Being a both/and party

The fantastic Maryan Street was awarded life membership at the Labour Party annual conference yesterday, and in her speech she said some things which really rang true for me. She rejected the idea that Labour has to prioritise or pick and choose which principles it follows:

We’ve never been the either/or party. We opposed the invasion of Abyssinia AND we built state houses.

And spelled out something I’ve thought for a long time (slightly paraphrased):

Economic equality is not so far away from gender equality. Equity is not so far away from pay equity. The living wage – living with dignity – is not so far away from dying with dignity.

The first point I’d make is one I’ve made a few times: we can do more than one thing at a time. But too frequently, some groups – usually women, or Māori, or young people, etc – are basically told to sit down and hush and “when we get into government we’ll deal with your issues. But right now, they’re a distraction.”

On the other hand, the other side – usually the older, whiter, dudely groups – will argue that we’ve focused too much on precisely those issues. Look at the political credit we burned on anti-smacking legislation (even though it was a Green member’s bill overwhelmingly supported in Parliament) or marriage equality (even though it was a hugely popular, highly successful campaign). Haven’t you lot had enough of the spotlight?

Yet, I’d argue, just look at the bread-and-butter work of the Labour Party. We have a Future of Work commission – not a Future of Women commission. We still treat the Finance portfolio as the single most senior role after the leadership – not Pacific Affairs.

Who’s right? Everyone and no one. Both sides (and it’s a massive oversimplification to talk only of two sides) can field any number of arguments and retorts and examples to justify their sense of unfairness. No one will ever change their minds as long as we hold onto the idea that we’re talking about separate, distinct issues.

That’s where the second point comes in. Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.

So I flippantly say we don’t have a Future of Women commission. And someone might look at that and say “see, bloody feminists, they just want things for themselves, what about the future of men, huh?” but the fact is that the future of work is indistinguishable from the future of women. Women’s empowerment and economic activity (which we should stop talking about, but indulge me) globally, represent a massive force for change. People’s ability to plan their families, their access to healthcare or education or civic society or legal protections are just as important, if not more, than the increasing progress of technology.

A lot of that might sound like frightening, fringe-issue identity politics which don’t appeal to Middle New Zealand.

But it’s a fundamental principle of the labour movement: when you lift the wages and conditions of workers in one site or one major industry, it ripples out across the whole community. And when you reduce inequality, everyone in society benefits, even the people at the top.

We’re all fighting the same fight. Our issues all fundamentally come down to one: capitalism, an oppressive power structure that impacts everyone differently, but impacts everyone nevertheless.

And if we move out of this either/or frame of thinking, and remember that not only can we do more than one thing at a time, but we are doing more than one thing at a time when we support each other in our struggles, think how much more we could do.

We totally meant to do that: the WhaleOil story

There is no point engaging in argument with the WhaleOil crew, however many or few of them there are. This is taken as read by most people on the left, and was even before Nicky Hager exposed what a shallow, mercenary organisation “they” are.

A lot of our antipathy towards them has to be ideological. We’re talking about an extremely rightwing, vicious attack machine which actively seeks to destroy the lives of people who stand opposed to it.

But there’s no need to bring political opinions into this. The chief reason not to give even the slightest benefit of the doubt to WhaleOil is because nothing published there has any weight. It’s nonsensical and self-contradicting, and while I should really just not be writing this post and giving them oxygen, it may be helpful to have one canonical example of this as a warning to the next ten generations.

Holla if you get that reference
Shout out if you get that reference

So Cam Slater wrote a book about the terribleness of unions, and the first review posted on Amazon was a five-star paean, under a pseudonym, quickly discovered to belong to WhaleOil moderator Pete Belt. Immediately after publishing, free signed copies were sent, apparently to every Labour MP and other leftwingers who would presumably be outraged by its contents.

And yesterday this post [donotlink] went up praising the book for being #1 in Amazon’s Kindle/Kindle eBooks/Nonfiction/Politics & Social Sciences/Politics & Government/Specific Topics/Labor & Industrial Relations category. It is remarkable only for being a perfect example of Whaleoil doublespeak.

To accept the assertions of Pete’s post, you are asked to accept several ideas:

  • That seeing “many copies” at the CTU conference proves the book is popular among Slater’s enemies, while admitting dozens of copies have been sent for free … to Slater’s enemies
  • That “the media and the Left were very quiet” about the book (which may not ring true if you follow #nzpol on Twitter) and that this means there was a deliberate strategy of not talking about the book
  • That “the Left have outrage cornered”, but WhaleOil nevertheless had to “engineer” it because of our deliberate strategy of not talking about the book
  • That Pete Belt deliberately left a mild-sounding but favourable review with a “provocative” screen name in order to “engineer” outrage
  • That the Left then promptly forgot our strategy of not talking about the book and began talking about it
  • At which point Pete Belt immediately deleted the review, because its only purpose was to engineer outrage, not game the book’s rating
  • And this all proves that the Left are buying Slater’s book in droves – even though the Amazon figures are for the Kindle edition, not the hardcopy, which has been sent for free to many people.

It’s a classic case of someone saying whatever they need to in the moment to “refute” the arguments against them. It’s “I totally meant to do that” writ large. Of course it’s accepted without question by the WhaleOil commentariat, rejected out of hand by the Twitterati, and largely ignored by the rest of the country who have better things to do with their time.

By accounts from people who have read the book, there’s not a lot of new material. There’s not much material full stop. If you want to know why Cameron Slater hates unions, and what he thinks is wrong with them, he’s already told us, many times, for free.

Which is probably why no one had to create a “strategy” of not talking about the book. Though the cover is still pretty funny.

What do you earn?

Helen Kelly linked to an advice column in the Herald which suggests that while it’s perfectly okay to ask people how much they paid for their house, it’s a no-no to ask about their income.

It’s a great collision between two myths which reinforce a lot of terrible ideas we’re told about people, and value, and solidarity.

Of course you can ask people – with proper etiquette – what they paid for their house. House-buyingness is next to godliness. Buy a house young and you’re an entrepreneur. Own multiple properties and preach the virtues of “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” and you get headlines. There’s no shame in owning one house, five houses, or making millions of dollars literally being subsidized by a state which won’t provide decent housing for people in need.

But there’s plenty of shame in asking people what they earn. That’s private information, after all, and you’re an individual standing on your own two feet and by god, if other people (who aren’t as good and productive as you) find out what you get, they’ll try to steal it!

Or as advice columnist Lee Suckling put it:

Asking somebody about his or her salary is far less permissible. This is purely because it’s none of your business.

The only people that need to know how much you earn are your boss and your spouse.

It’s the gospel of self-interest. You’re an individual. You’re think as an individual. You function as a good little rational economic unit working purely for its own gain.

One of the terrible aspects of our current system is how it unnaturally pits us against each other. You certainly shouldn’t look at the other people working around you and think “we’re in this together. We’re in the same situation! We should be treated fairly and given the same pay for doing the same work.” They’re not comrades. They’re competition!

We’re meant to take it on faith that each of us – the “you” who has to protect your good deal from the avarice of your fellow labourers – is getting the best deal. And we’re meant to see this as a good thing, because the boss wants us to sit at his table in the cafeteria, not them.

We’re meant to trust that the boss is properly sharing his or her profits with the people who created them. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t.

That’s what a lot of people working at Google discovered when Erica Baker created a shared spreadsheet of the salaries of people working at the company. Surprise surprise – they found people weren’t being paid equally for their work. And apparently managers at Google didn’t like this. Erica Baker isn’t working there any more.

The defensiveness is kind of understandable, but also shows the benefits of transparency for everyone involved. We know about unconscious bias. Most people don’t twirl their moustaches and announce “I’m going to pay women less because I hate them”. They don’t realise they’re doing it until it’s all laid out in front of them. And if they think of themselves as good people who aren’t sexist or racist, etc, it can be a shock to discover you were being sexist or racist, etc, in practice.

(In the same way, I doubt Lee Suckling sat down at his keyboard and thought “Haha! How can I reinforce a cult of individual self-interest today? Muahahahaha!”)

A final point: if you’re in a unionised workplace with a collective agreement – and I acknowledge they’re the minority – you do see what your coworkers are earning. You know that the same job is paid at the same rate, or that everyone in your team sits in the same pay band. It doesn’t ruin morale.

What do we see when the people in a workplace or industry are in the union? Higher wages, better conditions, and fairer pay for men and women.

the incredibles coincidence

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep on being impolite. Because “politeness” is capitalism’s way of tricking us into not comparing notes and realising just how much we’re all getting exploited.

Not the “end to zero hour contracts” you were looking for

We have two options before us, New Zealand. Either Michael Woodhouse still hasn’t had anyone explain the difference between zero hour contracts – which are exploitative trash – and casual employment – which is casual – to him.

Or, Michael Woodhouse knows damn well that there’s a significant difference between fairly negotiating an on-call position with your employer, and being at your employer’s beck and call and whim with no ability to say no; and the only reason he’s making any kind

I’m favouring the latter, in light of this report on the proposed changes to employment contracts, which relies heavily on the words “reasonable” and “unreasonable” (and when you’re the one who can afford lawyers, that means whatever you want it to mean) and apparently does nothing to address the actual problem: workers being effectively bonded to their employers and expected to show up at any hour of the day or night with no guarantee of a minimum weekly pay and no ability to get secondary employment to make up the difference.

But speaking on TV One’s Q and A programme Woodhouse said there was no real definition of zero hours contracts.

If an employer wanted someone to be on call, then there would need to be “reasonable compensation” for that, but the law would not put a figure on it.

But he agreed it would still be possible for an agreement to have no stipulated hours.

I don’t know, that sounds pretty much like a zero hours contract to me.

This is the problem for the government. Zero hour contracts are patently unfair. Everyone can see that. And thanks to a dedicated campaign by unions like UNITE and FIRST, with a publicity boost from the much-mourned Campbell Live, it became an issue which couldn’t be ignored or swept aside.

They had to at least appear to do something or the whole “fairness and flexibility” facade would have come crashing down.

But this is not a government which gives one single damn about workers being exploited by big business. This is a government which took away guaranteed minimum rest breaks and knighted Peter Talley.

They’ll talk the tough talk when they need to salvage some credibility, and they’ll promise change when they’re under the gun. But once you look at the real detail, it’s empty. If anything, it makes things worse, by creating even more loopholes for bad employers to exploit – and the irony is that this doesn’t just hurt workers. It hurts the good employers who do want to treat their staff with respect and decency, but get undercut and driven out of business by the exploiters.

In most of the industries which employ people on zero-hour contracts, there is literally no need to. They can predict demand. They know what times are busy and what aren’t. It’s the height of penny-pinching for a 24-hour fast food joint to demand that its workers come and go at no notice in order to save a buck, and it only works because those workers don’t have a lot of choice.

Even an anti-worker, union-hating National government like ours should be able to ban this kind of coercive arrangement without doing any damage to their base. The fact that Michael Woodhouse is still dancing around the issue and trying to weasel his way out of clear, decisive action just shows how morally bankrupt they are.

Peter Talley on health and safety law: unions are evil, workers’ lives cheap

Well, this is downright scary.

Whenever unionists talk about the bad employers who put profit over people’s lives, the right are quick to wave it away as fear-mongering, blowing a few small examples out of proportion.

Well, here are the words of a man with a $300 million business, employing 5,000 “full time equivalent” staff, who just got a knighthood for his “services to business”.

The Bill allows any single worker … to request a Health & Safety representative be appointed. Companies will have no right to oppose the creation of that representative irrespective of their political or Union history, their external relationships … or their ability to perform that role.

Fact: strong worker participation including worker-elected health and safety reps is the best way to improve health and safety. The fact that Peter Talley lists “competence” as the last problematic factor tells you everything about where his priorities lie.

In essence, companies can be asked to create and fund Health & Safety representatives and committees, the effective birthplace of industrial Unions, with no control over their activities…

It’s almost like workers have historically been forced to organise to make sure they don’t die on the job. God, what a sense of entitlement these peasants have!

Employers are rightly concerned that Sections 66 to 68 have been promulgated by the Union movement as a way to hand control of work groups to unions and employees … the Bill does not make it clear either that any worker group will contain a majority of employer representatives …

That’s probably because – and this may shock you – when employers have ultimate control over health and safety, and get to cherry-pick the people who are empowered to enforce health and safety, health and safety outcomes are worse.

Unscrupulous Unions could also use Sections 66 to 68 to intentionally damage or destroy a business …

cersei eyeroll

Yep, that’s what unions do. Unions are so evil that they just want to destroy all the businesses everywhere so no one has jobs. Even if you believe the right’s age-old lie that “unions are a business”, what “business” would destroy its own “customer” base that way, by destroying people’s basic ability to spend their money on its “product”?

Sorry, I forgot I was talking to a Talley.

[On the powers of H&S representatives to inspect any part of a workplace in the event of an accident or serious risk to a person’s health and safety]

It is inconceivable to even imagine that legislation would propose to ‘open’ these commercially sensitive production sites to the ‘spying eyes’ of Union appointed personnel or anyone else other than government employees.

Because even when an accident has already occurred, the divine right of Peter Talley to make money must not be infringed.

… if large fines and imprisonment are to be imposed on employed then they should be entitled to act … to protect themselves. … [T]here needs to be a statutory right to dismiss employees for breaching safety rules and procedures with no right to take a grievance arising from their dismissal.

How convenient that Peter Talley – the man who’s trying to force workers to sign contracts which mean they could be dismissed for speaking critically of his draconian master-servant complex – wants more power to summarily fire people.

The whole thing is a farce, born from the brain of a man who honestly believes simultaneously that “unions are failing because they don’t offer anything” and “unions are so powerful I must be protected from their evil demands for better health and safety.”

And it’s all rubbish. Every single point raised contradicts both the Pike River Royal Commission report and the government’s own Health and Safety Taskforce, with no greater evidence that “Peter Talley doesn’t like it.”

I’m sorry that it’s inconvenient for Peter Talley to not have workers die on the job, but the facts are the facts. Strong worker participation leads to better health and safety.

The super-ironic thing? I was just talking about this exact same attitude in my post on costly government. Over the long term, having good relationships with your workers and their unions, having strong, genuine health and safety systems, and respecting workers’ voices and opinions about their work leads to decreased turnover and increased productivity.

Peter Talley would probably make even more obscene amounts of money by pulling his head in and realising that workers are human beings who just want to be treated with a bit of respect. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

And the real tragedy, after all that comedy? Thanks to people like Peter Talley, the health and safety legislation, born out of the deaths of 29 men at Pike River, will likely be watered down so John Key can keep his caucus happy. And more workers will be injured, or at worst, killed on the job as a result.