Monday 20 August 2007

John Minto- Race, sex, class – and the greatest of these is class

Race, sex, class and the greatest of these is class

Lincoln Efford Memorial lecture – address to WEA Christchurch – 19 July 2007

E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga hau e wha – tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa


Those of us active in politics in the 1970s and 1980s will recall the interminable debates about race, sex and class within all manner of progressive organisations, protest groups and social agencies.

Anti-apartheid meetings could be dominated by debate about patriarchal processes, peace groups about institutional racism, union meetings about representation of women.

If feminist ideas had gained a head in the 1970s it was race which gained the upper hand in the 1980s.

Donna Awatere Huata produced the Maori sovereignty articles and study groups developed to examine and discuss these in much the same way Marxist or feminist groups had done previously.

This debate about oppression, double oppression and triple oppression occurred largely within the liberal middle class.

It reached a climax in the mid 1980s with many erstwhile stable groups and sensible people imploding or exploding, unable to hold together because the conflicting views within them developed greater strength than the political glue which bound them in a common cause.

While all this angst was going on a revolution took place. Almost while our backs were turned, while most of us were distracted perhaps, Rogernomics ripped the heart out of our economy and in a few short years destroyed what two generations of the welfare state had established. Within a few months the term welfare state went from a positive expression of pride in being a New Zealander to a term of embarrassment while the term free-market was now celebrated as the basis for the new economy.

Our state assets were sold for a song to foreign buyers with New Zealand partners such as Michael Fay and David Richwhite. Telecom was sold for $4.25 billion to American companies Ameritech and Bell Atlantic. Over the time they owned it they extracted some $12 billion in profit and then sold it for a further $12 billion. They could not believe our simple stupidity. Our 4 major banks are all owned in Australia with typically $2 billion each year crossing the ditch in profits. This year is an especially good harvest for the Aussie capitalists with $3 billion in bank profits predicted.

Under this Labour inspired restructuring relatively well-paid skilled and semi-skilled jobs disappeared and were replaced by low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs. This continues today where there is plenty of work but of poor quality. Families on low incomes now typically have several family members working long hours on low pay to bring in enough income. It is called over-employment and is the scourge of families and communities. It exacerbates social breakdown and everything that goes with it.

Having set working New Zealanders going backwards Labour was voted out in 1990 and National took over the remorseless battering of low-income families. The Employment Contracts Act made it very difficult for unions to organise and defend working conditions while National embarked on a ruthless “blaming the victims” strategy whereby benefit levels were slashed and whole communities were plunged into poverty. I won’t detail this here, the figures are well known.

The state has been downsized. Labour and National governments have themselves passed legislation such as the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Sector Finance Act and its various amendments to reduce the power of New Zealand government’s to govern. Politicians are not to interfere in the economy – that is the place of the business barons.

The criminals who did this, for enormous crimes against the people of NZ they were, are well known. From Labour they were the likes of Roger Douglas, David Lange, Mike Moore, David Caygill, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett with Phil Goff and Helen Clark as sideline supporters. From National they were the likes of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Bill Birch and Jenny Shipley.

The question has often been asked as to how this process could have been driven through by a Labour government. The answer is because Labour is a middle class party. This middle-class constituency was rewarded by David Lange with social policy changes such as anti-nuclear and gay rights legislation while Roger Douglas hammered the hell out of working New Zealanders. The impact of these new right economic policies was felt by working class families while the middle class – the heart of Labour activism – was largely protected.

We are left with a stripped down economy. We own virtually none of our major economic infrastructure. Local and foreign capitalists have just about taken the lot. Even Fonterra will soon join the list of overseas owned companies because it is being put on a path from farmer co-operative to share market entity.

It’s very important we don’t see these as policies from the past. These policies are here now. The 1980s and 1990s live on virtually untouched even after eight years of the current Labour government.

New Zealand is a now essentially an overseas farming operation. Four million human sheep being farmed by a motley assortment of currency speculators and international bankers alongside local and foreign capitalists.

Back to race and sex
The ideas of race and sex which gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s were long overdue in being recognised within the progressive movement. Attitudes to the role of women are different today, generally speaking, than they were in the 1960s while Maori nationalism has also changed attitudes to Maori although more importantly it has changed Maori aspirations for themselves.

Where are we today with both these movements? Here’s my white, middle-class, male view!

Feminism sought to empower women in their own right (a bit like the black consciousness movement sought to empower black South Africans through pride in their race) and to gain equality of opportunity with men. “Girls can do anything” developed from this. Women are now more visible across all occupations, partly through changing attitudes but also through the need for two working parents to bring in a decent income for most families. Social relationships have also changed somewhat. In traditional two-parent families men are more involved in the upbringing of children and can be seen unselfconsciously wheeling their kids around in prams – not just in the middle-class areas but also sometimes in working class communities.

To find out how much things have changed or not changed we should still ask who cleans the toilet in the house. When young boys see their fathers go clean round the bend with a toilet brush then we may see a paradigm shift in social relationships over a generation. For now it is still usually women who wield the toilet brush.

Women still remain paid well below the levels men are paid – around 80% of male earnings. Partly this is because traditionally female jobs such as nursing and clerical work are underpaid and also because women are often seen still as part of a temporary workforce till they have children.

We often see quoted the huge progress of women judged by the likes of two women prime ministers in a row, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, Sian Elias (Chief Justice) Margaret Wilson (parliament’s speaker), and Theresa Gattung (until recently CEO of Telecom, New Zealand’s largest company)

This can be argued is evidence of progress for women but is it? It’s certainly only progress within the capitalist model. It has done nothing for women cleaners for example who received a 35c an hour increase in pay last year and a 35c an hour increase this year. For women in working class families it is a greater struggle now than ever before and it continues to get tougher. For example from 2000 to 2004 the percentage of Pacific Island families suffering severe hardship increased from 16% to 30%. For the most part it is women who bear the brunt of that statistic.

The progress of women is contained and constrained by the structure of our economy. It is a straitjacket for working women little different from the corsetry of 50 years ago.

So while the feminist struggle has largely impacted on the middle-class women the benefits for working class women have been illusory.

The Maori renaissance
The Maori renaissance which developed from the early 1970s driven by young Maori activists was a big challenge to Pakeha New Zealand. I grew up in Dunedin where Maori were all but invisible. They were on the pages of the social studies text books but no-where in real life. When I shifted to Napier at the age of 12 it was to a whole new world where brown faces were common and Maori were real people.

The struggle was led initially by the likes of Nga Tamatoa and then by young Maori activists in the Waitangi Action Committee, supported in different ways by Pakeha groups.

I recall vividly a comment from the then head of the New Zealand Maori Council, Graham Latimer, who spoke about his role being to get his foot through the door which WAC had forced open. The Treaty of Waitangi settlement process was set up in the 3rd Labour government (1972 to 1975) with the opportunity for Maori to have future breaches of the Treaty heard and addressed. However it wasn’t until the fourth Labour government and the activist campaigning of young Maori spurred on by the debates and challenges to Pakeha New Zealand around the 1981 Springbok tour that the tribunal was finally given the power to look back at past grievances. This process has given power and status to iwi groups and tribal authorities but it has been a development captured entirely within a capitalist economic model.

A couple of weeks back National Party leader John Key was applauding the financial results of Tainui who had a disastrous first few years with their $170 million treaty settlement money but have now “turned it around” and are looking for better returns on their investments.

Maori in urban areas have been largely separated from the process and it has not been of significant economic benefit to Maoridom as a whole. Instead the benefits have gone to a narrow group within Maoridom. A few years back I made enquiries of a number of tribal trusts and Maori authorities on behalf of a number of Maori students seeking scholarships for tertiary study. It was clear that if a Maori student was not actively involved with the tribe there seemed no possibility of gaining financial support through their iwi for urban-based Maori students.

It is very important to understand that despite the Treaty of Waitangi processes and the return of economic resources to tribal authorities Maori are still going backwards. For example, from 1987 to 1993 the proportion of Maori households living in poverty doubled for the reasons given earlier. What about the last few years? The Ministry of Social Development’s living standards report showed that from 2000 to 2004 the percentage of Maori families suffering severe hardship increased from 12% to 20%.

So where did the money go?
Between 1981 and 1995 the disposable income of the poorest 10% dropped by 19%. For the top 10% it rose by 18%.

Maori economic progress is no better now than before the Treaty process began.

Race, sex and class today
Where is the focus for the struggle of women and Maori today? The former seems to be within the equal opportunities and equity arguments while the latter is largely focused on the Treaty of Waitangi process. Both are laudable within themselves but neither offers a fundamental challenge to capitalism which together confines us all – women, Maori and even Pakeha men!

So where does the progressive movement stand today? Still relatively weak but I think less befuddled and misguided. I think there is a deeper appreciation that the enemy is capitalism itself and its political agents in parliament.

I want to challenge some commonly held beliefs among progressively minded New Zealanders about where the direction ahead may lie:

Myth (1) We had a great society here in New Zealand pre-1984
The generation which grew up in the depression ensured their children would see greater security, better health and education and steadily improving living standards. But it never was nirvana, it was just that there was a safety net put in place to prevent whole communities from sliding into poverty. It was instead the hollow society described by Bruce Jesson in one of his books. The values we thought were immutable had feet of clay. This was the reason it was all so quickly overturned in 1984.
Our pre-1984 economy was based on capitalism. This means it was based on private ownership of community assets and their development for private profit. Becoming a capitalist is a simple case of having enough money to buy shares in a company that owns such assets and which employs people to produce goods and services from them and in so doing make profits from both the assets and the work of the employees. It is essentially a parasitic relationship between non-working shareholders and the people employed to add value to the assets owned. Looking out for oneself and becoming personally enriched are seen as the desirable ends.

Myth (2) Rational argument will bring significant improvements

I’ve sat across the table from negotiators on behalf of some large companies over the past 18 months negotiating to improve wages and conditions of work. It gives a very clear insight into the cutting edge of capitalism. It’s a system which incentivises low wages and high profits. I’ve met some appalling people in the process. People who have a contempt for workers and an even greater contempt for workers organising together in unions.

The negotiations are toughest for workers who are the lowest paid.

Let me mention here a few examples:

The food court at the departure lounge at Auckland International Airport is run as a joint venture between Host Marriot Services Corporation and Auckland International Airport Limited. Workers have no guaranteed hours of work. The roster gives a start time but the end time could be anywhere. “The shift finishes when the supervisor releases the employee” You are expected to be available for full-time work but can work for one hour or 11 hours and are paid for just the hours you work.

Their negotiators are Teesdale and Associates comprising Tony Teesdale who prides himself on his role in stripping out penal rates from workers pay packets under the Employment Contracts Act, and David Munro, chair of the BOT at Henderson High School and prominent member of the Labour Party.

A couple of weeks ago I had a call from a worker at McDonald’s. When she rang us she was distressed she’s just been taken off the rosters for two weeks – no work, no income. She didn’t realise but the reason was the school holidays and the company wanting to bring on school students on youth rates to take her shifts. A few emails and phone calls later and the company said how it had all been a misunderstanding and they would work to get her a full round of shifts the following week.

Burger King:
The company is the most addicted to youth rates and minimum wages that I’ve come across. It is run by a small groups of local capitalists who have purchased the franchise for BK in New Zealand. The less said about them the better.

Independent Liquor:
This is the company begun by Michael Erceg in the late 1980s. After he died in a helicopter crash the firm was sold to Pacific Equity Partners – an Australian private equity firm – who are in it to squeeze more profit before they sell and move on.

The company employs mainly Maori and Pacific Island workers paid much lower rates than brewery workers at Lion or DB. It has a well established culture of bullying and intimidation of workers and union members on the site and it is this which has kept wages so low for so long. The company says they pay “a fair rate for this area” – in other words they pay a South Auckland rate of pay (The company is based in Papakura)

Last year despite the threats and intimidation union members took three days of strike action which resulted in the first collective employment agreement in the 20 year history of the company. The response from the company? No fewer than seven disciplinary cases taken against union members since then with two, including a union delegate, sacked. One worker took his own life eight days after being sacked by the company. Unite Union has filed a case for wrongful dismissal.

We are in negotiations with the company again and they have offered a 2% pay rise to union members while those not in the union have received 3.5% to 7%. It is illegal for them to do this but the processes to challenge this through the ERA are long and difficult.

These workers can’t do it on their own. They need public support. Independent makes RTDs (Ready to Drinks) such as Woodstock. Boycott the stuff – tell you families and friends – Don’t crack a woody – crack the company instead.

Rational argument across the table is a waste of time. Eloquence counts for 1%. Instead it’s about power – how many have joined the union and how much economic damage do workers have the capacity to inflict on the company. It’s as crude as that.

Two other points should be born in mind when it comes to rational argument.

Firstly our media is run by capitalist enterprises and any discussion about alternatives to capitalism is heavily constrained. It revolves instead around the interests of the middle class. Working class New Zealanders are all but absent. Think for a moment how the Listener magazine changed from a thoughtful, intelligent forum of discussion to a middle-class lifestyle magazine.

Secondly capitalism relies on the allegience of the middle class. When you’re a few steps up the ladder you are motivated to preserve your position by going along with the rubbish dished out to workers. Labour party supporters did it in the 1980s and they are doing it today.

Myth (3) The Labour Party is the answer
Perhaps I’ve said enough already to convince you this is a myth.

With Labour I’m reminded of Bishop Desmond Tutu who when he was asked about the value of foreign investors putting conditions on businesses to improve life for black workers in South Africa said “We don’t want our chains made more comfortable – we want them removed”. And so it is with Labour. Lets look at some of their key initiatives.

(a) Income related rents: Yes a positive step forward – possibly the most important step Labour has ever taken.
(b) Four weeks holiday: Yes, another positive step, but why are we just about the last country in the OECD to get this?
(c) Raising the minimum wage: Yes it’s now up to $11.25 but after eight years of Labour it still hovers around 50% of the average wage. (Internationally the benchmark for respectability is 67%)
(d) Working for Families: This is in effect a subsidy for the corporate sector so that companies never have to pay liveable wages.
(e) Kiwisaver: National Leader John Key was right last month to describe this as a tax cut for those on high incomes. Most low-income families will not be able to join. It also marks the beginning of the end for national superannuation.
(f) 20 free hours of early childhood education for 3 and 4 year olds. Yes but the way it has been implemented is not the basis for decent early childhood education. Instead it’s a recipe for the corporate sector to extend its dead hand through the sector.

It was interesting to see Labour MP Shane Jones getting stuck into Fay and Richwhite in parliament last month. Jones called them every name under the sun behind parliamentary privilege. But he should also have lambasted his own colleagues. Helen Clark sat around the cabinet table while the Labour Party prepared the ground for them to plunder New Zealand.

Should we all join Labour to boost its policies from the inside? This strategy was adopted by the old Hotel and Hospital workers Union (now the Service and Food Workers Union) and they succeeded in getting no fewer than seven current Labour MPs into parliament. Lianne Dalziel, Dave Hereora, Rick Barker, Mark Goshe, Sue Moroney, Darien Fenton and Taito Philip Field. The first part of the strategy worked but they forgot the second part.

The Maori party and the Green party have provided some relief on some issues from the relentless march of capital but in themselves they are both limited.

The Maori Party has brought a fresh face to politics and an inherent sympathy for low-paid workers but have shown a serious lack of maturity when it comes to race. Let’s look at three examples: The refusal to criticise Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (because the party didn’t have all the facts or some such excuse); the support in court given to the fraudster Donna Awatere Huata and the support given to Taito Philip Field when he left the Labour Party. In each case the judgement of the leadership of the party was seriously astray. In each case a “person of colour” was under attack and the Maori party reacted to race rather than the facts.

The Green Party shows flashes of brilliance but has several shortfalls. It has the same inherent sympathy for low-paid workers but it does not have a high profile in the key policy areas of health and education. It seems to be concentrating its efforts in niche areas such as food safety and prison reform and the larger environmental issues such as climate change. These are important issues but the lack of balance must be a serious concern for working New Zealanders. At the same time its important to say that on all legislation affecting working New Zealanders the Greens have had a much better policy than Labour.

Myth (4) Capitalism gives more choice
This is the great virtue of capitalism so we are told. Don’t let nanny state tell you how to run your life! Choice is of course important. Let’s have more of it. But while capitalism expands choices for the ruling elite and the middle-class, it removes choice for the majority because making choices about food, schooling, health, travel, and entertainment requires money.

Myth (5) Capitalism goes hand in hand with democracy
The most fanciful notion put forward by supporters of capitalism is that the economic base of capitalism is somehow synonymous with free speech and democracy. Tales of soviet style communism are held up as spectres for anyone who dares to think otherwise.

The truth is clear on this point at least. Under capitalism voting and free speech are tolerated only until they lead to a serious threat to the capitalist economic structure itself. At this point what poses as democracy goes quickly out the window.

For example on that other September 11th – 1973 this time - the democratically elected government of Chile led by Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup by the Chilean generals led by the murderous dictator Pinochet. The Sandinista government similarly faced armed overthrow while today it is the turn of the Venezuelan government where moves are underway to destabilise another popularly elected government.

The US was at the centre of each of these particular attacks on democracy. The CIA supported and assisted the coup in Chile, funded the “contras” to wage war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and are active in Venezuela today on a mission to preserve capitalism from the “excesses” of redistribution of wealth.

So what would be the outcome of the election of a genuinely left-wing government being elected in New Zealand? It would be actively destabilised by business interests from within and by foreign governments without – (guess who?) Attempts to overthrow it by force would be made if the former steps failed. Democracy and free speech survive here just as long as the accumulation of wealth by relatively small numbers of people is tolerated by those who have become impoverished.

We should not underestimate the degree of cynicism in the corporate sector about democracy. Governments are nothing but a meddling nuisance to capitalists. Their ideal situation is a convergence of corporate power with state power and they have made great progress with this in New Zealand and around the world. Mussolini described this convergence as fascism. We are much closer to this in New Zealand than we think.

Myth (5) Marxism and socialism are dead in New Zealand
Earlier this year the Ministry of Defence in Britain produced a report looking ahead at future threats to Britain. They talk about the growing divide between rich and poor exacerbated by climate change and the possibility of the resurgence of Marxism. They conclude that one of the main threats that Britain needs to be protected from is in fact majority of the world’s population, the poor – including the majority in Britain itself! (Ponder what that says about democracy)

We are all good at sniping at capitalism – I do so myself frequently – but sniping will change nothing. It helps keep alternative ideas alive but what is needed for change is organisation with an unrestricted view forward.

Part of this is to push marxism and socialism back into the mainstream of public discussion in New Zealand. Marx had a very clear understanding and analysis of the structure of society under capitalism. We have to open up discussion with our fellow New Zealanders about the alternatives to the destructive, unethical and immoral system of capitalism.

An indigenous solution is needed

The solutions though must be New Zealand solutions – a New Zealand socialism. There is no linear path to get there, neither is there a blueprint. Venezuela is undergoing a fundamental democratic revolution at present where power is shifting from the corporate sector to local communities. There is enormous resistance from the wealthy elite but local communities are beginning to work their way forward in an environment where they have the space to examine, discuss and debate alternatives to rapacious capitalism.

In New Zealand there are some small but positive signs of progress:

- A slowly growing resurgence of union activity
- National campaigns for better pay (EPMU 5% in 05 campaign, youth rates campaign etc)
- The international anti-war movement and the isolation of the extreme right in relation to the so-called war on terror
- International resistance to globalisation
- The Auckland based RAM campaign at the last local body elections in New Zealand which put big bold ideas out there and gained surprising support for them.
- The Workers Charter project which I’d like to tell you more about.
The Workers Charter is a charter which sets out 10 fundamental rights which every New Zealand citizen should enjoy by right of citizenship. But just what social and economic structure will provide this is not contained in the charter – it is not a blueprint. The Charter says that workers have a right to democracy in every sphere of the community – you can’t say that and then say this is how our society will be organised.

But the charter points towards an indigenous New Zealand socialism. The most important words from my point of view the first words which say

“Every worker is a human being who deserves the right to dignity”

and later where it says

“This (Workers Charter) will involve the complete transformation of our society to serve the needs of the majority rather than the greed of the minority”

That transformation is an exciting and utterly necessary. Lets make sure we put economic transformation back on the mainstream agenda. There are those who have said TINA (There Is No Alternative) – to defend their immoral free market. It’s our job to say another world is possible or TAMA (There Are Multiple Alternatives)

Thank you all very much for the opportunity to speak. I’m happy to answer any questions.

Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui.

Kia ora.

Draft Text of the Workers Charter
(for reference only – not part of talk)
Every worker is a human being who deserves the right to dignity.

For that right to be at the heart of our society, workers need economic justice and democratic control over our future.

But what motivates society today is the selfish right of a privileged few to gather wealth from the productive majority.

Workers are mere commodities, exploited and discarded like any other. Our status in society is worsened by market competition, free trade and commercialisation of public assets.

The wealth of New Zealanders on the Rich List skyrockets. Meanwhile the living standards of the majority fall, and one in three children grow up in poverty here in Aotearoa.

Wars of conquest to control global resources, like the US colonisation of Iraq, expand corporate wealth and power at the cost of mass bloodshed and suffering.

Profit-driven exploitation of the environment is fueling global warming, an oil crisis and other threats to life on our planet.

The end result is massive growth in social inequality and environmental destruction. Our humanity and our environment have been sacrificed to the god of profit. Our ability to resist is undermined by laws that ban most strikes.

As a positive alternative, the Workers Charter promotes these core democratic rights:

1. The right to a job that pays a living wage and gives us time with our families and communities.

2. The right to pay equity for women, youth and casual workers.

3. The right to free public healthcare and education, and to liveable superannuation and welfare.

4. The right to decent housing without crippling mortgages and rents.

5. The right to public control of assets vital to community well-being.

6. The right to protect our environment from corporate greed.

7. The right to express our personal identity free from discrimination.

8. The right to strike in defence of our interests.

9. The right to organise for the transfer of wealth and power from the haves to the have-nots.

10. The right to unite with workers in other lands against corporate globalisation and war.

These rights can only be secured by workers organising to extend democracy into every sphere of the economy and the state. This will involve the complete transformation of our society to serve the needs of the majority rather than the greed of the minority.

The privileged few will resist fiercely. They will use their economic and political power to try to deny workers our rights.

A mass mobilisation around the Workers Charter can give us the strength to win the battle for democracy and reclaim our human dignity.


Duncan Bayne said...

The right to organise for the transfer of wealth and power from the haves to the have-nots.

In short: the right to take the earned which is not yours, & give it to those who have not earned it. That process is known in civilised societies as theft.

Daphne said...

Yes, followers of the famous amphetamine addict Ayn Rand are opposed to theft. Which is why they opposed the use of force and fraud to confiscate the oil wealth of Iraq. Oh no, wait, that's the *consistent* Libertarians who are anti-war. Never mind.