Limits of T.U. Action

Those who advocate that trade unions should stage political strikes to try to defeat objectionable government legislation should heed the little-publicized fate of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union last November.

The union (which had only 1,450 members) called a strike to protest against some clauses on discipline in a shipping bill which was then before parliament. After four days the Minister of Labour gave the seamen a 24-hour ultimatum to return to work. They refused. The government’s reaction on Friday 5 November made Britain’s Industrial Relations Act look positively liberal. The Seamen’s Union was struck off the register of approved unions; its funds were frozen; all agreements to which it was party were set aside; its striking members were barred from getting any social security benefit on the grounds that they were “voluntarily unemployed” and, finally, the airforce and troops were sent in to move people and supplies.

On the Monday the Federation of Labour (New Zealand’s equivalent of the TUC) which had taken over responsibility for the seamen’s interests called on them to return to work and on Wednesday the seamen agreed. A former official of their former union was reported as saying that

“the reason for the back-to-work decision was ‘to keep the organisation intact to live to fight another day’. He said the seamen’s decision to stop work in protest against the controversial shipping and seamen amendment Bill, was to ‘knock the Bill over’. He said: ‘We realised today the tactics proved wrong. Maybe the boys will realise it’s only by being under the umbrella of the trade union movement that we can progress in relation to improving our conditions of employment’” (Lloyd’s List, 11 November. 1971).

The New Zealand seamen, for all their commendable fighting spirit, learned the hard way the futility of minority industrial action to defeat, even over a comparatively minor reform, a legally-constituted government enjoying majority support. Trade union action, though necessary to defend living standards under capitalism, is limited in what it can achieve. It can, by and large, keep wages in line with rising prices but it cannot overthrow governments or dispossess the capitalists. That can only be done by the democratic political action of a Socialist majority.

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