Protesters tread a fine line when seeking to achieve their goals. Activity that is out of all proportion to their objective will, in all likelihood, work against them. Such is the case with the taxi drivers who mounted a four-day hunger strike at Auckland Airport last week. The only message that this over-the-top gesture sent was that this was a group with whom the airport company would have the greatest difficulty negotiating.
The drivers are part of the Auckland Taxi Association, a collection of smaller taxi companies, which last month negotiated better access to toilets, drinking water and shade at the international terminal. Last week, they made further demands, including that the airport moved the competing premium taxi rank further from that terminal's arrivals hall, and that they could charge a minimum fare of $35, up from the current $20. Negotiations with the airport company broke down, with the drivers saying the hunger strike was a response to their "pretty desperate" situation. "The airport just closed off all the doors and this is our only option," said the group's spokesman, Manmohan Singh.
There were, of course, other options, as there are degrees of desperation. A hunger strike is among the most radical of responses, reflecting a deep sense of hopelessness and despair. Just over 30 years ago, the tactic gained international attention when it was adopted by Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. But before then, there was a long tradition of hunger strikers in India fasting at the door of the party they believe had wronged them. This culminated in the activity of Mahatma Gandhi and other figures during the fight for independence.
This action is far removed from those causes, however, and is totally out of kilter with protest norms and with the matters at issue. The drivers say they are accustomed to earning about $10 an hour and working 70 hours a week. In their present circumstances, they are making more like $4 an hour. Their problem, however, has, as the airport company suggested, probably much less to do with the issues on which they are concentrating than the increased competition for patronage at the airport. Shuttles, buses and park-and-ride operators all provide services that may be attractive for many travellers.
In that context, it was odd to see the protesting drivers wanting to be able to charge a minimum fare of $35. That would be applied even to the short journey between the international and domestic terminals. For many overseas tourists, that fare will be their first experience of New Zealand. They would have every right to look askance at it, and the airport company was right to decline an increase. If, as Mr Singh suggested, other larger taxi companies are advertising a $35 charge, his group of drivers should have a definite competitive advantage. The $35 charge is unwelcome and unjustifiable whoever charges it.
Hunger strikes are designed to provoke feelings of guilt as much as attract sympathy for a cause. Any protest has an added dimension when people are prepared to risk their health and wellbeing. Clearly, however, it did not work in this instance. The airport maintained, quite reasonably, that it was prepared to meet the drivers, and the drivers gained no noticeable traction with the public.
In the end, they lost their fight to shift the premium companies' dedicated rank, and had to settle for new signage and an arrivals concierge to direct passengers to the free-flow rank they occupy. These amount to token concessions, and the drivers remain unhappy. Such is usually the fate of those who take action so extreme that it bears no relation to the matters in dispute.