A weekend of discussion and planning for struggle, solidarity and socialism.
Queens Birthday Weekend, (May 31st-June 2nd)
Newtown Community & Cultural Centre, Wellington
Working class unity needed to defend rights and living standards
This article is adapted from an article by Jared Phillips, Fightback member. Originally published in The Socialist, magazine of the Socialist Party of Australia.
Several recent events have elevated the issue of racism in New Zealand. In one case a nationalist MP belonging to the Danish People’s Party made headlines when she made racist comments about a traditional Maori welcome.
Also Susan Devoy, who is unsympathetic to Maori political issues, was appointed as the new Race Relations Commissioner. At the same time National Party Prime Minister John Key has tried to stoke fears about South Asian refugee boats coming to New Zealand. This is despite no boats arriving so far.
To top things off a bunch of neo-Nazis staged a so-called ‘white pride’ march in Christchurch. These events vary in significance but taken together they have created increased controversy and more discussion in society about ethnicity and issues of racism.
“Not fit for purpose.” That was the verdict on New Zealand’s health and safety system that the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety delivered to Labour Minister Simon Bridges at the end of April. The taskforce discovered a number of “significant weaknesses” in laws, rules and regulations which were behind the country’s poor record of deaths and injuries at work.
New Zealand has an accident rate about 20-25% higher than Australia or the UK. Among the recommendations of the taskforce are creating a new, stand-alone, well-resourced health and safety agency and enacting a new health and safety act to overhaul the one enacted in 1993, as well as changes to many other related laws.
The report mentions “poor worker engagement” on health and safety issues and advocates better worker-participation and greater protection for those who raise concerns about issues in their workplaces. This is at odds with legislation such as the 90-day trial period and other recent reforms which have given workers less protection. The taskforce itself hardly set an example for worker representation either- just one of its six members came from the labour movement, the other five from business.
The majority of workplace injuries occur in just five industries – manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing. Mining was also highlighted by the taskforce, with Chairman Rob Jager noting the explosion at the Pike River mine, which resulted in the deaths of twenty nine people, as an example of a “significant failure” in New Zealand’s health and safety regime.
Certain groups are more likely to be injured in the workplace than others. As might be expected, youth and workers with low literacy and numeracy skills are disproportionately at risk, as are Maori and Pacific Islanders, who often fall in the previous categories due to a young population and comparatively worse educational outcomes than Pakeha.
If the proposed changes are legislated, workers will likely come out better off, with an estimated twenty-fiver per cent reduction in workplace injuries. However, legislation will not necessarily be followed in every workplace, and the ones that don’t comply are likely to be the deunionised firms and industries that employ the marginalised workers who are currently most likely to be injured on the job.
The best protections for workers of course will not be top-down from government but bottom up from organised workers on the ‘shop floor’. Health and safety remains one of the few areas workers can legally strike over outside a contract negotiation. Ultimately of course, the wellbeing of working people needs to be prioritised higher than profit.
The first McDonalds strike ever in Wellington happened today.
At 8am 5 of the 7 workers on shift came off the job and joined the picket line that had been set up outside Bunny St McDonalds. It was a noisy, lively affair, with Fightback member and Wellington Unite Union organizer Heleyni Pratley leading the way with chants, songs and the occasional speech to the people passing by, explaining why the strike was being held and why the public needed to respect the picket line. Few people tried to break the picket line set up outside the main door and fewer still managed to force their way in.
Management had at the last moment rostered on more non-union staff in an attempt to keep the store running. Yet with few people in the store, the level of staffing was irrelevant. With numerous cars tooting their support, McDonalds management attempted to give out free vouchers to try and entice members of the public to break the picket and come into the store, but after a public service announcement over the megaphone explaining what these vouchers represented, a large amount of people were seen to chuck them in the gutters, still wet from the sporadic rain.
A member of the striking staff spoke briefly on the megaphone about their experiences on the floor, of being paid minimum wage.
The picket was a lively affair, with about 25 present a mix of socialists, activists and trade unionists from FIRST Union, the Postal Workers Union of Aotearoa, the NZ Nurses Organisation and the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union.
After half an hour, the members went back into the store with Heleyni accompanying them to make sure that management (including the franchise owner, who had arrived and stood at the back of the store looking darkly at the picket line outside) didn’t threaten or attempt to discipline the workers for standing up and striking.
While it was a short demonstration, this is an escalation of the struggle for increased conditions for Unite members in McDonalds and in the wider fast food industry. A number of KFC members have already made it clear that a weak McDonalds collective, undermines their own ability to fight for better wages and conditions. 85% of unionised McDonalds workers nationwide have voted for strike action.
A Unite Union ‘War Council’ has been formed in Wellington to coordinate demonstrations and strikes amongst members and supporters.
In April, Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA) launched its “Fairer Fares” campaign, lobbying the council to reduce public transport fares for students. VUWSA has conducted well-attended student forums on the issue, and the campaign has received coverage on TV One’s Seven Sharp.
Salient, Victoria’s student magazine, ran a debate on the campaign. Critics argued that the campaign “stinks of elitism and privilege” and that students should pay their “fair share,” while campaign head Rick Zwaan responded that students are “among the hundreds of thousands who are struggling” and pointed out that 90% of students are entitled to a Community Services Card. By Zwaan’s logic, arguably anyone with a Community Services Card should have subsidised fares.
Public transport is not just a student issue. Rising petrol costs, the necessity of ecologically sustainable transport solutions, and the commercialisation of public transport are key issues for workers and progressives generally.
Subsidised fares for students is an achievable goal. However, the wider issue is a privatised or commercialised public transport sector that regularly increases prices, cutting back access for low-income workers, beneficiaries and students. Council spends around 70% of its budget on public transport, much of it subsidising private business in its profit-gouging.
VUWSA has recently come under fire for campaigning on “non-student” issues. Conservatives criticised the organisation’s support for same-sex marriage rights, which won around 80% support from students – ironically this policy was introduced at the same time as VUWSA restructured its executive to abolish the Women’s, International and Queer Officers. Students associations are pressured to play an increasingly managerial and mediating role, especially in the context of Voluntary Student Membership (Voluntary Student Membership – A Socialist Perspective, Joel Cosgrove, December 2010 Spark).
Although universities act in large part as training for the managerial class, and production of research for market purposes, most students are indebted and work part-time. Public transport fares affect students as members of a wider community of workers, not simply as students.
Students cannot limit ourselves solely to sectoral issues, “student issues” (although action on student issues is important). A broader campaign for free or affordable, improved public transport could build solidarity with the wider community. Ultimately to address the underlying problem of “fairer fares,” public transport must be made truly public, placing it under community control.
Daphne Lawless will present on Ecosocialism at our upcoming conference, Fightback 2013.
It seems to be common sense that socialism and green politics go together. “Green is red”, wrote English socialist Paul McGarr more than ten years ago. On the other side of the aisle, the Right often refer to the Green Party as “watermelons” (that is, red on the inside – secretly socialist). The Green Parties, for their turn, like to deny this connection, often declaring themselves “neither left nor right but out in front”. And many Marxists don’t want to have anything to do with this supposedly privileged middle-class movement for that very reason.
However, ecosocialism is – in brief – the idea that you can’t have green politics without red politics. That is: that you can’t have an environmentally sustainable society under capitalism and its almight profit motives. And you can’t have a socialist society which ignores ecological sustainability and quality of life in favour of producing mass quantities of consumer goods. I want to argue that, while ecosocialism has been for the last 25 years or so “the wave of the future”, it is now very much the wave of the present.
Marx and Ecology
Ecosocialism is the descendant of a Marxism which comes from “bottom up” – a Marxism which takes as its start and end point the lived experience of human beings on this planet. Marxism, as a philosophy which seeks to liberate humanity from alienation, is most widely known as the theory of how capitalism alienates the working class from the produce of their labour. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also discussed how it alienates human beings from nature.
The American socialist writer John Bellamy Foster has shown that Marx’s early writings are very clear that capitalism creates a “metabolic rift” between social systems and ecological systems. Through the town-country division of labour, natural resources, including the plant and animal kingdoms, waterways and space itself, become seen as inert objects waiting to be transformed into goods for profit. And of course this applied also to the workers themselves – the worker is not valued for her or his humanity, but only as a source of potential profit for the boss. Capitalism is a system of exploitation of all of nature – including people.
The increasing push for resources under industrial capitalism leads to both environmental damage and heightening of capitalist competition. For example, in 19th century England farming was transformed by the increased use of chemical fertiliser – but the increasing yield of crops led to soil degradation. Meanwhile, imperialist wars were fought over tiny islands rich in guano (bird droppings) which could be used to make fertiliser.
However, this also has an effect on human well-being. The growth of industrial cities led to an urban environment fouled and polluted as much as a rural environment – especially for the working masses who flocked to these cities from the country. We can see a very similar process (the wearing out of the countryside under exploitation combined with the growth of tenement cities) in modern China. Foul, cramped, soulless working and living conditions are as much a product of capitalist alienation as the expropriation of surplus value. Read the rest of this entry »