by Nick Scullin
Firefighters around New Zealand have been on continuous strike since 7 January 2012, in a response to unacceptable contract offers from their employer, the New Zealand Fire Service.
The strike follows a breakdown in bargaining for a new collective agreement with their employer. Firefighters are paid surprisingly little given the dangerous nature of their job and are being offered a measly 2.7% increase.
The strike covers non-essential activities of the fire service such as education programmes but firefighters are still putting out fires and risking their lives to save people.
Some interesting statistics are being advertised by the firefighters union to back up their claims for a better collective agreement. The CEO of the New Zealand fire service, for example, has had his own salary increased by 70% in the last 9 years. Food prices are up 7.9%, inflation is at 5.3% and even the unemployment benefit gone up 3.75% but firefighters are being offered just 2.7%. That’s okay you might be thinking given that they probably have a fairly good pay rate already, right? Well, no. Currently a firefighter earns just $12.29 an hour, though there are other allowances that presumably bring it up over the minimum wage of $13 an hour. Not a lot to be paid for what must be one of the most demanding jobs around both physically and mentally.
A Senior Firefighter works around 581 extra overtime hours a year in order to make a decent salary. Firefighters point out that this level of overwork can kill in a dangerous industry. This is a continuous trend in the way in which workers in all jobs in New Zealand are treated.
Moreover, one of the things the Fire Service is trying to do is get more “flexible rostering”. The point of this is to extend the normal hours worked by firefighters as a whole, thereby cutting down the overtime pay which is essential to making firefighters’ overall pay at all liveable on.
For many years, private sector employers in New Zealand have been attempting to work workers harder and for longer hours, for less and less money in an attempt to maximise profits without having to invest in new equipment, research or technology. In the last few years, squeezing workers in the state sector has been stepped up.
The state sector is financed out of surplus-value, so another way of boosting private sector profits is to have less surplus-value going to the state sector to cover things like public health, education and safety, including fire-fighting. Keeping down wages for workers in the state sector is thus a way of maximising profits in the private sector.*
In both sectors, the result is that workers lose out.
The overall outcome is that New Zealand now has very low wages and most people work long hard hours just to make ends meet while at the same time food prices, and inflation in general, have soared up at a far greater rate than wage increases in most areas, other than CEO salaries, of course, which far outstrip inflation rates. In the private sector, the highest-paid CEO, Telecom’s Paul Reynolds was paid over $4.7 million last year – that’s almost $2,500 an hour, compared to firefighters struggling to make ends meet on their low wages. In the state sector, the vice-chancellor of Auckland University is currently on almost $650,000 a year, while a range of top civil servants are on $5-600,000. In Christchurch, city council CEO Tony Marryatt has just received a whopping 14.4% ($68,129) pay rise – his rise is more than most firefighters earn. But who has been most needed, and who has done the hardest and most dangerous work, during the past 16 months of quakes in the city?
The firefighters are, fortunately, well-organised. In Auckland, for instance, the jobs are about 99% unionised. Auckland firefighters also went down to MUNZ pickets to show solidarity with the port workers in their stoush with the Ports boss.
The firefighters should be supported by all workers; I mean do you want the guy who comes to save your family and house in the event of a fire to be earning barely more than the minimum wage and working massive overtime hours in order to have a decent living wage? This is just one of the many irrationalities of the capitalist system we live under – worthless bosses are paid the big bucks and the people doing hard, dangerous and essential work are frequently low-paid.
Fights like that of the Auckland port workers and the firefighters point up the need for the fundamental reorganisation of society. In a rational society – ie socialism – firefighters, like everyone else, would actually work a lot fewer hours while still maintaining a good standard of living, because there would be no tiny parasitic layer siphoning off the wealth created by the working class as a whole.
* For an explanation of how capitalism works and, ultimately, doesn’t work, see here.
Related firefighter articles on this blog:
Firefighters resist vindictive new attack by employer
Firefighters giving a lead
Auckland firefighters’ solidarity with wharfies