Brutal lockout in New Zealand mill town a stark portrait of capitalism’s failed hopes and broken promises – The Guardian

Once a beacon of possibility for Māori workers, the Essity paper mill at Kawerau is becoming a symbol of what has been lost
In 1948, when my Koro (grandfather) was born, the town of Kawerau was little more than a strip of old homesteads on the road between Rotorua and Whakatane. It had a Presbyterian church and a marae, but the nearest school and store were in the next town over – a 10-minute drive through rolling farmland and drained wetlands. Yet only six years later, when Koro was enrolled at the “native school” in 1954, Kawerau had become a city of concrete and steel. High-rise factories were built, chimneys and pipes were constructed and drills were imported to open hidden seams of geothermal steam as the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill took shape. At its height, the mill had more than 2,000 men working on site and was responsible for 20% of the country’s exports.
In its day Tasman was the ideal model for what state capitalism could achieve. Within Koro’s first five years the government had established a joint stock company, laid a rail line from Kawerau to the port of Tauranga, extended the port’s wharf, constructed the newsprint machines to guarantee the mill’s success, and recruited hundreds of American managerial staff, British engineers, Finnish paper workers and Pacific Island labourers to man the new mill. Tasman became the largest pulp and paper mill in the southern hemisphere. Kawerau went from a kāinga (settlement) of no more than a couple hundred people to a town of thousands of people from around the world.
But if Tasman was the ideal model for state capitalism, it was also the perfect model for trade unionism. In 1970 the mill was returning almost $10m in annual profit – about $183m in today’s dollars. Workers, quite rightly, were keen to share in that prosperity and so through the 1970s and 80s strikes and lockouts would occur as Tasman’s workers and bosses fought over the balance of its riches. In 1986, a strike and subsequent lockout wore on for a punishing 86 days.
Now, as 145 union members at the Essity tissue mill at Tasman enter their fifth week of a lockout that has already seen their employer threaten them with a $500,000 lawsuit and block hardship withdrawals from their retirement savings, it’s hard not to spot a parallel. The Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union is bargaining over a consumer prices index adjustment or, in plain language, a pay rise to help keep up with the rising cost of inflation. In the last financial year Essity, which is a Swedish company with tissue interests across the world, made a $1.8bn profit from its global interests, yet the Australian-based executives who run Essity’s New Zealand operations refuse to entertain an increase for the workers at Kawerau. When you strip back the HR-speak and the talking points, the company’s reasoning is obvious: local workers, not global shareholders, should pay for the cost of inflation.
There are thousands of dry, dusty tomes describing the greed and inhumanity that capitalism requires to function. But the lockout in Kawerau exposes what those tomes cannot: what a lockout looks and feels like to the families and community who suffer through it. Rent and mortgage payments missed, heaters switched off and shopping trolleys with nothing more than the barest essentials. The Australian executives running Essity’s operations at Tasman lose nothing if union members strike. But when those same executives order a lockout, then union members stand to lose everything: their homes, their vehicles and often their dignity as working people.
This is precisely why some companies resort to lockouts. They’re structurally violent and personally coercive, threatening the livelihoods of the people at the other end. In 1986, when Tasman’s union members went back to work after an almost three-month lockout, they had won or mostly won on the issues they were fighting for. But that struggle marked the end of a muscular trade unionism at the mill. The lockout was traumatic for the community, with some families simply packing up and seeking work elsewhere. The workers at Essity today have done nothing to invite a similar trauma. They simply want their highly profitable employer to recognise the work they’ve put in over the past two years – operating during national lockdowns and ramping up production to meet those famous toilet paper shortages.
When I was born in Kawerau in 1991, the slow process of attrition at Tasman had begun. Redundancies were an annual event. More and more tasks were contracted out. Even then business analysts were predicting that newspapers had had their day and thus the paper mill would inevitably enter a long, managed decline. Job losses were unavoidable, the mill executives told the town. But this was never quite true. Tasman was and is made up of several highly profitable mills: the sawmill, pulp mill and tissue mill. This means there is nothing inevitable about declining jobs and deteriorating conditions at Essity’s tissue mill and its multinational owner.
When Koro’s parents’ generation sold the land that Tasman sits atop, they did so in exchange for a small sum and a greater promise: that their children and grandchildren would enjoy the security and living standards that were, at that time, almost exclusively available to Pākehā (white New Zealanders). Perhaps it was always an impossibility, but Essity’s conduct is final confirmation that the promise is broken. If the company doesn’t meet the union’s reasonable demand for an inflation adjustment, then workers’ living standards will fall. If the lockout continues any longer, their living standards might just be destroyed.


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