May 1st – a proud history of worker struggle

Today is May Day. Few people realise its significance as International Workers Day and yet the stories behind it underpin the quality of life we enjoy – or don’t enjoy – in our day to day lives.

There will be marches in several centres and activities which include an annual gathering at the Blackball Hilton hotel on the West Coast and a community celebration in Palmerston North.

In short, May Day celebrates working people organising together to get a fairer deal for themselves and their families. Despite it having a low profile in New Zealand we have our own proud history of worker organisation and struggle for positive change.

In earlier times it was even harder to get these changes through parliament because voting was restricted to men who owned land. Working New Zealanders, both men and women, were excluded. 

So politicians took little notice of the appalling conditions of work in the latter part of the 19th century and spent even more time than they do today looking after the interests of the wealthy.

Government legislation to improve working conditions was only introduced when workers began to organise and fight for change. Coal miners and workers on the wharves – both groups doing hard, physical, dangerous work – were among the first to organise together in trade unions.

Some of our first measures to improve working conditions in New Zealand are a sharp reminder of the England described in Charles Dickens’s novels. Imagine the situation which led to New Zealand’s Factory Act of 1894 which restricted work by women and boys and girls under 16 to not more than 48 hours per week and made it unlawful to employ a person who had not passed standard four. As in other parts of the world many New Zealand families became very wealthy from the slave labour of children.

It was from this same period that May Day emerged. On May 1st 1886 80,000 workers joined together on the first ever May Day march through Chicago in support of an eight hour working day. Leading the march was Lucy Parsons, her husband Albert and their two children. Violence broke out at two marches which followed with several workers shot dead and a policeman killed. Although the person responsible for the police death was never identified, four of the march leaders, including Albert Parsons, were convicted and hanged. 

Workers in New Zealand have also faced the wrath of employers backed up by the police on many occasions. In 1912 Frederick George Evans was smashed to death by batons when police broke up a meeting of striking miners in Waihi.

Despite the critical job they have done in raising living standards across the country unions have never had a good press in New Zealand and the daily lives of workers and their families are much the poorer for it.

The constant attacks from the wealthy and powerful in business and parliament and the undermining of unions through anti-union legislation are the main reasons New Zealand has descended into a low wage economy with hundreds of thousands of families trying to make ends meet on poverty incomes.

Our social situation more closely resembles the New Zealand of the 1880’s as each year passes as so many employers treat workers as just a resource for them to use.

Earlier this year I was involved with employees at a high-profile Auckland hotel where they are paid close to the minimum wage and where the employees had accepted zero pay increases in previous years because the hotel was struggling. However this loyalty has been thrown back in their faces. The hotel is now back on its feet but despite helping the hotel minimise its losses over several years, the workers have been offered just a miserly 3% wage increase – less than the rate of inflation.

The workers are going backwards while the hotel steams forward. Its parent company in Honolulu owns 20 large hotels and is negotiating the purchase of No 21 – a luxury resort on Waikiki Beach. These workers deserve a fair go but they won’t get it unless they are well organised and active in a union.

Today is a day to remember Frederick Evans and the decent kiwi values the struggle of unions represents.

It’s also a time to remember that rust never sleeps and attempts to weaken unions and remove workers rights are always with us.  National MP Wayne Mapp’s private members bill to give employers the right to sack workers within the first three months of employment with no redress is just the latest example.