Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Can The Nurses Win On Their Own?

The First Of Many? If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

NEW ZEALAND’S NURSES are about to discover whether their store of public good-will is big enough to see them through a strike. New Zealanders with experience of this country’s public health system almost always speak very highly of its staff. Nurses in particular draw the public’s praise and respect. In our overburdened and understaffed hospitals they display the weary-but-unflinching professionalism of workers required to operate in an environment of more-or-less permanent crisis.

No one knows better that this country’s frontline health professionals how potentially dangerous this situation can become. New Zealand needs more nurses – lots more nurses. But to keep the staff it already has – let alone attract new recruits – nurses insist they must be paid more. Lots more.

But, how much more? That is the question. In an economy where roughly half the paid workforce have not had a pay-rise for close to two years, will the NZ Nurses’ Organisation’s demand for an immediate, across the board, 11 percent increase strike the average Kiwi as “about right” or “too much”. With an experienced registered nurse’s salary set to rise from $66,755 to $77,386 by December next year under the present offer, will the two-thirds of workers who earn considerably less than that sum (in 2016 the median NZ income was just $48,800) regard the union’s proposed strike action as reasonable – or unreasonable?

The offer on the table also guarantees that an additional 500 nurses will be recruited to the national health-sector workforce. This is clever. The single most important contributing factor to the crisis in the nation’s hospital wards is chronic understaffing. More than anything else it is the personal toll extracted by the excessive workloads caused by understaffing that is fuelling nurses’ anger and impatience with the District Health Boards’ management. It would be interesting to know whether the 9 percent offer on the table would be deemed enough if nurses could be convinced that their workloads were about to be reduced very rapidly to more bearable levels.

The DHB negotiators have also been clever in advancing the figure of half-a-billion dollars as the all-up cost of the settlement on the table. Many New Zealanders will see this as an extraordinarily generous sum – especially when the money on offer has been drawn from their taxes. In rejecting the offer, the Nurses’ union runs the risk of being dismissed as either unrealistic or greedy – or both.

The best way to avoid this perception taking hold would be for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to present the Nurses’ claim as the first of many. After nearly a decade of both public- and private-sector wage restraint, the unions should argue, the time has come for working people to make up the lost ground. The CTU should also emphasise the fact that Nurses are not the only workers in New Zealand who have been expected to work harder and longer for no appreciable improvement in their overall living standards. Nurses are, however, the first occupational group to vote in favour of doing something about it.

If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

If the nurses are left to fight this battle on their own, however, then, sadly, there is a better than even chance that the politics of envy and resentment will prevail over the politics of solidarity.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 June 2018.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

If Labour Wants Fewer Prisoners, Then It Needs To Create More Prison Space – Not Less.

He Should Be Locked Up: To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

STUPIDITY ON STILTS. How else should the decision-making on Waikeria Prison be characterised. From practically every perspective, the Labour-led government’s determination not to proceed with the construction of a new 3,000-bed “mega-prison” was flawed. Most particularly (and most worryingly) it demonstrated the Cabinet’s inability to think politically. And, when your business is politics-at-the-highest-level, that’s a very serious flaw indeed.

Let’s begin from where we are right now. New Zealand’s current prison muster has never been higher. In a nation of just 4.7 million it has topped 10,000 – making New Zealanders one of the most incarcerated peoples in the OECD.

The consequences of this rapid rise in prisoner numbers is that the country’s existing prisons are already dangerously over-crowded. The acute lack of space has already led to the introduction of double-bunking (thank you Judith Collins) and to prisoners being locked in their cells for extended periods. Not surprisingly, these conditions have led to an increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard assaults, as well as to a sharp spike in the number of prisoner suicides.

If there’s one thing that would really help New Zealand’s prisoners; its prison guards; and, ultimately, it’s people as a whole; it would be to increase the amount of prison space dramatically. It is only after the Department of Corrections takes possession of enough state-of-the-art “correctional facilities” to humanely house not only its current, but also its projected muster, that any kind of serious discussion about prisoner rehabilitation can begin.

While prisoners are being double-bunked, locked in their cells 22 hours a day, and denied access to the sort of medical, educational and vocational services most of them need, all talk of rehabilitation is not only meaningless – it’s mendacious.

To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

But, what else could he say? The botched compromise he’d just announced: a new 500-bed prison at Waikeria incorporating a 100-bed mental health facility; will not admit its first inmate until 2022. By which time the muster is unlikely to have fallen appreciably and chronic overcrowding will still be making bad men worse.

That’s why it is so dishonest of the Labour-led government to talk about its long-term (15 years!) goal of reducing New Zealand’s prison muster by 30 percent. The last political party to be in power continuously for 15 years was “King Dick” Seddon’s Liberals. Back in the days when politicians wore top-hats and spats.

The only way a political party can talk about a 15-year-plan for reducing prisoner numbers by 30 percent with any semblance of credibility is after it has already succeeded in forging a broad bi-partisan consensus on all the major issues relating to crime and punishment. While Labour remains unmoved by the electorate’s strong emotional attachment to the arguments of the Sensible Sentencing Trust: i.e. that the perpetrators of horrendous crimes must be kept as far away from society as possible, for as long as possible; no such consensus is possible.

A good first-step for Labour would be an open acknowledgement that in all societies there is an irreducible number of bad bastards who must be caught, convicted and locked away. In matters of crime and punishment it is also important to acknowledge that the government’s highest priority should always be the safety of the public. Prisons may represent, as Bill English noted, both a fiscal and a moral failure, but this side of the Second Coming they are failures that cannot be avoided.

It is only after the public has been convinced of a party’s commitment to their safety that the conversation about crime and punishment can be extended to embrace the broader questions of rehabilitation and crime prevention. Advances in both these areas stand a much better chance of being achieved when the effort is concentrated within the prison system itself. Creating the necessary settings for such activity will, paradoxically, require the creation of more correctional space – not less.

In other words, if Labour’s long-term goal is to reduce the size of the New Zealand prison system, then its short-term priority must be to expand it.

New Zealanders will only believe in rehabilitation when they are presented with irrefutable evidence of its success. When prisoners’ physical and mental health problems are treated professionally and effectively. When they are taught to read, write and count well enough to pass the written driving test. When the people released from this country’s prisons stay released.

Only then will the prison muster fall and the resulting savings be seen to exceed the money spent on providing the space and services needed to reduce New Zealand’s appalling incarceration rate.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 June 2018.

The Symptom … And The Cure?

The Art Of The Deal: “[T]he old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today.” North Korea's Kim Jong Un responds to President Donald Trump's introductory remarks at their historic summit-meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

THE NOTE OF SURPRISE in the voices of the talking heads on CNN was unmistakable. How could this be happening? How could these two men – both of them routinely ridiculed by those claiming expertise in international relations – have gotten even this far? The leaders of USA and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 and exchanging warm handshakes across the table. The eccentrically-coiffed and generously-fleshed scion of the redoubtable Kim dynasty, Kim Jong Un, offering up to the world the amazing soundbite:  “the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today”. How was any of this possible?

One might as well ask – how was the 1972 meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon possible? American GIs and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been in a shooting war barely 20 years before that historic summit in Beijing. For quarter-of-a-century the US Pacific Fleet had shielded the Nationalist regime on Taiwan from the People’s Republic’s wrath. And yet, it happened.

In Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon” there is a memorable scene in which Chairman Mao, through his interpreter, asks Nixon: “Is peace all you are interested in? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease.” The dialogue is, of course, the work of the film’s screenwriters: Stephen J. Rivelle, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone himself; but it succinctly captures an essential truth about such extraordinary political figures as Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Un, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Some political leaders are content to be guided by their advisers – like George “Dubbya” Bush. For others, it is the events in which they are caught up that provide the opportunities for extraordinary displays of leadership. Think Winston Churchill in World War II, or, Lyndon Johnson and the struggle for Black civil rights 1964-65.

Then there are the leaders who, for a whole host of reasons, become the authors of events to which all these other, lesser, statesmen must respond. Grandiloquent and narcissistic, often paranoid, they are prey to deep existential fears and driven by inner-demons of unrelenting ferocity. This kind of leader has the power to project the turmoil and tumult of their own psyches onto the world around them. The ability to, in Stone’s memorable formulation, make History a symptom of their disease.

The rest of humanity has every reason to fear such individuals. Who in their right mind would cast themselves as a plaything in someone else’s paranoid fantasy? Democracies, in particular, should reject such individuals, in whose character there is much more of the emperor and dictator than there is the citizens’ humble representative.

Except, of course, History has a way of infecting individuals with the diseases whose morbid symptoms they will subsequently cause it to display. A nation rent by anxieties and resentments can hardly avoid throwing up the exceptional individual in whom those anxieties and resentments have not only been distilled to an uncommon purity, but who is also able to express them with extraordinary clarity and force.

Democracies in decay are particularly vulnerable to such individuals. The causes of a nation’s inner corruption, when given individual political expression, become accentuated and the process of decomposition is speeded-up. A malign feedback loop emerges by which the neuroses of the nation are both fed by – and feed – the person it has made its own. Be it Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, the people’s “drummer” renders a double service: he is both the person who beats – and the person who is beaten.

Is it really so unbelievable, then, that the America which has grown so deeply resentful and untrusting of its political elites should be willing-on the President who has so openly defied them? That the more the experts deplore Trump’s ignorance and denounce his unwillingness to be guided, the more his supporters thrill to his insouciance.

“It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done”, declared the President, who went on to claim that he would know within the first minute of their meeting whether Kim Jong Un was serious about reaching a deal. When asked how, he replied simply: “My touch, my feel – that’s what I do.”

Encountering this phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that Kim, a genuine emperor, could believe that all the old prejudices, practices and obstacles might – just – be overcome.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 June 2018.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

What’s Wrong With The Progressive Movement’s Bloody Ships?

Something's Gone Wrong: The thing that’s gone wrong with the progressive movement's bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

ABOUT THE TIME the second of Britain’s battle cruisers exploded, Vice-Admiral Beatty famously remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Trying to make sense of the political passivity of New Zealanders in the twenty-first century, I am often minded of Beatty’s words at the Battle of Jutland. Throughout the vicious class warfare of the past 35 years there does, indeed, seem to be something “wrong” with the progressive movement’s bloody ships!

God knows, it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of issues for people to mobilise against! Low wages; unaffordable housing; the appalling treatment of beneficiaries and state house tenants; the collapse of our mental health service; neoliberalism’s subjugation of the universities: the list is a long one.

The roll-call of resistance is, however, depressingly short. After 1991, protest activity on the streets fell away quite sharply. Campus-based protests against rising tuition fees flared in the early 1990s only to fade away almost completely by the turn of the century.

Environmental causes could still draw middle-class New Zealanders onto the streets in large numbers, however. The biggest of these protests: the anti-GE marches and the 50,000-strong Auckland protest against mining in national parks; were even able to persuade the government of the day to take action.

The most calamitous decline in popular resistance, however, occurred in the New Zealand working-class. Strike action, the most reliable measure of the willingness of working people to stand up and defend their interests, fell away almost completely. Prior to the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, the number of strikes recorded in a single year plummeted from dozens to single figures. So punitive was the new industrial relations law that neither the unions’ paid officials, nor their members, were willing to test it.

That had not been the case in the period between the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill in 1990 and the legislation being signed into law in May 1991. In April 1991 an estimated 100,000 workers marched against the Bill and mass rallies attended by thousands of rank-and-file unionists voted in favour of a general strike to “Kill the Bill”.

The blank refusal of the leaders of the largest unions to countenance a general strike struck the labour movement a mortal blow from which it has never recovered. Since 1991 the Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates have never been able to muster more than 5,000 unionists in one place. Workers had been ready to fight in 1991 but their so-called “leaders” had not.

The 2012 Ports of Auckland dispute, led by the late Helen Kelly, offered a glimpse of what working people might achieve if given half a chance – and courageous leadership. So, too, did Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union of low-paid security guards and fast-food workers. Sadly, these proved to be the exceptions – not the rule.

Then there were the great “one-offs”: protests that surged and exploded into genuine demonstrations of “people power” only to be sucked into the swamp of parliamentary politics and drowned.

The first of these was the hugely impressive 2004 hikoi against the controversial Foreshore and Seabed legislation. After setting forth from the Far North, the hikoi grew in strength until it arrived in the capital numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters. The Maori Party was born out of this impressive mobilisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Sadly, the huge hopes invested in the party ended up producing only the most meagre of political dividends.

The second big one-off protest was the February 2016 demonstration against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. It wasn’t just the number of protesters (somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000) but their palpable anger and energy that startled the political class. Alas, as happened with the hikoi, the anti-TPPA movement allowed itself to be skilfully finessed by the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party, in particular, encouraged the protesters to believe that, once elected, it would keep New Zealand out of the TPPA’s trans-national corporate clutches.

The energy and anger of February 2016 soon dissipated and could not be reactivated when, 20 months later, the new Labour-NZF-Government proudly attached its signature to something called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

At the Battle of Jutland, the thing that was wrong with Beatty’s “bloody ships” was that the necessary precautions against enemy shells penetrating the battle cruisers’ magazines had not been taken. In effect, it was Beatty’s negligent approach to safety that sank his ships.

What, then, has gone wrong with New Zealand’s progressive ships?

In the simplest possible terms, the link between protest and political action has been broken.

For most of the post-war period, widespread protest activity almost always brought forth an answering political response. People marched and petitioned to “Save Manapouri!” – and Manapouri was saved. Thousands protested New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – and NZ troops were withdrawn. For 56 days in 1981 the country was convulsed by the Springbok Tour – NZ’s sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa ceased. Most importantly, workers went on strike to improve their pay and conditions – and their pay and conditions were improved. Direct action worked.

It was one of the core objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that this relationship between popular agitation and the democratic political process be destroyed. Most especially in matters relating to the economy. The idea that ordinary people might influence the way in which wealth was created and distributed had to be discouraged.

The thing that’s gone wrong with our bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

If those with the power refuse to respond to our protests, then the correct reaction is not to give up and go quiet. It is to protest louder and harder and longer until the powers-that-be give up – and give in.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 June 2018.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

What They Do In The Shadows: Winston Saves Labour From Itself.

They Want It Darker: Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of the dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

THANK GOD FOR WINSTON PETERS! The decision of the NZ First Party to torpedo the Labour Party justice minister’s proposal to scrap the “Three Strikes” legislation came in the very nick of time. Andrew Little may be a good man, and Sir Peter Gluckman a powerful advocate for evidence-based decision-making, but neither of them would appear to possess Peters’ gut instinct for what is – and is not – possible politically.

The leader of NZ First is looking at the dark and rock-solid mass of National Party support ranged against the Labour-NZF-Green government, and he is drawing some pretty gloomy conclusions.

The first and most obvious of these is that the Nats smell blood. At both the parliamentary and grass-roots level of the National “movement” (for want of a better description) the frequently voiced opinion whatever else this government may do it is most unlikely to win a second term is rapidly solidifying into a right-wing conviction.

The second is that Jacinda’s “stardust” only works on the “woke”. If you’re young and following the right people on Twitter and Instagram; if you’re middle-class and well-credentialed; if you’re a working couple living in your own home and raising a young family; well then, Jacinda’s bloody marvellous. In the grim ghettoes of deprivation and despair, however, Labour’s promises of kindness and transformation have yet to evoke a measurable political response.

Peters knows exactly what that means in electoral terms. Labour is failing to grow its vote out of anything other than the support bases of its own partners. The non-voting poor and marginalised – who should be their target – have yet to hear anything from Jacinda and her team compelling enough to distract them from the grim business of day-to-day survival.

For a few magical moments in 2017, Metiria Turei caused a number of them to lift up their heads – just in time to witness her brutal political destruction. But who’s giving hope to beneficiaries and the working-poor in 2018? Certainly not Carmel Sepuloni!

The third – and the gloomiest – conclusion Peters is likely to have drawn is that this is not an era of political sunshine. He is old enough to remember the early 1960s when, for a few brief years, both here in New Zealand and around the Western World, there was a public willingness to embrace social policies founded in compassion, bolstered by science and delivered by political parties temporarily freed from the encumbering baggage of traditional conservatism.

Full-employment and steadily rising living-standards had emptied communities of the fears and anxieties to which, throughout history, they had been prey. The sunshine of empathy shone into places usually cast in the shade of envy and prejudice. To an electorally significant number of citizens the world seemed to be getting better and better and they were willing to vote for politicians who promised to make it better still. Social-democracy and progressive liberalism made common cause against all manner of social evils: prisons built to punish not rehabilitate; birching and flogging; the death penalty.

Peters is also old enough to remember the Third Labour Government and how its sunniest ministers – the most outstanding of which was the Justice Minister, Dr Martyn Findlay – attempted to press ahead with ever more liberal and progressive reforms. He’d remember, too, the souring of the New Zealand electorate in the wake of the hugely inflationary oil-shocks and Kirk’s tragic death.

Peters will recall how fear and anxiety returned to the nation’s communities as unemployment rose and living-standards began to fall. Watching all this, that much younger Winston Peters observed how easily National’s leader, Rob Muldoon, turned it all to his advantage. How traditional conservatism – momentarily outshone – once again cast its pall over the electorate. How Dr Martyn Findlay and his liberal reforms were unceremoniously cast aside - along with the rest of the Labour Government.

Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of that dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

Monday, 11 June 2018

It’s Time To Stop Subsidising New Zealand’s Least Efficient Employers.

The Biggest Subsidy Of All: Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

NEW ZEALAND has a major problem with the way its bosses do business. In simple terms, the problem boils down to this: Kiwi employers expect Kiwi workers to subsidise their profits.

It has been this way since 1991 when the Employment Contracts Act effectively eliminated the institutions principally responsible for ensuring a fair distribution of businesses’ surpluses between shareholders and employees – the trade unions.

The elimination of state-sanctioned and state-facilitated collective bargaining was intended to depress wages and boost profits. On both counts it was extremely successful.

In the years immediate following the passage of the Employment Contracts Act, profits rose spectacularly and union density fell precipitately. In the 1980s, more than half the private-sector workforce were unionised; today, fewer than one-in-ten private-sector workers belong to a trade union. Without unions, Kiwi workers’ share of the wealth they’d helped create began a steady decline which has yet to cease. In 2018, the purchasing power of their wage packets is not much higher than it was in the 1970s.

The comparison with Australia – where collective bargaining enjoys far greater protection – is as bleak as it is alluring. The wages paid to Australian workers are, on average, a full third higher than the wages paid to workers doing the same jobs in New Zealand. Small wonder that so many skilled New Zealanders have “crossed the ditch”.

Bad though this situation has been for New Zealand’s workers, their subsidisation of the nation’s businesses has had an even more malign impact on the New Zealand economy as a whole.

In theory, capitalist enterprises grow more profitable by becoming more efficient – more productive. Fewer – but better – workers is the goal. A firm’s investment in better machines and more highly-skilled (and highly-paid) staff may be expensive in the short term, but the long-term improvement in its performance will not only increase its profitability, but also cause it to become more resilient and competitive.

This was precisely the conclusion arrived at by government, employer and union representatives in Sweden in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Together, they embarked upon a project to “compress” wages – i.e. reduce the gap between the lowest and the highest paid workers – by means of what the Swedish unions called “solidaristic wage bargaining”. Highly-skilled and highly-paid paid workers in the most efficient industries moderated their wage demands, while the unions representing Sweden’s low-paid workers demanded more.

Did this force some firms to go out of business? Yes it did – that was the whole idea. Wage compression forced Swedish employers to either become more efficient – or go under. The improvement in Swedish productivity and the stimulatory effect of higher wages easily absorbed the workers laid-off by the businesses forced to close. Firms whose proprietors probably shouldn’t have been in business in the first place.

New Zealand’s solution was the exact opposite of Sweden’s. Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

Slashing the basic level of social-welfare assistance by 25 percent was the indispensable companion-policy to National’s low-wage strategy. No matter how low wages fell, it was absolutely vital that benefits fell lower. Being in work had to be preferable to being on the dole.

Regrettably, the Labour-led government of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen failed to reverse National’s low-wage strategy. Not only did they decline to restore the trade unions to anything like their former strength, but they augmented National’s low-wage strategy by introducing “Working For Families” which was nothing more nor less than a massive wage-subsidy to New Zealand’s worst employers, and yet another structural impediment to New Zealand capitalism improving its overall efficiency and productivity.

The question to be answered now is whether or not the present Labour-NZF-Green Government is willing to take the steps necessary to purge the New Zealand economy of its least efficient employers and force the rest of them to lift their game? Neither John Key nor Bill English were willing to put an end to the rank injustice of a system that kept bad bosses afloat by constantly shrinking their workers’ slice of the pie.

Could Iain Lees-Galloway’s lifting of the minimum wage to $20.00 by 2020 be interpreted as a first step towards solidaristic wage-bargaining?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 June 2018.

Forget the 1970s, Labour’s Fair Pay Agreements will take New Zealand back to the 1890s!

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper? Will Jim Bolger, the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights, be able to transform himself, over the course of the coming months, into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests?

“FAIR PAY AGREEMENTS” (FPA) are the final proof that Labour is evolving backwards into the Liberal Party. Predictably, National’s ignorance of its own country’s history has rendered it incapable of placing this latest example of Labour milksoppery into its proper context. Scott Simpson can witter-on all he likes about Jim Bolger (of whom more later) taking New Zealand back to the 1970s. A much more accurate historical invocation would be the 1890s. Or, if we’re being precise, 1894. That was the year the Liberal Government of Richard John Seddon passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (ICAA) – the true inspiration for Iain Lees-Galloway’s FPAs.

The ICCA empowered the state to bring employers and workers together for the purpose of establishing minimum rates-of-pay and working conditions across whole industries and occupations. If these could not be arrived at by negotiation, then binding arbitration was available from a special Arbitration Court. Crucially, unions and employer associations who submitted their disputes to the Court were forbidden from engaging in strikes or lockouts. These “awards” of the Arbitration Court spelled out the minimum standards workers could expect and prevented the employers’ competitors from initiating a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions.

The parallels with Labour’s proposed FPAs are obvious. What has yet to be established, however, is whether or not the advisory group headed by Bolger will incorporate a twenty-first century equivalent of the Arbitration Court into the new FPA machinery. Without such a mechanism, the negotiation of anything resembling a useful FPA will be next-to-impossible. Strikes and lockouts have already been ruled out of the process, so in the absence of a binding arbitration mechanism, negotiations between employers and unions could be prolonged indefinitely. Or, at the very least, until the National Party is re-elected and the legislation enabling FPAs repealed.

This will be the true test of whether Bolger’s ‘road to Damascus’ conversion: from hard-line anti-union promoter of the Employment Contract’s Act, to conscience-stricken repudiator of neoliberalism and all its works; is genuine. With National’s workplace relations spokesperson, Scott Simpson, on record as promising to repeal all FPA-related legislation, any hopes Labour may have entertained of Bolger inspiring an outbreak of constructive bi-partisanship have already been dashed.

The best the Left can hope for now is that the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights will, over the course of the coming months, transform himself into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 6 June 2018.