Workers at the Ports of Auckland have been on strike this week, with solidarity actions spreading nationally and internationally. Wellington, Tauranga and Lyttelton workers all threatened strike action and refused to unload ‘black’ cargo — cargo that had been worked on by non-unionised labour — before being forced to do so by the Employment Court, which issued injunctions with the possibility of financial consequences. Latest actions have seen up to 3,000 workers protest in the streets of Auckland (with international affiliates present), and Australian workers refusing to unload black cargo in Sydney.
So what is the action about? Judging the comments on ‘Stuff’ and other news agents, it seems the issue of casualisation is swamped by tirades against union strong-arming, the undeniable existence of a Protestant work ethic, or the strange case of workers blaming economic conditions on the Port workers, rather than capital: “Three hundred over paid, under worked, unskilled and ungreatful EMPLOYEES are going to hold New Zealand ports, businesses and public at ransom becasue during hard economic times they want more than the average Kiwi. SHAME!!”
Yet the strike, and the preceding boardroom struggle before it, is essentially about casualisation — that is to say, the imposition of capital into even more areas of our lives. In the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’ the Ports of Auckland want workers to be on call 24-7, working casualised hours without permanent rosters and the benefits they entail. “In plain language, the employers are seeking this: that workers will turn up on site as and when required with no guarantee of paid employment.”
Now we all now when bosses talk about ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’ its doublespeak for raised profits. It means an increase in unpaid labour time — that part of our labour that is beyond what is needed in terms of wages, or in terms of what we as workers produce. An increase in productivity means the bosses get more for less.
Instead, what the Port workers want — like most of us — is to have a life. A life that isn’t dominated by work, as opposed to a life where in order to survive we have to sell the biggest commodity of all — our labour-power. In protesting against casualisation, port workers are opening up a struggle against whether capital has the power to impose work on even more aspects of our already work-ridden lives.
That is why this struggle is an important one. The results of this struggle sets a precedent for working conditions across New Zealand, and as international supports have pointed out, across the globe. In essence, this struggle is about hanging on to what little aspect of our lives that are not directly dominated by work. Casualisation on the docks, in what has traditionally been one of the more militant union sectors, does not end at the shore’s edge.
This struggle has begun to circulate, as is evident in the solidarity actions across various ports. However at the moment, the potential for this struggle to deepen seems tied to legal forms. It will be interesting to see whether port workers will go beyond employment law and the motions of the court, motions so obviously stacked against them. For example, it took the employers a matter of hours to bring injunctions against solidarity strike action (which is already illegal under law, thanks to the Labour Party), yet the injunction taken by MUNZ has been given a processing time of 2-3 weeks.
There is no doubt about the consequences such a move would mean. The full weight of the state, as evident throughout New Zealand’s history, is poised against the workers. Yet the prevailing mood, a heightened sense of something being broken, and the conditions affecting all aspects of our working lives, has the potential to create possibilities. The circulation of struggle, especially one around the further imposition of work into our lives, is something almost all workers would benefit from. Making the issue of casualisation clear, and with a perspective that questions the extension of work (indeed, work itself), could resonate widely.