The state of the working class

The Spark October 2009
Philip Ferguson

The recession has been officially declared over, thanks to 0.1% economic growth in the last quarter. The government and various economic experts agree, however, that more jobs will be lost over the next year to 18 months.

In The Spark, we’ve consistently argued that the current global recession is nothing like on a par with the Great Depression of the 1930s nor is it the worst global downturn since then. Current trends suggest we made the right call, while many on the left vastly overplayed the degree of economic crisis. However, we’ve also pointed out that it is equally important to remember that this is actually about as good as it gets under capitalism these days – short mini-booms, often in the artificial economy, followed by recessions, with workers usually ending up worse off after each recovery than they were after the previous recovery.

A number of negatives are becoming increasingly typical of working class existence in New Zealand today. Take the lengthening of the working week. About 36% of full-time male workers and nearly 19% of full-time female workers now work 50 or more hours a week. Almost 16.5% of full-time male workers and almost 8.5% of full-time female workers actually work more than 60 hours a week. Over half of agricultural and fisheries workers and about 35% of plant and machine operators and assemblers work more than 50 hours a week and a majority of both these groups working more than 50 hours are actually doing more than 60 hours a week.

By far the largest number of male workers plus the largest number of female workers work 40-49 hours week (see chart). Instead of life getting easier, it’s getting more filled up with work. Over a century after the achievement of the 40-hour week, most workers are working more than 40 hours, while many other workers are under-employed through being in part-time and insecure jobs on low wages or are unemployed and struggling to get by on benefits.

While full-time employment has been declining since last September and is now about the same as it was in March 2006, part-time employment, although levelling out during the recession, has grown from about 450,000 in January 2005 to around 500,000 in June 2009.

While unemployment and under-employment affect the whole working class, particular sections of workers are hit especially hard due to racialised and other forms of oppression inflicted by capitalism. Thus the unemployment rates of Maori (12.6% in June 2009) and Pacific Islanders (12.8%) are over three times as high as those of pakeha (4%), but unemployment rates among workers of Middle East, African and Latin American origin (almost 15%) are even higher. Women at work still only earn about 80c for every dollar earned by men, with the capitalists happily pocketing the difference.

While hours of work, pay and conditions are all making life harder for workers, resistance to this worsening situation remains weak. In the year to March 2009, there were only 22 recorded work stoppages; they involved less than 5,000 workers and just over 8,500 person-days of work were lost. In the year to March 2007, there had been 40 work stoppages, involving nearly 8,700 employees and over 25,500 person-days of work lost.

Factory and other workplace closures and lay-offs continue to be met with a fairly passive response by union leaders. Instead of even making an attempt to rally workers behind a fighting perspective, most union leaders limit activity to helping manage the lay-off and shut-down process.

There is an urgent need for a new kind of workers’ movement – a real workers’ movement, one that puts the needs of workers first. One starting point would be fighting to defend every job. Another would be struggling to raise the wage of the lowest-paid workers, a struggle which has been begun by Unite union whose petition to bring about a citizens-initiated referendum to lift the minimum wage has the potential to put the issue of wages, and the wages system, to the forefront of public debate.

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