Friday, 12 December 2008

Unleash Hell!

The Fury of the Goths by Paul Ivanowitz

I’VE always considered the first ten minutes of the movie Gladiator to be some of the finest work Ridley Scott has ever produced.

The brutal engagement between the formidably armed Roman legions and the wildly undisciplined but unquestionably brave Gothic tribesmen is a fantastic piece of cinematography.

Russell Crowe’s "Maximus", the Roman commander, issues the grim order: "On my signal, unleash Hell." His well-trained centurions do not disappoint.

"On my signal, unleash Hell."

Scott’s design of the battle, I’ve always thought, owes a tremendous amount to a 19th Century painting entitled The Fury of the Goths, executed by the now long-forgotten Austrian artist, Paul Ivanowitz.

I’ve been an admirer of Ivanowitz’s masterpiece ever since, as a little boy, I encountered a reproduction of the painting in an illustrated encyclopaedia. As soon as I laid eyes on the opening sequence of Gladiator, I just knew I’d seen Scott’s battle scene somewhere before.

Of course a pan-German nationalist like Ivanowitz was not about to celebrate some unrecorded victory by Marcus Aurelius’ legions over a rogue Gothic tribe. No, The Fury of the Goths celebrates the much earlier defeat of the Roman General, Varus, by the proto-nationalist German war-leader, Arminius, in the Teutoburg Forest.

Ambushed as his line was strung out along the narrow forest trail, Varus and his approximately 20,000-strong army was utterly annihilated. A small expeditionary force, sent in by Caesar Augustus a few years later to learn the fate of "Varus’ lost legions" discovered a battlefield literally covered with the whitening bones of their butchered comrades. The terrified legionaries buried them where they had fallen, and fled.

At Teutoburg it was the "Goths" who unleashed Hell.

All of which will, I hope, serve to preface the following critique of the NZ Council of Trade Unions’ (CTU) lamentable failure to anticipate and respond forcefully to the new National Government’s first assault upon the rights of New Zealand workers – the so-called "Fire At Will" Bill.

It is several months now since I had dinner with the President of the CTU, Helen Kelly, but I clearly remember practically begging her to have the trade union movement in readiness for the National Party’s inevitable sneak-attack, and to – please, please, please – learn from and avoid the critical strategic error committed by Ken Douglas and Angela Foulkes in the first few months of the fourth National Government.

It was the CTU leadership’s failure to answer the Bolger Government’s introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill with massive industrial resistance by the organised working-class, that saw the level of union density in the private sector workforce fall from close to 60 percent, to around 10 percent. Their point-blank refusal to sanction and lead a General Strike destroyed, practically overnight, New Zealand workers’ faith in the trade union movement. It was a defeat from which the Left, in general, and the working-class, in particular, never really recovered.

Nine years later, and just as the New Zealand working class was lifting itself up off its knees, the CTU has, once again, failed to meet the Tory challenge. In spite of the fact that they knew the 90-Day Bill was a key element in the National Party’s manifesto, and in spite of the fact that the introduction of the Bill, under urgency, was an obvious tactic for Key’s Government to adopt, the trade unions were caught napping.

A CTU that had learned the lessons of history would have planned for just such a contingency. It would have prepared a campaign as comprehensive as Maximus’s punitive expedition against the unfortunate Goths. Most importantly, they would have let Key know that, should he attempt to begin again where Bill Birch left off, they were ready to give the signal to: "Unleash Hell".

But what did the trade union leaders actually do in the 30-day period between National’s victory and the introduction of the 90-Day Bill? They spent their time billing and cooing with the newly elected government, and debating whether or not the Maori Party should be considered a progressive force.

Instead of being ready to pour their affiliated members into the streets, and to rally the tens of thousands of potential members targeted by the legislation to the CTU’s banner, the best they were able to organise was a pathetic (and constitutionally suspect) petition to the Governor-General – urging him not to sign the Bill into law.

With courage and imagination, this past week could have been National’s Teutoburg Forest. Instead, it has turned out to be yet another victory for right-wing ruthlessness.

In 1991, more than 100,000 unionists marched and rallied against the ECB. That this vast mobilisation of working-class anger was never translated into a General Strike was a true tragedy.

In 2008, it was a few hundred e-mails to the Governor-General.

As Marx said: "the second time as farce".


Anonymous said...

So why were the unions or rather the CTU so slow of the mark last time, had they been "got at"
Even as a nonbeliever it seemed weak and strange
And why did they fail to truely strengthen their position over the last 9 years
Maybe they just aren't fit to run the country as our unelected rulers and just as well!

Anonymous said...

Several weeks back I wrote a personal email to CTU head office, and one to the Auckland organising centre, concerned that the CTU website had gone silent, not even mentioning the fact that a general election had been held, let alone making any analysis or a call to members to be prepared.

I am not some disgruntled trotskyist with a default setting to automatically find fault with the postition of the central labour organisation. I used to be in the belly of the beast as a union president (rank and file as we used to say), executive member, FOL conference attender, Distribution Workers Fed. founding and exec member, NZCTU conference attender etc.etc. and I have enough memory cells left to concur on the above sentiments re the tragedy that was Douglas/Foulkes. New Zealand history may well have been very different if that ECB eneral strike had been supported by the then CTU leadership and Engineers and PSA leadership (of which unions the members overwhelmingly supported action).

Revisiting this debacle is necessary only for the lessons provided, I still find it unpleasant to recall this historical period. Some may castigate me for my view that I maintain K Douglas was one of reactions greatest successes. Either a flawed individual or a plant. It is one thing to go through an ideological flip flop, it is quite another to got from marxist to social democrat and on to worse without informing those closest all the while maintaing a leadership role in a workers organisation. Enough on that.

I urged the CTU similarly as do you Chris that the terrible 90s blunder of attempting to ‘positively engage’ with a hostile government must be avoided at all costs. I received a friendly reply from a hard working underling explaining that I really needed to address one of the elected officials who all happened to be away at this time! Good Grief!

It is a classic catch 22–the CTU says it is driven by affiliates, and the affiliates say they need a lead from the CTU.

The Unite union and workers party are carrying the banner on this so far, and it may well be that a street by street, region by region fightback is the only workable tactic on this. This will be difficult with patchy results, but we must do something. If an employer is found to have “fired at will” they will be publicy identified, and if possible their business affected Unite seem to be saying. NACT is already signaling extending fire at will to all workplaces. This is a bedrock issue and will very shortly create two types of New Zealander–those with work rights and those without.

If the CTU leadership cannot bring its self to “unleash hell” at least they could make supportive noises for those that do want to. Any class conscious workers out there should be emailing Helen Kelly not the Prime Minister. Now surely is the time for organising workers and campaigning as hard as the right has the last few years.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, most employers are actually interested in making their businesses better. That means getting good staff and keeping them. Why would they go to the trouble and expense of hiring someone, training them and then firing them before 90 days are up???

It simply doesn't make sense. Add to that the fact that the new legislation only applys to businesses with less than 20 employees and the scenario makes even less sense.

To call the government's move as a "sneak attack" contradicts totally with your comments that this was clearly a part of National's manifesto and that you anticiapated they would use urgency to introduce the legislation. You can't have it both ways.

Face it: National are doing exactly what they campaigned on, and what NZ voted for. New Zealand's working class lifted itself up off it's knees, and voted Labour out.

GZ said...

"Believe it or not, most employers are actually interested in making their businesses better"

Which is why we have employment law - because most employers are good human beings doesn't mean there aren't bad ones, or that good ones won't make mistakes and fire unlawfully.

Stop treating the left like idiots, and you might see that there is an actual point to this complaint.

No-one is saying that all bosses are evil people who want to fire their workforces at the first opportunity.

Anonymous said...

the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Could easily apply to our government. The first being the fourth Labour government, the second being our current government with John Key playing the role of Napoléon III and Roger Douglas as uncle Napolean. It's already acting despotically enacting legislation under urgency without allowing the public to have its say or even the opposition to have a chance to properly read them before voting on them. This government is surely to be a one term farce.

Anonymous said...

"No-one is saying that all bosses are evil people who want to fire their workforces at the first opportunity."

Are you saying then that all employees are perfect? Why shouldn't there be some balance to employment law? I for one, do believe in the need for such laws - the issue is how to get balance to protect both parties from abuse.