Wednesday 29 February 2012

Equal and Opposite

Naive: Auckland Mayor, Len Brown, must surely have understood that his action in demanding a doubling of the Port of Auckland's return on capital would produce an equal and opposite reaction from the Maritime Unions. Those behind the current employer onslaught should be under no illusion that if they go on pushing workers - workers will push back.

THE AFFCO CEO, Hamish Simpson, said it all: “It’s a fundamental test of the right to manage.”

What we see unfolding in North Island freezing works and on the Auckland wharves is a naked bid for unbridled employer power. The Ports of Auckland and AFFCO have made it clear, they will settle for nothing less than the full restoration of managerial prerogatives. They’re demanding the “right to manage” without let or hindrance; and that goal can only be achieved by the complete emasculation – or outright destruction – of their on-site unions.

AFFCO’s use of the lockout is the most brutal manifestation, to date, of the current employer onslaught. The contempt it displays for the company’s workers and their families is breath-taking. These are seasonal labourers, many of whom rely upon the money earned over a few months to carry themselves and their families through the rest of the year. Smoothed-out over twelve months, their pay is not spectacular. By denying its employees a weekly pay-check, AFFCO is openly declaring its intention to drive these families into poverty and starve them into submission.

It’s class war – pure and simple. It will not, however, be presented as such. Just switch on any radio and you will hear the soft, soapy sound of middle-class journalists washing their hands of all responsibility for calling these events by their true name. To hear them talk, the AFFCO bosses are only trying to advance their shareholders’ interests.

According to the bourgeois journalist’s view of economic relationships, your job doesn’t really belong to you, it belongs to the boss – and it is what he says it is. If you don’t like it – quit. Put simply, workers don’t own their jobs: either individually or collectively. The claim that workers – through their unions – are striking “in defence” of their jobs cuts little ice with this sort of journalist. How can somebody “defend” something that was never theirs?

What the bourgeois journalist cannot deny, however, is that workers still own their own labour. Brain and muscle power are still up for sale, and the boss is buying. Naturally, he’s anxious to purchase workers’ labour power on terms most favourable to himself. This he achieves by requiring workers to bargain with him one at a time. That way he can tell individual job-seekers to either take it, or leave it.

Collective bargaining, by contrast, sets out to establish a common price for a specific kind of labour. When successful it gives workers a significant measure of control over the jobs their bosses need them to do. Through collective bargaining they can determine both the job’s price and the conditions under which it is performed. By forming a union they give themselves the power to grab a share of the business’s profits that would otherwise be distributed among the shareholders, and distribute it among themselves.

Small wonder, then, that capitalists hate unions. By lifting workers’ wages above bare subsistence level (as the Maritime Unions have done on the Auckland wharves) the trade union reduces the size of the shareholders’ dividend. And since maximising the return to shareholders is the prime function of every business, it is hardly surprising that keeping unions out of the workplace ranks high on most boss’s list of priorities.

And if the shareholders have instructed the boss to double the business’s return on capital? What then? If we’re talking about a unionised business, then the boss’s most obvious course of action is surely to drive the union out. This is is exactly what POAL Boss, Tony Gibson, is attempting to do. The Auckland City Council (led by the allegedly left-leaning, Len Brown) has demanded that POAL double its rate of return on capital from 6 to 12 percent. If not in the wage-packets of its workers, where does Mayor Brown suggest POAL go looking for such an impossibly high rate of return? In demanding 12 percent, the City Council has effectively mandated the deunionisation of Auckland’s wharves.

Left-wing voters would do well to remember this next year when the so-called “Independent”, Len Brown, asks them for a second term. Or, perhaps they'll decide to run their own candidate in 2013? Maybe the wharfie’s son, Mike Lee?

It would serve Len Brown right for being so naïve. For seriously believing that the action of attacking the Maritime Unions would not generate an equal and opposite reaction.

Because Newton’s Law doesn’t just apply to physics, it applies to politics as well. Working people have never willingly submitted to wage slavery and there is no reason to believe that this generation is one whit more inclined than its predecessors to let employers drive down their incomes to subsistence levels.

Let the bosses and their parties take heed. If their temporary possession of the Treasury benches encourages them to re-draw the law to their own advantage, then what is to stop a party dedicated to the workers’ interest from doing the same? Push working people too hard and they will push back. Rewrite the employment laws for the purposes of restoring an uncontested “right to manage”, and a time will come when those same laws will be rewritten to restore the workers’ right to union protection.

Indeed, the more generously this government empowers the employers; the more openly it incites its friends to take-on the unions; the easier it will be for the next government to introduce legislation providing for universal union membership, compulsory arbitration and national awards.

An employment relations regime based on those three institutions remained intact from 1937 until 1991 – more than fifty years. How long the next regime lasts is entirely in the bosses’ hands. An equal and opposite reaction to the sort of things they’re doing now will give working people the upper hand for a very long time indeed.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Mark G said...

Dream on Chris. Pining for some socialist utopia is not going to make it happen. Decades have passed since anyone believed the unions weren't just self serving bullies. These days if you do a job where you are instructed by boss, he will always find the cheapest person who will accept the instructions. Is global reality. There is never going to be a real wage in these tasks again. That's why the unions have to change. They need to become relevant, be leaders, be educators, be the go-to guys for all things employment. They aren't and they will die.

Mark Wilson said...

Oh yes please -
"the easier it will be for the next government to introduce legislation providing for universal union membership, compulsory arbitration and national awards"
I never thought ! would see a 20 year reign by the right but that would do it.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

A truly awful article.

Shareholders, management, employees, customers and suppliers are all 'stake holders' in any business.

In a sensible world, the market determines the rates employers pay for labour, usually based around the skill and availability of employees.

This is the same market that determines the value that customers are prepared to pay for the employers goods and services.

In short, both the Employer and Employee are subject to the dictates of the market.

If we are seeking just solutions, why should employees be exempt from the market pressures that exist for the employer?

Did you know that employers cannot collectivize to drive up the cost of goods and services in order to improve their profits to the disadvantage of customers?

The commerce commission expressly forbids this behavior.

Therefore, why should employees be able to collectivize in order to drive up the cost of labour for the employer, especially when they are not able to pass on those additional costs?

Like it or not, the relationship between employers and employees is one of mutual interdependence. Neither can achieve their economic goals without the good will and cooperation of the other.

If an employee believes they are undervalued, they can take their skills elsewhere. This is what customers do if they believe they are not getting fair value from any business.

Employees don't own their jobs any more than Employers own their customers.

Now can we all please get back to work?

Galeandra said...

Lord spare me from the 'sensible world' of Brendan and his fellow nitwits.
Wherever I go I see poor drudges who have to cater to the petty materialistic whims of 24/7 shoppers and consumers.
It's such a comfort to know that their minimum-waged non-penal-rated incomes are on a par with their third-world brothers and sisters who struggle to survive in this globalised Eden. Heaven forbid that we should fall behind in this Friedmanist race to the bottom.
Lawdy, next thing we know they'll be a-wanting time off work to mind sick chilluns or to vote.

mel said...

Ha - I thought it was April Fools day when I read these three comments to your erudite and compelling article..

Stating that:

"In a sensible world the market determines the value that customers are prepared to pay for goods"

Does not make it true!!!

The 'free' market has never been free. It has generally been cornered by a few greedy and unscrupulous people who take most of the profits of other people's labour for themselves.

You only have to look at the child mining issues in countries like Bolivia and child labour in India etc to see the perils of such 'free' markets operating. Free for the rich and 'death' for the poor!

To argue otherwise is to ignore the evidence from these countries and increasingly our own - which now has a larger and larger underclass, expanding exponentially with each neo-liberal reform.

As a society we are a collective. Employers and businesses do not operate in a vacuum. Customers are workers too.

It is time for a FAIR market for all and a society that looks after each other. The selfish morally corrupt views of those FEW people on the extreme right are being increasingly viewed for what they are - self-serving, lacking in moral integrity and devoid of any form of community spirit.

joe bloggs said...

By lifting workers’ wages above bare subsistence level (as the Maritime Unions have done on the Auckland wharves)...

That's really rich of you Chris.

The median income earned by NZers 15 and over is $34,600 a year.

The mean income earned by POAL union members is $91,000 a year.

Putting to one side a comparison between median and mean incomes, the union members at POAL earn 2.6 times the typical worker in NZ.

Technically that's above bare subsistence levels - but technically that also qualifies port workers as "rich pricks" under the unpublished and informal Labour Party criteria.

You're as out of touch as Garry Parsloe

Chris Trotter said...

Fascinating, isn't it, that CEOs can earn upwards of $500,000 p.a. and that's just the market finding its level. But, let a group of workers secure a healthy annual income for themselves and their families, and all Hell breaks loose.

What it shows is that, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, workers should never be permitted to earn more than an income just sufficient to prevent them and their families from falling into abject poverty.

Class war - pure and simple.

Than said...

It is nothing to do with class war.

The unfortunate reality is that what a worker has to pay to buy something is (in large part) determined by what some other worker is paid as a wage.

Simple example, the distribution workers strike from a couple of years ago, which ended with the workers getting a wage rise. Do you honestly believe Progessive Enterprises would have simply accepted a reduction in their bottom line, or would they have put up the price of bread and milk? The union got its wage rise, but it was paid for by every other worker through their grocery bill.

Chris Trotter said...

By that logic, Than, the proper course of action would be to pay all workers (including CEOs) the same amount.

Than said...

And if you can find some realistic way to achieve this (which would have to be implemented globally) I'd be all for it. But unions don't do anything to redress the balance between workers and CEOs. They help unionised workers at the expense of non-unionised workers, nothing more.

Chris Trotter said...

So, once again, Than, the logic would suggest legislation requiring all workers to join a trade union (allowing always for those with genuine conscientious objections, which would not, of course, include Libertarians or Objectivists, who clealy do not possess a conscience).

joe bloggs said...

Class war be damned - the stevedores earn twice what I earn.

Chris you know full well that overpriced and underperforming CEO can be flicked off by the board at the drop of a hat.

The stevedores are privileged, protected and earn a poultice of money for half the hours you and I work. They are certainly not ragged trousered philanthropists, yet you seem intent on painting them in taht likeness - you're a hundred years out of touch on that count ...

Than said...

If you could get absolutely everybody (globally) to join a union, and if everybody across all these unions (labourers, CEOs, and also doctors and police) agreed to be paid the same (regardless of their skills, or any dangers or inconveniences their job imposes) ...then yes. But this doesn't seem to meet the 'realistic' requirement.

guerilla surgeon said...

Here's an example of self serving bullies and why we need unions.

Chris Trotter said...

Whooeee! Talk about the politics of envy!

Those guys down on the wharves earn twice what I make - and good luck to 'em!

It's not that they're paid too much, it's that I'm paid too damn little.

Grow some balls you whiney little sooks and organise yourselves!

Anonymous said...

Standing ovation, Chris. Finally someone saying what the gutless Labour party should have been saying at election time.

Funny how 'The Market' is a jealous and wrathful God when workers want a living wage and yet so tender and rewarding when it comes to continued corporate salary fluffing and absolving the faults of the finance sector, whose actions have plunged the world into social and political conditions similar to the aftermath of defeat in a world war.

If Labour refuses to budge on its identity-politics-embellished interventionist-tinkering neoliberalism I'm sure there's enough actual socialists could pop out of the woodwork and register a party worth voting for.

AnonWgtn said...

Try getting another job having been a CEO for say 5 years, and not getting the results the stakehoders require.
Almost not possible to get any job, even middle management. I know.

Anonymous said...

Chris, as much as I enjoy your blogs, como 101 died some years ago (but clearly not at Dunedin Uni). Class war nostalgia is just that – remember, when Lenin came to power after manipulating the masses to do his dirty work, he turned on them, and cancelled the promised worker particaption to run the factories and stopped all elections and went about liquidating all that opposed him - Trotsky.
Who remembers the Ferry’s always going on strike (running out of their favourite ice cream) every Christmas imposing their will upon everyone as an elite worker class – would you have NZ return to the bad old days?
George Orwell got it right when he wrote the Animal Farm, exposing how corrupt this system was. Give me capitalism any day.

Chris Trotter said...

Dear Lord - give me strength!

Don't worry about Communism 101, Anonymous, as a simple Labour man, and a good Keynesian, I never bothered with it. I would, however, recommend that you give History 101 a try!

And it sounds to me, AnonWgtn, that what you CEOs need is a good union!

Anonymous said...

I was not aware, anonymous, that Trotsky was Lenins' opponent.

Either you know f all about history or you have been reading some weird Stalinist blogs.

Given that your ignorance betrays a total lack of curiosity about your enemies, I'd say you know f all about history.

thor42 said...

It's easy to describe the future of the unions - they *have* no future.

It's a case of "once bitten, twice shy". If anyone seriously believes that New Zealanders want a return to the 70s and 80s - the Cook Strait ferry strikes, the BNZ centre lying unfinished while the boilermakers were on strike - they need their head read.

Those days are gone, and good riddance to them.

Given the incidents I mentioned above (which many New Zealanders still remember vividly), the unions have no-one to blame but themselves for their slide downhill towards irrelevance.
MUNZ are doing NZ a great favour by reminding us all what things used to be like.

Anonymous said...

Many a myth is being furthers by commentors here.

The stakeholder myth where supposedly everybody is a stakeholder, but only the workers get to do the hard work of producing value. Yet the same workers are not entitled to a fair share of that value.

The market myth - the one where we as humans have no power to determine the nature of the economic relationships between each other.

The stupid persons myth that the cost of increasing wages must necessarily be passed on to other workers as consumers and that its not possible to reduce the rate of return to shareholders to cover that cost.

The end of history myth where time is frozen so its no use dreaming of a better world because everything is predetermined to be exactly as it is.

I also notice someone dragging out the bullshit that was enshrined in law through the 18th and 19th century that it is anti competitive for workers to combine their bargaining power. This was used to keep unions illegal for a long time.

The funny thing was once unions were formed a whole bunch of things that had previously been impossible, like an eight hour day, health and safety legislation, ending child labour etc ceased to be so.

And why do right wingers insist that when CEOs get paid a fortune its because of their unique and special skills and the hard work they do but if anybody else gets more than a minimum they are overpaid lazy bludgers?

Beef Farmer said...

Chris what everyone is missing with the AFFCo dispute is the "end game". It will not be just the workers who are screwed but also the suppliers - farmers. At various times during the year there is a shortage of animals for processing and the meat companies pay a premium - because they have to keep paying staff wages. Meat farming is already uneconomic and the current relatively better prices are a reflection of the shortage. Now if the meat companies can simply send the staff home that then gives them the leverage to force prices paid to farmers down. Prices paid to farmers vary by the week and sometimes the day, have almost nothing to do with world prices but are directly corelated to the weather. AFFCO in readyness for the lockout of the workers dropped the price to farmers by over 60c a kg in a matter of three weeks (that's at least $150 per animal and when you send 20 that really hurts). So when AFFCO gets that "flexability" to send workers home without pay at a moment's notice enabling them to pay the lowest possible price for animals then someone in agriculture might take notice. Older farmers remember being held to ransom by meat workers thirty years ago so they are sitting by smiling as the workers are screwed. It won't be long until it is there turn. The practices prevailing in the meat industry are a disgrace and those who hold out dairy as the "shining light" should reflect on the sweatshop conditions that prevail on dairy farms. Who would work 21 days, 60 hours a week to then get 2 days off before starting another 21 days on?? Dairy farmers are benefitting from worker exploitation adn if they had to pay proper wages and a forty hour week to their workers they might not be quite so smug.

pclarebu said...

These sorts of things seem to come in cycles – certainly it is not so good for the employees at the moment as there are more people wanting jobs than jobs to go around– equally at other times it is not so good for the employer when there are more jobs needing doing than suitable/skilled people to fill them.
Society has undergone massive technological change in the last 30 years, which has had major impact at all levels of company, community and country and the whole world. It impacts on every job we do, every service we use, every business we create or adapt.
This rapid change will cause problems and we are seeing these in these sorts of disputes.
We have had them before – I am sure we will have them again and the power will change to and fro between the employee and the employer. In these times it is not only employees that need to re-invent themselves and the way they sell their labour, also companies need to reinvent themselves to the continual rapid change. Look at what is happening to books, pictures (Kodak) etc. I personally adjust how and where I sell my labour every year, some years I do better than others. Is it a class war? Well if it is, it is a war without end – part of species specialisation I expect.

Anonymous said...

I never thought I would say it Chris, but my apologies it was Stalin who authorised Trotsky’s death, not Lenin. However, the point was Totalitarian political systems are horribly corrupt. And for those who call for class revolution should take some time and go live in North Korea, or read biographies of Mao Tse Tung, and see how they and their cronies lived in luxury while millions staved. Is this the class revolution NZ needs – I think not?

PD said...

I grew up in the 70s and well remember the union blackmail of that time, there was something or other on strike every week, Cook Strait Ferries on strike often, sympathy strikes etc, the unions hugely abused the monopoly power they had. When the ECA came along it was a huge shift away from this climate. The Labour Party came along in 1999 with parts of their legislation so extreme it lead to the winter of discontent so they shelved parts of it. Four or five years later they quietly reintroduced the shelved provisions and rammed them through Parliament without any regard of the public's views. Like the bit that says a union can demand a collective contract as of right. I've always worked on individual contracts because the union in our industry is a political mouthpiece for the Labour Party and is also rabidly opposed to private provision in our sector, education. They are not getting my money to meddle in our workplace. PD

Shona said...

i grew up in the 60's and 70's and remember being paid an averrage wage that enabled me to pay rent, have a landline phone, save,pay all my bills, afford a doctor, run a car and feed myself.The so called eyesore of the BNZ strike in Wgtn was nothing compared to the barbarism of the 80's when shit quality buildings were erected all over Auckland and leaky ones at that, thanks to wonderful, marvellous deregulation and deunionised untrained workforces and unscrupulous building contractors.
The ECA had been a disaster for working people in NZ . We have gone backwards socially culturally, intellectually, and materially since the the Douglas reforms. Thank god for Australia. Smart kiwis work there, heavily unionised ya know.