By Don Franks
NZ Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff has just published an interesting piece : “New Zealand needs to change how it does business.”
Richard notes that over the last 30 years, “the share of the economy going to working people has fallen from over 50 per cent to just over 40 per cent, cutting $20 billion a year from pay packets.”
The union leader sees this having occurred because:
“… too many decisions about the work we do nowadays are made outside of employment law altogether.
“You see it for the people who are pushed to become dependent contractors and take all of the risk and little of the reward – that’s tens of thousands of drivers, utilities technicians, and construction workers over the last decade alone.
“You see it in the boardroom level decisions to re-tender whole workforces on lower terms and conditions by changing contractors (even though they end up largely employing the same people).
“Put simply, there are too many loopholes and too many people are falling through them”
Or, in other words, capitalists are screwing more and more out of their workforce because there’s nothing to stop them doing this.
Richard Wagstaff goes on to very politely point out that the present Labour government is unlikely to stop the rot:
“The changes to industrial relations announced by the Government will make a real difference to a lot of New Zealanders. Basic stuff like ensuring people can have a meal break and are protected from discrimination are fundamentally good things, but they are also largely focused on the margins.They reinstate some bare minimums you’d expect in a first world nation like ours.
“These changes alone won’t be enough to achieve the Government’s vision of safe, well-paid and productive working lives for all New Zealanders. And they won’t rebalance the economy so the working Kiwis who produce most of our wealth get their fair share.
“Some of the legislation the Government will bring in in the next twelve months, such as protections for contractors and industry minimum standards, will help narrow those loopholes, but decision-makers need to recognise that how we deal with employment is the critical piece in creating a fair society and a strong economy.”
Paraphrasing again, beneath the spin and a few tiny long overdue reforms, inequality in New Zealand is on track to continue.
Richard Wagstaff offers a solution to this injustice, but it’s here that he suddenly shies away from hard realities.
“We need to move away from our reliance on a low-wage economy where companies compete by paying people less.
“We need to remove the temptation to throw more cheap labour or longer work-hours at a problem, and make investment in skills, productive capital and innovation the better option.”
Recall when the Lone Ranger and Tonto found themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger’s like:
“What are we going to do, Tonto?”
And Tonto’s “What do you mean we, white man?”
There is no “we” in industrial relations. To imagine it is to see how silly the notion is – workers suddenly being tempted to throw more cheap labour or longer work-hours at a problem. Our side has neither the temptation nor the power to make investments because we don’t own the instruments of labour, or even the wealth we produce with them. The only people capable of altering the shape of the economy are the big capitalists who privately own and operate the levers of power.
That’s not to say that workers are powerless. In combination we can organize and strike to gain a better return on our labour, in combination, committed and armed we can even alter the shape of society.
Well, we’re a long way from that right now. But even putting some sort of brake on the increasingly harsh inequality in this country requires a turnaround in our thinking. In economic terms there’s just our side with our interests and the employers side with their different interests, there is no “we”. The bullshit concept of “we” only serves to confuse and cloud our thinking, its high time we got shot of it.