The Unite union, lead by former Alliance president Matt McCarten, has an impressive record of recruiting low paid young workers and leading them in a number of militant industrial actions. Whereas other unions, such as the Labour Party-affiliated EPMU and the SFWU, have taken an extremely moderate and conciliatory approach to employers and governments, Unite has deliberately challenged such a collaborationist or partnership approach. Not since the 1980s have we heard union leaders arguing for the need for industrial action and confrontational tactics to raise the living standards and working conditions of their union members. And the evidence points to Unite’s tactics having a positive impact for workers.
Campaigning against poverty wages – the SuperSizeMyPay initiative
The Unite union aims to combine large numbers of supporters behind a campaign against poverty wages. Its strategy is to build campaigns that go beyond the immediate union’s membership base. Such campaigning clearly has the potential for success, as was the case with the Unite-led SuperSizeMyPay initiative. This 2006 initiative against youth rates and low-paid work pressured the Labour Government to both raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and to abolish youth rates for most of the workforce.
This was a significant victory, because over the last two decades mainstream unions have all but ignored young workers, evident in the abysmally low numbers of youth who are unionised and the almost total lack of a union consciousness amongst young people in New Zealand. Unite was able to turn against this tide of low consciousness amongst young workers by building a movement around workers’ rights among young people and students for the first time in a generation.
The $15 campaign for a living wage
Unite unionised workers, organisers and supporters – including this author – are currently collecting signatures, with the aim to collect over 300,000 signatures within the next 12 months. Although this campaign is worthy of support by unionised workers, leftists and the low paid, it unfortunately falls short of seriously countering the current crisis of working class living conditions in New Zealand. The Unite union recently detailed the declining living standards and working conditions of working class people in this country:
Currently 450,000 New Zealanders live on less than $15 an hour and more than 100,000 live on minimum wage. That’s not enough to live in (sic). It’s no wonder that the 30% of New Zealanders on the lowest incomes in 2004 were worse off in real dollars than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile corporate profits increased 11% a year from 2000-2004 and the wealthiest 10% of the population are 21% better off than they were 20 years ago. (From Unite Facebook page)
As Unite leaders have pointed out, this situation of relatively low pay and declining conditions has contributed to, ‘one in five New Zealand children being raised in poverty - a higher rate than in all but three of the world's 26 rich nations.’ (From Unite Facebook page)
What alternatives then, are there to achieve Unite’s aim of getting ‘rid of poverty wages completely and to build a movement of young people committed to getting living wages for New Zealand lowest paid but hardest working workers’?
The limits of a minimum wage campaign
Undoubtedly, a rise of the minimum wage to $15 per hour would alleviate some of the worst excesses of poverty for the working poor in New Zealand. However it would do little to ameliorate the declining real working conditions and wages of hundreds of thousands of other workers who earn more than $15 per hour. Likewise, it will do little for workers who have had their hours reduced and conditions slashed, and of the ever increasing numbers of workers thrown into impoverishment through unemployment and redundancies.
Under the fifth Labour Government minimum wages went up significantly. This was partly as a result of campaigning by unions such as Unite and partly due to favourable economic conditions and a labour shortage in low paid areas of the economy. However, just because the minimum wage levels increased under Labour – and now also during the first part of National’s term – this does not necessarily mean that wages have increased generally. Many wages are failing to keep up with inflation, and hence someone earning $15 an hour back in 2000 might still be earning $15 an hour in 2009, and any future minimum wage increases will not necessarily affect them at all.
So despite the Labour and current National governments raising minimum wage levels, this has only benefited one section of the workforce. It has still left hundreds of thousands of other workers with declining real wages, and obviously provides no benefits to the increasingly numbers of unemployed. For a remarkable communication of the difference the previous Labour Government appeared to have made to the minimum wage level compared to the previous National government in the 1990s see the chart from the Labour blog The Standard:
Clearly, these increases in minimum wages over the term of the fifth Labour government, and with the increase given by the current government, need to be balanced against all the other areas in which these governments have been anti-worker. So the minimum wage issue has to be contextualised rather than being allowed to be taken as an indicative measure of improvement in working class conditions.
Campaigning for the state to improve workers’ conditions
Implicit in Unite’s current campaign against poverty wages is the idea that the capitalist state can solve workers’ wage problems. Unite’s leadership has not been hesitant to use militant actions and industrial actions to raise the living conditions of its members. However Unite leaders, including Matt McCarten, do tend to fluctuate between a militant unionist position and a more ‘social democratic’ approach of applying political pressuring on the capitalist state through more moderate negotiating and campaigning. The current campaign for a living wage does not seem to advocate industrial action to win higher wages, but follows the general Council of Trade Unions (CTU) line of using non-militant tactics to pressure the government.
At a conference of the far-left Workers Party in 2008, McCarten succinctly pointed out the limits, and the possible damage caused by the use of such moderate strategies. He discussed how wages and conditions had increased to some degree under Labour with the raising of the minimum wage on several occasions and with a watered down version of the draconian Employment Contracts Act in the form of Labour’s Industrial Relations Act. Unions such as the CTU and EPMU played a role in negotiating and pressuring the Labour government for these ‘pro-worker’ initiatives. But McCarten criticized this as an ‘elitist’ approach for social change that acted to disempower workers who played little or no role in such lobbying of the state. The negative result of this elitist approach is that it is the state and the parties of government that are able to claim the political kudos for such measures, instead of the workers and unions showing that their flexed muscle can achieve higher wages. Hence in the last election Labour made much of its increases to the minimum wage despite the reality that in government they showed a strong resistance to pro-worker proposed legislation and initiatives promoted by unions. Thus, the elitist tactics of unions actually played into Labour’s hands while doing nothing to empower workers. This is in contrast to the militant industrial actions led by Unite and other unions such as the NDU, which have acted to raise the level of union consciousness amongst a sector of workers and led to an increase in union membership.
So, is Unite now in danger of replicating the elitist strategies advocated by conservative CTU leaders in terms of leading a moderate campaign to pressure the state to improve workers conditions? Unite’s petition to raise the minimum wage can act to positively highlight the need for a fight for living wages. But even if Unite’s non-binding referendum places pressure on the government to raise the minimum wage, this is likely to play into the government’s hands in a similar way that Labour was able to take the kudos for successive increases in the minimum wage throughout its three terms. Also, a victory brought about through a petition and referendum will do little to empower workers and to highlight the need for militant industrial action and politics to fight against poverty and deteriorating working conditions.
The need for a radical programme
The global capitalist system is in a historic crisis unseen since the world-wide depression of the 1930s. Western governments, including those in North America and Europe, have aimed to ‘socialise’ the debts and losses of the major financial and industrial corporations through measures including short-term nationalisations and bail outs to the tune of billions of euros and US Dollars. Clearly, it is working people and not capitalists who are paying for this crisis.
New Zealand workers are not immune to this global recession. They face the threat of rising inflation, which acts to decrease the value of current wage levels, as well as a sharp increase in unemployment, attacks on social services and real cuts in wage and salary levels with slashes in working hours of underperforming companies.
Although Unite’s campaign to raise the minimum wage will benefit a sector of the workforce, it will do little to counter the significant attacks of workers living standards due to the international crisis of capitalism. So, what can be done?
The labour movement has a formidable task of maintaining even current working class living standards and social gains in the context of the current global recession. Certainly, campaigns centred on increasing wage levels through state intervention will alleviate the worst excesses of poverty for some. But such state-centred campaigns are not adequate to counter the crisis of living standards. What is needed is for the labour movement to embrace a radical programme that counters the negative effects of inflation, unemployment, growing underemployment and economic recession. Such a programme also needs to point the way to socialism as an alternative to the international capitalist system.
What’s to be done?
One measure that would act to counter growing unemployment would be a fight for a 30 or 35 hour week with no loss of pay. A second measure to counter inflation would be a sliding scale of wages whereby all wages, salaries and benefits automatically increase in relation to real inflation. Of course, ‘respectable union leaders’ would view such radical measures as totally unrealistic and unaffordable. However, anything short of such ‘extreme’ measures will at the very most only soften the pain of rapidly declining living standards amongst the New Zealand working class. Unions such as Unite could lead the way in promoting such a radical programme.
Employers undoubtedly will counter such measures by claims they are unable to afford such measures, or even by shifting production overseas to low wage countries. Workers can act to counter such measures through forcing companies to open their financial accounts and through occupations and expropriations of worksites and industries. Recently such measures have been carried out by unions in Venezuela and amongst militant workers in France.
Such measures could only be forced upon employers and the state by a intransigent militant campaign led by the largest trade unions in New Zealand. The Unite union has shown that a layer of young workers are not afraid to take up militant tactics to increase their pay and improve their working conditions. Unite has been able to recruit thousands of workers to the labour movement through a series of industrial actions and through building youth centred campaigns. A militant campaign that aimed to address the immediate needs of the wider workforce, as well as growing unemployed, would have the potential to attract large numbers to a movement centred on radical demands.
Transcending the limits set by capitalism
A legitimate response by leaders within the union movement, and of moderate parties of the left, is that with capitalism in a significant crisis, radical proposals such as a 30 hour week with no loss of pay are unrealistic and unaffordable. This poses the question of whether the labour movement should limit its demands to what is possible under the profit-centred economic system we live under? Over the last several decades social democratic and socialist parties, as well as trade unions, have lowered their horizons significantly, due partly to the end of the ‘long economic boom’ in the early 1970s. But previously, leftwing parties saw the need to transcend the limits of capitalism and to create a system based on not private ownership but on collective workers’ ownership and not on private profit but on social need. Unfortunately the contemporary left generally limits its demands and aspirations to what is perceived as possible under capitalism and what is perceived as tolerable to the business and state elites.
The Unite union’s campaign for a living wage fits within this ‘politics of the possible’. The failure of the left globally to counter the decline in workers living conditions over the last few decades, as well as a failure to adequately react against attacks on welfare and social systems, points to the failure of not being prepared to transcend the limits of capitalism. Anything short of a campaign of radical demands, backed up by a militant union centred action, will unfortunately be wholly inadequate to counter the crisis workers face.
Download the petition form and background information here.
Download Ten Good reasons to Sign the Petition (2 double sided A5 Flyers on A4 sheet) here.
Sign up for the campaign newsletter here.
Join the $15 an Hour Campaign Facebook group here.