Is there a ‘middle class’ or ‘Professional-Managerial Class’?

By ANI WHITE

This article was written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

A podcast discussion based on this article can be heard at Where’s My Jetpack.

In common vernacular, the concept of a ‘middle class’ has currency. 70% of Americans think of themselves as ‘middle-class.’1 It may seem bluntly obvious to many that there is a middle class. But what is the middle class?

Classical Marxists have tended to define the working-class as those who draw their income from work rather than capital, which would include most who self-identify as ‘middle class.’ Conversely, sociologists have tended to divide society into multiple classes by income, status, and other indicators. Recently, the concept of a ‘Professional-Managerial Class’, or PMC, has gained currency on the left.

So, is there a middle class? Is this the same thing as the ‘petite bourgeoisie’, or the ‘Professional-Managerial Class’? What might the answers to these questions mean for those of us who aim to take on capitalism?

Professional-Managerial Class

We will start with the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, currently popular in ‘democratic socialist’ circles around Bernie Sanders. This concept was originally coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, founding theorists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), partly to address a descriptive limitation in classical Marxism.

Although the Ehrenreichs do identify a historical dynamic needing further investigation, one central problem with the PMC category is the equation of professional and managerial. Professional simply means ‘high-skilled’, admittedly by a definition that devalues the skills of other workers. This may include a nurse, a tutor, or an IT worker, and any of these may be employed under poor conditions. Managerial simply means managing workers: it includes those who manage the nurses, tutors and IT workers categorised as ‘professional.’

In a classical Marxist conception, capitalist society ultimately polarises into two classes: workers who sell their labour, and capitalists who exploit it. Although there is a ‘petite bourgeoisie’, comprising mainly small business owners but also other middle strata, classical Marxists have tended to argue they will dissolve into one of the two major camps, often because economic insecurity would lead to proletarianisation. The Ehrenreichs argued a new class had emerged over the 20th century: the Professional-Managerial Class, defined as salaried, educated workers who do not control the means of production but are relatively privileged, and employed to reproduce capitalist social relations.2

Managers are generally expected to enforce the company line, so even if they don’t own capital, they may perceive contradictory interests with subordinate workers. Furthermore, managers may also wear a blue collar. So, you can be a professional without being managerial, or managerial without being a professional. Who does the average IT worker manage? Is the average IT worker in the same position as their office manager? The assumption that anyone wearing a white collar plays a managerial role does not stand up to scrutiny, but the PMC category does not make the distinction.

The PMC was the target of the recent book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional-Managerial Class by Catherine Liu, which is an influential in circles such as popular socialist magazine Jacobin.3 An excoriating critique of Liu’s shallow historical account and populist politics can be found on Libcom’s article “The PMC and the Tucker Carlson Left”,4 but I want to zero in on the author’s facile culturalist assumptions about class. These are asserted in the introduction:

The much-maligned Hillary Clinton was honest in her contempt for ordinary people when, in 2016, she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Their 2016 defiance of PMC and liberal nostra has only hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism, which another reactionary demagogue will seek to exploit. PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable child-rearing habits.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

The equations here are revealing – Trump supporters equal blue collar working-class, liberals equal white-collar managers. What data does the author marshal to back up this argument? Nada. We in Fightback have argued before, on the basis of exit polls and other data, that Trump’s support is primarily among the petite bourgeoisie and wealthier sections of the working-class5 – putting it simply, those earning over 50k tended to vote Trump, those earning under 50k tended to vote Democrat.6 In keeping with the hoary cliches of the Conservative Left,7 Liu goes on to attack the PMC for their ‘culture wars’:

When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

If anything is an insult to low-paid workers, it’s the assumption that they are on the conservative side of the culture wars, in other words opposing rights for various social minorities. Once again, the author marshals precisely no hard evidence for this, only her own assumptions. In fact, a majority of Americans support progressive measures such as marriage equality.8

Liu contends that the shift towards capitalist-led ‘culture wars’ occurred after 1968. If there is a kernel of truth to the critique, it’s that capital has appropriated progressive symbols for its own benefit. However, this is in large part a concession to social movements, and would not work as branding if progressive social change did not have popular support. Discrediting Black Lives Matter because corporations post the slogan on Twitter is like discrediting Che Guevara for appearing on T-shirts. It’s admittedly true that at the height of neoliberalism, neoliberals were able to win over swathes of leftish-liberal middle class support, however this apparent consensus has been in crisis since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Liu comes to the point when she associates Elizabeth Warren’s campaign with ‘PMCs’, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign with resistance to their dominance. However, this perceived gulf between Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s politics reveals a limited political imagination. For all his rhetoric, Bernie Sanders equates ‘socialism’ with the police and army,9 as mayor of Burlington supported the arrest of anti-war protestors,10 and has repeatedly backed the centrist candidates openly loathed by his vocal left flank.11

Accusations against PMC Democrats can be diagnosed in many cases as projection. This echoes the old-fashioned sectarian Marxist deployment of ‘petite bourgeois’ as pejorative for anyone the sectarian disagrees with, by such a broad definition that it usually encompassed the people making the accusation. Catherine Liu herself is an academic, undoubtably a position that would be attacked as PMC if she supported Warren. The term PMC itself is hardly used beyond prolific Twitter users, who constitute around 2% of the US population and tend to be higher income than average (in a statistic worthy of Occupy Wall Street, 10% of Twitter users create 80% of the tweets).12

Liu admits to her membership in the PMC herself, and casts herself as a traitor to her class. However, without anything in the way of an empirical analysis of economic class, or an admission that the PMC in general are politically divided, casting herself as a noble exception is precisely the kind of individualistic moral positioning that she denounces, albeit with a more militant rhetoric in line with the times. In general, Liu’s insistence on her anti-liberalism is protesting too much, as she’s ultimately backing a Democratic electoralist strategy with no perspective for building working-class self-organisation.

The reality is that the various middle strata of class society are divided by liberal, conservative and even radical politics (especially during periods of upheaval). It’s not even necessarily true that left liberalism is predominant in the middle class as Liu and many others contend: upper-income workers and the petite bourgeoisie tend to support right-wing populism. Likely as a Humanities academic, Liu has encountered many leftish liberals without a serious critique of capitalism, but this is just one slice of the various professions identified as PMCs. Liu’s ‘class analysis’ essentially replicates the arguments of mainstream right-wing populism, repeating Murdoch talking points such as casting anti-sexual violence campaigns as irrational panics, rather than conducting an independent empirical investigation of class composition.

Although Liu’s book does outline the basic political economy of the global financial crisis, it does nothing to define economic class, ironic for an author who insists on the ‘antimaterialist’ nature of her political opponents. Liu justifies this theoretical looseness with a rhetorical gesture that her approach is polemical rather than ‘objective’, as if that lets her off the hook of actually analysing class society.

What is class composition today?

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with socialist, or communist approaches to class that an analysis of its economic character is the necessary starting-point. As previously outlined, classical Marxists tend to define class in terms of relation to production. More popular definitions tend to focus on income, or consumption habits. So how do we conceive class composition today?

Taking Sydney as their case study, Political Scientists Lisa Adkins et al argue that contemporary class should be conceived in terms of financial assets – particularly housing – rather than income.13 This argument draws on the influential work of Thomas Piketty, who emphasises the accumulation of wealth over income.14 The Anglosphere has very inflated housing markets – Aotearoa New Zealand has the second fastest growing house prices in the world15 – against a backdrop of steep inequality.

Marxists also define class based on property rather than income, but whereas classical Marxists emphasise the property of employers, Piketty’s followers emphasise assets such as housing. In studying the financialisation of everyday life in Australia, political economists Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty conceive of class as having both industrial and financial dimensions. They note that industrial and financialised views of capitalism can be complementary:

The industrial, workplace-centred view and the financialised view are compatible in many ways. People work for wages or income and produce a surplus and also live in households and absorb risk. In this dimension the financialised view is just adding a new emphasis.

Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

This new emphasis on financial assets is partly due to a shift within the composition of capital. Financial capital has come to predominate over industrial capital.17 Related to this financialisation, it seems hard to deny that the inflation of housing assets in recent decades has created a ‘middle class’ relying on assets rather than wages (Daphne Lawless’ article in this issue goes into the implications of this for recent clashes over housing in Aotearoa New Zealand).

Sociologists also distinguish between economic capital and cultural capital.18 Cultural capital refers to accumulated signs of status: say being fluent in formal English, owning a Lexus, or grinding your own coffee. This notion of cultural capital undoubtably underlines the attack on ‘PMCs’ hoarding cultural signifiers of virtue, whether or not adherents of the theory admit to this concession to culturalism. Yet in identifying cultural capital with class position, they imply an automatic relationship which doesn’t necessarily exist. Academics, for example, are sharply divided on many political questions. In general middle, or mediating strata are divided over cultural, political and economic questions.

So, returning to the initial question, is there a middle class? Perhaps, to a point, we can accept the common sociological argument that there are many middle classes, or middle strata. There are small-business owners, managers in various industries, white-collar salary workers, self-employed contractors, union officials, those retired but owning housing assets – these are all different positions that could fit into the ‘middle-class’ box, but may have clashing interests and politics (e.g., whereas small-business owners have an interest in reducing tax, public sector workers have an interest in redistributive policies). The most you can say in general is that they do not straightforwardly fit into the binary of industrial worker and capitalist, but rather play various mediating roles.

Decline of ‘middle class’

Although many popular talking points about class are misleading, the widespread talking point of the ‘decline of the middle class’ has more truth to it. Young adults across the Anglosphere are less likely to own homes than their parents,19 face a more insecure labour market,20 and are more saddled with debt.21 In short, even many from relatively privileged backgrounds are downwardly mobile.

In their work “Death of the Yuppie Dream”, Barbara and John Ehrenreich place this ‘decline of the middle class’ in the context of a capitalist offensive beginning in the 1970s. Ehrenreich notes that alongside the gutting of working-class power that even undermined the position of many PMCs, there was also a cultural offensive against the ‘liberal professions’ such as academia (the inverse of Liu’s argument in Virtue Hoarders that PMCs were waging a cultural offensive against workers on behalf of capital). Following outsourcing of industrial labour, information technology increasingly facilitated outsourcing and automation of white-collar labour. Conditions in tertiary education were undermined. All of this was exacerbated, of course, by the global financial crisis. The Ehrenreichs argues this undermining of the PMC may be a basis for radicalisation22:

In the coming years, we expect to see the remnants of the PMC increasingly making common cause with the remnants of the traditional working class for, at a minimum, representation in the political process. This is the project that the Occupy movement initiated and spread, for a time anyway, worldwide.

Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

Yet in Virtue Hoarders, despite drawing on the Ehrenreichs’ concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, Liu is dismissive of their thesis regarding the decomposition and radicalisation of the PMC, largely justifying this dismissal on the basis of Occupy Wall Street’s failure. However, for all the limitations of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s politics, downward mobility is central to the revival of socialism among young people that has made these previously obscure backbenchers household names. Liu’s positioning of herself as an honourable exception to the PMC rule precludes an analysis of this shift in class composition and subjectivity.

Conclusion: Political transformation over moralism

In Marxist Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, Lukács disputes the notion that revolution would be ‘purely proletarian.’ By necessity, any mass social transformation must draw in various sectors, including middle strata. Moreover, this will not happen automatically, rather it requires the organisation of middle strata in the meantime:

Ay revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society… At that point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played.

Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

The aim of a principled socialist critique of class society is not to moralise, but to transform. Sectarians attacking comrades on the basis that they are ‘petite bourgeois’, or the contemporary variant of PMCs trolling other PMCs on Twitter, are forms of point-scoring that do nothing to advance the cause of social transformation. Clearly there are middle strata in class society, with a greater degree of relative privilege than the most oppressed sections of the working-class. However, many can be organised, on the basis of a common programme encompassing the interests of all oppressed and exploited people. Past revolutions and social movements show that a section of the middle strata will join the right side of history, and the question must always be posed: which side are you on?

1 Martin, Emmie. “70% of Americans consider themselves middle-class – but only 50% are.’ CNBC, Jun 30 (tinyurl.com/cnbc-middle).

2 Ehrenreich, John and Barbara.” The Professional-Managerial Class”, in In Between Labor and Monopoly Capital (Pat Walker ed). South End Press. 1979

3 Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

4 Comrade Motopu. “The PMC meets the Tucker Carlson Left”, Libcom, 21 Feb 2021 (tinyurl.com/libcom-pmc).

5 White, Ani. “What is the base of right-wing populism”, Fightback, 17 Mar 2021 (tinyurl.com/populism-base).

6 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020”, Financial Times, 8 Nov 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base).

7 Lawless, Daphne. “Against “conservative leftism”: why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, Fightback, 16 Feb 2016 (tinyurl.com/conservative-leftism).

8 PRRI Staff. “Dueling Realities: Amid Multiple Crises, Trump and Biden Supporters See Different Priorities and Futures for the Nation”, PRRI, 19 Oct 2020 (tinyurl.com/majority-marriage).

9 Healey, Patrick. “Preparing to Define Democratic Socialism, Bernie Sanders Points to Public Libraries and the Police”, The New York Times, 19 Oct 2015 (tinyurl.com/police-socialist).

10 Seelye, Katharine Q. “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist”, 25 Nov 2015, The New York Times (tinyurl.com/bernie-protestors).

11 Sullivan, Eric; Sullivan, Kate. “Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden for president”, CNN, 14 April 2020 (tinyurl.com/bernie-biden).

12 Wojcik, Stefan; Hughes, Adam. “Sizing Up Twitter Users”, Pew Research Center, 24 Apr 2019 (tinyurl.com/very-online).

13 Adkins, Lisa; Cooper, Melinda; Konings, Martijn. “Class in the 21st century: Asset inflation and the new logic of inequality.” EPA: Economy and Space0(0), pp. 1–25, 2019. Sage Publications.

14 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. 2014.

15 Bell, Miriam. “NZ number two in international house price growth ranks.” Stuff, 4 Jun 2021 (tinyurl.com/nz-no2).

16 Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

17 Peet, Richard. “Contradictions of Finance Capitalism.” Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2011 (tinyurl.com/mr-finance).

18 Bourdieu; ibid.

19 Nova, Annie. “Here’s why millions of millennials are not homeowners”, CNBC, 30 Aug 2019 (tinyurl.com/millenials-usa); Stats NZ. “Homeownership rate lowest in almost 70 years”, Stats NZ, 8 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/millennials-nz); Savage, Michael. “Millennial housing crisis engulfs Britain”, The Guardian, 28 Apr 2018 (tinyurl.com/millenials-uk); Chau, David. “House ownership is out of reach for ‘disenfranchised’ millennials, says CoreLogic property analysts”, ABC News, 28 Sep 2019 (tinyurl.com/millennials-aus).

20 Martinchek, Kassandra. “Young Millennials and Gen Zers Face Employment Insecurity and Hardship during the Pandemic”, Urban Institute. 18 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/yz-insecurity).

21 DeMatteo, Megan. “How Much Debt Do Millennials Have?”, CNBC, 19 Mar (tinyurl.com/millennial-debt).

22 Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

23 Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

Essential Workers: Essentially Expendable?

Image via GETTY/gpointstudio.

Originally published by the Health Sector Workers Network of Aotearoa on hswn.org.nz.

Also reprinted in the Pandemic issue of Fightback Magazine. Subscribe here.

Leading into the rāhui/lockdown in Aotearoa on the 25 March 2020, The Health Sector Workers Network of Aotearoa (HSWN) asked essential service workers about the issues they were facing. Receiving 134 responses in the final 10 days of March. They paint a consistent picture of stress and anxiety, safety concerns not being heard, fear of contracting Covid-19 or infecting loved ones and colleagues. The responses strongly called for immediate lockdown, adequate PPE and crucial financial support at a time when these essential measures were still being debated by government leaders. 

Due to the efforts of essential workers and the solidarity by the wider public in staying at home, Aotearoa has been able to relax the strictest social distancing and avoid the catastrophe faced in many other countries. However, the issues that essential workers identified are not new ones. Short-staffing, unsafe workplaces, low pay, work-related distress and frontline workers being excluded from decision-making are all long term problems that Covid-19 brought to the surface. The fact that workers doing the mahi that society depends on are treated as if their own well-being is expendable cannot continue.

HSWN members are essential workers too and we tautoko these responses. The delay in getting our survey out is testament to the high emotions, stress and long hours we experienced working on the Covid-19 frontline. Thank you to all the essential workers who answered our survey. See below the unedited responses to the following questions: 

 1) Where do you work and what is your role/area of essential work (paid on unpaid)?

 2) How is Covid-19 affecting your personal life and/or work as an essential service worker? (e.g. health and safety concerns, management response, mental health, financial concerns etc).

 3) What, in your opinion as a frontline worker, needs to be done? (e.g. community or official responses).

 LMC midwife, working the community, Canterbury

  • NO PPE!! WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO PPE! Please help us. I have a limited volume of hand sanitiser, disinfectant and gloves. No masks, no gowns, no glasses, only if a confirmed case of covid-19. Don’t feel safe. Worried about passing illness to my family or pregnant women. Worried I won’t be able to continue working and there are not enough midwives to care for my clients. Why do bank staff have PPE but I don’t???
  • I need PPE. I need clear guidelines from the ministry of health and NZCOM. We have been told to use ‘clinical judgement’ when choosing who to see face to face. Lots of different interpretations of this.
  •  Grocery worker, New World, Wellington
  • Bosses have pushed for maximum overtime from staff, while taking very few precautions and offering nothing in return. Social distancing + ban on indoor gatherings is totally ignored. No protection at all for the staff, aside from disposable gloves, but it is not enforced strongly enough
  • Provide food boxes to those struggling with bills and isolation. Provide hand sanitiser + gloves to customers, Strict limit on entry into store, strictly limit distance between customers + staff. Offer hazard pay/bonuses to staff who continue to work.
  •  Registered Nurse, Waikato DHB
  • I feel our hospital is totally unprepared. Managers from women’s health were excluded from planning meetings due to the area being low risk. Adequate precautions not being taken and staff put at risk due to responses.
  • Close schools and stop lying to people about our policy being based on best scientific evidence and the Singapore/Taiwan response. Taiwan closed schools for extended breaks and delivered 81000 gallons of sanitiser to educational facilities, millions of masks, 25000 forehead thermometers, and has 95% of parents notifying schools of their children’s temperature every school morning prior to arriving.
  •  Freezing Works worker, Taranaki
  • We work with no distance restrictionswe are in close contact everyday, on dayshift at one time there may be 500 employees, on night shift 300 employees
  • Be provided with face masks.  Regular testing of all employees for Coronavirus.
  • Checkout operator
  • Concerned that customers are not staying away when they are unwell, I have an at risk mother who is on her own and if I get sick I can’t help her. We are understaffed most days and now have team members who refuse to serve customers which doubles the level of stress for the rest of us.
  • Clear direction to businesses on what qualifies as pre existing medical conditions and for my company to make a decision on how to keep stores safe for us. At the moment they seem to be more interested in profit and being seen to be doing the right thing
  •  Elderly support worker for Vision West
  • Personally accessing food and using public facilities like the local library. As a service I am dealing with aggressive N.O.K [next of kin] that are scared.
  • I think my employer needs to be timely with their PPE plan and also clients that do not have essential care should be put on hold. Also to minimise risk small teams of 6 need to only see 8- 10 clients. Primary care practice nurse
  • Work has been hectic since Monday. We have been one of the testing stations and our normal workload has been overrun by covid-19 enquiries from both pts and other health services. This has taken a major toll on all our staff.
  • Separate covid-19 clinics keeping potential risk away from our genuinely sick pts who need to be seen. Perhaps we could shut down any non-essential parts of our service and spare staff for the covid 19 centres.
  •  Registered Nurse, ICU
  •  I just got exposed to a covid positive co worker (doctor) who worked 4 days ago.
  •  Provide PPEs, strict social distancing policies. 
  •  New World grocery worker
  • My manager tried to force me to come into work even though I was sick. Not only a violation of my contract, but I’m sure that’s illegal at the moment
  •  Managers to respect the right to sick leave
  •  Petrol Station worker
  • Anxiety level increased
  • More health measures in place to serve customers 
  •  Clinical Specialty Nurse, CMDHB
  • My husband and I work in the same unit. If one is exposed then other will be affected as well. This will have financial burden on both of us as both need to isolate. Personal experience: after husband got flu like symptoms, I was still allowed to work as I had no symptoms. Husband was to isolate until results were up. Difficulty in getting healthline to answer phone calls. GPs are busy. Different advice from management and GPs. A lot of mental exhaustion felt during this period. Being in a leadership role I have to ensure that all my staff is prepared and able to deal with acute demands as well as COVID-19 patients. ICU/HDU trying to save beds for COVID-19 patients therefore other acute cases needing 1:1  deferred or kept at our unit until further notice. Our unit is not a ward therefore patients staying longer than 2 hours causes backlog of other cases needing space. Lack of staff due to specialty cares.
  • More funds for APPROPRIATE diagnosis. Husband had to get tested twice as first ones came up negative and due to busy GP clinic swabs got mixed up/too many people with flu-like symptoms. Standardized gold standard diagnosis. 
  •  Medical Centre receptionist/admin
  • Worried re being exposed and potentially taking home to family. Have had pneumonia previously.
  • Better safety from sick people (which we are trying to fast track at my work) supermarkets etc are very exposed all the time with no preventative measures
  •  Support worker for IDEA Services
  • Health and safety, infection control, not enough protective equipment is being supplied, no masks whatsoever, extra basic stuff like wipes sprays etc is having to come out if the normal provision money for housekeeping etc etc.
  • More protection for workers.
  •  Pizza delivery driver
  • Safety concerns especially if people don’t let us know beforehand on their orders if they are sick
  • All persons ordering anything MUST let us know if they are sick. 
  •  Hospital Admin, Dundedin
  • Would prefer to work from home, but not possible as there is no IT support available.
  •  Admin and Clerical staff in the hospital need to be kept advised about the situation in the hospital, just as doctors and nurses are!! 
  • Registered nurse youth health, West Auckland
  • Increased social distancing, considering decreasing appointments to essential only, potential shift forced by DHB to turn our clinic into a testing area which will greatly impact our current essential services.
  • Increased support on Primary Health Care side of management and containment, including paying RNs more, and providing proper funding for or directly providing essential PPE supplies.Registered Nurse, Nelson Hospital
  • Safety of family and friends, if I’m infected at work, will managers (also health professionals) be available to work on the wards? Will we have PPE? If not what is recommended by health and safety?
  • Managers need to involve staff, who will be front line in what the plan is, clear direction

Security, Southern District Health Board

  • Am very concerned for my health at work, no protection been given so far! Also very disappointed testing is not wide spread! How do we know it’s not already community spread if the government puts protocols in place to NOT TEST people who have all the symptoms? How do we not know that someone who has all the symptoms, has tried to get themselves tested but can not! How do we know they didn’t catch it from the person coughing in front of them at the supermarket! So pissed at our government right now! Too little, too late!
  • Ease of mind! Test people for crying out loud! Lock the country down like in China! You know in China they put a metal bar across the entrances to houses where people were infected! We are doing bugger all! No safety measures at supermarkets, no protection at work! 
  •  Registered Nurse, Ōpōtiki
  • Working 6-7 days a week. Partner in the higher risk category (male, diabetic on ACE inhibitor), he has had to close his business as he works in events and they are all cancelled/postponed.
  • Ensure sufficient PPE, encourage additional staff to work if possible to ensure more normal hours are being kept, otherwise working 7 days a week for a long time will end up with more staff off sickCheckout operator, New World, Thorndon
  • Putting my life at risk to serve others, not being able to stay 2 meters away from other people and not much precautions in place for staff. Uni courses are going online now.
  • More health and safety precautions for staffHome support worker for the elderly and people with disabilities
  • My agency has not provided PPE for some years. Now we can’t get any ourselves. Management won’t answer any questions about this – clients are cancelling care – less hours for us – as we move from house to house we fear transmitting the virus; however management have said we are no more at risk than any flu season. All our clients are extra vulnerable – we have five days a year sick leave and are expected to use it, and then apply for annual leave. There is no talk of special leave. – we already work erratic hours with cancelled cares and changes in guaranteed hours being a problem – Many of us are elderly ourselves or have respiratory problems. When on Friday Geneva told its workers over 70 and immunocompromised workers they couldn’t work, that meant many workers downed tools – some workers are leaving their jobs because their own health is poor. They are worried about getting infected. – management from my agency seems to treat the situation as business as usual. We’re just asked to watch the government website. We still get texts every day asking us to do jobs – there is nothing communicated about the free flu vaccine.
  • Clarity of communication. If they don’t know, tell us. Acknowledging our value as care workers. 

 Māori midwife in the community, Manawatū 

  • I am an asthmatic so is my son. Likewise my brother and my mother who is 67. I have made the choice to keep my son home. I can no longer support wāhine hapū to birth. I am lucky my husband can still work and I have another form of income at the moment.
  • There needs to be an action plan set for kaimahi Māori to make sure we as frontline staff are looked after in a culturally responsive way, as well as the whanau we support.

Security officer at supermarket

  • Scared, feeling helpless. Accepting probably going to get sick
  • Free public transport and other benefits for low wage essential workers.

Radiology, Mid Central Health

  • Have to work, shared child care, solo Mum. Who looks after my kids when I have to work? Or do I not work and not get paid?
  • Being told we don’t have enough protective gear at the hospital is very worrying. Produce more hand sanitizer, people are worried because it ran out.
  •  Caregiver for mother and uncle, one with dementia one with lung cancer
  • I am concerned I may carry virus to them as I’m their only contact to outside world at the moment. I’m the only one to do their shopping, cooking and personal cares. Very worried.
  • Level 4 needs to be put in place

 Forensic psychiatry, Mason Clinic

  • Rest of family at home. Onus on me not to bring the virus home-or take it to work!
  • A robust  barrier in place both at home and at work, a sort of firewall each end. Simple, but consistent. I will carry my ID, to prove that I am a health worker, and legitimately out of my house. Public information needs to be everywhere. Clear and simple guidelines, and repeated. People need to understand what is essential and what is useless. I saw quite a few people wearing disposable gloves at a supermarket yesterday, and touching everything with those gloved hands, as if they would somehow not transfer infection. I guess advice needs to be dynamic as we observe behaviours and see what the salient gaps in our defences are.

 Longline assistant, Countdown

  • Really concerned with the number of people rushing stores and no safety equipment provided for the workers.
  • People coming in and out of the store should be tested by their temperature and safety equipment such as gloves and masks should be provided to the workers.

Front Reception, DHB hospital

  • I’m not getting information given to me from my management or above as to what is happening so I am unable to put things in place and am not prepared for situations and questions I get asked at work by the public. I don’t know what’s happening with my job. This is affecting me getting to work as I depend on public transport. Health and safety hasn’t been covered efficiently for my area, the front of the hospital. This has been shown by an incident that occured due to the sanitiser and how everyone passed the buck to wanting to be accountable for it and wanting to prevent it, so I took it upon myself. Financially it’s beginning to cripple me as I was meant to be starting more hours this week because of financial struggle, now this will impact on me mentally and financially. Lack of team morale within the workplace has been a huge impact on me, no communication or compassion. No rallying together to care about one another at this time of need but this behaviour ripples from the top.
  • Supervisors and management’s needs to find out what is planned for our department for the next four weeks and let us know ASAP so we can plan our lives. There needs to be firm leaders in each team chosen my management to take the wheel during this time. Communication is the key. We also should be getting financial support for this especially people in my types of positions that have close proximity of contact with people in case we get ill as we are sacrificing our well being for the people or Aotearoa. 

 Nurse, ICU

  • Family separation. Young children and elderly parents so to protect them while being available to care for patients I have isolated myself from them. Although utilising PPE there are still concerns of transmission to healthcare workers as had happened in China & Italy. So while many are worried about being crowded at home many of us health carers are looking at a lonely time when we are at home. And frustrated I can’t help them with the everyday business and worry about the stress on my parents. And their worry for me. Once it gets busy then it’ll be very different as we will all have a hyper focus at work and we all anticipate working a lot of extras. Getting tired and needing to maximise our own immunity too is a concern.
  • Nutritional Meals/drinks supplied and perhaps accommodation for some….. not everyone can isolate as easily from loved ones as others can. Maybe some simple immune supplemental support for staff. And emotional support early to aid staff resilience.Maybe DHB only shopping times at supermarkets…to reduce public interaction but also free up supplies for essential workers. And supermarkets need to count customers and limit numbers of people going in and out of the stores. Lock down to limit spread of disease is important and we all need to adhere to it. 

 LMC Midwife

  • Isolated at home as my husband is immunocompromised and I have an underlying health condition as well. This means I have to pay a backup midwife out of my own pocket, to cover my caseload. Not sure how we are going to manage financially. Also have concerns about lack of PPE provisions for midwives working closely with people, particularly as there is no other profession that is at higher risk of exposure to body fluids. 

 District Nurse

  • Afraid of bringing the virus home to loved ones.
  • Provide health care workers who are working during a community outbreak with paid accommodation to help to contain the spread. There are many nurses out there for who it is impossible to isolate from family members within one household. 

 LMC Midwife

  • I’m concerned about lack of guidance from the MOH and NZCOM.. I’m worried for my health and risk of exposure. I’m currently unable to access any PPE or cleaning/disinfectant supplies.
  • More guidance, more support, more ppe and disinfectant supplies.

 Public transport bus driver

  • Financial concerns, health & safety concerns, implications of social distancing on single households
  • More emphasis on workplace cleaning for non-public areas; transfers of covid in car surfaces 

Self employed midwife

  • Expected to carry on seeing women with currently limited guidance and NP provision so far of PPE. 
  • Urgent provision of PPE and no expectations of us to work without them. And for midwives appreciate pay provision. It is shocking what we are expected to do for little pay and no pay 

 LMC Midwife, West Community

  • Very stressed. Have been given no PPE equipment, no guidance from the midwifery council or MOH and expected to still see women with no safety or information. Huge health and safety concerns, this has been poorly managed especially since it was obvious this would happen. Very worried about money. Rent should stop.
  • Rent and mortgage and bills need to be stopped. A ban on more than 2 products in supermarkets should have been implemented earlier. Should have been better control on stockpiling infection control equipment. The airport should have done better control and screening. We need answers from the MOH, we need PPE equipment and to not have accountability if something goes wrong because we weren’t allowed to see our patients. We need direction.

 Paramedic, Christchurch

  • Anxiety increased and a more stressful workload.
  • Promises for the future (both short and long term), practical and demonstrative assurances.

Ward clerk, Surgical wards

  • Mental health. Clinical depression diagnosed. No support groups – shut down at mo. Being at hospital I’m overly anxious, depressed and worried.Would rather be home but I can’t – I’m not 70 plus, pregnant etc. Clinical depression. Is not deemed unsafe.
  • Transparency. For staff at home and rostered days off, no work emails coming to home emails. So very much in the dark. 

Frontline Mental Health Crisis Respite 

  • My staff over half team at my site dropped off because of fear of taking COVID19 home. We that are working skeleton think we should be Compensated above our normal rate. The flak I’m getting from home because a partner has a Respiratory disease has caused our home stress. No assurances from our NGO or Capital Coast Health that they will give us Priority healthcare in the event of CV19. No danger money no promised time down when the Pandemic for all who are frontline Health on ordinary wages. Thanks guys.
  • All people before contact with Health workers, including my site in Mental Health Crisis respite, tested for Covid 19 before working with them. DHB to pick up.our Client Bedding done at Hospital to stop spread of germs. we only have a small home brand 5kg machine doesn’t ever seem up to standard yet they’re willing to risk clients beds not sanitized properly.

Practice Nurse

  • Very very upset today as both myself and husband who is working at another hospital in another region 6 hrs away, are front line medical workers. Kids very scared that we are both going to die! Management have been excellent in getting PPE, but I feel it’s been largely up to us if we wear it when dealing with the general public. Feeling very very torn between my children and my duty to my patients, very very stressful. Extremely worried about bringing virus home to my children.
  • Need to make general Public aware of how serious this Covid 19 is and how deadly it is! Proper policing of “lockdown” NO ONE out socialising ! Front line workers need to be protected from public who might see their needs as more important and get aggressive and abusive (this happens now let alone when there is this heightened stress)  There needs to be Adequate alternative services for counselling/mental health services e.g. phone consult.  this has finished just No Leave at this time. We are stressed.  It means washing clothing daily, no scrubs available and no booties or head covers either, so the power Bill’s at work skyrocket from showering before work and after. We Want to be compensated with higher rates of pay like Hospitals pay – time and half double time and unlimited sick leave during the pandemic.

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

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

Union movement gathers for ‘Fairness at Work’

MANA at CTU biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

MANA at Council of Trade Unions biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

Adapted from an article for Kai Tiaki Nursing NZ. By Grant Brookes, delegate for the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and Fightback member.

132 delegates, representing nearly 300,000 union members, met in Wellington on 9-10 October.

The Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference 2013 examined the issues facing working people in New Zealand since the last gathering in 2011, and debated how to promote “Fairness at Work” as we face a fork in the road over the next two years.

Down one possible path, our future will see the end of guaranteed meal breaks, a loss of bargaining power, rising inequality and growing insecurity at work.

But the good news, conveyed in a speech to the Conference by Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, is that we are heading towards election year with the momentum to create a different future.

Former NZNO organiser Jeff Sissons, now working as the CTU General Counsel, began by giving an overview of where we’re at now.

The proportion of workers belonging to a union fell from 50% to just over 20% during the 1990s, he said, as the National Government removed the legal right to belong to a union, in breach of our international human rights obligations.

The Employment Relations Act, passed by the Labour-led government in 2000, enabled unions to halt the decline. But it wasn’t enough to generate any real recovery, and workers in many jobs (especially in the private sector) are still without union protection.

As a result, New Zealand had the fastest growing gap between rich and poor of any developed country over the last 20 years.

Jeff Sissons discussed international research by two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, showing that this inequality is behind many of today’s public health problems, from obesity, to mental illness and child mortality from accidents. And New Zealand’s income gap is still growing.

The Conference also launched a major new CTU report on the silent epidemic of insecure work (http://union.org.nz/underpressure). Under Pressure: Insecure Work in New Zealand shows that at least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are now in jobs without guaranteed hours, ongoing certainty of employment, or employment rights like sick leave, holidays, safety at work and freedom from discrimination. These workers often lack sufficient income and are powerless to change their situation.

CTU President Helen Kelly said the problem of insecure work could affect up to 50% of New Zealand’s workers. It has spread far beyond groups like young people working in fast food and is now creeping into the “good jobs” in health, banking, higher education and in government departments.

Helen Kelly mentioned the 120 staff employed in Elderslea Rest Home in Upper Hutt, who were told in July that management wanted to remove permanent rosters and roster them all casually, according to occupancy.

National’s latest changes to the Employment Relations Act will accelerate these trends and bring the problem of insecure work to more and more workplaces.

But in a keynote address, newly-elected Labour Party leader David Cunliffe spelled out his commitments for working people (https://www.labour.org.nz/media/speech-ctu-conference).

“Labour will immediately raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We will support the campaign for a Living Wage for all New Zealanders. A Labour Government I lead will scrap National’s unfair employment law changes – in the first hundred days.

“There will be no more fire at will without even an explanation. There will be no more attacks on collective bargaining, giving employers the right to opt out of good faith process. There will be no more attacks on vulnerable workers. There will be no more taking away smokos and lunch breaks.

“We will restore the protections for our most vulnerable workers currently contained in Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act.

“We will scrap youth rates because they violate the principle of equal pay for equal work. We will work to ensure pay equity. Labour will extend paid parental leave to a minimum of 26 weeks, as set out in Sue Moroney’s Member’s Bill.

“The Labour Government I lead will turn back the tide of anti-worker legislation that has been flowing from the Key Government for the last five years.”

Both Cunliffe and Metiria Turei signaled support for an overhaul of employment laws, tying into CTU efforts to move beyond the Employment Relations Act and further strengthen unions, collective bargaining and security at work.

“Labour will implement a new employment relations framework based on industry standard agreements”, said Cunliffe, “whereby working New Zealanders have a real choice to get together and negotiate better pay and conditions with their employers.”

But it also appeared that Cunliffe is straddling a contradiction. “These changes are not a one-off”, he said. “They need to be an enduring part of a New Zealand that finds common ground between productive workers and good employers.”

What happens when there is no “common ground”?

Cunliffe plugged his appointment of unionists Andrew Little, Darien Fenton and Carol Beaumont to industrial relations positions. But at the same time, he has appointed neo-liberal hardliner David Parker to the finance portfolio.

“New Zealand needs a strategic shift in economic management”, he said, “from a cost-based strategy that treats workers as commodities whose cost is to be minimised, to one that sees workers as an integral part of a system that creates high value products and services”.

Does this verbal sleight-of-hand conceal two economic management strategies which are essentially the same?

The contradiction was also clear in Cunliffe’s response to a question from the Conference floor about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He expressed support for PHARMAC, but also reiterated his party’s conditional support for the free trade deal threatening our state drug-buying agency.

How Cunliffe’s contradiction would play out in practice in a Labour-led government will depend on how unions respond.

Metiria Turei credited our movement with opening up the possibility of a different future, a path that is “good for people, good for the planet”.

“Workers and their unions are among those at the heart of the gathering momentum”, she said. “Thousands have joined rallies and stood up against National’s attacks”.

Helen Kelly called on us to “continue the local activism to get workers on the roll and out in the election campaign – not just to vote – connecting all the campaigns to make wages and work a key election issue” (http://union.org.nz/news/2013/speech-nzctu-president-helen-kelly-nzctu-biennial-conference-2013).

The next step, she said, is the referendum on the sale of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, to be held between 22 November and 13 December.

NZNO supports the Save Our Assets campaign because warm homes, power prices and ultimately electricity privatisation are a health issue.

“We need to use events like the asset sale referendum to maximum advantage”, said Helen Kelly.  “Delegates in workplaces can facilitate the voting in the asset sale referendum – get people who do not get a paper to get on the roll, and check that those with a paper cast their vote.

“We then need to keep the momentum going into next year.  We can make the difference.”

Leaflet: Stop the scab bills

Clearly we must oppose National’s attacks.

As Greg Lloyd, EPMU General Counsel pointed out in his article “Looking at the Big Picture,” the apparently minor and technical changes in the ERA Amendment Bill amount to an attempt to undermine collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, Jami-Lee Ross’ private members’ bill allows employers to bring in temporary staff (scabs) while workers are on strike.

We can only improve our wages and conditions if we oppose these attacks, and defend the right to collectively bargain at a minimum.

Not just about voting
The National government needs to be defeated.

However, during 9 years of a Labour Party government, real wages continued to decline while the rich list shot up. Labour’s Employment Relations Act also contains significant restrictions on the right to strike, which is necessary to workers’ power.

It was only a mass campaign under the slogan Supersizemypay, including both political campaigning and industrial action, that finally saw the rise to a $12 minimum wage in 2008.

Regardless of who is in parliament, we must organise in our communities to challenge these attacks from the ground up.

We need fighting unions
Labour leaders including Darien Fenton have argued that the scab bill is unnecessary, because strike rates are so low. However, the lack of strike action is part of the problem.

Unions currently cover less than 10% of the private sector, while real wages have declined 25% over the past 30 years.

In Europe and elsewhere, generalised strike action has confronted the march of austerity and offered a vision of peoples’ power. We need to rebuild a union movement willing to take action, in workplaces and communities, to challenge the attacks of successive Labour and National governments.

[‘Stop the Scab bills’ leaflet pdf]
[Day of Action details]

Same work, same pay. Youth rates, slave rates!

The Government has recently announced the introduction of a new pay rate for 16 to 19 year-olds of a $10.80 minimum wage set to take effect on April 1st 2013.

The new youth rates will be set at 80% of the adult minimum wage (currently $13.50) which will apply for the first six months of a job. It is not limited to a first job, so conceivably a young person could be on this wage multiple times. While the government claims that it is voluntary, the reality in the workplace is that in this environment of high unemployment. Workers get no choice. The areas of work that this would apply i.e. fast food, supermarkets, retail etc. have an excess of people looking for work, demonstrated by the queues of thousands who line up to apply for a job every time a new supermarket is opened. It is estimated that 40,000 young people will be “eligible”/affected.

According to the spokesperson of the New Zealand Retailers Association Louise Evans McDonald 71% of their members supported the reintroduction of youth rates when they were surveyed in 2011. Something which is unsurprising considering that for retail in particular wage costs are a large part of their operating costs. However when reading through the associations own 2011-12 Retail Market Summary they list a 31% increase in sales volume since 2004 compared to inflation of 22%, so retail isn’t exactly suffering in the current financial climate, any decrease in workers’ pay is purely going towards increasing profits. [Read more…]

Bill could see workers denied breaks

Smoko breakA bill currently going through parliament could see workers required to be available to work during breaks- if they get breaks at all. There has been legislation for rest and meal breaks for just four years. Prior to the Employment Contracts Act breaks were covered not by law but by industry wide agreements negotiated by unions.

Council of Trade Unions policy analyst Eileen Brown told Fairfax reporters that adequate breaks were a basic employment right, and essential for the health and safety of workers. “A break is a break – there should be quite clear time off for a break. We don’t agree that having a break means you are still available to work.”

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said the bill made it clear that, if an employer asked a worker to keep up their work duties, it had to be a reasonable request – and it had to be necessary to the work, or agreed to by both the employer and the employee. But of course this ignores the power imbalance between workers and employers, particularly workers not covered by union agreements

On the job: working harder, faster and longer in the fast food sector

This article was first published in the July issue of The Spark. It was contributed by a Christchurch Unite member, Joshua Wood.

In New Zealand we eat from at least one of the nine American fast food corporations that have opened shop here. We have little real choice about whether we want fast food in New Zealand or in our lives, as fast food is now becoming the fastest, largest and in some cases the cheapest food available.

But is working in fast food what the industry makes it out to be? The answer to that is a big fat NO it’s not.

I started my work in hospitality in 2006 in fast food. Moving around from fast food outlet to fast food outlet, one thing I noticed pretty fast is that they all expected the same from you; long hours, fast work, low pay, and a demand for you to come in with little or no notice on your day off or to start hours earlier than you where meant to.  Often half an hour or even 10 minutes before you finish you would be asked to stay longer sometimes with no real need for it.

The current hourly rate at the site worked at is $13 a hour, a large majority of fast food outlets make enough to cover wages within seconds of opening the doors. This is because the company’s investment (labour, plant, logistics, and advertising) on producing its commodities for sale is well below the cost at which it sells them. We who make and sell the products see little in return.

Fast food companies say they are poor and cant pay our staff anymore without cutting hours and making products more expensive, but this is obviously not the case.

A message for all you big bosses out there, stop  working us harder, longer and faster for the same pay , and to all workers your rights are under attack so stand up fight back and be heard.

Seventy percent of workers in New Zealand want new jobs

by Byron Clark

Job advertising website SEEK’s 2010 Employee Satisfaction and Motivation survey, which had about 3000 respondents, has found that 70% of New Zealand workers are wanting a new job this year with one in four planing on leaving their jobs in the next three months. The main reason was looking for ‘a challenge’ (28%) followed closely by feeling unappreciated at work (23%). Nearly half of those surveyed (49%) responded negatively to the question “How’s the current morale in your workplace” and a slightly higher number (52%) said they would not recommend their friends apply for jobs at the organisations employing them.

What would change that would be better management (49%) and more employee motivation (41%) about a quarter of respondents also said better pay and work environment would make a difference. This open ended question also drew responses such as “ Cut the amount of work required to increase the salary to bring it into line with the extra work done for no pay” and “stop breaching employment law”.

When asked what they liked about their jobs, the most common response was “people I work with” (19%) and when asked what they hated 24% said the stress levels and 23% said the overall quality of management. Those in ‘service and support’ industries appear to have it worst, feeling less happy and less secure, as well as more likely to hate aspects of their workplace. Most were planning on leaving their job in the next six months. While 30% of young “generation Y” workers cited boredom as a reason for seeking new jobs (compared to 15% for generation X and 12% for Baby Boomers) they “tend[ed] to be more upbeat, [and] confident about their future” according to the report.