Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Photograph Taken On Labour Day

Labour Day, Dunedin, 1894: As the unions mass in what is now Dunedin's Queen's Gardens, a mother leans forward to tell her children about the meaning of Labour Day. What would a mother tell her children about "the cause of labour" in 2013? That it died in 1991? Or, that it will be reborn in 2014?
WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE were they, this mother and her children? The photograph is dated Labour Day, 1894. The little family stands in a dog cart, watching, while across the dusty roadway several hundred unionists, their bright banners billowing against the regular lines of the city’s commercial hub, muster for their grand procession. The strict Victorian civility of the scene cannot mask the underlying political context: Labour versus Capital. How did that mother convey Labour Day’s meaning to her children on that overcast morning in October, 109 years ago?
Perhaps her husband, the children’s father, was among the union throng. He may have helped to build one of the many floats about to make their way up the city’s main street. Most of the trades were represented: carpenters, butchers, bakers; their carts festooned with the all the paraphernalia of their occupation. The bakers have loaded up great barrels of flour. On the cart’s sideboards a painted banner proclaims: “Peace and Plenty”.
The connections were clearer then. When work lay at the very heart of the human experience, and when the correspondence between the condition of labour and the condition of the community was obvious and indisputable. Without the carpenters, stonemasons and glaziers there would be no city to live in. Without the butchers and the bakers, no meat and no bread.
In the minds of the nineteenth century working-classes, mere ownership did not constitute the be-all and end-all of social significance. A factory without workers was an empty and expensive shell. The butchery or bakery, without butchers or bakers, had nothing to sell. Capital without Labour was a ledger entry – nothing more.
And perhaps that brute fact was easier to see in the colonies than in the Old Country. The churches and the town halls of nineteenth century New Zealand and Australia (and the rapidly growing states of the American West) may have looked as though they had stood above their Squares and Octagons for centuries, but the colonists knew better. The men and women who had built Christchurch, Dunedin, Melbourne, Adelaide and Chicago, all understood that the great settler cities which had exploded out of the raw landscapes of imperial ambition were overwhelmingly and unquestionably collective enterprises. Capital and Labour had arrived together: neither lived but by the efforts of the other.
It’s what the carpenter, Sam Parnell, had grasped the moment his feet touched the Petone foreshore in 1840. That this was a new land, with new rules, where the expectations of the masters back in England would be subject to radical revision. Here, the worker would labour for eight of the day’s 24 hours. Eight more would be for his rest. And the remaining eight would be for himself and his family. If the masters wanted or needed more than eight hours, then they would be obliged to pay their employees a handsome premium for the “over-time”.
Perhaps this was the grand old tale that the mother in the photograph told her children as they watched the Labour Day procession form up on that October morning long ago.
Newer stories, too, she’d have to tell. About how the Reverend Rutherford Waddell had preached against “The Sin of Cheapness”, exposing the sweated labour of the seamstresses, and how, from the resulting public outrage, the Tailoresses’ Union had been born. Of the Great Maritime Strike of 1890, she would have spoken. Of how the seafarers, the watersiders and the coal miners came together on 28 October 1889 to form the Maritime Council (New Zealand’s first effective union combination). She would have told her children how, though the nationwide strike was broken, the cause of labour did not falter: for in that same year the Liberals were swept to power on the votes of working men. And re-elected, she would have added, her eyes shining with pride, on the votes of working women. And of how the Liberal Government, earlier that very year, had passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act – which would, on New Year’s Day, make the workers of New Zealand the envy of workers all the world around.
That woman’s children would, of course, live to see the great wave of social progress in which their parents participated rolled back upon the rocky reefs of war and economic catastrophe. The millennial dreams of their mother’s and father’s generation would not be realised, but the unrelenting push of the unions would achieve many of their most cherished objectives. The Welfare State and the 40-hour week would both become law when Labour finally took up the reins of government in its own name in 1935.
So what, if anything, should mothers tell their children about the meaning of Labour Day in 2013? That dreams, like photographs, can fade? Or that history, like spring, reminds us what hope is for?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 October 2013.


jh said...

But things have changed: developed countries struggle with growth and migrants flood from poor and over crowded countries wanting the conditions existing in the west. The socialists (eyes glazed) say welcome.
And the ligatures of the community of workers have been destroyed by a mass media under the control of elites.

But one day there will be a revolution and redistribution so wages in the poor countires will rise from 5c to 10c and workers in the west will drop to 10c (there won't be a west. Elites will still have good jobs and cheap servants.

jh said...

Manufacturing jobs wont come back as (cant find the article but) the chocolate fish factory employed 20,000 in 1980 but the new modern one only employs 120.

Smoking Gun Quote on the Medias position of influence (leaving aside their wisdom(/world view) or otherwise):

As with debates about biculturalism, the media play a critical role in determining the nature of public discussion and private/public understanding. Along with certain institutions, especially the education system, the media provide one of the most
important, and possibly the most important, point of contact. The media, in all its diverse forms – print, radio, television, electronic – is a key institution in the creation and distribution of images and messages about our community(ies). Those significant others in our community, in the absence of in-depth personal contact or experience, will be described and explained to us via the media.


as far as I can tell sociologists are at odds with evolutionary psychologists.

Davo Stevens said...

Yes jh things have changed but for the better??

Billyboy English has made no secret of wanting NZ to become a Low Wage economy. That is fine as long as the Govt. sorts out the expensive cost of living here. Anyone with a few grey cells knows that no-one can live on $100.00/wk when the rent they pay is $300.00/wk.

Why do you think that Portly Paula is forcing beneficiaries out to get jobs that don't exist? Why do you think that the Govt. has been "watering down" working conditions? Could it be that they want workers to accept less?

We can transfer any amount of money anywhere in the world but we can't transfer labour so, while our funds go off overseas the people here are trapped. That is a serious anomaly that needs serious addressing and until it is addressed there will be economic refugees.

The constant snide remarks about "Socialists" are tiresome and serve no useful purpose unless you come up with something better that works for all not just an elite few.

Remember that "Trickle Down" simply means that some rich prick is pissing on your shoes.

Anonymous said...

One problem with trying to raise awareness in modern day society of the importance of labour, the labour movement and the value of labour that deserves fair pay and good working conditions is, that we as consumers are no longer very much face to face with the producers of the goods and services we consume daily.

The closest most come to the "labour" involved in making, transporting and selling things is to face off with the checkout operator at the supermarket, a sales assistant in a hardware store, or whatever service and sale staff in other retail and wholesale outlets.

In the modern industrialised society, where technology is sophisticated and used to mass produce, where much is also no longer produced here where it is consumed, but in cheap labour, low standards contries, where true exploitation is still rampant, we have a problem to mobilise people.

Only so many people work and "sweat" here by building houses, fixing cars in garages, working in factories and workshops, most sit in offices, sell in large retail stores belonging to chains, or are self employed doing all kinds of things.

As the production and supply chain is now globalised, largely not visible, few understand what is involved, and hence it is convenient to turn into a consumer, satisfied with low prices for imported goods made by virtual slave labour in Bangla Desh or parts of China. That does not encourage a sense of solidarity, which the labour movement has traditionally relied on.

I fear there will be NO return to these days that Chris is writing about, as the economic and social realities are so fundamentally different, it would require an international revolution to create true fairness and social justice, and loyalty between all those that are engaged in work.

Ring the bell and wake me up, when this happens, please, as I have seen nobody in NZ bother to stand up and join me to bring about change. It is more comfy and convenient to go with the flow, and just accept the status quo and fight alone for one's own interest and survival.

A sad state of affairs, but I see no end to it.

M. C.

Davo Stevens. said...

@Anon 10.23pm, well said!

I have suggested many times past that in the situation we are in right now, the Govt. could and should get people into work. Even just in the short term. For example; planting trees on marginal land. The country would benefit from the harvesting of the trees further down the track. There are other similar jobs that they could do too.

The young un-employed could be out doing that and it gets them away from the city distractions. Instills good work ethics too.

I am not referring to a "work for the Dole" situation, pay them properly.

Before I hear squeals of displeasure from others about spending tax money, why should I, as a taxpayer, be subsidising wages for established businesses? Why should my tax money have to go to support those who are in work? (Accommodation allowance payments etc).

If you are going to employ some-one then pay them properly, they're people not commodities. If you don't want to or can't pay them, then do the work yourself.

jh said...

Davo Stevens, are you saying we should have open borders, lower rents and a more generous welfare system?

MC are you saying workers around the world should unite and higher wages as in set minimum prices for T shirts etc?

Jigsaw said...

Davo says that snide remarks about 'socialists' serve no purpose but then calls the people he doesn't agree with various derogatory names - not at all consistant and it tends to destroy any argument that he puts forward. Perhaps the woman is explaining her glimpse into the future when unions destroy jobs through unreasonable demands,the majority of workers wishes having been put into law long ago. She is probably going on to explain that the majority of union officials in the future have other agendas.

Jigsaw said...

Planting trees on marginal land to provide unemployment sounds like a great idea..... We have tried this before. Take Balmoral forest in North Canterbury as an example. That's exactly what happened there in the 1930's- I worked in it as a student in 1960-1961 poisoning the windthrow trees from the big 1945 snowstorm. It was given away in the late 1990's (along with a number of other forests in the area)to Ngati Tahu. What a complete waste of time and effort!

Davo Stevens said...

@jh no, I was simply pointing out that money can flow internationally but labour can't. That is the anomaly.

Nor did I say that we should have a "More generous Welfare System". Remember that most un-employed are not there by choice! For those who find themselves in that position, there should be enough for them to live on that's all.

I didn't say "Lower rents" either. I simply pointed out that we can't expect people to work for $100.00/wk when the cost of living in NZ is so high. That COL has to be reduced before we can expect people to work for that income.

Have you not been listening to Bill English over the last four years? He has stated repeatedly that he wants NZ to be a 'Low Wage' economy. My friend, go back and listen to all the speeches he has made they are enlightening.

Note that under the last Labour Govt. that un-employment dropped to a low of about 4% and wages went up, that's how the "Industrial Surplus" works. That's why we must have Structured Un-employment (10% of the able workforce out of work and actively chasing jobs) to keep those wages down. Very nice until it affects you then suddenly it is a real problem.

Do a search for "Structural Un-employment and Industrial Surplus" it's an education.

First of all we must create the jobs then fill them not the other way around. That way there is no excuse for anyone to be out of work. Nothing like being turned down repeatedly for destroying a person's self esteem. Eventually people just give up and stop looking. That is what is starting to happen here. Can't blame people for that and also remember that it is easy to blame the victims rather than the cause.

Paulus said...

I am sure I would have considered myself a luddite and supported those in 1894 because I would have been born poor, and have had difficulty getting or keeping a job enough to feed my family.
But 119 years on the world has progressed to newer levels.
My grandmother who was born in 1876and lived in similar circumstances to the picture, did not really comprehend the evolution in such as trade was. Transport, Electricity, clean water and Health were evolving.
The social revolution came from that time, has expanded and in New Zealand has gone to continuing new levels.
You cannot turn the clock back.

Anonymous said...

jh A living wage for all would be justified, and that could involve the ILO to enforce standards, that in each country a minimum and indeed living wage is enforced. But governments do not want it, as they are held at ransom by certain businesses in their countries, to not support or enforce it.

It would not even require regulation on an international scale, if workers simply collectively enforce in each society and country, to get paid what their work should be paid, to at least pay the minimum of living costs and so forth. If you disagree with that, I suppose you support ruthless exploitation and even slavery, as there is no other explanation then!


jh said...

Labour versus Capital
I still don't get that. To me it is one of your schoolmates who was bright, went to university, became manager of a company (on the one hand) and the other who got a lesser job, becoming a lower paid member of the organisation battling over par rates and a share of profits.
I think your Marxist paradigm looses 95% of the population?
The Marxist meeme (if that's what it is) sure as hell punches above it's weight in public policy.

Unknown said...

And simply, Labour Day is now a sick,sick joke. It has been since the advent of the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 which emasculated the trade union movement,reduced real wages and conditions and broke that partnership of capital and labour. Labour is now just an entry in a companies ledger - one of costs.

Don Franks said...

" oh for goodness sake Johnathan, I told you to use the privy before we came out.

No, you'll just have to hold on. That union thing is blocking our way and is sure to be an age.

Yes Johnathan, I am well aware that the pony has just relieved himself in the road. That does not mean that you can.

No son, I have no idea what those men are doing over there. Probably playing two up before the taverns open.

How long will they be - I have no idea of that either. Unions will have their way an we may be stuck here for hours. It would not surprise me if we had to wait here until the next century.
And won't the unions have grown hideously huge and obstructive by then!"

Anonymous said...

jh at 11:57 pm on 30 Oct.:

The "savings" that are made by using off-shored manufacturing in low wage and lower environmental standard countries are usually mainly taken advantage of by the traders, transporters and retailers of the goods. The clothes and so forth, that may be made in China, Bangla Desh or so, they are sold here at prices that may only a bit cheaper if manufactured here.

They are though manufactured at minimal labour costs, which would only represent a tiny fraction of the sales price here.

Retail in NZ is also dominated by an oligopoly, so that prices for goods here are higher than in a fair few other developed countries, as the retailers can to some degree set the prices as they please (given limited competition).

Our supermarkets also are a duopoly.

So sound profits are made, and share-holders of certain companies, and owners of such, they rake in their fair share in this whole "business".

Wait until fuel costs rise, as petroleum will get scarcer, and this transporting around the globe, of cheaply mass produced goods will slow and to some degree be reversed.

It would be a start to pay workers in the countries where such goods are made a decent income, and then it may suddenly make sense again to produce more goods here.


Anonymous said...

The power of change for a square deal in a supposed democratic social caring state,lays squarely at the Governments door step.

Our present Government, have shown little compassion for those lesser off, as they refuse to institute a fairer minimum wage,control rent extortion and take steps to control the ballooning property market,aside from legislating harsher benefit regulation, and harsher workers rights to gain a square deal.

The Unions, and their membership, have been in serious decline for for many years,yet still have a power that can effect change within certain industries however,the continual casualisation of the work force within many industries, and oppressive labour laws, that for many casual workers fear employer victimization for being a union member, insures that the work force is compliant to their employers demands and rules.

So the social chance of our democracy most defiantly, lays at the door step of our Parliament.

Davo Stevens said...

@Jigsaw 10.09am.

Would you be so kind to point to where I have called anyone here in a derogatory way?

The comment about "Socialists" was simply to point out that there is no "Socialism" in modern economies per se. There are some who just can't get past the old dichotomy of "Left and Right" but today just about all politics and economics are "Centrist". There or there-abouts.

Kaiangaroa forest was also planted during the 30's and 40's by the un-employed and was the largest man-planted forest in the world. The fact that those forests were sold off for a song is immaterial, they employed people and gave them a meaningful job to do that did benefit the country as a whole.

Think about the carriage building that the Gnats sent off to China. Yes, it would have cost a bit more to make them here but ALL THAT MONEY WOULD HAVE REMAINED HERE!!! It would have spread out into the economy and eventually many more would have benefited from that instead of making a few Chinese richer.

There is an old adage: 'Close the Railways Workshops -- build more prisons!'

Economies don't grow to the sky, they rise and fall like a tide and each time they fall more people are left behind. Nor do economies run on debt forever, eventually the debt grows so large that all the money in the world can't pay it off and it collapses on itself. We are just clawing through such a situation now.

Chris Trotter said...

Sometimes Don, you give the impression of being indissolubly wed to utter negativity.

For God's sake, man: cheer up!