By David Colyer
‘We are the 99%, we are the 99%...’
‘And so are you!’ someone added, calling out to the many on-lookers.
‘Join us,’ others called, and people did.
Two French rugby supporters clapped their hands in approval. ‘We have the same problem in France’ they said. They too were the 99%.
There were many veteran protests of course (some perhaps wearing their ‘Returned Protester Association badges that were handed out at the recent celebrations of the 30th Anniversary of the Springbok Tour), as well as those drawn in via recently emerged movements like the student protests at Auckland University or the Mana party. There were those who had protested before (but not for a while) and many who were taking to the streets for the first time.
All inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a protest that was more than just marching from A to B, the idea of being part of a global movement, the start of something new.
What are the issues?
The policy of not having a list of demands has infuriated many critics and more that a few supporters of the movement. But it seems to have worked.
Importantly, it has allowed groups and individuals to bring their own concerns, and I’m sure it will encourage people to think about how these diverse issues are linked to corporate domination. Many would agree with the sentiments of the Aucklander whose placard said ‘I’m here for so many reasons’.
Some of the reasons expressed in the placards and banners and Facebook comments:
* The wealth gap between the rich and the rest, growing ever wider as real wages stagnate or fall, while productivity and profits soar.
* The slow response and lack of preparation to the Rena oil spill, which was the long predicted consequence of the deregulation of the shipping industry.
* Unemployment, scapegoating of beneficences and the lack of opportunity even for skilled and educated.
* The expansion of coal mining and oil drilling, which threatens more oil spills, when accelerating climate change means we should be moving away from fossil fuel extraction and cutting CO2 emissions.
* The failure of the Crown to honour the Treaty’s commitment to tino rangatiratanga, leaving Maori dispossessed in their own land.
* And, last but not least, capitalism, corporate control and the corruption of democracy by the rich elite.
Despite the general assumption that the mainstream media would either not cover the protests or simply dismiss them, some of the coverage, particularly on the TV3 and NZ Herald websites has generally been good. Stuff (Dominion, Press etc) on the other hand has been poor, claiming splits and disorganisation in the Wellington movement and posting a rambling, poorly edited amalgam of local and international coverage focusing on a movie star’s alleged attendance at the Auckland protest.
Earlier in the day the Herald suggested that 2000 people were planning to attend the Auckland event, taking the number ‘attending’ on the Facebook event page literally. This is usually not a good idea. On the train into town a friend speculated that this was a deliberate ploy by the Herald to discredit the movement when far fewer turned out. I just assumed the reporter had never organised an event with Facebook before.
So what were we hoping for? As one even organiser put it, ‘the rule is usually divide by three and subtract 100’. That’s about 560 people. In the event there were clearly more than this. TV3 said ‘thousands’, and posted a video on their website. I would guess it was a very respectable 1000. The media doesn’t always under-estimate protests, although Christchurch demonstrators are adamant their was well over 100, not the 30 reported on Stuff.
Another questionable TV3 claim was ‘Anti-capitalism protesters have gathered in centres across the country’. This is true in the sense that there were many anti-capitalists activists at each of the protests.
But it’s also clear and needs to be respected within the movement that many people are not comfortable with that label. Some are at pains to point out that they are against corporatism, not capitalism in general.
It’s important for anti-capitalists to respect that distinction, if the movement is to continue to attract a broad range of people.
At the same, we could point out that the concentration of wealth and power into hands of the 1% and their corporations is the inevitable result of capitalism and has been a central feature of the system for well over 100 years.
Even the highly regulated welfare state capitalism of the 50s, 60s and 70s was dominated by corporate monopolies, even if a powerful (but all too often bureaucratised) union movement ensured workers got a much higher share of the wealth their labour produced.
Workers rights under attack
The differences between then and now, the why and how the percentage of wealth and income going to the 1% has sky-rocketed was bought home in conversations I had with two of the many workers employed in around Queen Street for the duration of the Rugby World Cup.
Street cleaners, security guards, transport guides, and no doubt many more, are working long hours for low pay to make the World Cup a success.
One worker I spoke to had just a two-hour gap between finishing one shift and starting the next.
Another, who was able to join the protest for a few moments before his shift started, told me a co-worker sleeps in his car because there’s no time to go home between finishing one day and starting the next.
In 1987, when the first Rugby World Cup was played in New Zealand, union-negotiated awards would have ensured these workers got paid penal rates (time-and-a-half, double-time or even triple-time) for working on a weekend, working late at night and working more than eight hours in a day. Which might actually make the exhaustion of a double shift worthwhile.
As one cleaner said, ‘the rich get richer...’ And here’s how:
* In the public sector, cutting wages and contracting out helps central and local government to reduce business rates and cut taxes for the wealthy.
* In the private sector lower pay and higher workloads means corporations, like Dutch multinational First Security, gets to keep a far bigger cut of what it gets paid for the work it’s employees carry out.
The Occupy movement is all about not only highlighting injustices like these, but finding ways to do something about it.
At the very least we should invite the RWC workers down to the Aotea Square Occupation for a chance to relax, an opportunity to talk about their situation and maybe a more comfortable place to sleep.