Help a Struggling Business, Work for Free!

I was saddened but not surprised to see this headline in today’s Bay of Plenty Times: “Living Wage Would ‘Devastate’ Business” (not online yet). After all, any time there’s a proposal for anything that would remotely help workers, this paper (along with most others) can be depended upon to find someone to tell us that we can’t possibly [extend paid parental leave, enforce pay equity, ensure union rights, spend more/anything on worker safety, pay overtime, etc. etc. ad nauseam] otherwise the sky will fall. Late last year, when Sue Moroney’s paid parental leave bill was in the news, the paper found a few people to essentially say that employers would discriminate against female job seekers if paid parental leave were implemented because they might get pregnant. Wow.

179937_333566890047656_1949415847_nBut take a look at that first headline again – “Living Wage Would ‘Devastate’ Business”. Precisely the same facts could be presented under a headline that reads something like this: “Business Model Depends on Poverty Wages”. In fact, you could come up with an alt headline for pretty much every one of these articles, which are nearly always long on rhetoric and short on actual evidence: “Sex Discrimination a Necessity, Says Lobby Group”; “Area Employers Need Low Safety Bar”; “Unfair Pay Rates Keep Local Businesses Afloat” “Parents Must Make Work ‘Top Priority'”.

To be fair, the BoP Times did speak with an organiser from First Union, whose brief comments were swiftly countered by a few employers explaining just how come they can’t pay their workers a living wage. Wouldn’t it be nice if we – including the Chamber of Commerce – could move past that, acknowledge a living wage as a community goal and talk about ways of getting there, not just recite the endless list of  “why we can’t”.

The primary source for today’s article was Max Mason, the CEO of the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce. And yes, that’s the same Max Mason who is praising the Bay of Plenty Times in one of the paper’s promotional videos for its March 4 revamp. Mr. Mason says in the video that the new BoP Times business section will “benefit local businesses by being really close to the ground…” Great! At least they’re getting some benefits in this cruel world of workers demanding enough money to live on. Tauranga businesses might not be able to pay a living wage, but at least they’re going to get a boost from the Bay of Plenty Times’s new Business Section.

Also promoting the paper in one of the videos is the city’s mayor, Stuart Crosby, and the Commercial Manager of Bay of Plenty Rugby, Matt Cairns. “Business sections” of daily newspapers have long since become the home to pro-business PR, so I suppose it makes sense to have the local Chamber boss promoting yours. And once you’ve gone that far, why not have your top elected local government official shilling for the paper, too. The only comment I’ve found on any of the paper’s online coverage of its upcoming relaunch was from “fact_not_fiction” from Gate Pa (a Tauranga neighbourhood), who wrote (and I agree): “Mindful that our region has more than one media provider, mindful that the integrity of the media is very dependent on the perception of its neutrality, mindful that the Mayor is moving up a notch his re-election campaign – surely it is inappropriate for Mayor Crosby to be the lead advocate in this presentation.”

Along with union power, the days of serious and fair coverage of working people are long gone. Regional papers are boosters for local businesses, no doubt largely because business (and local government!) are the ones paying for what’s left of the papers’ advertising.

Today’s headline, and the line-up of promotional videos for the new-look BoP Times says it all, really. (Disclosure: I had a weekly column-writing gig for the BoP Times last year. Briefly.)


New Werewolf

Issue 35 of the online newsmagazine Werewolf is up with lots of good stuff, including Gordon Campbell’s lead looking at problems a lot of people face finding a primary healthcare provider in their area. It’s titled “When Local GPs Are a Closed Book.” Gordon also investigates the conditions workers face in the NZ movie industry in “Acting Under Orders“.

There’s some satirical relief from Lyndon Hood, too, writing about Planet Key, or Planetki.

I have a couple of articles in this issue: “When Teaching Becomes Preaching“, looking at the latest round in the religion-in-schools debate; and “A Broader Union“, which follows up an iwi-CTU hui held in Tauranga in September, and looks at whether Māori can exercise some of their increasing economic muscle in favour of workers.

A New PR Union at the Port

So Ports of Auckland can sign collective agreements after all. It just did so with a new “union” called PortPro, which apparently has 33 members. (Auckland Now!, on the Stuff site,  has better coverage than the Herald, so far. Though this earlier report, from September, is interesting in raising good questions about who’s behind the “union”.)

NBR actually has some (more would be good) reporting on something I was wondering about, writing: “Ports of Auckland could find itself in breach of its good faith obligations to the Maritime Union by signing a collective agreement with a rival new union, an employment lawyer says.”

Setting up “company” or “yellow” unions is, of course, a tried and trusted tactic in busting unions, which it’s clear POAL is engaged in. The Port of Tauranga has several of these unions, which I briefly described a few months ago in a Werewolf piece on the so-called Port of Tauranga model. These “unions” offer the bosses a lot of advantages. First there’s the obvious one of weakening the union that the employer is intent on busting by siphoning off members who can later work as scabs; second, by making agreements that are better and cheaper for the employer; third, as academic James Reveley has pointed out, they’re great for PR. And this point is actually the most important, and the one MUNZ will need to work hardest to counter.

Reveley, for example, wrote about a 2001 dispute at South Island ports that was portrayed in the mainstream media as being a demarcation dispute between two unions. He quoted NBR, which described it as “about an entrenched union trying to muscle aside another union and hold back progress on New Zealand wharves”. One of them was the Amalgamated Stevedore’s Union, which isn’t CTU affiliated and whose membership rules specifically refer to employees of the labour hire firm New Zealand Associates Limited — that is, a company specific union.

But whatever the facts of the matter, both will be called unions by the employer, by the “union” and by the mainstream media, end of story. That’s not the place to engage this fight.

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Workers Unite!

When the Socialist Workers Party candidate for the US Presidency, James Harris, visited NZ for a couple of days, I went to Ngaruawahia and listened in on his chat with some Horotiu meat workers not long off the picket lines in the 3-month Affco dispute. The very next week, the CTU Runanga and a group of iwi leaders held a hui in Tauranga to talk about sticking together a bit more in the future in the interests of low-wage workers, particularly Māori workers/union members. It was the group of iwi leaders that played a key role in ending the Affco dispute, flexing their economic muscles — and mana — around the negotiating table. Which led to my writing a column for the BOP Times putting both together — or trying to anyway.

The thing is, I’m never sure if or when the BOP Times will put my Saturday columns online. That one’s not up yet, so I thought I’d link to the pdf here. Meanwhile, I’m working on a longer piece about the hui and the idea behind it for Werewolf… Howwwwlllll…. And there’s a bit more about it in the post just below this one, Workers as Beneficiaries.

Workers as Beneficiaries

There’s been a fair amount of coverage of the role iwi leaders played in ending this year’s 12-week Affco dispute, including that they flexed their economic muscles by reminding Talley’s, Affco’s owner, that Maori own 4.5 million worth of stock and send a good chunk of it to Affco plants for processing. The iwi leaders indicated they could possibly rethink that if the dispute that was having a disproportionate impact on Maori workers (because Maori make up a disproportionate part of Affco’s workforce) wasn’t resolved. Which, at that point, it fairly quickly was.

In an effort to cement that worker/union-iwi relationship, the CTU Runanga organised a hui this past week in Tauranga that was attended by several of the iwi leaders themselves, and the heads of the country’s major unions.

It was a fascinating day for a lot of reasons, but particularly for what it could — emphasis on could — mean for the future. I’m working on a column and longer article on this nascent alliance,  which clearly has the potential to benefit all wage workers (since what helps Maori wage workers is likely to help all wage workers, and Maori leaders were definitely looking at that broader picture). Could it also help start to change the narrative — the narrative CTU president Helen Kelly talked about at the hui that increasingly portrays workers as beneficiaries of benevolent/charitable bosses?

She’s right. We always seem to roll around on our backs like submissive hounds whenever  a business says it’s going to set up and ‘provide jobs’. Yes, workers need jobs, but it would be great to bring a little balance back into the conversation, and stop treating employers as though they are charities and workers as though they’re getting handouts in a food kitchen.

Given that our employment laws stack the deck in favour of employers, it’s no wonder that narrative has taken hold. There’s been some discussion around the traps about what policies, if you could wave a wand and implement some, would be a priority. I’m still working on my list, but an easy place to start (and absolutely free!!) would be to start changing this benefactor/beneficiary story-line when we’re talking about people who work for a living*.


*’People who work for a living’ would include unemployed workers and others receiving assistance from their fellow citizens, i.e. “on benefits”.