Monday, 9 March 2009

The New Worker

Welcome to my air-conditioned, computer keyboard nightmare!

A SPECTRE is haunting the factories, shops and offices of the 21st Century. It is the spectre of the "New Worker". That, at least, is what "Xchequer", writing at his new blogsite, ‘NZ Home Office’, would have us believe.

Is he right? Has a new generation of workers, raised entirely under the economic, industrial and cultural sway of Neo-Liberal Capitalism, been irreversibly inoculated against the ideological viruses of the 19th and 20th Centuries? Is the rising generation of "New Workers" therefore "immune" to all kinds of left-wing industrial and political organising?

In defence of his thesis, Xchequer provides a vivid description of his 14-year-old niece – a member of what is now being called "Gen-Y Neo" – whose cellphone "appears to be hardwired to her fingers". Xchequer’s young relative is said to live in a world where "the Ipod is king, consumerism is rampant and communication is on a scale never seen before."

"We are", he says, "moving to a more knowledge-based economy that means more and more people are moving from the factory floor or the waterfront to the air-conditioned office and the computer keyboard."

Xchequer’s argument: that there is now "little room for the old stereotype of the militant socialist – or even the vociferous one" is, as any student of modern politics knows, very far from being original. Indeed, it has been asserted many times in the half-century which has elapsed since the end of World War II. The most famous example being the American sociologist’s, Daniel Bell’s, singularly ill-timed book The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties – which was published in 1960, just in time for one of the most tumultuous and politically engaged decades of the 20th Century.

It is one of the abiding dreams of the middle-class "progressive" – epitomised by such figures as H.G. Wells and James Burnham – that technology will rescue society from the class struggle, and that, ultimately, a new class of wise and ideologically disinterested scientists and technocrats will obviate the need for the grubby business of politics altogether.

Xchequer is, however, on much firmer ground when he argues that dramatic changes in the composition of the NZ workforce have had a profound impact on trade union organisation.

Unionisation was a relatively straight-forward proposition for the hundreds of unskilled and semi-skilled workers concentrated in the freezing works and import substitution manufacturing plants that characterised the industrial landscape of New Zealand from the 1930s to the early 1980s. For a generation whose experience of military regimentation, and the intense emotions associated with wartime solidarity and sacrifice had been formative, the mass-membership, intensely masculine, top-down unionisation of the 50s and 60s seemed perfectly natural. And while Xchequer’s "say-with-my-fists-what-my-mouth-can’t" is an entirely ahistorical slur on the highly articulate and intellectually rigorous NZ Watersider Workers Union, it is, nevertheless, true to say that a generation of men who had lived through the organised violence of total war, would likely find the prospect of organising resistance against the forces of the State a lot less intimidating than the unionists of today.

The generation which moved into the NZ workforce from the mid-1960s to the mid-80s – the "Baby-Boom Generation" – turned out to be much less comfortable with the organisational style of the trade unions their fathers and grandfathers had built. Thanks to the full-employment economy mandated by Keynesian economics, and Peter Fraser’s education reforms of the 30s and 40s, it was a much less regimented and increasingly adventurous working-class that began to fill the nation’s freezing works and factories. A generation which, as Otago political scientist, Brian Roper’s, research attests, in the 20-year period between 1966 and 1986, racked-up the greatest number of man-hours lost to strikes in New Zealand history. More self-actualising than their father’s generation, these men (and it was mainly men) chafed under what they saw as the timid, Cold War-influenced leadership of the trade union movement. Had the political trajectory of this new breed of working-class trade union activist not been interrupted, the shape of the 1980s and 90s might have been very different.

But, it was interrupted – decisively – by the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution of the mid-1980s. The "reforming" of the trade unions was led, significantly, by a former president of the PSA, the Labour Minister, Stan Rodger, who was ably assisted by a bevy of middle-class university graduates in the Department of Labour. Under the guise of "professionalisation", New Zealand’s unions were significantly enlarged and restructured along the lines of the new managerialism – whose hard-nosed apostles were at that time transforming working environments across the nation. The culmination of Rodger’s programme came when the Federation of Labour (FOL) – based on a fiercely independent and democratic network of trades councils – was merged with the Combined State-Sector Unions to form the dangerously oligarchic Council of Trade Unions (CTU).

The influx of tens-of-thousands of middle-class state-sector workers (most of them female) which the creation of the CTU made possible, decisively diluted and demobilised the militant (mostly male) unions which had driven the FOL's "wage-push" of the 1970s and early-80s. This feminisation of the union movement was, of course, no more than a reflection of the feminisation of the wider workforce. Thanks to the "stagflation" of the 1970s, the wages of a "working man" were no longer sufficient to support a nuclear family, and tens-of-thousands of women were required to take up part-time or full-time employment. Statistically much less likely than men to participate in a trade union, let-alone engage in industrial action, women, by entering the paid workforce in such large numbers, constituted a huge boon to an employing class under pressure.

The demobilising effect of growing female participation in the paid workforce was intensified by the aggressively anti-male character of neo-liberal economic restructuring. Overwhelmingly, it was in the male-dominated sectors of the economy that "Rogernomics" wreaked the most havoc: the railways, the forest service, the freezing industry, the car-assembly plants and across the whole import-substitution sector, scores-of-thousands of male, blue-collar workers were laid-off. Where alternative employment opportunities existed at all for these adult job-seekers, it was mostly concentrated in the service sector, where unionisation was weak and their prime competitors were young people and women.

Bill Birch’s Employment Contracts Act placed the seal upon the destruction of the male-dominated, blue-collar, private-sector trade unions. Though ready and willing to fight Birch, what remained of the militant union movement was over-ruled by an unbeatable combination of middle-class, public-sector, highly-paid, trade union officials wielding the "card votes" of hundreds-of-thousands of unconsulted members.

It was a debacle from which trade unionism in New Zealand has never recovered. Throughout the 1990s less than 10 percent of the private-sector workforce retained their membership of a trade union. Huge numbers of white working-class, Maori and Pasifika males, stripped of the dignity of paid employment, and the pride that comes with the ability to provide for one’s family, sank into a morass of alcohol, drugs, petty-crime and criminal gangs. Their abandoned offspring, raised in deep poverty by their similarly abandoned mothers, have ensured that the tragedies of the 1980s and 90s are now intergenerational.

Its ingrained antipathy, and the key role it played in undermining working-class autonomy notwithstanding, the middle-class, itself, did not escape unscathed from the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution. The introduction of user-pays tertiary education enmeshed the Baby-Boomers’ children in a nexus of debt and enforced adolescence that reduced them to the status of glorified indentured servants for up to half of their adult working lives. New Zealand’s once internationally highly-regarded universities were, of course, corrupted in the process. What little academic rigor remains after a decade-long trend toward qualification inflation, is now being slowly eaten away by the need to keep the professors’ paying customers satisfied.

And so we return to the "New Worker": that unfortunate creation of the Baby Boom Generation - and principal victim of its failure to successfully confront and beat back the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution.

For those who fail to make it through the turnstiles of our tertiary education institutions, the fast-food kitchens, shop-counters, and call-centres of the service sector lie in wait. While for those who do manage to secure a tertiary qualification (and its related debt-burden) there are the "air-conditioned offices" (a.k.a "feeding stalls") and "computer keyboards" of the vast public and private sector bureaucracies that Xchequer so enthusiastically extols.

Ninety-percent of them will remain non-union-members all their working lives: miserably unaware that they are putting in longer hours for less money (in real terms) than their parents earned at the same age; and that the many support services and institutions which made sure their mums and dads were decently housed, and properly protected from the vicissitudes of ill-health and economic dislocation, have either been, or are in the process of being, stripped away from them.

Beguiled by the technological glitter of Ipods, text-messaging, Bebo and Twitter, and reassured by their bosses that they are History’s most "connected" generation, they've been persuaded that – somehow – all of these gadgets add up to a better life. But they do not know what they do not know: that they have been cheated, ripped-off, short-changed and dumbed-down to the point where they no longer have a secure purchase on what constitutes ethical conduct, and the very integrity of their innermost selves is being digitally eroded. Knowing nothing of the past, they cannot even begin to guess what is rising up ahead of them as their future. A vast tsunami of economic devastation, followed by a sequence of global climate changes that will leave them, and their bewildered children, reeling.

Only socialism can save them. Unfortunately, 99 percent of them don't even know what the word means.


Pdogge said...

Excellent post Chris, and before the blue and purple tinged trolls get here,It is unarguable that Socialism is the only just and equitable path forward in what appears to be a nightmare coming. I wont hold my breath for too much agreement though.

XChequer said...

Nice post, Chris. Can't say that I'm extolling the feeding stalls - there is something so "1984" about the concept.

Pdogge said "It is unarguable that Socialism is the only just and equitable path forward in what appears to be a nightmare coming".

Why is it unarguable?


Pdogge said...

@ XChequer Perhaps not exactly the right choice of word but meaning for me that I know no other way for an equitable society dealing justly for the people and the environment we live in. The alternative...the anarchism of what we have that will probably destroy us.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing is I organise young workers through facebook, texting and other "technological glitter" all the time and they have more solidarity and fight than a lot of older union members. I think that's because they have all the information and autonomy they need to participate in real industrial democracy. If you approach it with an organising perspective the immense connection of social networking devices can really flatten the traditional hierarchical union model and deliver the power back into the hands of union members. A facebook group forum is a much more democratic space than a union meeting was in 1982.

You shouldn't fall into the trap of bashing the young just because you don't spend much time with them Chris. That's how people become reactionary old farts and I know you're not one of them.

Anonymous said...

Great Post Chris, will now email this to all my offspring. And discuss it later in the week when the family meets.
anonymous above is quite correct the new technology is an effective organising tool,getting the younger generation to learn their history now that's a whole other ball game.

Anonymous said...

Chris, youth do understand socialism more than we give them credit for. They might not realise or understand the theoretical side but they do demonstrate levels of concern and communal / collective action that is the basis of practical socialism, as demonstrated by their level of activity on environmental causes. All is not lost.

What is missing is a broad collective alliance against corporate capitalism such as the NPA that was recently launched by Besancenot, a postman in France. Vacuums have a habit of filling up.

Anonymous said...

Chris, youth do understand socialism more than we give them credit for.

Yes we do - and we attribute adherence to it to an educational failure; it's an ideology that appeals to those from previous generations, generations that lacked adequate access to information and suffered from poor education.

We can look around us and see the results of a slavish devotion to communism. The devastation wrought by the fifth Labour government is painfully apparent, every day.

We can compare our lifestyles and living standards to our peers in other countries and do so, enviously. The inescapable conclusion is that the communists have wrecked our country.

The responsibility of our generation is to ensure that the communists never again hold office. The responsibility of yours is to see that those who've just been removed from office are held to account for their crimes.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you have just proven me wrong. If your understanding of socialism as demonstrated by your post is representative of the young then I hang my head in shame and apologise.

That the 5th Labour government was remotely socialist I would question, no visible devastation is apparent, and crimes to account for?????

I can agree with anonymous that there is an educational failure, how else could such ignorance of alternatives to such extreme ideologies such as communism and free market monetarism be explained?

Anonymous said...

Chris you are indeed a ruminating old NZer.
You romanticise the Old worker when they were suckered into delusions about NZ as a classless, raceless utopia.
The New Workers have the advantage of a capitalism that is visibly rotting from the inside. The contradictions are bared like bones. The tools of capitalisms gravediggers are not spades but the SMS, the RSS.

Steve Withers said...

I know some "new workers". They are deeply cynical and very unmotivated. Why should they lift a finger for bosses they would sack then in a half a heartbeat?

Fear? This is these are the "F*** You" workers. They don't have mortgages yet and now the crash is opening a few eyes.....why one earth would they ever want a mortgage? It's a boat anchor around one's neck in bad times. You can't save any money because you're always feeding the bank.

"New Workers"....the law of unintended consequences seems to be breeding a new generation of naturally-arising socialists.