Freelancing isn’t free: precarity and self-organization in the “gig economy”

Agitprop from the Freelancer’s Union (USA)

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Under capitalism, we’re all supposed to dream of being “the boss” – as opposed to an exploited worker obeying the bosses’ orders. Obviously we can’t all be bosses – who would we order around and exploit? – but the next best thing, in modern “neoliberal” capitalism, is to be your own boss. Hence the appeal of those scam ads for “EARN BIG MONEY AT HOME”, which turns out to be selling cosmetics or bogus diet aids to your friends.

Capitalism is defined by the division between those who own capital – the tools, machines and resources – and those who have to work for a living for the owners of capital. “Self-employed” people are generally seen as being part of a “middle-class” between these two layers. In essence, they own just enough capital to make it possible to employ and exploit the labour of only one worker – themselves. The willingness of a self-employed person to “exploit their own labour” is one reason why small contractors are often more productive than waged or salaried workers – at a proportionate cost to their own health and personal lives.

The idea of self-employed people (often known as “freelancers”, especially when they are writers or other creative workers) as middle-class is an old-fashioned one. Increasingly, neoliberalism has made the idea of a full-time job, especially one “for life”, a thing of the past. Buzzwords like “downsizing” and “labour market flexibility” just boil down to more power for bosses to hire and fire, to drive down wages and conditions. In this situation, there is a whole new class of freelancers who can just be seen as casualised workers who own their own tools.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

A freelancer is only paid for the job. There is no guarantee of future employment, no sick leave and no holiday pay. In these situations, freelancing can even be seen as a form of “disguised unemployment”. Often, having several “clients” rather than a single employer paying you offers no escape from exploitation and mismanagement; the website clientsfromhell.com provides a regular supply of hilarious, depressing and true stories of freelancers suffering at the hands of bigoted, fraudulent, miserly, or simply ignorant employers. Freelance journalist Jacob Silverman complains:

Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.[1]

However, there is another side of the story. Neoliberal ideology talks about the “freedom” of the freelance, be-your-own-boss lifestyle. And it really is freedom, of a sort. A freelance worker sets their own hours of work; they can often work from home, which gives opportunities to parents of small families.

Crucially, a freelance worker also has control over the conditions of their work – when your client/boss is only paying you for what you produce, you can produce it in any way you see fit, without a manager hovering over you. And a freelancer can also reject any job or any client which they consider repugnant, for whatever reason – if they can afford to. (The present author once rejected an opportunity to index the biography of a senior New Zealand politician – not for political reasons, but because the pay they were offering for it was negligible!)

But this is the same freedom that a stray cat has – the freedom to starve. The situation is even more dire in the United States, where the only affordable medical care for many workers is employer-provided health insurance. Being excluded from the “full-time” job market might mean a death sentence if you have needs which can’t be covered out of your own resources.

The author of this article became a freelancer when her employer went out of business; she simply purchased her work computer and kept doing the same job, often for the same international clients. I can testify to both the aspects of the equation above. The precarity and anxiety of sometimes not knowing where your next work (and pay) is coming from contrasts with other times when there is far too much work coming on tight deadlines and you have to choose between giving up a job and giving up your health. But all this is balanced by being able to work how I want, from where I want, producing work of which I can feel proud (that is, if I’m paid adequately to do so.) I can even just ditch work for the day to look after my preschool child, when necessary and deadlines permitting.

The freelance job-advertising website Upwork reports that

nearly half (46%) of Generation Z [those born after 1997] workers are freelancers, a number that is only projected to grow in the next five years …not only are more Gen Zers freelancing, but 73% are doing so by choice rather than necessity, while only 66% of Baby Boomers and 64% of Millennials can say the same, according to the report.[2]

Similarly the British Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed reports that in the UK:

the number of female freelancers has grown by 55% since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office employment post-baby has shot up by 79%. Comparatively, the number of men freelancing has grown by 36% in the same time frame.[3]

This new form of employment relationship is thus dominated by younger people and by women, two of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. In these situations, the kneejerk reaction of the traditional workers’ movement that freelancing is just a way for employers to drive wages down, and should be discouraged or even abolished, looks as out as touch as those who say the same things about migrant workers. Many of us choose to freelance, and prefer the conditions of work to clocking in every day under a manager’s supervision. What we don’t like is the insecurity attached to it.

Ideology and organization

The point now should be not whether freelance work should exist, but how the position of freelance workers can be improved. And in the Marxist tradition, the answer to that has always been “the self-organization of the workers themselves”. But the current labour union movement has enough trouble organizing workers on small, geographically dispersed sites. How can we possibly organize workers who work from home, online, with a different “boss” every week or maybe even multiple bosses on the same day?

Another major problem with organizing freelancers is the strong influence of ruling-class ideas that freelancers should see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than workers – even when living in precarity at the whim of millionaire clients. According to Tom Cassauwers writing for Equal Times website:

Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Freelancer Sarah Grey adds that corporate lobbyists invest a lot in trying to get freelancers to see law changes and union organization which would actually benefit them as a threat to their “freedom”:

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do…), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers.[4]

This tactic was used to gruesome effect by Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers in the dispute around the filming of the Hobbit films in New Zealand in 2010. When Actors’ Equity demanded a union contract, a slick PR operation by the employers whipped up fear that this would lead to the major studios abandoning film-making in New Zealand altogether. This led to film workers actually demonstrating in favour of law changes which deprived them of rights (one memorable sign said “EXPLOIT ME, PETER!”) and union spokesperson Robyn Malcolm faced vicious harassment.[5]

Another crucial question is how to distinguish between actual freelance workers and “fake freelancers” – workers who are actually working in traditional jobs but have been pushed into declaring themselves to be freelance or “independent contractors” so that their employers can deprive them of rights. The most familiar example of this in Aotearoa is workers at Chorus who maintain our telecommunications infrastructure.[6] Traditional unions or NGOs have to be careful to defend the rights of actual freelancers while also defending the rights of full-time workers to have all their appropriate rights and conditions of labour.[7]

What kind of organization?

Freelancer organization is currently most advanced in the United States, precisely because of the issue of health insurance mentioned above. The Freelancers’ Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org/), founded in 2001 by former labour lawyer and union organizer Sara Horowitz, concentrates mostly on advocacy and getting good deals on health insurance from its members. Their biggest victory in advocacy came with New York City enacting a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law, which requires that all freelancers be paid within 30 days alongside other legal protections.[8]

However, the Freelancers’ Union is not actually a “union” in the way we would understand it, in that it does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. It is in fact more similar a non-profit organization which provides services and advocacy in return for membership fees; a “top-down” organization, rather than an expression of workers’ power. It works for freelancers “within the system” rather than trying to change that system.[9]

One major issue in the United States is that the labour laws left over from the Franklin Roosevelt “New Deal” era specifically exclude many categories of workers (originally to make the law acceptable to racist Southern agriculture bosses). Thus, many freelancers and other “gig economy” workers couldn’t join a union if they wanted to. This is where NGO advocacy organizations play an important role, like the Freelancers’ Union, or like the organizations who have lobbied for improved conditions for Uber and Lyft drivers – even organizing successful strikes in Los Angeles.[10]

That said, there are successful models of union organization among freelance industries – the most famous being unions in the entertainment industry (which existed before the US labour laws mentioned above). The US television industry was brought to a near-halt by the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8,[11] and the same union is currently taking legal action against talent agencies who they say are exploiting their monopoly position against writers.[12]

The entertainment industry is one of the economic pillars of the US economy and – in that country, at least, can’t be easily outsourced to more desperate overseas workers (the threat of which proved so effective in the defeat of the actors’ unions in New Zealand during the Hobbit dispute). So it’s perhaps not surprising that “old-style” union power still has a foothold there. But what models are available for those of us in less “trendy” freelance jobs – for example, writing or editing jobs, where there is continuous downward pressure on pay, deadlines, and the quality of work deemed acceptable?

One recent answer comes from a very venerable source – the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have recently started organizing among freelance journalists. An article from a member-organizer tells a story which is very familiar to freelancers in other industries:

Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unliveable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions…

[S]taffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, [the website] Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.[13]

The article goes on to discuss the question raised above, how to “map the workplace” (create ties between freelancers who might never meet each other in person) through one-on-one contacts through existing personal and professional networks. Crucially, the Wobbly organizers have worked on an international basis – just as feasible as local and national organizing when the community is globalised through the Internet – and has made no distinctions between print journalists, website journalists or bloggers. They have already announced a small victory: a Twitter campaign forcing the website Vox to rescind their rule prohibiting freelance writers from publicly discussing how much Vox pays them.

Other, more “traditional” labour unions have also had victories. In the US, the National Writers Union won a major battle for back-pay for freelance journalists in 2018.[14] The Dutch trade union FNV, the German union ver.di and the British trade union Community have all made serious efforts to organize freelancers – the latter, similarly to the American NWU, aims to concentrate mainly on problems with late payments.[15]

Andrew Pakes of the British union Prospect toured New Zealand last year, giving talks on the question of organizing freelance workers. In a website article, he explains:

Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organizing strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organize themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organizing with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.[16]

The question is clearly not whether organizing freelance workers is possible, because it is being done. The question of whether traditional unionism, the “Wobbly shop” or an NGO advocacy-and-service model is the most effective is one which can only be established by experience. But time is long since due for freelance workers and their allies in Aotearoa/New Zealand to start making experiments.

Sarah Grey gives an excellent final word:

freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class. We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/153744/gig-economy

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/growth-of-the-gig-economy-46-of-gen-z-workers-are-freelancers/

[3] https://www.ceotodaymagazine.com/2018/07/the-rise-of-the-freelancer/

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/freelance-independent-contractor-union-precariat/

[5] See our predecessor organization’s article at https://fightback.org.nz/2010/10/25/workers-party-statement-on-the-hobbit-dispute/, complete with comments from anti-union members of the entertainment industry

[6] https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/110473768/action-widens-against-chorus-subcontractors-accused-of-migrant-exploitation

[7] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/07/for-freelancers-getting-stiffed-is-part-of-the-job-some-in-new-york-city-want-to-fix-it/

[9] A good account of the positive and negatives of the Freelancers’ Union is provided here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/freelancers-union/

[10] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/freelancers-want-to-join-unions-but-labor-laws-wont-let-them

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Writers_Guild_of_America_strike

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/tv-writers-union-says-agents-are-violating-antitrust-law-2019-8/

[13] https://organizing.work/2019/08/a-year-of-organizing-freelance-journalists/

[14] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[15] https://community-tu.org/who-we-help/freelancers-and-self-employed/

[16] http://unions21.org.uk/news/lessons-for-a-collective-voice-in-a-freelance-world

“Workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, they’re brave”: Organisation of migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa

we feed you nuw

By Ani White.

It’s an open secret that the conditions faced by migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand are dire.

In Aotearoa, a study conducted by Sue Bradford for FIRST Union and the Union Network of Migrant Workers (UNEMIG), released on UNEMIG’s fifth anniversary in August 2017, found evidence of dire exploitation of Filipino migrants in the dairy farm industry. The study interviewed 27 Filipino workers, three local workers, and one dairy farm manager. Health and safety precautions were practically nonexistent:

One farm worker said he wasn’t given a helmet to ride around on a motorbike and another said that for two years, he was made to ride a bike that didn’t have lights or brakes.

Another respondent said he was not provided proper training or wet weather gear, and had to pay $700 from his own pocket to buy one.[1]

This abuse is not limited to Filipino dairy workers. More than half of the Bay of Plenty’s kiwifruit employers audited in 2017 did not meet basic employment standards, as highlighted by FIRST Union when it launched its new Kiwifruit Workers Alliance.[2] Ni-Vanuatu workers in Marlborough’s vineyard sector approached Stuff anonymously with reports of underpayment.[3] Migrant worker abuse in Aotearoa extends throughout many industries, as found in a 2016 study interviewing more than 100 migrant workers, the first independent evidence-based study of its kind.[4]

In Australia, a Four Corners study into migrant farm work uncovered similar shocking conditions. Workers were paid as little as $3.95 an hour, worked shifts as long as 22 hours, and reported performing sexual favours to extend their visas, among numerous other abuses.5 Moreover, law-abiding farmers were priced out of the market. This shows that the brutality of the industry is not simply a matter of individual bad farmers, but compulsions of capital that must be resisted collectively.

Fortunately, FIRST Union in Aotearoa and the National Union Workers (NUW) in Australia have both taken up the organisation of migrant farm workers.

Mandeep Singh Bela, an organiser for FIRST Union and the coordinator of UNEMIG, says that working in isolated environments and having a lack of access to information about their rights is a major factor in migrant workers’ abuse. “Being a migrant myself in this country since 2009, I worked in the kiwifruit industry, and I’ve been in a similar boat, where I was paid below minimum wage entitlements, I was exploited, didn’t know where to go for help.” Bela moved on to work at Pak N Save, where FIRST is active, and became active in the union. To address the isolation and lack of information for migrant workers, FIRST and UNEMIG have now released a Migrant Workers’ Rights Passport(MWRP), which contains information on employment rights for migrants, collective agreements, and legal and mental health support services. The booklet will act as a work guide and vital connection point for migrants so they can safely work in Aotearoa.

Tim Nelthorpe, a national organiser with Australia’s NUW farm organising team, explains that the NUW has been organising in the horticulture sector for three years (Nelthorpe adds that while FIRST has been organising in the sector for even less time, the NUW has been impressed with their work rapidly winning over “hearts and minds”). One major cue was when members of the NUW, previously employed by poultry suppliers, moved into horticulture and reported shocking conditions, asking the union to take this issue up.

“We’re a supply chain union so we’re the union for the warehouse,” Nelthorpe explains. “The missing part of the supply chain should be in our union, and our members want those workers to be paid properly.” Aotearoa’s FIRST Union is similarly a supply-chain union with many members in supermarkets and warehouses.

Organisation at multiple points in the supply chain allows the NUW to place pressure at one point, for results at another point. Members who were worker-shareholders at Coles and Woolworths were able to place shareholder pressure in support of farm workers. “When they mess with our farm workers they mess with our supermarket workers as well,” Nelthorpe adds.

Horticulture workers have also taken industrial action on a range of issues, often independently of the union. Nelthorpe explains how a recently recruited delegate was able to build a culture of strike actions around a health & safety issue: “Whenever those chemicals came in to be sprayed he walked into the middle of the packed shed and say ‘right: OUT!’ And the whole workforce would walk out. In a highly organised CFMEU [Australian construction worker’s union] site that’s probably not unusual, but in a new industry, it just shows you that it’s inherent in people, they just need a supportive structure and they can do the rest.”

Nelthorpe explains that the lawlessness of the industry can go both ways. “Think of it like the jungle. In the jungle where there’s no laws, people take industrial action, and employers take industrial action too, so employers will sack all workers and cash contractors in a day, the employers will call Immigration on their own workforce, but at the same time, workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, the undocumented workers, they’re brave, they’ll walk off a job, they’ll do a go slow, they’ll rock up to their contractor’s house demanding money, because they have to.”

Through militant action, NUW members have won a number of victories. Firstly, the NUW managed to smash cash contracting in South-East Melbourne and Northern Adelaide. Workers on some sites have made an impressive leap from $12 an hour to $22 an hour. Delegate structures are consolidating. Nelthorpe says the NUW is on the cusp of winning casual over-time in the industry and is also focused on challenging piece rates.

Nelthorpe says there are three major factors that enable abuse in the horticulture industry. Firstly, the award system; while Australia has a system of industry awards setting minimum wages and conditions, horticulture has the worst award of any industry, for example not requiring overtime pay. Secondly and thirdly, the interlinked issues of cash contracting and insecure working visas. “Cash contractors in the most seasonal industries, say grapes, strawberries, asparagus, stone fruit citrus, they control the point of entry into the industry to the point that if you want to work in a lot of the sites you have to stay in the contractor’s house, you have to use the contractor’s transport, you have to use the contractor’s preferred unlicensed migration agent to get your visa made,” Nelthorpe explains. “That means that it’s very hard for people who feel bonded to break away from that without really taking serious risks.” In Aotearoa, the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme similarly keeps migrant workers insecure, along with other bonded working visas.

Nelthorpe is sharply critical of unionists who push a ‘local jobs for local workers’ line. Excluding migrants from the union movement is self-defeating, because “there’s 1.8 million temporary migrant workers in Australia, which is 10 percent of the workforce, and union density has gone through the floor.”

“Workers should be able to go where ever they want to go. Capital can flow so workers should be able to flow as well. And unions should be able to adapt to that and support any worker that wants to join a union.”

Crucially, standing for migrant worker rights allows unions to set minimum standards, rather than letting the abuse of a vulnerable workforce drive down conditions for all. “So there’s the self-interest element, but also these are the workers that are picking and packing the food that we eat. And every person has a responsibility to make sure people are treated with respect.”

Despite wages and conditions in the industry being dire by Australian standards, wages are still often better than in migrant workers’ origin countries. For that reason among others, wages matter, but aren’t the main issue driving organisation in the industry. “Respect is the deeper issue, and being able to have a voice at work.” explains Nelthorpe.

Organising in an industry with an international workforce also has distinct aspects. Organising must be multilingual, with materials in the first language of members, and a multilingual organising team. Members also bring the political concerns of their communities to the union.

Nelthorpe recalls a 2017 NUW mobilisation against genocide in Myanmar. “Our Rohingyan membership in Melbourne were looking to do something in solidarity with their community, and so they turned to the union cause they’ve got no-one else really, and we helped them organise a rally in Collins Street in the city, and to be honest it was the most powerful inspiring rally I’ve ever been to.”
“About 200 members of the community mobilised, you had NUW flags, the night before the rally we worked with the group at the Trades Hall studio, they made all their own banners, made their own blood-splattered or red paint splattered clothing, and it was just an outpouring of grief for the community. When you think about what a union can be, sometimes we get caught in this narrow wages and conditions prison, and we get caught in the workplace level, but a union’s much more than that, and for these workers, the union was the vehicle through which they could express their grief and anger at what’s happening to their people. That community will always love the union because of that experience, and when they’ve got nowhere else to turn, they turn to the union. So since that rally we’ve had a number of refugee rallies, at which members and organisers of the union have spoken, and they connect the struggle of the union with the struggle against Mandatory Detention, the struggle against a backward racist immigration system, there’s massive opportunities there to break the racial stereotypes, the racial language that’s used to denigrate refugees in this country.”

In Aotearoa, FIRST Union members and organisers also take action on international political issues. In 2007, current FIRST Union president Dennis Maga faced potential arrest in his home country of the Philippines for protesting against the president’s visit, a threat that was averted.[6] FIRST’s mobilisation against repression in the Philippines continues to this day,[7] alongside the more recent organisation of migrant farm workers. FIRST in Aotearoa and NUW in Australia show that migrants’ issues are workers’ issues.

1http://www2.nzherald.co.nz/the-country/news/article.cfm?c_id=16&objectid=11907236
2https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/business/357040/exploitation-of-kiwifruit-workers-is-rife-union
3https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/90410800/nivanuatu-rse-workers-and-marlborough-vineyard-contractor-embroiled-in-contract-dispute
4https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11766210
5https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/four-corners-investigation-reveals-exploitation-and-slave-like-conditions-on-farms-supplying-aussie-supermarkets/news-story/e3264dc44240a65308c226c80e67bb7a
6http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0705/S00563.htm
7https://filipinosolidarity.wordpress.com/2017/12/31/auckland-philippines-solidarity-in-2017-a-retrospect/

Is Marxism just about factory workers?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In short: no. Or, it shouldn’t be.

A Marxist analysis of capitalism highlights who owns the means of production: farms, factories and so on. Most people in capitalist society do not own factories. That includes the unemployed, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, public-sector workers, students, caregivers, most self-employed people,1 and peasants – although there aren’t many peasants around these days. Workers are those compelled to sell their labour to live, whether they currently do so or not.

Although most people share a common dispossession, we also have diverse experiences, and distinct social positions. Caregivers may do essential work, but it’s distinct in purpose and experience from factory work. Tithi Bhattarachaya outlines this relationship:

If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker? Put another way: What kinds of processes enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society? What role did breakfast play in her work-readiness? What about a good night’s sleep?2

These basic needs are often met or assisted by unpaid, or underpaid caregivers. Marxist feminists have focused on this work, often performed by women, terming it social reproduction. Caregiving work reproduces not just the person, but the whole social system (you can’t have capitalism without workers, workers without food, food without a cook – often cooking free of charge). While recent socio-economic shifts may have undermined the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, Time Use Surveys show that women still perform most unpaid work.

Various forms of wage labour, other than factory work, are also clearly necessary to capitalism. Sales, banking, translation, and various other jobs lubricate a complex social system. Capitalists would not pay workers if they were unnecessary. Public-sector workers maintain the state and social services, stabilising the social system (for better or worse).

Unemployed people are the most dispossessed, of course. Despite regular propaganda to the contrary, unemployment is a structural failing rather than a personal one. As a socialist friend of mine put it, did everyone just suddenly get lazier in the 1980s, when unemployment rose? In Alister Barry’s documentary In a Land of Plenty, Susan Snivelly, a member of the Reserve Bank Board of Directors during the crucial reform period of 1985-1992 states:

It was a manageable thing for the Reserve Bank to use unemployment as the way to get wages down. It was far easier than any other means of getting inflation down. So they used it.

Even though insiders admit that unemployment is a structural rather than personal matter, unemployed people face routine abuse and humiliation, from national television to WINZ offices. Auckland Action Against Poverty has blazed a trail in challenging this bullshit, supported financially by FIRST Union: the union movement as a whole must do more to connect the struggles of employed and unemployed workers.

Marx focuses on industrial workers not because they are somehow better than others, more heroic, or more oppressed. Rather, he focuses on industrial workers because they directly produce commodities, the fundamental basis of the profit system. Industrial workers are not the only people oppressed by capitalism, but they pump the heart of the machine. You couldn’t have finance without ore, sheepskin or steel; you could have these things without finance.

Direct disruption of industry interrupts capitalism in a way that other tactics do not – such as voting, or rallies at parliament. This is not to deny we should use other tactics, but to recognise their limitations. Collective, direct action can be powerful and liberating in a way that more symbolic, or isolated actions are not. If workers keep the heart of capitalism pumping, they can also stop the blood-flow. Classical Marxists therefore focus on the strike, the withdrawal of labour at the point of production.

Restructuring of the global economic system has also restructured these points of resistance. Now 10s of 1,000s of factory workers strike in China, whereas factories have largely retreated in relatively prosperous nations such as Australia and Aotearoa.

Yet global restructuring has also opened up new sites of struggle in the ‘deindustrialised’ nations. Although strikes are rare nowadays, and only around 10% of the private sector are unionised, workplace organisation is growing in unexpected areas. As the service sector has grown, it has also become increasingly militant, with fast food workers carrying out strike actions from Aotearoa to the USA. For decades union leaders saw fast food workers as impossible to organise.

In Aotearoa, most union members are now women,3 in contrast to the stereotype of the male breadwinner. The recent nurses’ struggle in Aotearoa, or the teachers’ strikes in the USA, both powerful struggles showing deep community roots, demonstrate a shift in the union movement towards feminised industries: care, service and public-sector work.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘logistics revolution’ – a move towards automated, rapid global circulation of goods – has opened up ‘chokepoints’ where circulation can be disrupted: “the containerization of bulk goods now allows a single dockworker to do what it took an army to accomplish in the past.”4 In automated ports, a small amount of people enable a large amount of goods to circulate. Ports remain strongly unionised, so blockades remain very disruptive.

Blockades may be led by workers, or by the wider community – but they are strengthened if community groups form links with unions. In the USA, blockades led by Occupy Oakland and the BDS movement have shut down ports, with the support of striking port workers. In Aotearoa, strikes against nuclear shipping played a role in winning the nuclear free policy. As these cases demonstrate, strikes need not be limited to the fight for better wages: they are also a tool in the wider transformation of society.

We cannot and should not return to the age of the Western male breadwinner. However, union and workplace organisation remains a key to broader liberation struggles. If you’re working, join your union! In the likely event your worksite is not unionised, you can find your union online:

  • Aotearoa: union.org.nz/find-your-union/

  • Australia: australianunions.org.au/affiliates

union

1Depending on the size and nature of their business – particularly whether they have employees.

2Tithi Bhattarachaya, Social Reproduction Theory

3Sue Ryall & Stephen Blumenfeld, Unions and Union Membership in New Zealand…, Victoria University of Wellington website https://www.victoria.ac.nz/som/clew/publications/new-zealand-union-membership-survey-report.pdf

4Charmaine Chua, Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints, The Disorder of Things

https://thedisorderofthings.com/2014/09/09/logistics-capitalist-circulation-chokepoints/

Migrants are welcome – Leftist xenophobia is not

refugees-migrants-welcome-here

By Daphne Lawless

When I was a young Alliance activist in Wellington in the 1990s, I knew Frank Macskasy well as a staunch colleague in the fight against the neoliberal assault on workers. It’s very sad to see him now promoting the xenophobic agenda of Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, known as the “Breitbart of the NZ Left”.

TDB is part of the current which I’ve called the “conservative left” – those activists who have taken a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude to the rise of Right-wing populism worldwide, including the Brexit movement in Britain and the Trump movement in the US. I’ve argued that many activists, having spent so long fighting neoliberal globalization, have ended up in a position where they think that anything neoliberals want must be bad. Most unfortunately – in the NZ context – this has turned into a belief that since neoliberals want more immigration, the Left should want less.

Frank’s TDB post harps on the idea that the National government is encouraging immigration as an easy way to “artificially stimulate the economy” (an argument heard recently out of the mouth of New Zealand’s master of xenophobic politics, Winston Peters). The first obvious question should be: if it were that simple to grow the economy, what would be wrong with it? What is wrong in principle to allow anyone willing to come here, work hard and be part of our community to do so? In particular, no Pākehā New Zealander should have the bald-faced cheek to suggest that migration to this country should be treated with suspicion.

Frank skates over the contradiction between the idea that immigration “stimulates the economy” and the idea that it’s problematic “at a time when unemployment was still high.” A stimulated economy means more work available… right? Leaving aside this little problem, Frank goes on:

“The downside to high immigration has been to put strain on critical services such as roading and housing, and reduce demand for locally trained workers to fill vacancies. There is a downward pressure on wages, as cheaper immigrant-labour is brought into the workforce.”

Both Frank’s links go to NZ Herald articles. The first is a column concerning the last Budget, which contains the comment:

“The rise in net migration, on top of natural increases, is putting pressure on the health system, schools, housing and transport.”

I’ve underlined the bit that Frank seems to have missed out. The issue is that population growth is putting pressure on our infrastructure. In Auckland in particular – despite the scare stories from the xenophobic Left and Right – “natural increase” (that is, people having babies and not dying) is a significantly greater contribution to population growth than migration. So where is Frank’s worry about that section of population growth? Why is he not calling for a Chinese-style one-child policy, if the issue is really just about “more people” – rather than the murkier issue of “more people not born here”?

Frank’s second link goes to a report on advice given by Treasury – not generally considered a reliable source of good economic advice by Leftists (except when it confirms their prejudices?) There is of course a real problem with cheap migrant labour. But it’s nothing to do with “New Zealanders being priced out of low-waged jobs”. Firstly, just like it’s always been in this country, migrants tend to do the low-status jobs that New Zealanders don’t want to do – fast food workers or security guards, who might be qualified professionals in their own country, can tell you about that. Secondly, the reason migrant labour is cheap is because of employers cheating the system. We’re talking about migrants having their passports confiscated, and forced either into virtual slave labour, or work of a kind they never wanted to do (such as sex work).

These are real problems. But they are not problems caused by migration. It is caused by migrant workers not getting a fair shake on the basis as all other workers in this country. Get rid of the incentive for human trafficking provided by the current immigration scheme – by giving all those who want to work here the legal right to do so, cracking down on unfair labour practices, and encouraging migrant workers to join unions and fight alongside all other workers for their rights.

Frank and his colleagues at TDB are irresponsibly stoking the forces of racism and xenophobia in this country. Some may be doing so out of nostalgia for a simpler, less culturally diverse New Zealand of the pre-neoliberal era. Some may be doing so out of cynical calculation that migrant-bashing is a way to defeat the hated National government. But it’s a slowly growing sickness on the Left in New Zealand. The Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign has been set up by socialists, unionists and migrant communities who want to stand up and say unashamedly that we are pro-immigration, and pro-worker, and we can’t allow the conservative left to speak for the rest of us.

Exclusive: Redundancies at Mystery Morrison’s latest company

morrison 2

Fightback previously reported on redundancies at council-funded Wellington company CallActive, managed by John Morrison.

This week, Morrison’s new company Plus64 Connect is reportedly undergoing a new series of redundancies. This mass shedding of staff particularly relates to TrustPower contracts. Plus64Connect hasn’t folded, however with limited contracts this is still a risk.

TrustPower is a NZ-owned company (like Plus64 Connect), however as with any business, money is the bottom line. No companies run for profit serve the interests of local workers.

A number of Plus64 employees were previously employed by Morrison’s CallActive. Staff are reportedly glum, applying for new jobs, some having only been employed very briefly.

This kind of insecurity is very common in call centre work. You’re only secure if you have competent management – which is really hard to come by in a call centre. The focus is on numbers of calls, rather than quality – as obviously this means more money for the company (in an outsourced setting anyway). If you are lucky enough to land a full time position, only the bare minimum of entitlements are offered. Therefore the only difference between fulltime work, and a zero hour contract is two weeks’ notice. As outsourced clients come and go, you are never secure in your position.

Call centre workers slave long hours, are expected to be available at the drop of a hat, and customers don’t treat you like a human being so much as a punching-bag.

There is no incentive for businesses to provide security, unless threatened by legal or collective action. If workers coordinate and organise across the sector, they can gain more control of their work conditions.

See also

Mystery Morrison: The face of capitalist ‘local ownership’

John Morrison (left) at the opening of CallActive.

John Morrison (left) at the opening of CallActive.

By Ani White (Fightback Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington)

Meet John Morrison, also known as ‘Mystery Morrison.’ With his moustache, strong eyebrows, and sports background, Morrison has the bona fides of a Pākehā, Kiwi bloke. He’s the sort of guy you could have a beer with, assuming you’re also the sort of person he would have a beer with (John Key, perhaps). In a word, he is ‘local’ – or, as ‘local’ as any non-indigenous person can be.

Morrison is also a capitalist, a business-owner. He began his career as a cricketer, earning the nickname ‘Mystery Morrison’ for his bowling style. While he was marginally successful at cricket, Morrison’s career since then – as a Wellington City Councillor, failed mayoral candidate, and now call-centre owner – has been more controversial. In an attempt to defend a comment that he’d like to join the women’s cricket team in the showers, Morrison reportedly commented at a candidate’s meeting:

“[I can’t] help it if the women’s team find me irresistible. After all, I’m a former international cricketer who’s so mysterious nobody, not even me, knows why I’m called ‘Mystery’ Morrison. I’m kind of a big deal.”

After his transparent sexism failed to win over Wellington’s voters, this man of mystery moved into the call-centre business. As reported on Stuff1, the timeline of Morrison’s involvement with CallActive is certainly mysterious:

TIMELINE

  • CallActive was incorporated in New Zealand on June 26, 2013 [with a $300,000 loan from the city council, approved by a board featuring none other than John Morrison.]
  • On November 13, 2013, it was announced that John Morrison had joined its business development team.
  • Morrison stopped working for the company [in 2015], before it shut down.
  • On November 12, 2015, the registrar of companies gave public notice of her intention to remove CallActive from the companies’ register.
  • On November 26, John Morrison and David Lloyd incorporated their own company, Plus64Connect, which was listed as a call-centre operation.
  • On November 27, CallActive staff say about 60 workers were left devastated when the Australian-owned call-centre operator folded.

Although many of these actions are strictly speaking legal, they also have a whiff of corruption. Morrison approved council funding for a business; worked as a manager for that business; left the business, and registered a new one a day before the first collapsed. Whatever happened at CallActive that triggered Morrison’s departure and the company’s collapse, it seems hard to avoid the convenience of Morrison’s decisions, and the lack of responsibility he took for their consequences. Morrison apparently knew what was coming months before most of the staff.

Morrison’s call-centres are in many respects typical of contemporary capitalism in the imperialist core. A growing service sector; precarious work conditions and declining real wages; networked communication, allowing greater flexibility. Call-centres contract to various industries, often internationally, with the workers often having little or nothing to do with the original company, and therefore facing abuse from weary customers.

Precarious work is often associated with dynamic, flexible arrangements that suit new information technology. However, precarity isn’t somehow necessary to the nature of any work – while construction workers lead precarious existences as contractors in Aotearoa / New Zealand, in Australia they are highly unionised with secure and well-paid work. Rather than being a function of technology, precarity is about power, specifically the power of bosses over workers.

John Morrison’s progression from CallActive to his new company typifies this side of precarity: the way economic insecurity fosters fear, division, coercing workers to compete, rather than struggling collectively. Morrison ‘allowed’ CallActive workers to apply for work at his new business. Considering the reduced staff, this amounts to forcing recently dispossessed workers to compete with each other for a shrinking pool of work. Morrison’s new company reportedly uses zero-hour contracts.

Some have characterised this strange sequence of events as a problem of ‘foreign ownership’, as CallActive was Australian owned. Yet while Morrison admittedly helped an Australian corporation take advantage of this country’s low wage economy, when that fell through he took advantage of the low wage economy for his own benefit. The shift from Australian to local ownership did nothing for the conditions of call-centre workers, only benefiting the owners, both Kiwis. Morrison demonstrates that local (capitalist) ownership is no guarantee of security or basic rights. Of course, not all capitalists fit Morrison’s exact profile, but that is precisely the point: capitalists must exploit for profit, regardless of gender, colour or nationality. Neoliberalism is not just an international system imposed on nation states: it is a project of the capitalist class, local and international.

Exploitation and oppression inevitably breed resistance. On hearing of their redundancy, CallActive staff reportedly walked out with laptops and company televisions. This is considered theft; however, it pales in comparison to the theft carried out by capitalist businesses. These atomised forms of resistance can change the world if fused collectively. In Auckland, Unite Union has made some inroads in organizing call-centre workers. Rather than local private ownership, we need collective self-organization, self-determination and socialism – which will mean taking power from people like John Morrison.

ANZ workers strike

secure hours ANZ courtenay place

ANZ workers across Aotearoa/NZ (members of FIRST Union) went on strike today, for secure hours and better wages.

ANZ rat frank kitts
ANZ indebts customers and undermines staff, while CEO David Hisco makes over $2000/hr.

ANZ Hisco rat

With more attacks on unions, workers and beneficiaries on the way, collective action like this is exactly what we need. Kia kaha!

See also

MANA and Industrial Relations: “Between equal rights, force decides”

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

Fightback participates in the MANA Movement, whose stated mission is to bring “rangatiratanga to the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed.” Capitalism was imposed in Aotearoa through colonisation, and the fight for indigenous self-determination is intimately connected with the fight for an egalitarian society.

Leading up to the election, we will be examining the major policies that have been developed within MANA over the last three years. As members of MANA we have been a part of the critical (and some times heated) discussions at branch, rohe and national levels, discussing what these policy areas mean as well as what is needed to bring about these radical changes.

This article by Joel Cosgrove (Fightback) examines MANA’s Industrial Relations policy in relation to wider struggles.

Industrial relations are an essential area of struggle. The workplace – the “point of production”  (the space where decisions about what is produced are made) is a primary site of struggle between workers and bosses. The right to strike, the right to organize and the right to associate have been resisted by bosses and their organisations and fought for by workers.

Youth rates, (low) minimum wages and the gender pay gap, are all structural tools that drag down wages as a whole.

Anyone who has worked in the jobs that generally pay youth rates (supermarkets, fast food, retail etc) knows that the work done, whether by a 17 year old or a 19 year old, is no different. Historically it used to be argued that women couldn’t work as hard as men, or do jobs that involved complicated thinking. The point of these claims is an attempt to undermine our pay rates.

Even when the working class is successful in winning gains, the bosses will constantly try to claw them back. Currently in Australia, weekend work is paid out at time and a half (150% of normal pay) and the Abbot government are trying to undermine that by drawing it down to time and a quarter (125%) Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO John Hart has been quoted as saying:

“The industry will most likely save about $112 million each year – with this decision ensuring the industry continues to push for further penalty rate reforms under the Fair Work Commission four- yearly review of Modern Awards.”

Of course, NZ workers have already lost penalty rates for working weekends or after hours.

The battle between workers and bosses is a battle for the profit created through the work of workers and it is at this point, over the pay and conditions that bosses are forced to pay, that the struggle is fiercest.

This is why MANA’s policies around ending the 90 day trial period, youth rates and extending paid parental leave to one year are important elements in a fightback. Supporting gender pay and employment equity is another important aspect of this policy, with the case of Kristine Bartlett’s claim that caregivers (made up of 92% women) being paid at just above the minimum wage demonstrates a gender bias against women currently going through the Court of Appeal.

Aotearoa is a nation framed by overwork or underwork. On average according to the OECD, New Zealanders work 1,762 hours a year compared to places like Germany and Netherlands who work 1,397 and 1,381 hours per year respectively. When you compare the average wages of the respective countries you find that Germans earn $US30,721; the Dutch $US25,697; and New Zealanders $US21,773. Yet polling company Roy Morgan reportthe unemployment rate as being 8.5% (compared to an official rate of 6%), with a further 11.3% under-employed. Collectively, 19.8% of the workforce ( or around 519,000 people) were are either unemployed or under-employed.

British think tank New Economics Foundation has outlined a plan where the average working week is 21 hours a week, almost halving hours worked, while maintaining wages through increased taxation and a number of other measures. The question remaining is how this political change would actually be brought about. As Eco-socialist Ian Angus says, change will not happen just because it is the right thing to do.

Mana’s policies around this area include initially strengthening a return to a 40 hour week and restoring penal rates for those working for over 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day;  increasing sick days from five to ten; and bringing in a minimum redundancy payment of six weeks’ pay for the first year of employment and two weeks’ pay for each subsequent year of employment. The initial aim of these reforms is to make it more expensive for employers to make workers bear the brunt of any changes they make. Employers in Aotearoa have a history of exacting cuts in pay and conditions of employees to increase their rate of profit. Unite Union head Mike Treen has pointed to workers’ productivity increasing by 83% while real wages (inflation adjusted) fell by 25%. This is the result of weak defences of workers’ conditions around hours and penal rates.

Competition between companies over the past few decades has centred on who can cut workers’ pay and conditions the most. In the past industry conditions (or awards) set out minimum conditions and pay that in part functioned to undermine the ability to cut them – the minimum wage is an example of this in action. This is another area covered in MANA’s policy, setting out industry awards/minimum conditions as well as making sure that workers performing any outsourced government services are not employed in worse conditions than those in government, something which is currently endemic with cleaners’ contracts.

As good as these various policies are, they rely on the workers to uphold and push them forward, and to punish employers who break them. The right to strike is central to this. Workers en masse downing tools and stopping production cuts to the chase and forces the issue. The right to strike has been progressively cut back over the years, until in almost all situations it is illegal to strike. MANA policy puts forward “the right to strike for workers to enforce their contact and on any significant political, economic, cultural and environmental issues.”  MANA policy extends the right to strike to these issues but also gives an example of “workers for Fisher and Paykel in New Zealand taking action in support of Fisher and Paykel employees in Thailand”, an important aspect of internationalism demonstrated by the worldwide protests around the world recently in May against McDonalds’ global anti-worker policies.

Yet it was Karl Marx who said “between two equal rights, force is the arbiter”, namely the right of employers to legally undermine workers conditions and workers fight for improved conditions.  For example, from 1990 to 1999 the minimum wage moved from $6.13 to $7.00 and from 2000-2009 the minimum wage increased from $7.00 to $12.50. That the National party (who increased it in the 90’s by 87 cents) have increased the minimum wage since 2008 by $1.75 is something worth investigating further. The difference is the mass struggle that was waged in the 00’s, particularly by Unite Union, which forced the political situation to change – to the point where the National party felt they had to increase the minimum wage each year (in the face of opposition from their own supporters).

What we can see from all this is that these rights are not given, they’re fought for.  MANA might have an excellent industrial policy, but actually bringing this about will be a massive struggle. There are already examples that show how struggle can be waged to win these conditions. We need to learn from them and develop new and creative ways to push forward the fight for a fairer and egalitarian society that benefits the many and not the few.

New Zealand’s Union Movement: A socialist perspective

maritime march

By Committee for a Workers’ International. Abridged version of a full perspectives document to be found here.

New Zealand employers are seeking to maintain their profits by increasing productivity. In most cases this means people working harder and faster for less money and fewer conditions. Very little is being invested by employers into research and development.

For example, in 2011 only 17% of businesses with 100 or more employees invested in research and development (R&D). Of the businesses with 50-99 employees only 13% of businesses invested, while just 10% of businesses with 20-49 employees put funds towards R&D. New Zealand employers prefer to continue their efforts intensifying the exploitation of the working class.

Since the onset of the crisis, employers lobbied the National government for industrial law changes which have been passed, including the implementation of 90-day work trial periods without rights to grievances for unjustified dismissal, the narrowing of the interpretation of unjustified dismissal, and the narrowing of prospects for reinstatement where a dismissal is held to be unjustified. Such measures are designed to make labour more flexible for employers and to further discipline working people for the employers’ needs.

Other changes, such as enabling the employer to require a medical certificate for only one day of sick leave (previously employers were only able to require proof on the third consecutive day), have the stated aim of improving productivity. They are also about increasing employer control over the workforce.

A range of changes have encroached more directly on union rights such as the tightening up of union right of entry to workplaces. This is now only with the permission of the employer and the burden placed on unions to prove an employer is being unreasonable by denying access.

The reintroduction of youth rates – “starting out” rates – will not impact on worksites where unions, notably Unite and FIRST Union, have written youth wages out of union agreements but it will increase the exploitation of thousands of young workers in unorganised workplaces.

The government also changed the review process for the adult minimum wage by limiting consultation to only the Council of Trade Unions and Business New Zealand. It has narrowed the factors that should be considered in the annual reviews by excluding social factors and wage relativity factors.

This is an attempt to send a clear message out against sections of the union movement, like Unite Union and the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU), which have run Living Wage campaigns. Firstly Unite ran a campaign to have the minimum wage to be indexed at 2/3rds of the average wage, with an immediate increase to $15 per hour. Next, the SFWU has lead a public campaign which has got traction for a living wage which would allow for a decent standard of living and the ability for ordinary people to properly participate in their communities.

Due to the pressure of these campaigns both Labour and the Greens have accepted the need for a $15 minimum wage. If they do come to power in 2014 the claim for $15 which Unite pushed in the 2009 to 2010 period will be less relevant. Workers have moved on from the $15 per hour demand and organised low paid workers are now looking for considerably more.

If Labour and the Greens take power they may make some minor changes to the minimum wage, but against the backdrop of a fragile economic situation they will be under intense pressure from employers to ensure these changes are mere window dressing and that there are various factors that would allow employers to opt out. The only way a real living wage will be won will be via a union-led industrial campaign.

At an institutional level, the government has made the major change of merging the Department of Labour, the Department of Building and Housing, the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Ministry of Economic Development into one Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment. This has set the tone for the function of the former Department of Labour to become more business orientated with the stated aim that “The purpose of MBIE is to be a catalyst for a high-performing economy to ensure New Zealand’s lasting prosperity and wellbeing…. We are working to support the government’s Business Growth Agenda.” The false idea of the prosperity of business being synonymous with lasting prosperity has been pushed by this government. But there has been no increased prosperity for ordinary people.

Lastly, the government is now in the process of passing legislation that will enable employers to declare that bargaining is frustrated and they will not be required to conclude bargaining. This is essentially removing the right of workers to a collective agreement. The International Labor Organisation (ILO) says the proposed legislation would contravene their principles. There has been a huge amount of union submissions so far, but the government announced in December 2013 that it is proceeding to the second reading regardless.

The trade union response to legislation changes

The main form of opposition to the changes has consisted of public rallies held after work hours, stopwork meetings, and legal action to secure the best possible interpretations of the changes. On some occasions union leaders made bold statements about mounting a more serious opposition, in 2010 for example one union leader said there would be “chaos in the factories” if the extension of the 90-day legislation to all workplaces came to pass. Unfortunately this sentiment was short-lived and the leaderships continue to be conservative on the question of strikes.

Clearly these new laws need to be challenged with industrial action. Public rallies held after hours and brief stop work meetings do not sufficiently impact on the employers profits and should be seen at best as a starting point to build towards more generalised forms of strike action. The role of socialists is to establish an organisation with the type of authority in the working class from which we can competently argue such basics.

The problem is not one of union resources or worker apathy. The problem is political, that unions have in large part become wedded to pro-market and capitalist ideas. The attachment of some unions to the Labour Party, which proposes no economic alternative to neo-liberalism, means that those unions don’t fight for a fundamental alternative to the system either. Without being tied to Labour’s politics, and by linking with other fighting organisations, these unions could play an exciting part in producing deep social change.

An increasing number of union and left activists have become de facto apologists for the conservative perspective in the bureaucracy by arguing that the economic conditions are not right for strikes or that there is not the right attitude amongst workers. Others say there are too few resources or not the right information. The truth is that most unions have plenty of resources and most workers respond well to campaigns that will improve their work conditions and living standards. The problem is purely political.

The bulk of union leaders today do not adhere to an alternative to capitalism. Such an alternative is the only thing that can provide relief and the necessary changes for working people.

What we need most is a new type of politics to dominate the union movement. This means a return to socialist ideas which provide a genuine political and economic alternative to the profit driven system. When people have a vision for a better type of society this translates into a more fighting attitude on the ground.

Therefore the task of rebuilding the union movement along fighting lines will be best done in combination with the tasks of building a serious socialist political organisation as well as a new workers party that can challenge Labour’s grip. These ideas will get the best reception from those who have the most to gain – the union rank and file.

Bosses seeking to undermine traditional sectors

During the last upturn, the employers sought to increase profitability by placing emphasis on increasing absolute surplus value. For example, in 2004 workers in New Zealand were working longer hours than in any OECD country except Japan. In more recent times however employers are now seeking to increase surplus value by further rationalising and flexibilising the labour process.

In particular, the employers in the traditionally unionised sectors want access to the flexibility and casualisation that exists in other sectors. This is what was behind the 2012 attacks on the conditions of meat workers throughout the country. It is also what is behind the attacks on port workers in Auckland – an ongoing situation where there is currently something of a stalemate.

The link between profitability and the recent attacks on meat workers shows the way in which the employers want to offload their profit woes on to workers. Beef and sheep still account for over 15% of New Zealand exports. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has stated that there have been profitability difficulties in the industry since at least 2009. In fact profitability issues for the meat sector go back decades, hence the decline in beef and sheep farming and exports.

The locking out of over 100 CMP company meat workers in the Manawatu area from late October 2011 to late December 2012 was followed by the locking out of over 800 AFFCO workers in several meat processing plants for more than three months in 2012. The lockouts represented a new level of employer hostility in that the lockouts weren’t started as retaliation to union-led industrial activity but were started to attempt to force union workers to accept deep cutbacks.

Talleys purchased the AFFCO plants in 2011 and were demanding more flexibility in the workplace. The company’s demand for greater flexibility was connected to its requirement for more control over the workplace. Greater flexibility is then imposed and used to increase exploitation and therefore squeeze more profits out of the workforce.

Many AFFCO plants are now antiquated. Instead of resolving efficiency problems through investing in plant and machinery to create state of the art workplaces, New Zealand capitalists have focussed on making the workforce leaner, making it work harder and faster.

At the Ports of Auckland Limited the employer attacks against the wharfies (stevedores), including lockouts, have been fundamentally about trying to reduce the conditions and power of workers in traditional union jobs and force them down to the flexibilised conditions of the broader workforce in New Zealand.

A TV report about the dispute, in January 2012, said that “Businesses say it’s a battle between old and new work practices” and Kim Campbell of the Employers and Manufacturers Association said, “I think it’s do or die personally, and that really is a serious matter.” The Auckland ports director told TV3 News that “Our singular focus is on addressing old-fashioned workplace practices that are a handbrake on flexibility and productivity.”

Essentially employers are now going after core industrial workers in an attempt to make those workers subject to the neo-liberal workplace conditions of job insecurity, work insecurity (less guaranteed hours of work), income insecurity, individualisation of bonuses and benefits and other elements of the neo-liberal work environment. When other parts of the workforce are unorganised and working in these conditions then the core workforce is more vulnerable to the types of attacks that are happening now.

In the stalemate at the Ports of Auckland the Maritime Union employment agreement has expired and the employer has attempted to gain traction for a scab union. This dispute needs to be seen as a wake-up call to the union movement. A setback for one of the most well paid and highly organised sections of the working class is a setback for all workers.

Service sector workers struggle for income security and job security

Care workers have also been struggling over the last two to three years with strike action taking place at the workplaces one of the country’s largest rest home companies. Additionally, in this period, the Service and Food Workers union has won an important legal decision which held that overnight stays must be compensated at the minimum wage. Unite Union has continued to progress and build amongst fast-food and cinema workers, and this included a long round of strikes and other actions at McDonald’s outlets throughout the country. As always the key demands of Unite members have been around secure work and guaranteed hours.

Key slogans for the workers movement

Service sector struggles are connected with the struggles of workers in traditional union jobs. The service sector campaigns are generally offensive campaigns against already existing casualisation and flexibilisation. The struggles at the ports and in the meat works were defensive struggles against casualisation and flexibilisation which the bosses have sought to impose.

In order to unify the struggles of the working class over the next period unions should adopt a general slogan along the lines of “Secure Work, Secure Hours, Living Wage”. Joint industrial action, across sectors, should be organised. This type of campaign would be the best way to win improvements to the minimum wage and give workers the confidence to challenge the existing anti-worker laws.

Industrial tactics

A feature of some industrial disputes of late has been the unwillingness of union leaders to blockade or put ‘hard’ pickets on workplace entrances to defend against scabs and to stop the supply chain. This is a concerning trend apparent during a number of recent disputes. There have been some situations where there has been a systematic allowance of scabs through the gates and the normal operations and supply have continued.

This is dramatically different to only seven and a half years ago when, in the National Distribution Union versus Progressive Enterprises dispute, key warehouses were systematically blockaded and flying pickets were established to stop the operation of make-shift dispatch centres with force. Similar tactics were used by other unions at the time. Socialists must fight for the restoration of militant tactics in the trade union movement. This is not a mere ideological point. With employers becoming more aggressive, militant industrial tactics are necessary.

See also

Socialists and trade unions

bunny st mcdonalds strike unfuck the world

By Ben Petersen (Fightback – Wellington)

Socialists have a long relationship with trade unions. There are exciting chapters of history where socialists have led important working class battles, such as the fight for the eight-hour working day. Today, socialists will often meet in union offices and often will seek to involve unions in our campaigns.

This is not just a coincidence. The socialist movement has important contributions to make to the trade union movement, and needs to consider these organisations to achieve radical change.

Common ground

The socialist movement is a project for revolutionary change. Socialists want to overthrow today’s society based on exploitation, and build a new world where ordinary people have control over their lives and communities. The agent for this change is the working people themselves.

Trade unions are organisations for working people. Trade unions seek to organise workers in a particular industry (such as teachers, construction workers, or dairy workers). A trade union should then represent workers and their interests. Unions fight on the job for better pay and conditions, or for better legislation from government to protect workers or strengthen their bargaining position.

The overlap is obvious. Socialists seek to empower working people to change the world and trade unions are organisations for working people to defend their interests. Socialists participate in trade unions because they provide an important space to build an alternative.

Unionism is a living question

Often socialists talk about trade unions as a question of the past. Historical events are remembered and eulogised, but can be presented in a way that is divided from the present. It is important to remember the important events in union history, such as the great strikes in 1913 or the lockout of the waterside workers in 1951, but this is not to rote learn a historical narrative. Socialists study the radical past to learn lessons to build from today.

Radical unionism is not an identity. Radical unionism is not confined to particular historical periods or militant industries. Unionism is not confined to white men in overalls. The first strike in New Zealand was by Maori forestry workers who demanded to be paid in money or gunpowder, instead of in rations.

Some industries have long traditions of unionism, such as waterside workers and the West Coast miners. But today’s economy is much broader than these industries. There are thousands of workers in education and health care, or in service industries.

For socialist unionists, it is important to be part of building the unions in these areas. Capitalism is a system that serves to exploit. This exploitation changes and develops over time. Capitalism in Aotearoa today has important education industries, and a vast civil service that administers capitalism as a whole. To challenge capitalist exploitation, it is important for trade unions to be in all sectors of the economy.

When workers are organised they can exercise their collective power. A unionised workforce can therefore dictate the terms of their exploitation by going on strike or refusing to work for shit pay, work long hours, or in unsafe conditions. This process is a challenge to the authority of the capitalist system.

Reforms for revolution

Of course, socialists have a vision that looks much further than limiting the forms of exploitation that working people submit to. Any radical that is true to their ideals dreams of overthrowing capitalism and building a new world based on co-operation and social ownership. So for some, this can seem contradictory – if unions are fighting to reform and limit exploitation, is it really a place for revolutionaries?

Fighting for socialism will be a long and complicated process. Achieving a revolution will not be by simply convincing a majority of people that change is necessary, but by building a movement that makes change possible.

One of the challenges in fighting for revolutionary change will be a question of confidence. If working people do not have the confidence in their ability to fight and win a pay rise, do we think that working people can have the confidence to fight for fundamental social change? Winning these small gains can help to show oppressed people their collective strength, and only this strength can open the road to more fundamental change.

Even to be aware of this collective strength is not enough. The power of working people has to be organised and developed. To enable a world where working people run their own communities will need organisation. A socialist future will be built on participatory democracy. To make this democracy possible, working people will need the experience of participating in and organising their workplaces and communities. If working people don’t yet have the organisation to win a pay rise, it won’t be possible to have the organisation to run an alternative society and an economy to support it.

If socialists are serious about working class power, we need to understand that this will not just fall into place. It will need to be built.

Problems of unions

Part of the challenge is that this is not a simple task. The existence of unions is not enough. Many unions today are run by bureaucrats that are more interested in a cushy job than in working class power. Proportionally, wages have decreased for decades, but unions have failed to resist the slide. Failing to protect working people, the union movement has struggled to make itself relevant for working people today. Union membership has decreased to the point were as few as 7% of workers in the private sector are union members.

In many unions, the leaders are divorced from the workers that they are supposed to represent. Union officials often haven’t worked in the industries they nominally represent, and are on wages that are well above that of the industry they organise. Spaces for union members to democratically engage in their union are weak or non-existent. Unions have become ‘professionalised’, where the services of union officials replaces the activity of activists in workplaces.

Socialists support trade unions as organisation for workers to fight for their interests. Therefore, socialists do not support practices that undermine unions, and seek to challenge them.

The militant minority

Socialists support unions because we believe in the power of ordinary people. The role of a socialist in a union can be varied. Socialists will always try to be good unionists at their work, but this can take different paths, depending on a range of factors.

Being a union radical can mean assisting with initiatives in the union and building organisation for the next fight with the boss. It could mean opposing a rotten leadership and building rank and file networks to challenge entrenched bureaucrats. Sometimes socialists may work for unions to contribute to building the organisation as an official.

But always, radical unionists seek to build the capacity for the working class to fight against their oppression.

See also