How Dirty Politics hurt low-paid workers

(Published earlier today at The Standard.)

New bits and pieces from Dirty Politics are coming to the fore every day, painting a picture of a systematic, deliberate strategy to use muck-raking and dirty tricks to subvert political discourse in NZ.

Today, the Building Services Contractors have demanded an explanation for emails quoted in Dirty Politics which seem to show Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater conspiring to attack the BSC and its president on behalf of Crest Clean.

This was the situation: only BSC members were allowed to tender for Government cleaning contracts. This meant that the cleaners who work hard at ungodly hours for public organisations were guaranteed above-minimum wages and fair working conditions.

Why didn’t CrestClean like it? Because CrestClean apparently has some kind of problem with paying people above minimum wage. Last year when they ran a terrible astroturfing campaign against Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act, their campaign account tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Part6A/status/372551325256413184

It tells you everything, doesn’t it? The only reason CrestClean isn’t paying its workers less is because they’re not legally allowed to.

But there were government contracts going and CrestClean wanted in. So according to Nicky Hager, they got a PR guru and a vile attack blogger to run a campaign against the BSC and the rules around government contracts. And they got what they wanted (not surprising, given this is a government which wants to take away your right to a tea break).

So while the Prime Minister is trying to spin some kind of elaborate conspiracy theory of his own onMorning Report and the right can’t agree if their line is “it’s all lies” or “it’s true but everyone does it”, I think this issue deserves closer attention. Because it speaks volumes about Slater and his friends if they would go to such sockpuppeting efforts, all so CrestClean could get paid taxpayer’s money while screwing over some of the lowest-paid workers in New Zealand.

Does the National Party really not understand how unions work?

This article in the Herald gave me a giggle today. It refers to a cash payment being made to Parliamentary Services staff who are part of their workplace collective employment agreement. Similar cash payments have been denounced by National in the past – when it happened under Labour – and are being denounced by Don Brash now – because it’s happening under National.

The line that’s being run is that this is “bizarre”. That it makes no sense to “incentivise” people to belong to the union. That National have decided, mysteriously, of their own free will, to just randomly “give” more money to union members than to non-union members of staff.

Does Don Brash – and John Weekes of the Herald – actually not understand that this is exactly how union membership works? You get together as a group to bargain collectively with your employer. This means you have more power to get a better deal. And sometimes, this deal involves cash payments – usually because employers, including Parliamentary Services, don’t want to agree to an actual, or sizeable, payrise. (The Parliamentary Services agreement hasn’t included a payrise in six years!)

And yes. It is truly, completely fair that non-union members of staff don’t get the same payment. They’re not part of the union. They don’t take part in the same negotiations as the union members. They don’t have the same leverage as a collective group does.

That’s pretty much the basic, founding principle of unionism. Strength in numbers. Power against the powerful.

Of course, the reason for the outrage is simple: the right do not want word to get out that being a union member works. They’ve put a lot of effort into dividing workers from each other, making us look at our co-workers as enemies, as competition. We’re meant to believe that if we keep to ourselves and work one-on-one with the boss, we’ll get the best deal.

And you know, that probably does work for some people – people who are already in highly-paid, highly-specialised roles. For security guards, cleaners, receptionists? Not so much.

This story is the proof. By joining forces and working together, the union members at Parliamentary Services have got a better deal. And it terrifies people like Don Brash.

Domestic violence is a work issue

We can now put a dollar figure – a conservative, probably-underestimated figure – on the cost of domestic violence to New Zealand business.

That’s due to a report commissed by the Public Service Association, released yesterday in conjunction with a Member’s Bill from Green MP Jan Logie which will change our law to protect victims of domestic violence at work, and support their employers to help them out.

And incidentally, it could save businesses $368 million per year.

It’s often hard to explain to people why they should care about ‘other people’s problems’. Even on the left, issues like domestic violence or marriage equality can get filed away under ‘women’s issues’ or ‘gay issues’. In a political discussion dominated by right-wing ideas about individuals and ‘bad choices’, it’s even easier for horrific issues like domestic violence to get swept aside.

Even though one in three women will experience domestic violence, we treat it as a private personal issue. It’s about the woman – or man – who’s being victimized. Their circumstances, their ‘choices’, their individual struggle to get out of a terrible situation.

So as clinical as it may seem, it’s important to have this kind of hard evidence to show people. If for no other reason, you should care about addressing intimate partner violence because it does affect you. It affects our communities and our workplaces. It has a provable, financial cost to business – and at the same time, the workplace can be one of the best supports a person has to get out of an abusive situation.

We know this kind of intervention and support works. We can see it working in Australia, where although they don’t have legislation, the union movement have fought hard to get domestic violence clauses into collective agreements covering over 700,000 workers.

The great thing is that Jan Logie’s bill is a win for everyone. It’s a win for victims of domestic violence who get support and security in a tough time. It’s a win for businesses who get healthier, happier, more productive workers (and the warm fuzzy feelings of having done something good and noble in the world). And it’s a win for all of us. Because we get to say we live in a country which does the right thing for people in awful situations. And we get to remember that no person is an island. We all stand together, and we’re so much better for it than if we stand apart.

30th anniversary of the Trades Hall bombing

ernie abbottOn this day in 1984 a suitcase bomb was left in the Wellington Trades Hall. At 5:19 it detonated, killing Ernie Abbott, the caretaker.

The bomber has never been caught, despite a massive police investigation and a reward of $50,000 offered for information. We don’t even really know why the Trades Hall was targeted – though anti-union extremism seems an obvious motive.

Thirty years on, it’s likely the bomber has taken his identity to the grave.

At 5:19 pm, let’s take a minute’s silence in memory of Ernie.

Happy International (Working) Women’s Day!

The official theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Inspiring Change”. It’s a little vague, a little aspirational, not too confrontational – fairly typical for this kind of awareness-raising exercise.

But it is 2014, and it’s an election year, and the way we talk about women, and women’s work, does have the potential to inspire change in New Zealand.

Right now Kristine Bartlett, with the support of the Service and Food Workers’ Union, is breaking new ground. She’s worked in elder care for years, doing incredibly important, physically and emotionally demanding work, for $14.32 an hour. I think everyone can agree those kind of wages are pitiful. But the argument is bigger than that.  It asks not ‘should a woman be paid the same as a man for the same work?’ – a question which, I’m sorry to say, is still not settled for some employers – but this:

Should a traditional ‘woman’s job’ be paid the same as a traditional ‘man’s job’ which involves the same skills and experience?

There are difficulties and complexities and all kinds of side issues which get raised – Kristine’s employer Terranova just wants to make the whole issue about how much funding they get, and a lot of armchair experts will opine that it’s comparing apples and oranges and this lets us ignore the fact that a lot of traditional ‘men’s work’ gets paid a lot better than ‘women’s work’.

But the fact remains that we’re talking about ‘women’s work’. We’re talking about the terrible wages a woman-dominated workforce is paid to do a vital job in our society. Take the gender issue out of the picture, and we’re talking about how capitalism exploits people who have such compassion and caring in their hearts that they’ll look after others for $14.32 an hour – and that’s not right.

And as Jan Logie has noted in her blog, our current government has a terrible track record on ‘women’s issues’ – along with everything else. On this International Women’s Day, let’s inspire a change – of government!

(I do note that the concept of a “women’s day” isn’t perfect.  There are still a lot of women who are marginalised or erased in discussions of “women’s issues”, and a lot of people who reject the man/woman gender divide.  Their lives deserve recognition too.)