Rail workers in Wellington went on a 24 hr strike on 16th November, in defence of employment conditions, after negotiations with employers broke down. Members of the Rail Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) took action which affected all commuter services on the Hutt, Johnsonville, Kapiti and Wairarapa and Melling lines. This resulted in over 30,000 commuters having to make alternative arrangements.

The strike was called due to the companies that own the Wellington system, TransDev and Hyundai Rotem demanding an end to long standing terms and conditions in the collective agreement with RMTU. Salient among these being the reduction of penal rates for weekend and night shifts and an insistence employees work public holidays.

A strike is a rare phenomenon in today’s working environment in Aotearoa (see https://teara.govt.nz/en/graph/20513/number-of-strikes-1920-2007). For the past 30 years in particular, workers in various sectors have had to deal with one piece of hostile legislation after another, from the Employment Contracts Act to the 90 Day Act. In this case, the strike is the first time since 1994 that the Wellington rail system has been affected for longer than 2 hours. As such it is surely a step forward for those wishing to maintain and extend the few gains workers have been able to achieve in this hostile environment. We should definitely applaud this action, even a defensive fight is important.

On the other hand, there are disturbing elements in the rhetoric RMTU leadership have used. For example, General Secretary Wayne Buston has tried to play a nationalistic card by highlighting that the companies involved are foreign owned, one being French the other South Korean. Buston was quoted as saying “And they [RMTU members] will continue to take the action until we get Transdev and Hyundai to understand that multinationals can’t bully Kiwi workers.” The fact the bosses happen to be domiciled overseas is irrelevant. No matter which faction among the ruling class technically owns the railways, they are all driven by the same imperative to make profits and to bully and pressure workers to conform to their dictates. Rail workers in France and South Korea are pretty much in the same economic position as the ones here. They have to pay rent, food and wonder how they can get by while their bosses are doing fine thank you very much. A few weeks ago, rail workers on the Korean bullet train went on strike in defense of their pay and conditions (http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2017/09/29/0200000000AEN20170929003300320.html) and on the same day as the Wellington strike, public transport workers, including rail staff went on strike in France (http://anglophone-direct.com/general-strike/).

It is the New Zealand government that has set the overall conditions here of course and there have been times in the past when local workers have also had to take on the state itself to defend themselves. Instances of this can be found going back nearly 100 years. For example, during 1920 they struck during a royal visit and the government had to back down. It’s worth remembering such things before going down the path of an ‘us/them’ division based on which piece of soil somebody happens to be on, rather than the power relationship operating in the situation.

To conclude, despite reservations regarding the way the strike is being officially framed, we extend our support and solidarity to the workers who have embarked on this action and hope it brings the desired results.