By Tim Bowen, CWI New Zealand
Its time for the trade union movement and anti-capitalist left to stop bailing out capitalist politicians and fight for a real socialist alternative! Within the last couple of months all households in New Zealand will have received in their letterbox a glossy brochure entitled “The 2004 Budget: What?s In It For My Family And Me?”
The brochure outlines a number of reforms which Labour clearly hopes will be enough to win back working class voters who have become disillusioned by the government?s failure to do something meaningful about the problems of poor public services and the widening gap between rich and poor. Many working class people have become attracted to the policies of Don Brash and the National Party of late because although the Nats cynically target Maori and beneficiaries as scapegoats for the failed economic policies of the last 20 years they do at least connect with the enormous sense of social dislocation felt among the general population. Unfortunately, Labour?s much-vaunted reforms will do nothing to dispel Brash?s racist, populist appeal because the people they will benefit most are not workers, students or the unemployed but rather the class of bankers, stockbrokers and employers.
Bailing Out The System
Through the new “Working for Families” program, Labour is promising that the average New Zealand family will receive an extra $66 per week in the form of extra tax credits, increased family support payments and a subsidy to help beneficiaries in the transition to paid employment. However, like Labour?s promise of 4 weeks annual leave for workers, the full range of new assistance will not be available until April 2007 (which would be dependent on Labour winning another three year term in office in the 2005 general election).
On the surface this looks like a fairly progressive if modest measure that should be supported by all socialists and other activists on the left. But as one supermarket worker delegate from the National Distribution Union (NDU) pointed out at a recent meeting between trade unionists and government ministers in Dunedin, these forms of financial assistance are in reality nothing more than a direct subsidy to employers. The combination of weekly income “top-ups” and increased access to services such as free childcare is really an acknowledgment that for many working people the wages paid out by the boss each week are simply inadequate to meet their basic living needs. The demise of industry-award minimum payments and penal rates for working overtime or antisocial hours or at weekends has meant that today over 400 000 New Zealanders are working on wages of less than $10 an hour. While in the past employers were forced to pay for the upkeep of the labour force (who are after all the ultimate source of all their profits) both through the award system and the welfare state (via progressive taxation), the maturing crisis of capitalism as an economic system combined with the weakening of the worker?s movement over the past two decades means that they are now less inclined to pay out. Instead the expectation is that the government will intervene to bail the employers out and counteract the negative effects of social breakdown on productivity in the workplace.
Even in the field of industrial relations and despite all the huffing and puffing of rightwing business lobby groups such as the Business Round Table and Employers? and Manufacturers? Association, Labour?s so-called “reforms” will do little or nothing to help workers in their fight to secure better pay and conditions. As Labour Minister Paul Swain admitted when cross-examined at the recent Council of Trade Unions (CTU) forum in Dunedin mentioned above, the controversial “anti freeloading” clause in the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill currently before parliament will not actually stop employers from undermining unions by passing on the same pay and conditions negotiated by workers who are part of a collective to workers on individual agreements. These dodgy practices will only be declared unlawful if it can be shown that there is a clear “intent to undermine” on the part of the employer. In other words, unless your boss is a complete neanderthal and goes out and offers a pay rise to his/her non-unionised employees before making the same offer to workers who are on the collective there will be nothing to stop them settling on identical pay and conditions.
Why should we care? Well, because the only way for workers to get a better deal short of having to apply for government assistance is to strengthen their solidarity and collective organisation in the workplace ? and that is very difficult to do when the boss can actually impose a financial disincentive for employees to join a union. The only way to overcome this problem would be to introduce a closed-shop system which would be applied on a sit-by-site basis, through the taking of a simple majority vote. But this, according to both Minister Swain and his bureaucratic allies in the upper echelons of the CTU, would be “unrealistic” and tantamount to “compulsion” (it doesn?t seem to have occurred to the Minister that if simple majority voting is to be abhorred in the workplace then the same would have to apply to parliamentary elections).
Lies, Lies And Damned Statistics
Perhaps the biggest example of cynicism from government politicians of late has come though in the area of tertiary education. In the 2004 Budget Labour trumpeted its own generosity in increasing the parental income threshold at which students under the age of 25 would still be able to access a student allowance. But while the government did indeed increase the numbers of people eligible for a some kind of financial assistance (an extra 12 000 students will now get a partial allowance ? probably anywhere between $1 and $30 a week) it also disqualified 7 000 people who currently receive the full allowance by removing the special parental income assessment-exemption clause for under 25s who are either married or have been financially supporting themselves for the past 2 years. On balance therefore this amounts to a major attack on students from middle-to-low income backgrounds who are already struggling with the burden of having to borrow thousands of dollars each year for the “privilege” being able to participate in Labour?s new “Knowledge Economy”.
The Politics of “Lesser-Evilism”
Unbelievably, after five years of this miserly Labour-led government the leaders of the trade union left (such as Bill Andersen of the NDU) and even some so-called socialist groups are still arguing for workers to give critical support to the government in order to “keep the Nats out”. Frightened by the prospect of losing some of the modest improvements in union access to the workplace introduced under Labour and returning to the era of that notorious piece of anti-worker legislation ? the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) ? militant trade union officials like Andersen see no alternative but to back the government even though Labour has done nothing to reverse the worst aspects of the ECA legislation such as the loss of national awards and removal of the right to strike. Even more worrying though are those people loosely grouped together under the banner of the anticapitalist or global justice movement who confuse Labour?s “progressive” stance on issues such as race relations and foreign policy with a genuine leftwing ideology. 20 years of neoliberal attacks on the working class have not convinced these people that there is an absolute qualitative difference between the Labour Party of Holland, Savage and Kirk which for all its willingness to compromise with capitalism at least had a mass working class base and the party of middle class liberals that Labour has become today.
The reality is that most workers no longer feel any strong allegiance to Labour and are already looking around for a political alternative. Unfortunately though the only parties to the left of Labour ? the Greens and Tariana Turia?s new Maori Party ? while drawing support from among the youth and in Turia?s case also from the tangata whenua ? are at present incapable of appealing to workers other than on the basis of their individual conscience or ethnic identity. Instead we need to build support within the trade union movement for the idea of a new mass workers party that can expose the dishonest and divisive rhetoric of rightwing politicians like Don Brash and Winston Peters and offer constructive socialist solutions to the widespread problems of low pay and lack of access to the basic economic means of subsistence.
We should also be prepared to support those elements within the new Maori Party who are willing to take a clear stand against collaboration with the two main capitalist parties ? Labour and National ? as a positive way of boosting support for the idea of a new mass workers party.
The only other option ? to vote for Labour as the lesser of the two evils ? may seem viable in the short term, but ultimately it gets us nowhere. Even were National to be defeated at the next election come 2008 people will still be finding excuses to call for a vote for Labour. For all those who want to change the world for the better and not merely accept the status quo the only realistic course of action then is to start fighting today for a genuine socialist alternative.