The New Zealand government has now bowed before the school-teachers’ ongoing strike threat and reached an agreement of a new satisfactory salary order.
I don’t condemn the teachers in principle as everyone should be free to withdraw their labour. But what leaves a bad taste is when it’s union-organised which amounts to intimidation. That suggestion would bewilder all but our older generation who won’t have forgotten the endless black-mailing union strikes of the 1970s.
By far the worst were the inter-island ferries annual seamen’s strike just before every Christmas break. Each time, to avoid holiday chaos, the government was obliged to succumb.
I well recall listening to the morning news and Labour Transport Minister Eddie Isbey saying he’d worked through the night trying to reach a settlement with the seamen. This led to some indignant call from other guests who’d been at my Christmas party into the small hours that night, where also Eddie was to the bitter end. I appeased my callers by pointing out that Eddie’s remarks satisfied the public that something was being done but there was no point in him actually trying to do so as it would be in vain.
There were lots of consequences of that decade of union abuse, the most significant being the Bolger government’s removal of the compulsory union membership the country had suffered under throughout the post-war years. The upshot was the virtual collapse of unionism, other than with government employees.
Next to the seamen’s union in share rottenness was the Boilermakers union. Wellingtonians will recall through the 1970s the ugly spectacle of the abandoned rusting steel frame of the city’s tallest building, the new BNZ Tower. Eventually it was completed.
But in the subsequent office-building boom of the 1980s, to avoid such union abusers, architects abandoned steel framed buildings for reinforced concrete. 30 years later this has incurred a massive cost in strengthening or demolition with the post-Christchurch sensitivity to earthquakes.
Hopefully, we’re not entering a new age of union militancy. Still, it can never be as bad as the following experience.
In 1981 with the collapse of the Soviet Union a tremendous blow-up occurred in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Nightly television showed a tank, its gun pointing towards the entrance on the Georgian Parliament’s steps. And facing Parliament alongside the tank, a horde of armed ruffians, these a para-military group unhappy with the President (they prevailed by year end). Dozens of soldiers, guns pointed at the militants, stood at the top. As this never seemed to reach a denouement, I decided to have a look so with my wife we shot over.
We came into the very quiet city about 9pm on a Sunday night and lo and behold, bowling along in a taxi, there was the scene I’d watched each night.
“Stop”, I shouted to the driver.
“Don’t stop”, my wife cried.
“You won’t get paid”, I shouted. He stopped and I leapt out and barged in, pushing my way through the militants and up to the soldiers who stepped aside for me, I suspect thinking I was a journalist.
And there I found myself, standing in a large hall when I was confronted by a chap. I told him I was a journalist, there to study their Parliament so for half an hour he graciously showed me around.
When I emerged, first back through the soldiers I found a most amusing scene. My terror-stricken wife, was sitting on the tank’s track. Blood was everywhere. She was a very pretty girl, a rarity in Georgia as I was to discover, thus in my view their history of bad-tempered militancy. She’s left the taxi, tried to follow me and had been immediately surrounded by the militants. Thus she’d retreated backwards until eventually seated up on the tank’s track facing dozens of gawking militants.
She’d given up smoking a year earlier but so frightened by these events, had asked for a cigarette (literally everyone smoked in Georgia). Immediately a huge brawl broke out, blood everywhere as the militants smashed one another for the privilege of giving her one. Finally, a bloodied winner emerged and gave her one. Then foolishly she’s asked for a light and the brawling had resumed all over again. Much to the militants dismay I re-emerged and rescued her. All of that set the tone for what was to follow.
The following evening through a series of freak incidents, we found ourselves as guests of a couple of Professors on an outdoor balcony restaurant near the river. Over our heads back and forward, mortars were flying.
Our hosts were relaxed. I wasn’t. The explanation. “Don’t worry about those,” they said, “It’s only the school-teachers union across the river, bombing Parliament for a wage rise”.
As we found the next day, they’d missed Parliament but destroyed a nearby building which contained a coffee-shop we’d patronised that day.
That was nearly 40 years ago and Georgia has come a long way since, mainly through adoption of a market economy. The Economist rated it the world’s most improved economy last year but I wouldn’t hold my breathe in this land of Stalin, still idolised there incidentally. Why? Well last week a new political party was formed called the “Angry Party” aiming to tap into the natural angry character of Georgians and led by a former Defence Minister. They should do well.
All of this should be food for thought the next time our teachers union has a crack (there’ll be a next time – that’s a certainty).
I for one would cheer them on if they took a leaf from their Georgian fellow teacher unionists and decided to bomb parliament. That’s so long as they only took out that architectural embarrassment, the Beehive so the main classical building can then be completed.