to
expand educational and employment opportunities. A number of gains have been
made through these struggles. There has been an expansion in the teaching and
use of the Maori Language. Maori radio stations and a TV channel established.
Settlements of several hundred million dollars have been paid in compensation to
Maori tribes for past injustices and land confiscations. The rulers turned from
confrontation to concessions and attempted to draw the leaders into the state
machine or corporate style economic projects. A middle class has begun to
concessions haven’t touched the fundamental social and economic status of Maori.
They remain poorer with higher unemployment rates, and end up in prison in
numbers vastly out of step with their population.
The National party
has recently broken the rulers’ consensus on dealing
with Maori and run an openly racist campaign against Maori “privilege”. They
have targeted affirmative action in the state sector, Maori educational
institutions, extra funding for schools with large Maori rolls and so on. These
attacks generated a jump in polling for the National Party and the Labour
government went into damage control by promising to review all these programmes
and remove any alleged “racial bias”.
SUN: > What
issues led to the formation of the Maori party? And what are its prospects.
A recent court decision found that it was possible for Maori
Tribes to assert their customary ownership over the foreshore and seabed if they
could prove a continuous relationship. This set off a racist outcry and the
Labour government moved to eliminate Maori legal rights to take such cases to
court. This provoked a massive mobilisation of Maori
across the country with tens of thousands joining a Hikoi (Walk) to parliament.
Tariana Turia a Labour Maori MP announced she was resigning from parliament and
would stand in the by-election under the banner of the Maori Party. She won the
by-election with over 90% of the votes and 1200 people went to the founding
conference in Wanganui on the weekend of the by-election. 13 thousand Maori have
joined the party including nearly all the activists in the fight for Maori
rights over the last few decades have joined this united movement. Recent
opinion polls have them winning at least 5 of the 7 Maori seats in parliament.
(7 seats are reserved for Maori in geographical constituencies covering the
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.
SUN: > In
Britain the Respect Unity Coalition has been criticised
for working with leading members of the Moslem Association of Britain, with
accusations of "communalism". Has there been similar controversy over the left
working with the Maori party?
When the Maori Party was formed the then Alliance leader Matt
McCarten was asked to help direct the by-election. The majority of the Alliance
leadership saw this as a no-brainer. We helped and the Alliance and Matt helped
and both received a standing ovation from the 1200 delegates to the founding
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.
SUN: > There is
an initiative for a broad left paper - do you see this as the first step to a
united broad left party?
The comrades from Socialist Worker have promoted this idea
and it’s a good one. They have taken some initial steps by changing the name of
their paper to “Unity” and trying to give it a broader character and
attractiveness. My personal view is that a broad left party project will be
driven by the beginnings of a revival in working class activity (including but
not confined to the Unite project); further developments around the Maori Party;
the evolution of the Green Party (who have the goal of becoming a full coalition
partner of Labour); and how long it is before the current business cycle heads
down. As these processes interact a genuine broad left paper could have a vital