In recent weeks Wellington has seen two sizeable protests. The first was held at Parliament on May 19th against the 2011 budget, while the second, on June 9th, marched from Waitangi Park to Cuba Mall to demand an end to queerphobia and transphobia.
Up to 1400 people gathered on Parliament lawn for the Don’t Cut Our Future rally, held on the afternoon that saw the launch of the budget by the National Government. The rally, organised by trade unions, was called to protest the cuts currently being imposed on workers and beneficiaries.
The crowd was mostly made up of union officials and members, despite being billed as a “community and union rally”. While the turnout was bigger than many expected, it still mostly failed to include the 80% of workers not in unions, beneficiaries and community groups who are also under attack. Union members were encouraged to attend during their lunch break, but it seems most chose instead to spend their only precious free time during the day elsewhere.
The crowd were addressed by a number of politicians, and many of the speeches gave it more of a feel of an election rally. Labour, desperate to pretend it would actually do things differently to National if it was in government, had their leader Phil Goff speak. This is the same Phil Goff who has always been consistently in favour of free-market capitalism, and the same Labour Party who oversaw the introduction of the anti-worker Employment Relations Act during their last term in government. Despite their claims, they are no friend to workers. This is further proven by their refusal to commit to repealing most of the cuts that the National Party is currently pushing through even if they somehow manage to get back into power after the November general election.
Comedian Jeremy Elwood was the rally MC, and spent almost as much time lampooning the Labour Party as he did National, suggesting that, like him, the Labour Mps were a part of the comedy festival. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions and most of the largest unions in the country don’t feel the same way, having openly declared their aim to get Labour re-elected. Many union leaders see their positions as stepping stones to becoming Labour MPs, such as Andrew Little, leader of the EPMU, New Zealand’s largest private sector union who will become a Labour MP after the election.
This symbolic and ineffective resistance by the unions is simply the next step following their capitulation when faced with the raft of new anti-worker proposals that were passed into law in late 2010. The 90 day fire-at-will bill, attacks on sick leave and reduction of union access to workplaces were some of the most serious attacks on our rights at work to take place in years, but union “opposition” was almost entirely limited to symbolic protests around the country. Workers in Christchurch, who are facing an even harder time due to the impact of the earthquakes, had even this symbolic level of opposition cancelled by the CTU.
As workers, we make everything in this country actually function. When we fight together, we have a huge amount of power. This power, if we truly took advantage of it, could force the Government to give in to our demands. The union leadership and the parliamentary opposition do not want us to recognise this. They want us to leave the fighting up to them – give them our votes and our union dues, and they’ll look after us. History shows, however, that they don’t have our interests at heart. No political party can represent us, we can only represent ourselves, together. That is one of the key lessons we need to learn – the struggle for better wages and conditions, for a better society, is our struggle. It does not belong to MPs or union leaders sitting in their cushy offices on their massive salaries. It is our struggle, and it must be fought by us.
This lesson was evident in the other recent protest, the Queer The Night march through central Wellington. The impetus for the march was a series of attacks on queer and trans people in central Wellington in recent months. In response, a group of queer and trans people got together to organise the march, inspired by the feminist Reclaim The Night marches that have taken place in various parts of the world, New Zealand included, for years.
Approximately 800 queer and trans people and their supporters took part in a loud march through the central city, culminating in speeches (including an open mic) in Cuba Mall. Speakers included a member of School’s Out, a high school support group for queer and trans youth; members of the Queer The Night organising group; Brooklynne Kennedy, a trans woman who spoke of her experiences of harassment; and Bill Logan, a long time gay rights activist who spoke of his involvement in the struggle around homosexual law reform in the 1980s. The march organisers continually stressed the fact that the march was not the end, but only the start of a long term fight against queerphobia and transphobia, and they have already organised two follow-up meetings to help plan a long term strategy to continue this struggle.
The Queer The Night march was an excellent example of self-organisation by a group that suffers discrimination in almost every sector of our society – many queer and trans people are oppressed in their homes and schools, in their workplaces, on the street and even by those who claim to be their friends. Two and a half decades after homosexual acts were removed from the Crimes Act, queer and trans youth are still fighting for their ability to live their lives as they see fit.
The marchers were predominantly under 30, with some even attending in their high school uniforms. While the experience and contribution of older queer and trans rights activists is a vital aspect of the struggle, the comparative youth of the Queer The Night participants shows that the issues faced by queer and trans people in this country will continue to be fought until they are overcome once and for all.
Queer The Night meetings to plan future activities are held on Thursdays at 7pm. Venue still to be confirmed, but email queerthenight [ at ] gmail.com or see the Facebook group for details.