Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: An Open Letter To David Shearer

A Spurious and Culpable Neutrality? To stand to one side and do nothing while injustice is taking place before your eyes is to participate in that injustice. David Shearer and Labour must speak out against the Port sof Auckland management's plan to sack its entire workforce - or share their guilt.

WHY SO SILENT, Mr Shearer? Why has the Labour Party not voiced its solidarity with the Maritime Unions of New Zealand? Why have you not spoken out against the Ports of Auckland CEO’s outrageous threat to sack his entire workforce? What’s the matter with you, man?

The white sands and Pohutukawa blooms of Northland are beautiful at this time of year, and God knows you’ve earned a break, but you must know a politician is never truly on holiday. Time and the twenty-four-hour news cycle wait for no man.

The story unfolding on the Auckland waterfront has political implications far beyond the winning and losing of a single industrial dispute. Ultimately, it’s about whether or not the Labour Party stands for something more than an alternative set of political managers. And, if it does, then what, in the Twenty-First Century, is that “something more” about?

You are fond of telling us, Mr Shearer, about that transformative moment in the Sudan when you looked over the side of the truck you were travelling in and witnessed half-starved children scrabbling in the dust for the scraps of food you had casually tossed away. It’s an arresting image: redolent with all the sub-texts of injustice, wealth and poverty, and the inevitable conflicts to which scarcity gives rise. And the clear implication of your story is that not only did you perceive the intrinsic moral squalor of the scene being enacted in the fly-blown Sudan dust, but that you decided then and there to do something about it.

It’s why you’re the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shearer. Your United Nations “back-story” of “doing something” about poverty, war and injustice is what inspired your colleagues to make you, rather than David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour Party. An essential element of that back-story, in case you need reminding, was your celebrated Kiwi approach; your ability to get alongside all the parties involved in a conflict and help them identify the common-ground. It’s what you’re supposed to be good at.

So, I ask again: Why so silent on the Ports of Auckland dispute?

Is it because you’ve been listening to Trevor Mallard, Mr Shearer? I sincerely hope not. Because Mr Mallard and his ilk are the very last people you should be listening to at the moment. They are, when all is said and done, the people who devised the campaign strategy which culminated in Labour’s worst election result in more than 80 years. The people whose political counsel is dictated by opinion polls and focus-groups. The sort of people who purport to lead by following. The people who would have asked those Sudanese children scrabbling in the dust which variety of scraps were their favourite.

Or, perhaps you’re recalling the example of “Side-line Stan” Rodger – Minister of Labour during the darkest days of Rogernomics. Mr Rodger made a virtue out of staying on the side-lines of industrial relations and refusing to involve the Government in settling strikes and lockouts.

St Paul would have recognised the tactic. He recalled the time, before his encounter on the Road to Damascus, when he had held the cloaks of those involved in the hot work of stoning a Christian martyr. But, after Damascus (and the Sudan?) St Paul and you both understood that to stand on the side-lines while injustice is taking place is to participate in that injustice. If you opt to “hold the cloaks” of the Ports of Auckland management while they stone their own employees – then, damn you Mr Shearer, you’re as guilty as they are.

Which brings us back to the central question: Is Labour something more than an alternative set of political managers? And, if it is, what is that something more about?

Ultimately, isn’t it about answering the question: “Who is strong enough to stop the stone-throwers?” The men and women who formed the Labour Party in 1916 decided that the answer to that question was the State. If the State could be made to stop working for those who already exercised power, and began instead to work for those who were powerless, then a political party seeking to put an end to poverty, war and injustice would have a fighting chance.

Labour was formed to create a State that wasn’t neutral; a state that never stood on the side-lines when working people were being threatened and abused. Labour was about intervention: constant, massive, intelligent and creative intervention on behalf of the weak and against the strong.

It’s time to bid farewell to the white sands and the Pohutukawa blossoms, Mr Shearer, and come on down to the Auckland wharves. It’s time to cast aside the gathered cloaks of a spurious and culpable “neutrality” and place yourself and your party between the stone-throwers and their victims. It’s time to end the silence.

This letter  was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2012.


guerilla surgeon said...

I have a bad feeling about this. I supect that he's learned the lesson that came with 'we won- you lost'. That we didn't really win, that he serves at the whim of the plutocrats :-). If he says anything I'll be surprised. If he DOES anything I'll eat my socks.

Anonymous said...

Chris, Brilliant - no BRILLIANT great posting and the Labour Party caucus/head office/leadership should see this!!

? said...

What’s all this public-comment-on-politics carry on? And pointing intra-party divisions? Really? Trev’s been magic—without his plotting, double-crossing, smearing bloody-mindedness I wouldn’t have got where I am today. It was hard enough with the card-carrying hoi polloi in full support of Cunners, let alone all the buy-offs that needed to be wangled with all the old hacks in caucus and the state propaganda.

Now, to answer your question, I’m enjoying the surf too much to bother weighing in for those schmucks down at the wharf. What do you think I am—some kind of dirty commie? I’m all about growing the pie (you know the one—that one Johnny’s got his wee pecker in at the moment). Doesn’t matter market theory is a museum piece of bullshit long replaced by backslapping collusion, still recon we give the richboys enough they’ll throw a bit round for the great unwashed. Honestly, you think most of the baby-boomers surfing that wave of prosperity all the way to their pensions give a rat’s arse about labour rights in this country? If anyone doesn’t like it they can f@#k off and have a cry with some other dipshit—those greenies’ll look after all the sky-is-falling kiddies, Hone’s ranting about poverty, and old Winston seems to be banging on about national concerns in economics and the national quality of life. Poverty only happens to people worse off than us and preferably darker. Few more free trade agreements down the road, when the chinks are writing stuff in their papers about our work conditions, we might get around to doing something. Enough of this bleeding heart bollocks. We’re thinking more along the lines of proposing public hangings if the numbers are still down come election year; always gets the commoners excited, probably drum up a few votes, that sort of thing.

Love to shoot the breeze all day, but things to do. Nice joke anyway—being political in bourgeois parliamentary politics. Good one. You should learn to relax. Want a plum job at the UN? Could pull a few strings. Come round for a beer some time. The secure compounds get a bit dull, but the weather’s great.

Keep ya powder dry,
Davo Shearo

Anonymous said...

This article is written in beautiful prose, but the trouble is beautiful prose becomes part of essay collections, like that, for example, of R W Emerson. People might read it both now and in the future but it will have no bearing on the political life of this country at all, its function being to adorn the blogosphere.

Dr. Panopticon said...

And even more so, Mr Trotter, that Shearer can make great mileage against Key and his back-door stealth-meisters for what is so obviously a rear-guard action by the Privatise Everything Brigade. If not for your constituents' sake, Mr Shearer, do it for the future of the Labour Movement.

Anonymous said...

Shearers silence speaks volumes !!!!

pclarebu said...

Chris may be right - in what he says Labour used to stand for and what he believes they should stand for - The question is what proportion of the New Zealand voting public - does the traditional labour supporter now represent - perhaps its only 27%. Labour was formed under a first past the post system - now we have MMP. We used to have a big unionised labour force working in large companies - now many more people are either self-employed or working in small businesses. As a party their primary aim must be to get back in power and in doing so represent the mainstream New Zealanders. The world is now a very different place than it was 60 to 80 years ago. Shearers job is to lead the party back into power. This is not a Don Quixote moment. The owners of the POA are the general public of Auckland this is not your normal situation.

Anonymous said...

It looks like a no-win situation for Shearer, no matter what he does.

If he takes the side of the wharfies, he then gets offside with the vast majority of the voting public, who will have their suspicion of Labour being in bed with the unions confirmed.

If he takes the side of POAL, he'll be accused of selling out.

If he makes no comment, he'll be accused of fence-sitting.

As a foaming-at-the-mouth right-winger, I hope Shearer does support the wharfies because it'll make a National win in 2014 more likely.

blueleopardthinks said...

I agree with the second comment by Anonymous; Brilliant - no BRILLIANT. Wow! reminds me of when to watch TV news/documentaries or read newspapers you actually learned something :)

I hope the media put heaps of pressure on the left wing over the next 3 years. They need to really come out fighting and let us know where they stand.

I consider this article very pertinent because there are plenty of people who don't think it makes any difference what party is in government. I would guess a selection of people who didn't vote, didn't for that reason.

Time to make it clear.

Thank you muchly Mr Trotter!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the unions should take the obvious lesson from Shearer's silence: democratic politics in New Zealand has nothing to offer working people.

Anonymous said...

Chris, it's not 1916 or even 1919. Very emotional well-written text but where is the reason and associated strategic thinking? Labour is a social democratic party which is about compromise with the market and needs the votes of people who are not 'workers' to gain office. And the 'workers' aren't always 100% right. About the best Shearer can do is urge both sides to compromise. Whatever he says will make no difference to how it ends up, but it could do a lot of damage to his party if he gets it wrong.

Anonymous said...

On the one hand we have Ports of Auckland, representing the interests of their shareholders (that happen to be the Auckland rate-paying public) and bending over backwards to help liberate their workforce from a corrupt and subversive Trade Union that exploits them.

On the other hand we have MUNZ, conspiring with the CTU and the broader Labour Party to inflict economic damage to Auckland and to New Zealand's supply chain, using the deluded workforce of the port as pawns in their game of class warfare.

The solution is simple: lay charges against the instigators and sentence them to hard labour.

The delicious irony is that working in prison will be the first honest day's labour any Labour Movement Union official or Labour Party apparatchik will have performed in their entire lives.

@BoJangles said...

Intelligent argument for / of the Left. Succinctly differentiates the main choice in political life... choice itself or leave it to the state to decide. Well done Chris.

Anonymous said...

Labour seems determined to prove that parliamentary politics and political parties have nothing to offer the working class.

Shearer talks about growing the pie economically. Maybe he should think about growing the political pie as well by becoming relevant to the one third of us who see no benefit in voting.

The starting point would be to realise the supposed 'mainstream' are at best a minority, but may in fact not even exist outside the fevered imaginations of the designers of polls and the pullers together of focus groups.

Anonymous said...

Open letter to Chris. Your comments in the media always remind me of Stalin and his cronies (Helen Clark et al) standing in front of the benevolent masses waving to the parades, while secretly murdering millions.
Your commie talk and wishful Marxist nostalgia needs to reserved for arts courses at Dunedin uni or for the protesting bums in the Octagon, no doubt on welfare “obviously too busy to find work”.
Labour is a dead duck as long as it hangs on to its politics of envy, and out-dated welfarisms. Middle NZer’s are no longer blue collar workers, but hardworking, student loan borrowing types trying to make ends meat. I don’t want to hear your drivel and would be much more interested on how you would address the 60 billion debt crisis looming and how to stop the Tasman brain drain and the interest payments mil-stone around future generations. The western world is buckling under too much debt. Why should Auckland wharfies get 8 hours pay for 5 hours work – the other 99 % of us don’t?
Shakespearean prose stolen by Kennedy once postulated “do not ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for it”!

Anonymous said...

Trees without roots wither and die!

Has Labour had its roots cut off???

blueleopardthinks said...

There is a strange paradox in what Anonymous-Open-Letter-To-Chris says; Putting down the Occupy movement and then wishing for the very issues that Occupy are trying to get governments to address!

I wonder whether Labour has to go further centre as some posts seem to suggest, or whether they need to make it clearer that they can be trusted to stand for leftwing ideals, (not right-wing with a veneer of left as a 'finish')?

Certainly agree that small businesses need to be supported.

Anonymous said...

This dispute has become a test case into the right of management to unilaterally and radically alter the contracts and working conditions of employees in a drive to increase profits. It questions the meaning of "good faith bargaining". It questions if any protection actually exists for New Zealanders faced with management teams who would also choose to replace permanent employees with a casual, competing workforce.

The dispute has also focussed attention on the failure of the free market ideology with many commentators identifying that planning and coordination of public investment would serve the port sector and the nation better than the laissez-faire model we have now.

Both issues are highly relevant to the nation and have demanded some form of comment from Labour. That comment was finally delivered today.

"I don't think (the management and union positions are) too far apart... I'd like to think they can come together" was David Shearer's first public comment on the matter & demonstrates a naive view that no one else in the country shares. Instead of supporting basic job security as an entitlement of all New Zealanders, Labour's silence demonstrates that it can't be relied upon to protect the interests of New Zealand's salary and wage earners. The failure of the party to align itself with working New Zealanders is a big part of its "disconnect" from its traditional and once loyal support base.

Saying nothing as a managerial right is being established to dispose of a workforce that refuses to accept the removal of job security is not a being impartial, its being complicit.

Anonymous said...

"The white sands and pohutukawa blooms"
-that's just a wee step from the smoke filled rooms
for those who falsely claim to speak

for those who do deserve and still have not

And greasy Joan still will keel the pot

Joan's in the SFWU

David Shearer, how I very much extremely do hate you

Anonymous said...

How interesting that so early on in Shearer's tenure that this has become a real issue!!!

Can someone in the Labour Party say something... Where is their Tony Benn?

Let's notice that the Green's have condemned the POA management.

Are the green's the Real Red party on the left? :)

XChequer said...

"So, I ask again: Why so silent on the Ports of Auckland dispute?"

Because, Chris, the cause of MUNZ is fundamentally unjust.


guerilla surgeon said...

Greens are well meaning but many are SO middle class, just abit more socially aware. They managed to get rid of their left leaning people a while ago. Plus they are silly about science. Let's face it no party in this country represents the interests of the more unskilled, or manual workers, no matter what they claim.

Victor said...


"democratic politics in New Zealand has nothing to offer working people."

Just let me know where you're planning to site the gulag, so I can arrange my escape in advance.

Or have I misinterpreted your sentiments ? If so, how?

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, but I believe that whilst Shearer is still in his novice political stage, he will emerge to show his real mettle.
Sadly he needs time, and has very little of that with the MUNZ situation coming so soon in his leadership days. Parhaps he should have forgone his Northland holiday at this time , which he may fully deserve, to have stayed in Wellington, getting his act closely together. I am not sure he is being advised properly.
There appear to be many vested interests, which need cauterising.

Victor said...

Anonymous @ 11.53

"Can someone in the Labour Party say something... Where is their Tony Benn?"

Um er....could it be that NZ Labour has voted for its Tony Blair?

Anonymous said...

Run to a fire.
Walk to a fight.

This one looks like a rolling maul with lots of blame flying, and many porkies about pay and hours of work, costs and losses.

When the bubbles pop, and they're all sitting quietly - then's the time to work out a fair and binding solution.

Brendan McNeill said...

Labour appears to be in the interesting space of being a party pruned back to its 'legacy constituency'. A group of older voters who always have, and always will vote labour come what may.

Shearers task is to redefine the party for the next generation of voters, while retaining the loyalty of those who have been it's bedrock supporters in times past.

That is no simple task, one that even Moses or St Paul may not have found easy.

The POA dispute is 'legacy labour' and in reality forms no part of 'new labour'. (apologies to those who have coined the phrase before).

Shearer knows very well that he will win no points with his prospective constituency by re-litigating the battles of last century.

His must become the politics of aspiration, small business, the entrepreneur, the self employed, as well as the 'worker'.

That is the new 'New Zealand' landscape.

The alternative is political oblivion, eclipsed by the Greens on the 'New Left' and Mana on the hard Left.

It's getting crowded out there on the Left, and Labor is feeling the squeeze. The next 12 months are critical and pushing Shearer into an 'old left' mold is about the worst thing imaginable for the party.

For those on the Left, who 'love Labour' some patience is required.

As someone on the centre right who has watched National abandon its philosophical base, I feel your pain.

The antidote is a fresh perspective. Only a fool would trust their future to a politician.

guerilla surgeon said...

"Fundamentally unjust"? You have a wierd conception of justice. Working people, particularly those with families need some sort of certainty and stability. The port offers neither.

XChequer said...


Everyone I know does not lie beneath a security blanket afforded them by right (god there is arrogance galore). No one I know has anywhere near the same level of work conditions, the same take home pay, the same general sense of entitlement and yet they all maintain good lives. Good people (incidentally, mostly Labour supporters) who maintain families in circumstances a lot more harsh the what the wharfies have. They earn respect, money and wealth by honest work - not by bleating on "I deserve more".

Thats why the vast majority of Aucklanders and New Zealanders don't support the wharfies - their cause is unjust when put up to the light.

Anonymous said...

It’s only a few weeks since CMP Rangitikei management gave staff a similar ultimatum of accepting aggressively slashed contracts or not working at all. Labour’s Darien Fenton condemned National‘s silence and suggested it was because hard-line tactics were actually being encouraged against collective bargaining. 1. The ruthless and non-compromising position of CMP Rangitikei’s management in dealing with their own staff is mirrored with Ports of Auckland’s management and their determination to rip up employment contracts at any cost.

This dispute has highlighted the apparent ability of management to reject existing employment contracts and even the idea of contract negotiation with staff. David Shearer’s ridiculous position that Labour will be kept silent is a shameful disgrace that stains the party further with each passing day.

If the Leader of the Opposition will not object to sacking employees so that collective agreements may be replaced by contracts, it won’t be long before employers demand existing staff accept contracts as sole traders instead of employees. This new state of affairs could easily destroy unions along with all worker entitlements to holidays, sick leave, penal rates, shift entitlements and even hourly pay if employment contracts are replaced with service provision contracts.

If National’s silence over CMP Rangitikei was encouraging an aggressive affront on New Zealand’s workforce, Labour’s silence over the Ports of Auckland is too.

Mr Shearer, your silence when working New Zealanders most desperately need a voice may well become your epitaph.


RichardOz said...

Well it is 61 years on from the last decent round of disputation on the wharves.....and then everyone knew where Labour stood. Now two different and more brutal question is incidentally being asked in this dispute. The first is whether the law will accept the workers are being made redundant- that is the premise is every last job at the port no longer exists ??? This does not accord with the fundamental values of NZ....

But the second question being asked is this- if Labour sits on its hands on this, is there any longer a Labour party in NZ? It is judgment day as to whether there is a flicker of "labour" left in Labour.... I think not.

I will

I for one will not

Guerilla surgeon said...

XChequer: just because some people have bad working conditions that doesn't excuse imposing them on others. Everyone, should have some certainty about when they are expected to turn up to work, and if they are going to earn enough to feed their families. Employment legislation is not a natural law but a philosophical position.

Anonymous said...

Being neither for nor against the Wharfies (as Darien Fenton seems to suggest) is, as Walter Nash found, and as Aneurin Bevan predicated, a prescription for being run over.

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