Tuesday 16 October 2012

Making Plans

In Stormy Seas: Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman addresses the EPMU's "Jobs Crisis Summit" on Friday, 12 October 2012. The joint decision of NZ First, the Greens and Labour to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the condition of the manufacturing sector was one of the few hopeful outcomes of the union-organised gathering.

THEY CAME TOGETHER in an atmosphere of near panic. Factories were closing their gates and thousands of laid-off workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed.  In the face of global financial catastrophe the political party ostensibly devoted to protecting the interests of working people was in the grip of a peculiar immobilism – unable or unwilling to take resolute action.
A special “Crisis Congress” was convened by the largest of the country’s trade unions to debate a recovery plan devised by three of the labour movement’s leading economists. Entitled “Restructuring the Economy” it called for direct and massive government intervention to mobilise idle resources and get the nation back to work.
To the utter dismay of the trade unions the leading economic spokesperson of the largest left-wing party refused to back the plan.
A few months later that same party suffered a crushing electoral defeat.
This could be a description of recent political developments in just about any country of the developed world. But the story isn’t recent. It happened over eighty years ago in Weimar Germany. The metalworkers’ union’s “Crisis Congress”, at which its radical restructuring plan was presented, took  place in April 1931. Two years later Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialists were in power. By 1938 the Nazi’s own (very similar) programme of “massive government intervention” had practically eliminated unemployment and confirmed Hitler as Germany’s saviour.
LAST FRIDAY, Trevor Bolderson, a coal-miner from the West Coast, rose to his feet and asked: “What are you going to do for my little town of Greymouth?” His question was directed at Winston Peters from NZ First, Russel Norman from The Greens and Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Parker. The venue was the “Jobs Crisis Summit” organised by Mr Bolderson’s trade union, the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). Like the German workers of eighty years ago, he too was looking for salvation.
All he got were evasions and promises.
The assembled politicians would only tell him what he and his workmates already knew. That the lay-offs of Solid Energy’s administrative and mining employees must be understood in the context of the Government’s plans to partially privatise the state-owned energy sector.
No one was willing to give Mr Bolderson an unequivocal commitment to re-opening the Spring Creek Mine. No one spoke of state ownership offering employees and their unions a greater role in managing New Zealand’s energy resources. No one denounced the madness of mothballing a highly productive coal mine and laying-off its highly skilled workers when international demand for its top-grade product is certain to recover as China’s stock-piles dwindle.
That the Greens might be wary of promoting coal-mining is understandable (although someone should ask them if they’re also happy to do without the high-grade steel Spring Creek’s coal makes possible). NZ First could also be forgiven for not being the loudest promoter of state-ownership. But Labour, the party to which Mr Bolderson’s EPMU is affiliated, should have been able to offer something more hopeful than Mr Parker’s declaration that he “could not promise that every mine could be kept open”.
Returning to the West Coast, Mr Bolderson will be able to tell his EPMU brothers and sisters that the three parties represented at the Jobs Crisis Summit have undertaken to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into the manufacturing sector’s problems.
“The crisis in manufacturing is hammering communities from South Auckland to Bluff, from Kawerau to Greymouth”, Labour’s leader, David Shearer, stated in a media release distributed after the Summit. “The future of our country depends on a modern manufacturing sector that creates better jobs and higher wages to keep Kiwis in New Zealand.” This could only be achieved, he suggested, if political parties worked together.
Certainly, the sight of the leaders of the three major Opposition parties all lined up behind the same table is a hopeful sign for New Zealand’s beleaguered working- and middle-class voters. Mr Bolderson, along with the men and women who used to do the forty thousand jobs that the manufacturing sector has shed since 2008, can only benefit from more political co-operation among the National-led Governments’ opponents.
Not so hopeful, however, are the extraordinarily modest demands being advanced by the EPMU. The Union’s national secretary, Bill Newson, listed these as: action to bring down the high New Zealand dollar; a government procurement policy which favours domestic producers; and direct Government support for manufacturing enterprises facing imminent down-sizing or closure. As an experienced union negotiator, Mr Newson must know that modest demands elicit modest responses.
If New Zealand’s labour movement is to fare better than its German counterpart of eighty years ago, then not only must it formulate an equally radical plan for “massive state intervention” and democratic restructuring of our economy, but also ensure that Labour, the peoples party, commits itself, body and soul, to making it happen.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 October 2012.


Kat said...

"LAST FRIDAY, Trevor Bolderson, a coal-miner from the West Coast, rose to his feet and asked: “What are you going to do for my little town of Greymouth?”

A great past American president once said to the people, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".

Chris Trotter said...

So that's Labour's plan is it, Kat?

To offer the voters nothing.

That's what Trevor should tell the folks back in Greymouth: "Labour expects you to do all the work."

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. After all, it was David Parker who told Trevor: “I can't promise that every mine can be kept open.”

So, we can't say we weren't warned.

Anonymous said...

It's unlikely to happen. Your boomer contemporaries won't stand for having their slaves freed.

Matthew Hooton said...

Chris, I know you are big on making a link with current times and the 1930s, but German unemployment in the 1930s was:
1933 26.3 %
1934 14.9 %
1935 11.6 %
1936 8.3 %
1937 4.6 %
1938 2.1 %
New Zealand's current rate is 6.8%, which Germany only got below in 1937 (after, you may say ironically, Hitler abolished the unions). The only countries in the OECD with unemployment above 20% are Greece and Spain. Unemployment in the EU is 10.4% and the US 8.2%.
Also, back in early 1930s Germany there was no welfare system to speak of, any everyone's savings had been destroyed by the previous decade's hyperinflation.
So it does feel like you are getting just a little carried away comparing the current situation in the NZ economy (2.6% economic growth, 1% inflation, 6.8% unemployment) with the situation faced by Germans in the early 1930s, especially with total jobs in the NZ economy having increased not decreased over the last two years (see http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/income-and-work/employment_and_unemployment/HouseholdLabourForceSurvey_HOTPJun12qtr/Tables.aspx )

Dave Kennedy said...

"That the Greens might be wary of promoting coal-mining is understandable (although someone should ask them if they’re also happy to do without the high-grade steel Spring Creek’s coal makes possible)."

Chris, simple research would have found the Greens approach to mining and to represent it otherwise is almost disingenuous. Russel's response to questions regarding coal mining was also well publicized earlier in the year.

While opening new coal mines, especially in sensitive areas, is not supported it is recognized that our dependency on coal for steel manufacture and jobs must be recognized. A transition away from coal is important but you should have alternatives in place before sacking workers as they have on the West Coast.

Here is a link to Kevin Hague speaking out strongly in the house in support of the Spring Creek mine:

Even the Coal Action Network of Aotearoa, which is the strongest group opposing coal mining don't call for the immediate closure of all coal mines: http://coalactionnetworkaotearoa.wordpress.com/about/

Chris Trotter said...

Duly noted, Matthew. I shall adjust the date accordingly.

I would note, however, that the measurement of unemployment in the 1930s was very different from the way we measure it today.

According to the current measurement, somebody working 1 hour per week is counted as being in employment. This practice sharply reduces the apparent seriousness of unemployment - as was intended by those who devised it.

The other factor which makes the figures less than helpful is the role the Australian labour market plays in absorbing workers who would otherwise appear in NZ's unemployment statistics.

The sense of urgency gripping workers and their unions in the manufacturing sector is very real, and all the rosy statistics you have cited cannot mask the fact that if the over-valued exchange rate is not tackled - and soon - the loss of enterprises and employment in this sector will become irretrievable.

guerilla surgeon said...

Dammit Hooton's right. We should reintroduce conscription and invade Australia.

Tiger Mountain said...

Yep, soon there will mainly be dog walkers, lawn mowing rounds, service/aged care workers and greying pizza delivery “boys” as in the USA. Manufacturing has nosedived there too.

More kiwis will be living in garages, with their parents, flatting at 50 or calling a cardboard box home. A way more radical approach is required or we will get a NZ version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” with Mad Max bands roaming around.

Chris is right, so far Australia has soaked up high unemployment here, but so has bravado, alienation and hidden precarious low paid employment. More Hone Harawiras and fight back needed, less mumble mumble please be nice massa from Labour’s suits.

Unknown said...

kystermp Nothing to be offered at present. Who knows what the Nats will do next?

Anonymous said...

"If New Zealand’s labour movement is to fare better than its German counterpart of eighty years ago, then not only must it formulate an equally radical plan for “massive state intervention” and democratic restructuring of our economy, but also ensure that Labour, the peoples party, commits itself, body and soul, to making it happen"


Apparently some sentient beings wandering across this planet bow down and worship two crossed dead sticks. Believing that this act will give them everlasting life.

For such a transformation, they require less faith than the whispering hope of sad mister body and soul.

Kat said...

Chris, I can't comment on what Labours plan is or isn't, however I can comment on my experiences with coasters since I am married to one who hails from Blackball, Bob Semple country. My father in law once worked at the Blackball mine. West Coasters are lovely people. However, mostly, they haven't yet let go of that dig it, mine it, cut it down, flog it, its all about giving us jobs attitude, which can be a lifestyle ball and chain, especially in the 21st century.

My opinion, and its just my opinion, is that the days of sending boys and men underground (or open cast) to dig for coal with all the ensuant dangers and environment hazards, to men and canaries, should be forever consigned to the industrial age waste bin.

Chris Trotter said...

And all that high-grade steel that 21st Century economies rely on, Kat? You know, the material that's made using that black stuff men dig out of the ground? You gonna live without that, too? Is that what you're going to "do for your country"?

peterpeasant said...

The National Party has always been a coalition of "keep Labour out" factions. (We will keep dairy farmers out of it, voting Labour in tough times and voting Labour out in the good times, 1930s to 1950's).

The so called neo con economics has given a phony unity to the National grouping.

The Lange/Douglas years moved Labour well past anywhere National had publicly declared it would go.

I remember Lange crowing how Labour had always been a "radical" party and the Douglas inspired "reforms" were evidence of it.

I remember Prebble "Saving Rail" by selling it to Fay Richwhite.

Labour has, long ago lost any appeal to its original support base.

It is a matter of wonder that Labour mustered the votes it got at the last two elections.

Unless the Labour Party gets over its possum in the headlights stance with neo con economics it is on a losing streak, forever.

Labour continues on its course the rise to 99% will only increase. The middle class are already squirming.

Tim G. said...

CT - can I suggest you have another look at your own editorial policy (left column) before firing back snide and patronising retorts to your readers, especially when they are (perhaps a little earnestly) offering their views (based on their own personal experiences).

Whilst there is a howler on this thread, you seem to be producing them pretty frequently these days. Most readers seem to take it in their stride, evident because they continue to engage with you, but it is pretty cringe-worthy reading.

jh said...

just which workers are we talking about here since John Moore (via Bryce Edwards ) says:
“Both in New Zealand and globally, the best of the leftwing tradition has always rejected small-minded nationalism, xenophobia and racism. In fact, leftists of an internationalist tradition have always favoured globalization and getting rid of national borders and barriers to migration. Progressive advocates of globalization of course do not defend a handful of rich imperialist countries, including New Zealand, dominating the world’s economy, but instead advocate an integrated and radically egalitarian world economy where production is based on social need and not on private profit. ”?

The first thing union members should do is throw eggs at Labour and the Greens.

Herman Daly
Demographers and economists have understandably become reluctant to prescribe birth control to other countries. If a country historically "chooses" many people, low wages, and high inequality over fewer people, higher wages, and less inequality, who is to say that is wrong? Let all make their own choices, since it is they who will have to live with the consequences.
But while that may be a defensible position under internationalization, it is not defensible under globalization. The whole point of an integrated world is that these consequences, both costs of overpopulation and benefits of population control, are externalized to all nations. The costs and benefits of overpopulation under globalization are now distributed by class more than by nation. Labor bears the cost of reduced wage income; capital enjoys the benefit of reduced wage costs. Malthusian and Marxian considerations both seem to foster inequality. The old conflict between Marx and Malthus, always more ideological than logical, has now for practical purposes been further diminished. After all, both always held that wages tend toward subsistence under capitalism. Marx would probably see globalization as one more capitalist strategy to lower wages. Malthus might agree, while arguing that it is the fact of overpopulation that allows the capitalist's strategy to work in the first place. Presumably Marx would accept that, but insist that the overpopulation is only relative to capitalist institutions, not to any limits of nature's bounty, and would not exist under socialism. Malthus would disagree, along with the post-Mao Chinese communists. I confess that my sympathies lean more toward Malthus, and that I lament the recent tendency of the environmental movement to court "political correctness" by soft-pedaling issues of population, migration, and globalization.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't labour and the Greens stick to their knitting (beneficiaries)?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Tim G.

Bowalley Road is an oasis of calm civility compared to the rest of the blogosphere, Tim. Even so, a political blog is no place for the faint-hearted and commentators need to be prepared to get as good as they give.

And if you're calling the abstruse debate between Victor and myself over which of the restored Bourbons had learned least and forgotten most a "howler", then I think you need to take another look at the word's meaning.

And, BTW, when it comes to "snide and patronising", Mr G, quite honestly, I'm in your mighty shadow.

Victor said...

Tim G

We all have corns. Chris has trodden on mine a couple of times and I sometimes appear to have trodden on his.

But I've never felt less than welcome on Bowally Road, during the more than two years that I've been dribbling my wafflings onto it.

The only uncomfortable moments I've had on this site have been with other posters, a couple of whom have felt I had no right to comment, in one case because I'm too old and in the other because I don't share his own particularly partisan and prescriptive views.

But if you can't stand the heat, you stay out of the kitchen!

Meanwhile, Chris, how dare you dismiss our argument over the later Bourbons as 'abstruse'!

I'm deeply hurt.

Chris Trotter said...

My sincere apologies, Victor. Such an insensitive comment when, across dining room tables throughout the land, the culpability of the Bourbons as a whole, versus the particular guilt of Charles X, has been engaging the nation's thinkers in a manner which leaves MSD computer kiosks and GCSB videos in the shade.

Kat said...

Now now Chris, no need to get petulant. Coal mines have killed well over 200 miners in this country over the years, and spewed untold amounts of acid into the surrounding mine terrain. Mining ironsands, the basic ingredient for producing steel does require a percentage of local coal but is far less toxic and doesn't have the high mortality rate of intense coal mining for export.

Chris Trotter said...

Motor vehicles take out that many and more every year, Kat. Are you going to stop driving your car and/or taking the bus?

Kat said...

No, Chris, I intend using my car as much as possible. That goes for flying as well. The sooner the 'peak oil' age is over the better.

I am not sure why your attempting to deflect away from my original comment that West Coasters could serve themselves and the country better if they perhaps advanced somewhat from being permanently locked into pioneering mode and industrial age occupations.

Chris Trotter said...

Because yours is an insensitive and irresponsible position, Kat.

You freely admit to wanting and using all the things a modern industrial civilisation gives you, and yet you scorn the people who make it possible - telling them to do something better with their lives.

The condecension is breath-taking.

Kat said...

Put your sword back in its scabbard Chris, I admitted only to using my car and flying as much as possible. I suggest everyone burns up as much oil as possible, become a proactive contributor to the downfall of the ‘peak oil’ extortionists, let’s get it over with. Are you not tired of being held over a barrel?

I would dearly like to see a progression on from reliance on fossil fuels, and oil companies in my lifetime. We do not need coal, a 19th century technology, to power our 21st century world. Coal is a major contributor to climate change, is a leading cause of mercury pollution, and the scarring of mining communities. We have renewable energy technologies available now, in the ‘modern industrial age’. That is the basis I recommend West Coasters explore other more sustainable and healthy occupations.

Was that a typo or did you mean ‘condescension’, perhaps the energy gods are trying to communicate something!