Friday 10 December 2021

Marching To Class War.

We’re from the Employing Class, and we’re here to help”: What the bosses are saying, in effect, is: “We are having none of this. We will not participate in the creation of a minimum set of employment conditions across New Zealand’s industries. If you want Fair Pay Agreements, then you will have to impose them upon the employing class without its consent.” 

AROUND THIS TIME last week, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, writing a parody of “Onward Christian Soldiers” for Christopher Luxon. My take on the old hymn’s refrain had “Luxon’s soldiers” marching to “class war”. Some readers thought that was a somewhat inflammatory characterisation. Class war was soooo Twentieth Century, they insisted. Apparently, my paleo-socialist slip was showing.

Well, maybe not. Today (9/12/21) we learn that Business New Zealand has refused to partner with the State and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in the roll-out of Labour’s long-awaited – and well-mandated – Fair Pay Agreements.

This decision can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt by New Zealand’s employers to sabotage the tripartite structure of the FPA model. What the bosses are saying, in effect, is: “We are having none of this. We will not participate in the creation of a minimum set of employment conditions across New Zealand’s industries. If you want Fair Pay Agreements, then you will have to impose them upon the employing class without its consent.”

I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like a declaration of class war to me.

How have “Luxon’s soldiers” responded to Business New Zealand’s decision. Well, Luxon’s Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson, the dry-as-dust neoliberal, Paul Goldsmith, doesn’t really do “unbounded joy”, but, in a media statement released earlier today he certainly comes across as a Happy Chappy.

The Government should ditch its Fair Pay Agreement policy following Business New Zealand’s refusal to be the Government’s preferred partner,” crows Goldsmith. “The agreements would remove the flexibility and autonomy modern workplaces need to grow and flourish.

Oh boy, it’s been a while since we heard that kind of language. It takes me back thirty years to 1991, the year when the Employment Contracts Act came into force.

Goldsmith would have been 20 years old in 1991. For someone of his ideological inclinations, the ECA must have represented the capstone of the Neoliberal Revolution unleashed by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. This crowning achievement, the one big “reform” that Labour dared not undertake, would have struck the young Goldsmith as absolutely sacrosanct. The effective destruction of the trade unionism across the private sector was the critical “reform” that made all the other “reforms” work. Confronted with a unified and confident working-class, Neoliberalism cannot succeed.

Hardly surprising, then, that Goldsmith’s statement included this little gem:

Business New Zealand’s withdrawal lays bare the fact that the national industry awards would have to be imposed by force – denying workers and businesses the right to sort out pay and conditions for themselves.

As if the ECA was not imposed. As if the Act did not, with one ruthless stroke of the legislator’s pen, wipe out rights which New Zealand workers had fought for and won, and which had remained entrenched in the country’s laws for close to a century. As if the people controlling the means of production, distribution and exchange; and those with nothing to sell but their labour – economic and social equals that they so obviously are! – were both clamouring for the right to arrive at mutually advantageous agreements without the pesky intervention of a trade union. As if the 500,000 New Zealanders who marched, rallied and struck against the ECA in March-April 1991 had only done so for a lark – because they had nothing better to do.

Flexible labour markets have been an essential element in New Zealand’s progress in the past 30 years, Goldsmith continued. They have enabled consistent economic growth and job creation, which is the only sustainable way to increase living standards in the long-term.

Umm, no, Paul, that’s not what flexible labour markets brought to New Zealand. The ECA was nothing more, nor less, than an open invitation for New Zealand employers to distil their profits from their workers’ sweat: making them work harder, and longer, for less.

In sophisticated capitalist countries, the state understands the value of an organised labour movement powerful enough to keep workers’ wages high. It is a necessary adjunct to the process of “creative destruction” that allows capitalism to rejuvenate itself. High wages encourage employers to replace workers with machines, or more efficient work practices, thereby lifting productivity – and profits – while building up an increasingly skilled workforce. Win–Win.

The ECA’s “flexible labour markets” – i.e. the destruction of the trade unions – excused the New Zealand capitalist class from doing business better and smarter. It condemned the New Zealand economy to appallingly low and seemingly unimprovable levels of productivity. That made us a low-wage country and sent our best and our brightest across the Tasman to Australia – where the equivalent of FPAs had kept wages high and boosted the productivity of Australian industry.

Though dry-as-dust Neoliberals like Goldsmith are too ideologically blinkered to see it, the ECA – far from being “an essential element in New Zealand’s progress in the past 30 years”, fundamentally weakened both its economy and its society. It drove our most talented citizens offshore, denying the taxpayers, who had contributed so much to the making of these highly-skilled workers, any hope of ever seeing a return on their investment.

There is, accordingly, considerable irony in Goldsmith’s claim that:

There should be a relentless focus on improving our productivity and lifting incomes.

If he was serious about either of those objectives, Goldsmith would be castigating Business New Zealand for undermining what is quite clearly the best hope of improving this country’s appalling productivity, while materially improving the wages of its workforce. Instead, “Luxon’s soldier” offers us this:

Unions now only represent 16 per cent of the private sector workforce – this is all about strengthening the role of unions.

He hasn’t even grasped the fact that union density in New Zealand’s private sector workforce long ago fell below 10 percent. In that brutal statistic is contained not only the tragic story of the National Party’s cold-blooded elimination of trade unionism as a mass movement wielding significant political power on behalf of the New Zealand working class; but also the shameful failure of the CTU to either fight for that class when they still possessed the power to bring the state to the negotiating table, or to do what was necessary to rebuild mass unionism when the political climate changed. (The reasons for the NZCTU’s failure must be left for a future posting.)

What Goldsmith needs no tutoring in, however, is the fundamental elements of class conflict – which achieved their clearest expression in the “flexible labour markets” made possible by the Employment Contracts Act:

Fair Pay Agreements will take us back to the failed policies of the past and should be scrapped, says Goldsmith.

With Business New Zealand drawing up their forces alongside the National Party and Act, it is pretty clear that the employers and their political lackeys have already declared the opening of class hostilities.

The real question now, of course, is whether Labour and the CTU have the guts to declare class war right back at them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 December 2021.


Anonymous said...

I worked, mostly as a manager/company director (& a couple years as Union delegate), with unionised workplaces & staff for 40 years. Unions are always quite happy for bad workers to be paid the same as good ones, in fact they insist on it. The good ones are then dragged down to the lowest common denominator wondering why they bothered. However the dirty little secret is that it also suits large employers to have unionisation much more than smaller ones because their usually significant labour costs are then mostly fixed & predetermined for budgets.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah well, as far as conservatives are concerned it's only class warfare if we fight back.

Wayne Mapp said...

Employment law has always been an area of contention between National Labour. No surprise there.

I would note that to a significant extent there was a broad consensus on employment law from early in the 2000's through to 2020. Helen Clark's changes in 2001 were less significant than many in National initially feared. Clark in fact broadly accepted the independent freedom to contract. As a consequence the changes made during the Key government were quite modest. The major one being the 90 day trial period which I had developed when in opposition. All of this remained unchanged from 2017 to 2020, when NZF was the moderating influence upon Labour.

Labour has now upset these employment law arrangements, which I believe have served New Zealand well over the last 20 years. It is hardly surprising that Business New Zealand will not co-operate on industry wide awards in the way that Labour envisages them. You can also be certain that they will be repealed by the next National government\

It is hardly class warfare to oppose compulsory industry wide agreements, given that the employment law has been quite well settled for the last 20 years. Perhaps the fact that politics now looks like it will be divided between National/Act on one side and Labour/Green on the other side, means employment law will have a more ideological flavour. The consequence is that it will swing quite a lot each time the government changes. Hardly a recipe for economic stability.

Winston and NZF (and Peter Dunne) were never able to satisfactorily explain why a stabilising middle party serves a valuable function in our democracy. NZF has not, and probably never will, have the mantle of the Free Democrats in Germany. The Free Democrats, for much of modern Germany's history, have been the moderating force between Left and Right. The failure of NZF to assume this role in the New Zealand public imagination is probably because of the origins of NZF as a dissident faction of National. As a consequence NZF has been permanently distrusted by National. Jim Bolger, though he tried, was never able to convince the National Party to let bygones be bygones. The antipathy toward NZF, even 30 years later, is still quite visceral among a very large number within National, including those who have actually been born after the split occurred in 1992!

I was on the Privileges Committee in 2008 when the National majority found that Winston had lied to Parliament. The intent was quite clear, to get Winston out of Parliament. That succeeded for 3 years from 2008 to 2011, but it was always clear to me that National would pay a price. And of course that price was paid in 2017.

John Hurley said...

Not only are there very few people who acutely suffer from lack of food or lack of housing, but there are infinitely more opportunities for the young people to choose their own future. There is a wealth of possibilities for those who wish to learn, and for those who wish to enjoy themselves in various ways. But perhaps the most important thing is that we are prepared to listen to informed criticism and are certainly happy if reasonable suggestions are made for the betterment of our society. For our society is not only open to reform, but it is anxious to reform itself.

In spite of all this, the propaganda for the myth that we live in an ugly world has succeeded.

Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!

Karl Popper
I've never met anyone who would vote for Donald Trump
No more exploitation! This is a migrant nation! (Unite unionists and turban wearing man).
It's the birth rates; it's the birthrates
NZ could have had a better standard of living with a smaller population Michael Reddell.
Populism is due to the different birthrates in the northern hemisphere versus the equatorial regions. It wouldn't be happening in Korea or Japan Eric Kaufmann

Experts say there is no meaningful difference between expressions of white nationalism and white supremacy. - Facebook.

greywarbler said...

John Hurley you are a peach blooming in the midst of trench warfare, unsullied, unblemished. Keep on as the image of near perfection that we all aim for.
Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!

The trouble is that opening one's eyes means looking at reality which includes horror as well as beauty, tawdriness and commercial interests wanting to sell you the very basics you need for life.
Freddie in Queen wrote Bohemian Rhapsody - he's dead now. We who have it all don't went to die, let others go instead.

Bohemian Rhapsody
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landside,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see,
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to
Me, to me...

Too late, my time has come,
Sends shivers down my spine, body's aching all The time
Goodbye, everybody, I've got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, oooh
I don't want to die,
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!
Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening me

He's just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go
Bismillah! No, we will not let you go

So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Oh, baby, can't do this to me, baby,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here

Nothing really matters, Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters,
Nothing really matters to me
Any way the wind blows...
Source: Musixmatch

John Hurley said...

Actually that quote was meant to highlight a world view (open society). It still works for the top decks but not below where water is entering.
Capitalism was doing o.k in NZ once they freed up some prices.
However (As George Megalogenis points out) immigration became demand driven. That's why NZrs compete with "a lovely family from Shanghai" for that dream home. On Twitter Russell Brown's crowd are trying to sell us Paris - will be the result of dense housing. This all has to be a red flag.
We are being sold a big fat lie. The same person who claims diversity is absolutely essential for Aucklands success and calls negativity to a multicultural nation "hate" is now part of a re-branding exercise in emphasising the harsh reaction to unvaccinated deplorables. You have to admire their creativity in the face of a compliant media.