Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Merging Politics with Economics: Non-Industrial and Political Work Stoppage Statistics in New Zealand during the Long 1970s

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Merging Politics with Economics: Non-Industrial and Political Work Stoppage Statistics in New Zealand during the Long 1970s

Article excerpt

Introduction

Today, it may seem trifling to evaluate the accuracy of work stoppage statistics, given that, by any measure, New Zealand is currently experiencing an extraordinary long-term lull in strike activity. Yet, it is not inconsequential to do so for the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s - the 'long 1970s' - when New Zealand experienced widespread strike activity. A fairly unique characteristic of this upsurge, relative to other periods of New Zealand history, was that a substantial minority of stoppages were considered 'non-industrial' (including 'political') in nature. The Department of Labour (DOL) initially defined "non-industrial stoppages" as those that made no demand on the employer (DOL, 1979a: 2).

While the DOL excluded such stoppages from its official stoppage statistics until 1980, it kept a separate record of them. Yet, most analyses of the period have neglected these separate statistics (for instance, see Deeks & Boxall, 1989; Brosnan, Smith & Walsh, 1990). This article employs this data to help furnish a more historically accurate picture of the extent of workplace conflict - as measured by recorded work stoppages - during the long 1970s. Indeed, excluding non-industrial stoppages, many of which were significant and contentious national or regional disputes, has led to a substantial underestimation of strike activity. An extraordinary 46 per cent of the workforce took part in stoppages during 1979, largely due to the general strike of that year. This figure of nearly half the workforce participating in stoppages represents a vastly higher percentage than what was thought to be the previous peak for that measure in New Zealand history: 19 per cent in 1976 (although if non-industrial stoppages are included for 1976, that figure climbs to 25 per cent). Accordingly, many commentators - including myself - have mistakenly claimed that workplace dissidence in terms of workers involved peaked during the mid-1970s (see for example Boraman, 2007; Bramble & Heal, 1997; Roper, 2011; Trotter, 2007).

Commentators from varied perspectives have argued that trade union activity was economistic in the long 1970s, and, thus, largely unconcerned with political issues beyond the workplace (Awatere, 1984; Deeks, 1977; Jesson, 1981). Hence, this article also examines the extent of 'political' strikes during the long 1970s. As Hay (1978) observes, political strikes are often considered to be synonymous with non-industrial stoppages. Initially, the DOL concurred - it defined political stoppages as those that made no demand on the employer (DOL, 1976). Yet, later it re-defined such stoppages as those that not only placed no demand on employers, but also "did not relate to the workers' conditions of employment" (DOL, 1981b: 2). Consequently, political strikes were an "expression of dissatisfaction with particular aspects of the broader society in which workers live" (DOL, 1981b: 3). In other words, they were strikes in support of social and political causes that were unrelated to wages and working conditions.

This article proceeds by, firstly, examining the broader issue of the accuracy of official stoppage statistics during the long 1970s, especially in regards to the under-reporting of strikes. It, then, analyses the data on non-industrial stoppages, and briefly considers the major disputes that can be categorised as non-industrial. Then, it assesses how many of these nonindustrial stoppages could be deemed strictly political to help evaluate whether unions were economistic. The focus of this article is the statistical analysis. Apart from some brief analysis in the conclusion, it does not offer explanations as to why so many non-industrial disputes took place, and why they eventually declined (including the effectiveness of attempts to outlaw them), and the heated political debate that occurred about political stoppages during the period (for some discussion, see Deeks, 1977; Boston, 1984). …

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