Words that hold back workers

by Don Franks

It happened again yesterday, on Morning Report. Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxton airily deflected the interviewer’s awkward question: “No, Suzie, Im not going there because its commercially sensitive.” 

This refusal to reveal how much US president Obama’s visit cost the company was accepted, because “commercial sensitivity” is among the magic words and phrases capitalism uses to protect its interests. 

If you listen out for it you’ll hear, quite regularly, lines of questioning being cut off with these words. “Commercially sensitive” means the same as but sounds much better than “secret”. “Commercially sensitive” suggests that revealing facts and figures might damage the  business in question and thus, somehow, somewhere down the line, damage the interests of ordinary people like you and me. 

Pretence that private business interests are identical with the interests of workers requires constant abuse of language. A longstanding example is the word “realistic”. A union official tries negotiating with an implacable employer, gets offered nothing, reports back to the workers, “Guys, we’ve got to be realistic”. Too often this empty cliche will be accepted, grudgingly perhaps, but accepted nonetheless.

If you look up its definition, “realistic” means having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected. Such an idea can only be achieved by concretely examining the facts. The boss won’t give us a rise just for the asking but, if our site took some action, that might change his mind. And if that’s not enough pressure maybe we could link up with other workers in the same company. Doable alternatives, although requiring effort. 

So a lazy or overworked union rep will talk about being realistic. This fob off is often accepted by workers with no experience of anything better.

A recent addition to the bag of bullshit words is “conversation”.  Faced with a request  that he is determined not to grant, the smart modern politician responds, “Yes, we really need to have a conversation about that”. This commits the politician to absolutely nothing, while sounding friendly, positive and vaguely promising. The expression is a favourite of prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

The worst modern word for screwing over workers is often in the mouths of well-meaning people. “Someone should be doing a bit more for those poor cleaners. They’re really vulnerable workers.” In truth, there is no such thing as a “vulnerable worker”. In political and economic terms there are only organised and unorganised workers. So-called vulnerable workers are only toilers who have not linked up and begun to realise their power. Certainly, there are branches of industry where union organising is very difficult. This is the case in many parts of New Zealand today, made more difficult by tight anti-union strike restrictions of the present government.  A superficial look at the country’s low-paid workforce might suggest there are thousands of vulnerable workers, there are not. 

Internalised, the insulting term can only serve to erode the confidence of unorganised workers and help hold them back.


  1. And we’re “having a conversation” while being “on a journey”, despite the fact that our interests and those of the bosses are diametrically opposed and where they *want* to go and where we *need* to go are as well.

  2. boss class language still sucks “going forward”…as “shareholder value is optimised”…

  3. Highlyh recommend “Edgy White Liberal” on Facebook. Satire page that articulates this stuff so perfectly and hilariously. People with a concern for the future of humanity – we’ve lost most of our parties, the workers movement is atrophied, but holy hell can we make satire for the dystopian world in which we live! The only consolation prize.

  4. Good article, I particularly like the definition of vulnerable workers as unorganised workers. As a member in a large union I am very familiar with the use of lawyer speak and weasel words to get compliance and obedience.
    One concept that sticks out in my mind at the moment is “give and take”. Lots of give not much take. The work day always seems to lengthen rarely shorten.

  5. Its true I agree that politicians and businesspeople deflect our enquiries with meaningless cliche. There is though a more sinister aspect involved. Politicians and business kick off their response, worn out and tired as it is, as a staterment that we are expected to deny. This enables them to say anything they wish and we who receive this drivel must deny it to be true. You might say that in their hands a circle simply becomes a square according to the honourable minister of square heads

  6. In addition to the valid points you’ve made here about Bosspeak, there’s also the other side of the coin about the way workers have lost our own vocabulary. It’s either been co-opted or more often simply disappeared entirely. When was the last time you heard the words ‘solidarity’ , ‘unite’, ‘class war’, ‘struggle’ or ‘socialism’ flow out of people’s mouths like they were as common as breathing itself?

    I could be wrong, but i think that used to happen once upon a time? I remember conversations with my Grandmother (who came from a small mining village) in which she just took it for granted you couldn’t trust cops and spoke in a matter of fact way about it or my Grandfather (a staunch Irish Republican) who criticised the monarchy and British army in ways that made their negative nature obvious through his choice of words, which just seemed natural.It wasn’t something either of them considered much, the same way that fish dont think about water, it was just a part of the culture they moved in. Regarding class issues, the bosses once had to argue about things using terminology they hadn’t chosen. Now its the reverse. Maybe its time to reclaim the discourse.

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