Sudden lockdown in an industrial city in New Zealand, a stark portrait of capitalism’s dashed hopes and broken promises | Morgan Godfery

In 1948, when my Koro (grandfather) was born, the town of Kawerau was little more than a strip of old farmhouses on the road between Rotorua and Whakatane. There was a Presbyterian church and a marae, but the nearest school and shop was in the next town – a 10 minute drive through rolling farmland and drained wetlands. Yet only six years later, when Koro was enrolled in the “native school” in 1954, Kawerau had become a city of concrete and steel. High-rise mills were built, chimneys and pipes were constructed and drills were imported to open up hidden seams of geothermal steam as the Tasman pulp and paper mill took shape. At its peak, the factory had over 2,000 men working on site and was responsible for 20% of the country’s exports.

In its time, Tasman was the ideal model of what state capitalism could achieve. In the first five years of Koro, the government had set up a joint-stock company, laid a railway line from Kawerau to the port of Tauranga, enlarged the quay at the port, built the newsprint machines to guarantee the success of the factory and recruited hundreds of American executives, British engineers, Finnish papermakers and Pacific Island workers to run the new factory. Tasman became the largest pulp and paper mill in the southern hemisphere. Kawerau has grown from a kāinga (settlement) of a few hundred people to a city of thousands of people from all over the world.

But if Tasman was the perfect model for state capitalism, it was also the perfect model for trade unionism. By 1970, the plant was bringing in nearly $10 million in annual profits, or about $183 million in today’s dollars. Workers, rightly, were keen to share in this prosperity and so in the 1970s and 80s strikes and lockouts occurred as workers and bosses in Tasman fought for the balance of its wealth. In 1986, a strike followed by a lockout lasted 86 days.

Today, as 145 union members from the Essity fabric factory in Tasman enter their fifth week of a lockout who has already seen his employer threaten him with a $500,000 lawsuit and block withdrawals in the event of difficulties in his retirement savings, it is difficult not to draw the parallel. The Pulp and Paper Workers Union is negotiating a Consumer Price Index adjustment or, in plain language, a pay rise to help keep up with the rising cost of inflation. During the last financial year, Essity, a Swedish company with interests in fabrics around the world, made a Profit of $1.8 billion of its global interests, but the Australian-based executives who run Essity’s New Zealand operations refuse to accept a raise for Kawerau workers. When you strip out the HR talk and talking points, the company’s reasoning is clear: local workers, not global shareholders, should pay the cost of inflation.

There are thousands of dry, dusty tomes describing the greed and inhumanity that capitalism needs to work. But the lockout in Kawerau reveals what these tomes can’t: what a lockout looks like and what it feels like for the the families and the community who suffer from it. Missed rent and mortgage payments, heaters turned off, and shopping carts with nothing more than the bare necessities. The Australian executives who run Essity’s operations in Tasman lose nothing if union members go on strike. But when these same leaders order a lockout, union members risk losing everything: their homes, their vehicles and often their dignity as workers.

This is precisely why some companies resort to lockouts. They are structurally violent and personally coercive, threatening the livelihoods of people on the other end. By 1986, when Tasman union members returned to work after a nearly three-month lockout, they had won or mostly won on the issues they were fighting for. But this struggle marked the end of a muscular trade unionism at the mill. The lockout has been traumatic for the community, with some families simply packing up and looking for work elsewhere. Essity workers today did nothing to cause similar trauma. They just want their highly profitable employer to recognize the work they’ve done over the past two years – operating during nationwide shutdowns and ramping up production to deal with those infamous toilet paper shortages.

When I was born in Kawerau in 1991 the slow process of attrition in Tasman had begun. Layoffs were an annual event. More and more tasks were outsourced. Even then, business analysts predicted that newspapers had had their day and that stationery would inevitably enter a long and controlled decline. Job losses were inevitable, plant executives told the city. But that was never quite true. Tasman was and is made up of several very profitable mills: the Sawmill, the Pulp Mill and the Tissue Mill. This means there is nothing inevitable about declining jobs and deteriorating conditions at Essity’s tissue paper mill and its multinational owner.

When Koro’s parents’ generation sold the land on which Tasman sits, they did so for a small sum and a greater promise: that their children and grandchildren would enjoy safety and standard of living which were, at the time, almost exclusively available to Pākehā (white New Zealanders). It may have always been impossible, but Essity’s conduct is definitive confirmation that the promise has not been kept. If the company fails to meet the union’s reasonable demand for an inflation adjustment, the workers’ standard of living will fall. If the lockout continues, their standard of living could be destroyed.