Unions need “much larger systematic change”

by Don Franks

It’s summer time, but the living’s not easy.

A New Zealand Council of trade unions cost of living and income survey done last week uncovered distress. Of the 1195 respondents, 70% reported their incomes weren’t keeping up with the cost of living. 

Increased workloads were reported by 55% of respondents. 

CTU President Richard Wagstaff said: “We’ve known for a long time that work in New Zealand and our employment law aren’t up to scratch but on every single metric we surveyed on we’ve found that many more people think it’s getting worse than better.  While Kiwis’ low incomes and their high cost of living are standout issues, people are also reporting concerning levels of workload increase, loss of work/life balance and low job satisfaction”.

He concluded: “Last year’s employment law changes will have made a small difference to working people, but we need much larger systemic change to fix this problem. This needs to be a top priority for Government in 2019.” 

It’s time unions got real. This Government is not about making much large systematic change in favour of workers. Grant Robertson’s first budget made this clearly evident.

 New Zealand Herald business editor Liam Dann approvingly noted the government’s “fiscal responsibility”. Political reporter Guy Espiner went further: “Look at the numbers. Not only has Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivered a surplus of more than $3 billion, rising to more than $7 billion by 2021, he is actually going to spend less than National has been spending as a percentage of GDP. Government spending – or core crown expenses in the jargon – will be 28 percent of GDP. That is lower than the figure for almost all of National’s three terms in office. It’s lower too than that prescribed by the already heroic Budget Responsibility Rules, a self-imposed straight-jacket that saw Labour commit to spending no more than 30 percent of GDP. The debt targets, very strict by international standards, are also being met with net core crown debt for 2018 forecast at 20.8 percent of GDP. Now this might all look like fiscal trainspotting. Who cares? Well, you can only hit these targets by closing your wallet and your ears to areas that are crying out for funding. It also requires us to accept a narrative where two stories collide.”

Espiner asked: “If there have been nine years of neglect and there are alarm bells ringing in health and housing how does that square with tight fiscal discipline and hefty surpluses?”

It does not square. University of Auckland researcher Susan St. John wrote that in Auckland “to get over the after-housing costs poverty line, a couple with two children would need an extra $334.” But increases in some welfare payments would “deliver a maximum of only $47 a week extra to the two-child family”. That’s why City Mission Christmas food relief parcels were distributed in record numbers. Many recipients were employed workers whose wages could not cover costs.

While low-paid workers went hungry, funding was found for social control. The budget provided  $300 million to recruit 1,800 more police officers and $198 million to build 600 modular prison cells.  An extra $366.4 million was found for the military.

 Winston Peters’ racing portfolio got nearly $5 million in tax deductions for “the costs of high quality horses acquired with the intention to breed”. By contrast just $9 million a year was allotted to Maori development, spread thinly across housing, land development and youth not in work or education. 

In its own reaction to Labour’s 2018 budget, the CTU complained: “The conservative nature of this Budget is seen in the Government’s spending plans. It has set itself a number of limits under its Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR). These form a pincer that leave it little space to move despite growing surpluses. The current Budget Responsibility Rules. . . are inconsistent with a wellbeing approach because they do not take considerations other than fiscal and financial risk into account.”

The present Labour government is entirely consistent with the actions of its forbears. Between 1982 and 2011 New Zealand’s gross domestic product grew by 35%. Almost half of that increase went to a small group who were already the richest in the country. During this period, the average income of the top 10% of earners in New Zealand (those earning more than $72,000)[1] almost doubled, going from $56,300 to $100,200. The average income of the poorest tenth increased by only 13% from $9700 to $11,000. Throughout this period National and Labour governments alternated, similar policies continued.

It’s wishful thinking to expect large systematic change from this typical New Zealand government. Trade unionists have no power to effect ideological change in the heads of career capitalist politicians. We’ve already wasted too much time following that illusion. 

What union members do have is the power to accomplish radical change in our own institutions. Our organisation and influence has declined badly, that can be fixed. We have the option of reworking our union organisation into a powerful force able to wring big concessions from the bosses. 

A follow-up article will suggest practical ways of achieving this.

Further reading:
Three suggestions for the NZ Council of Trade Unions 
Employment Relations Bill and the trashing of our past gains 
Which way forward for workers and unions? 
From the vaults: What every worker should know about Labour’s 1987 Labour Relations Act 

And check out:
This is what workers’ resistance looks like 

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