Earworm for the day: for Helen Kelly

When I was helping to organise the inaugural conference of E tū earlier this year, we knew we wanted to make Helen Kelly the first life member of our new union. But what song to sing for her? She had very decided opinions about some classic union songs; there was a lot of careful consultation to be done, without letting her in on the surprise.

We settled on “Bread and Roses”, which I have to admit isn’t my favourite – I’m a metal girl, I like something you can bang your head to.

This one didn’t make the shortlist. It probably felt a little on the nose. But Helen had a great sense of humour; I think she would have appreciated the black comedy.

Here’s to her, and here’s to the union.

Stopping the clock

First up, I need to make make it clear as someone who’s spent the majority of my adult life in the movement and who still does a bit of contract work for unions, including the current push to get the Holidays Act payroll problem fixed: I’m perhaps not the most impartial commentator on union issues.

That aside, I’d want to see this business with the Holidays Act sorted even if I’d never heard the word “union”. The idea that one million dollars of debt owed to Kiwis could be written off every single day, or that $2.3bn (!) could be owed to hundreds of thousands of us is a Big Deal.

Watching One News last night I was a bit surprised to hear John Key refuse to stop the clock on this debt-bleed by claiming legislation takes too long. It’s not something I noticed last year when the validation of speeding tickets was passed from whoa to go in one sitting. Or when they passed the Hobbit law in just two days back in 2010 – a law that took work rights off hundreds of Kiwis.

Sam Huggard from the Council of Trade Unions is right. This is a matter of priorities:

 

What I find most surprising is Key’s antenna has failed on this issue. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that people feel a bit differently about speeding tickets than they do about surprise extra back pay. And, even further on that limb, I imagine that many New Zealanders probably have a few choice opinions about a Prime Minister who urgently addresses the former while letting the latter disappear over the horizon.

So why not just do it? It’s not like freezing the statute acknowledges any government liability, nor does it lock them into accepting the union movement’s fix for the problem. It merely stops people from losing money while the problem gets sorted out.

My guess is that, caught on the hop, Key’s natural response was to say no to “The Unions”. I think that’s a mistake based on his, and other National Party folks’, unwillingness to acknowledge that “The Unions” is in fact a group of democratic organisations comprising a huge cross-section of New Zealanders, including many National Party voters.

In my experience, the union movement mostly consists of people from “middle”* New Zealand. Which is why reflexively pushing back on unions has repeatedly put National on the wrong side of public opinion, from the Hobbit law, to health and safety reforms touting dangerous worm-farms, to trying to lock zero hour contracts into law.

That said, Key’s found himself on the wrong side a lot in the last few months from the trivial (flags), to the very very serious (homelessness). Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s out of touch, maybe he’s just not getting good advice any more.
Whatever the case, he should do himself and all working New Zealanders a favour and stop the clock on the back pay. Even if it’s just in the name of the good politics he’s built his reputation on.

By the way, if you want to join thousands of others who are telling John Key to stop the clock the Together petition is here.

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*note: I use the term only as shorthand – the notion a homogeneous “middle” New Zealand exists and can be identified and targeted is responsible for some of the silliest political decisions of the last 30 years.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

Easter trading

Easter Sunday is one of the three-and-a-half days a year when (most) shops have to be closed. That could be changing. From Denise Roche of the Greens:

The new rules would supposedly protect people’s rights to say no to shifts on Easter Sunday or to apply for annual leave for that day. But that just shows how out of touch National is with the real situation for many working people.

Imagine you’re a young person going for your first or second job in retail, and in the job interview the boss asks you how you’d feel about working on Easter Sunday. You’re hardly going to say no, because you want the job.

Or maybe you’re a single parent, juggling childcare and work. The person who does the rostering for the shop where you work is already annoyed at you because your commitment to your kids means sometimes you need to change the roster. Are you going to risk annoying your boss even more by asking not to work on Easter Sunday?

Unfortunately, I think, it seems to be a line some in Labour will accept:

Labour leader Andrew Little has expressed favour in allowing shops to trade on the weekend, but he had a few concerns.

“I wouldn’t object to a law that allowed trading on Easter Sunday, providing the right of the worker to genuinely opt-out,” he said.

Allowing employers leeway with words like “reasonable” and “genuine opt-out” probably works fine in some situations. It’s like the Danish “flexicurity” model which is being bandied about in the Future of Work conversations that are happening at the moment. Flexicurity gives employers huge leeway – in a context of massive collective strength for workers. Chris Trotter already joined the dots on this one:

New Zealand and Denmark have many similarities, but in 2016 they also feature a number of vital differences. In relation to flexicurity, the most important of these is the respective level of union density.

As the official Danish website puts it: “The development of the labour market owes much to the Danish collective bargaining model, which has ensured extensive worker protection while taking changing production and market conditions into account. The organisation rate for workers in Denmark is approx. 75%.”

The organisation rate for New Zealand workers in 2014 was approx. 19%.

In fairness, Little did say:

“The bottom line is you’ve got to protect the right of workers to genuinely opt-out and not be subject to stigma and pressure.”

But this is a bit of a paradox. The employer/employee relationship is inherently unbalanced. One side starts off with all the power and money. The power to hire in the first place. The power to take the job away. The money to hire the best lawyers and drag out court proceedings over disputes and weather a long lockout. There will always be stigma and pressure on a worker to accept the deal they’re offered.

The power imbalance is only mitigated – not cured – when the people who do the work can stand together in solidarity, and when a basic set of good employment standards are entrenched in the law and enforced adequately.

This is labour relations 101. Look where the power lies. Look at the context. Right now, the context is that workers in New Zealand aren’t even guaranteed a minimum set of rest breaks during their shift. Operations like Talley’s AFFCO are literally threatening disciplinary action to make people work on public holidays.

In this environment, with that level of power imbalance, the idea of giving employers more and more of the power as long as they promise to be “reasonable” is so Pollyanna-ish that Pollyanna would look at it and think “damn, that’s a little optimistic”.

It would be so great to live in a world where workers and employers can have truly healthy relationships. Where people can have the flexibility to take or work on holiday weekends, where pay is fair and jobs are secure. We don’t live in that world. We live in the world where people like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

So let’s not dismantle the very last scraps of workers’ rights just yet.

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Labour is allowing a conscience vote on the issue. It might be interesting to see where the lines are drawn.

How we talk about industrial action

There’s a problem with the way we talk about working people who take industrial action. The problem is we don’t talk about them at all.

Check out the framing of industrial action on the front page of Radio NZ – hardly NZ’s equivalent of Fox News – a couple of weeks ago.

rnz strike

“Auckland hit by bus strike” – as though a strike is a natural weather event which comes out of nowhere, and definitely isn’t about people taking action. Where are the people? “Auckland commuters left stranded” – there they are. Stranded! Because this strike came out of nowhere, and definitely didn’t involve any warning or notice. Much like a tornado.

There’s another interesting conversation to have about flexible working arrangements and how for many people working from home isn’t an option – usually people in lower-paid jobs, doing service work, providing “essential services” which aren’t compensated as such. But that’s not really what we’re saying when we talk about “commuters left stranded”, is it?

The blurb does get around to mentioning the people taking action – “bus drivers walked off the job.” As though a strike is just about a bunch of layabouts getting bored and wandering away, for no good reason at all!

It’s fair to point out that this is just the headline, and that the article behind it may well go into more detail – about the fact that the people who take responsibility for operating large, complex machines which transport hundreds of other human beings are overworked, underpaid, and being bullied when they dare to stand together in union.

But … it’s also the headline. This is the side of the story which gets the attention. Not the very real concerns faced by the people who drive buses full of other people and who are asking for totally unreasonable things like not driving for 5.5 hours straight without a break.

And so it is reinforced that strikes are random and unfair, that people who take strike action are doing it for no good reason, and that the real victims here are the white-collar workers who got inconvenienced on the way to work.

Which might be how we end up in situations like this:

Because we’ve lost sight of the people in the story and let the conversation about public transport, like so many other vital public services, become about money.

Speaking of which, here’s how yesterday’s announced industrial action was reported:

auckland dhb strike

loki sigh

There are real issues here. Our health system is missing at least $1.7 billion thanks to eight years of penny-pinching public-service-eroding National government. People who do absolutely vital work like managing pharmacies, providing occupational therapy and mental health support, and much less vital work like administering anaesthesia during surgery have been expected to keep on keeping on while their wages and work conditions have been eroded and outright cut.

The government has chosen to starve our health system, and DHBs have chosen – perhaps with little choice given their squeezed finances, but some nevertheless – to put pay and conditions for staff last on the list of priorities (except possibly for their chief executives.)

They’re not storming off in a huff because Daddy won’t buy them another pony. They are people being pushed to the limits who see no other way to get the message through.

Let’s remember that next time we see headlines about Cyclone Industrial Action Strikes Innocent Commuters as Faceless Robots Walk Off The Job.

Bold politics: redefining a good business model

I’m slightly in love with this idea of Jeremy Corbyn’s: to stop companies paying dividends until they pay the people who work for them a living wage. He said in a speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday:

Only profitable employers will be paying dividends, if they depend on cheap labour for those profits then I think there is a question over whether that is a business model to which we should be turning a blind eye.

By “slightly in love” I mean I cackled for a good five minutes after reading it because it’s so beautiful, righteous, and utterly outraging to the anti-Corbyn folk who have so desperately tried to get him to back down from his principles. This is not a guy who’s worried about being called “hard left” or “socialist”.

jeremy corbyn gives you the eye

It’s a serious proposition, though. It challenges our ideas of how businesses should operate – ideas which we tend to take for granted.

We know what a “good business” is meant to look like. It must be profitable! And efficient! And innovative! And of course it must “value” its employees – by giving them their own nametags or buying them Christmas hampers or talking a lot about just how much you value them. Even the second-most-horrible employer would agree that having happy employees/staff/associates/~partners~ is important to the success of your business.

(The most horrible employer is the Talley family, who think workers should be grateful to be fired for wearing green t-shirts. There’s always an exception that proves the rule, etc.)

We often talk about profit as though it’s the single most important measurement of a company’s success – but profit doesn’t trump everything.

britney serious

We don’t say “you only need to implement basic food hygiene after you become profitable.” We don’t say “accuracy in advertising is only required once you’re making money.” We understand the need for common-sense minimum standards in business.

If a CEO stood up and said “Look, our business model just wouldn’t be profitable if we had to ensure there wasn’t fecal matter in the ground beef” we would say “Your business model is broken.”

If a Director of Corporate Social Responsibility stood up and said “Our business model isn’t sustainable if we have to stop pumping raw sewage into the harbour” we would say “Your business model is both literally and figuratively shit.”

We already accept the idea of a minimum mandated wage for people who work. So why not stand up and say, “if you can’t afford to pay the people who do your work enough to live on, your business model is broken”?

Of course there’ll be pushback. Of course there’ll be resistance. And the people opposing us will have larger media platforms and greater influence and more money to throw into advertising and astroturf.

But that’s nothing we haven’t overcome before. That’s pretty much the entire story of the labour movement and the entire reason we have Labour Parties across the world.

This is the kind of idea which ticks all the boxes. It just makes sense. It challenges the rich and powerful who get whacking great payrises while the people who do the work struggle.

It’s the right thing to do. And taking a stand when it’s the right thing to do is how you win progressive causes. Isn’t it?