by Phil Duncan
In recent decades most workers in this country have shown a great reluctance to fight. Whereas previously union officialdom – the trade union bureaucracy – often held workers back from fighting, most notably at the time of the Employment Contracts Act of 1991, they don’t really have to do this at present. Workers simply aren’t much interested in taking on their exploiters.
Now, one possible explanation for low levels of strike action could be that workers are doing well. For instance, there were low levels of industrial action during the 1950s and the early-mid 1960s. These coincided with the long economic boom after World War II. This boom lasted from the later 1940s until the early 1970s. Real wages rose consistently. Workers were able to buy not only cars but newer consumer goods like transistor radios, televisions and hi-fi systems. Many workers bought houses.
My NZ grandparents were a good example. They had been impoverished during the Depression, evicted from the house they rented and they had faced near starvation. During the postwar boom, on just one blue-collar wage – my grandfather worked in the railway workshops at Addington in Christchurch – they were able to buy their own home and pay off the mortgage, get a new car every few years, improve their television set and other household consumer goods regularly. Moreover, the retirement age when my grandad finished work was 60. They were very happy working class people and it’s not hard to see why.
It was fairly similar for my parents’ generation. My dad was a factory worker and on his wage alone my parents bought a house and paid off the mortgage, bought a new car every few years and new consumer goods.
However, the postwar boom ended in the early 1970s and there has not been an equivalent boom since. Real wage growth came to an end years ago. Poverty has grown to levels that, 30-40 years ago, simply would not have been acceptable. People would have said there would be riots in the streets if unemployment levels and poverty levels, and the development of a sector of society called ‘the working poor’ reached the levels they are now.
Look at the graph below. It was done in 2014 by Unite union president Mike Treen and is based on statistics culled from the Labour Cost Index. As Statistics NZ notes, “if you are interested in changes in earnings across time, the Labour Cost Index (LCI) is a better measure than the QES.” The QES is the Quarterly Employment Survey and the one the government prefers to use because it inflates the figures by looking at averages – so if professionals’ salaries go up significantly, but most workers’ real wages stagnate, it makes it look as if real wages are rising.
Here’s Mike Treen’s 2014 graph:
It starts in 1957 and indicates the sharp rise of real wages that was already well underway. You’ll notice that real wages increase especially dramatically during the long second National Party government in the 1960s. They increase at about the same rate under the third Labour government, although that government set about attacking the unions and workers’ rights and living standards (see here). National comes back into power at the end of 1975 and its leader (and finance minister), Rob Muldoon, introduces a wage-price freeze. Real wages stagnate then fall. They fall a bit more under the fourth Labour government and then remain fairly stagnant – right up until today. They didn’t rise under the fifth Labour government of Helen Clark (1999-2008) and they haven’t fallen under the fifth National government of John Key (2008-).
This is pretty much as you would expect, because there are no major differences of economic policy between National and Labour. They are both utterly committed to being ‘good managers’ of the capitalist system. And capitalism is in such a decrepit state these days that there simply isn’t room for ‘generosity’ of the kind that existed during the postwar boom. Back then the capitalists were simply getting so much surplus-value out of workers’ labour-power, due to massive increases in productivity and output, that they could buy class peace by guaranteeing wage rises and providing a chunk of educational and health care for free. Meanwhile increases in productivity meant a fall in the socially necessary labour-time to produce goods (and services), thus a fall in the value embodied in individual commodities and a fall in the prices of these commodities. Workers’ wages could buy more stuff, a crucial element of rising real wages.
Those days are long gone and there is no sign of them returning.
But, instead of long-term stagnation leading to workers becoming restless and fighting to defend what had been the norm several decades ago, let alone fighting for more, they have fallen into a kind of long-term stupor. The TINA argument – There Is No Alternative – has been accepted and internalised by most of the working class in New Zealand. And the left has not offered an alternative.
The bulk of the left in NZ is anti-National Party rather than anti-capitalist. It is anti-foreign capitalism rather than anti-capitalist. And it supports state capitalism rather than exposing how workers are still exploited when employed by a profit-making enterprise that is owned by the state. Indeed, a couple of years ago, during the state assets referendum, most of the left defended the SOEs (the profit-making capitalist enterprises created by new right economic reformer Roger Douglas!) rather than opposing capitalism per se.
What we clearly need is a new left – a genuinely anti-capitalist left – and a new working class political movement, one that is of, for and by workers and that doesn’t subordinate our interests to those of capitalist parties like Labour but fights for the independent interests of the working class.