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.