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.

Assuming justice and creating justice

I’ve been thinking about politics, assumptions, and justice.

I sat in on a recording of The Egonomist on Friday – thanks for having me there, guys! – and we discussed some of the issues and reactions to Sarah Wilson‘s articles on WINZ, specifically the backlash from people who insist that Sarah must be a liar, a bludger, or a lying bludger, because if you can blog, or go out with friends, you must be able to work.

Then I read this post by Chris Miller on the assumptions we tend to make about businessmen being good political leaders. Chris makes excellent points about why that’s clearly a silly assumption, but the post also brought together a lot of scattered thoughts I was having about our political narratives.

The technical term for it is a “just-world hypothesis“. It’s the idea that our universe is basically just. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. If good things have happened to you, it must be because you’re a good person, and so on and so forth.

You can probably connect the dots yourself. People have attacked Sarah because the idea that she’s a good, hardworking person who’s been randomly struck by illness and then wilfully mistreated by our welfare system contradicts their assumption that the universe is just. And wealthy businesspeople must be good leaders, because they’ve managed to accrue a lot of material goods and influence, and that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t deserve it.

The idea extends to many area of our lives – the myth that ‘nice girls’ don’t get assaulted, or innocent people never get wrongfully executed – and every time, the just-world fallacy supports the status quo. It supports the mistreatment of beneficiaries, the influence of the wealthy, the patriarchy, and institutional racism. It supports the worldview of the right-wing and socially conservative.

We on the left know the world isn’t a just place. The people on the bottom aren’t worthless, and the people at the top aren’t inherently admirable. We don’t assume there’s justice: we want to create justice.

So let’s challenge this kind of thinking. Let’s say that workers deserve a living wage, and beneficiaries deserve to be treated with dignity, and kids who don’t do well at school deserve support, and families deserve a fair go to buy a home, or rent one that’s actually habitable.

These assumptions only survive because they’re repeated by our political leaders, in our media, at the pub, across the family dinner table. They’re accepted as common sense. But if we all stand up and say ‘no, that’s not right’ then slowly but surely we can turn that thinking around.

There’s definitely more practical things we need to do as well! But to create a lasting change in New Zealand society, we need to overturn the assumptions that support the status quo too.

No excuse for WINZ’s mistreatment of people in need

Yesterday one woman’s story blew the lid on our government’s treatment of beneficiaries. Sarah Wilson’s post on her ongoing struggles just to get Work and Income to do their job properly and give her the support she needs went viral, and as the comments flooded in, more stories emerged.

Stories about how humiliating it is to be sitting in a WINZ office when they ring the bell and applaud people who find jobs – even if they’re in a meeting with you at the time, and you’re in tears. Stories about literally having to record yourself delivering paperwork to prove you got it in on time, because it’s been lost, again, and your support has been stopped. Stories about puking on the floor because the next available home visit was four weeks away – so it was drag yourself in to the office, or starve.

It’s shocking, and yet unsurprising. We all know the stories of WINZ stuff-ups, the labyrinthine bureaucracy beneficiaries have to navigate to prove they’re worthy. But when the stories achieve a critical mass like this, it tells us unequivocally that there’s a bigger issue.

The best-case scenario is that Work and Income is staffed by people who are trying their darnedest to help but just have a massive blind spot when it comes to the realities of life for their ‘clients’ (and are really, really absent-minded with paperwork). The worst-case scenario is that every single one of them is on a satanic mission to make life hell for people like Sarah.

Obviously, the reality’s going to be somewhere in the middle. Some individuals are doing their best to help. Some individuals are doing their darnedest to get people off benefits, any way they can, because the numbers are how this government ‘proves’ that its reforms are ‘working’.

The big lesson to take away from this, though, is that stories like Sarah’s aren’t accidental.

There doesn’t have to be a big scary anti-beneficiary conspiracy to explain the mistreatment doled out to vulnerable people. There just has to be an attitude of ‘beneficiaries aren’t worth helping’. From that comes everything: a lack of basic processes (people have to record themselves handing over their paperwork!) a lack of basic empathy (ringing bells!) a lack of doing serious, constructive things which would actually help people like Sarah get back into work.

But if you want a conspiracy, think about this: one of the first changes this government made to social welfare in 2009 was to cut the Training Incentive Allowance. It made so little sense: why remove a benefit which helps parents upskill themselves to find better jobs to support their families?

Could it be the numbers? Could it be that when you help a solo mum through a nursing degree, you’re ‘letting’ her stay on a benefit for three more years – but if you make her life unbearable, until even an insecure, no-benefits job in a café, juggling childcare and hoping the power company’s kind, seems like a better alternative, you can get her off the benefit now?

In her post, Sarah says

I’m so tired of this. I almost want to force myself to go back to work because trying to stay on a benefit is more stressful than working fulltime with a debilitating chronic illness.

I have to ask: is that their point?

Sarah has now written a follow-up post.

Related reading: Frank Mcskasy has previously covered the epic piles of paperwork WINZ requires ‘jobseekers’ to fill out.

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.)

How to build better beggars

In the United States, the street beggars have great patter.

Despite what South Park would have us believe, when you walk down the main street of a major city, you don’t get hordes of people shiftlessly shaking cups at you, asking for “change?”

There are a few.  But far more often, there’s a story.  I did two tours of Iraq and I just need to get my clothes dry at the laundromat.  I need 20c for the bus, or $5 to get the train to where my kids live. My girlfriend’s out in the parking lot, I just want to get us some chicken.  They are practiced, and polite, and very aware that they’re approaching a young white woman on the street and need to ensure they’re utterly unthreatening, because the lives of poor men and especially poor black men probably aren’t worth crap if a pretty white girl complains to the cops around the corner.

When a country has the kind of inequality the US does, people get really, really good at begging for money.

On the same rainy day I meet the Iraq veteran – and I have no reason to doubt that he’s served his country, and been tossed aside for his trouble – John Kerry, the secretary of state, is on MSNBC talking to Andrea Mitchell about what’s been happening in Ukraine.  He speaks in admiring tones about how the people of Ukraine have risen up against their oppressor, how they’ve had enough of a leader who sleeps in mansions and lives a life of luxury.  And to an outsider, it sounds so disingenuous.  Does Kerry not see the parallels with his own country?  Where a presidential candidate can forget how many homes he owns,  while the people who are fortunate enough to have employment waiting tables are entitled to just $2.13 an hour?

The United States is a nation thoroughly captured by the idea that we can all pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps.  That a government safety net, universal healthcare, even the right to vote is something some people just don’t deserve.

New Zealand has inequality, too.  But we still have some of the basics in place – our current government’s efforts notwithstanding – and I have faith we can turn things around with a strong progressive government, starting in 2014.