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Who's Flexibility?

category aotearoa / pacific islands | workplace struggles | opinion / analysis author Wednesday October 08, 2014 14:00author by AWSM - AWSM Report this post to the editors

The General Election in New Zealand/Aotearoa took place at the end of September and so its all over and done with. More accurately, the ritual of deciding who will politically rule over us has ended. The election of our bosses in the workplace never happened. The end result in both cases is the same. We are faced with a ruling class that feels emboldened to attack workers when it senses opportunities to do so. The latest piece of ammunition the government is preparing to lob our way comes in the form of a bland sounding piece of legislation, the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. This law was delayed prior to the election, due to the resignation of the now ex-MP criminal John Banks, but will be enacted within the next 100 days. What is the bill about?

The General Election in New Zealand/Aotearoa took place at the end of September and so its all over and done with. More accurately, the ritual of deciding who will politically rule over us has ended. The election of our bosses in the workplace never happened. The end result in both cases is the same. We are faced with a ruling class that feels emboldened to attack workers when it senses opportunities to do so. The latest piece of ammunition the government is preparing to lob our way comes in the form of a bland sounding piece of legislation, the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. This law was delayed prior to the election, due to the resignation of the now ex-MP criminal John Banks, but will be enacted within the next 100 days. What is the bill about?

The first thing to be aware of is that the bill does not represent an innovative departure from the various anti-worker laws that have been enacted over the past 30 years by both Labour and their rivals in the traditionally more right-wing National Party. That doesn’t make it benign. It is a refining of existing legislation that operates alongside other recent laws such as that allowing workers to be fired without explanation within 90 days of being hired, with no right of redress. It is an attack that seeks to take away the few nominal collective protections that exist.

At present there is a requirement for workers to be included in a collective agreement within their first 30 days of employment but this will be stripped. In addition, union representatives will need the employer’s consent to enter the workplace. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this allows bosses to get away with all sorts of mischief and mayhem. Unions will be unable to directly confirm the conditions under which workers do their jobs.

The provision that has drawn the most notice has been the increase in ‘flexibility’ over rest and meal breaks. It may be true that some employers will choose not to invoke this provision as it may not suit them. However, it also enables them to use this as a petty means of victimising any workers who won’t play along with their various plans. Again, the buzz word of ‘flexibility’ applies in relation to the bosses being able to change workplace arrangements as often as they choose. Although strikes are incredibly rare in today’s environment, this bill also seeks to undermine the effect of withdrawing labour, by requiring notification of strikes ahead of time and allows bosses to decrease worker’s pay during partial strikes.

There are other onerous aspects of the bill, but the features mentioned are sufficient to get the idea of what we can expect and who will gain from these changes. In short, it isn’t those of us who rely solely on the jobs we do to eat every day (something we can’t easily be flexible about) and pay our household bills (try arguing for ‘flexibility’ with a debt collection agency!). The real question is…how do we fight the changes?

We don’t have all the answers. We also have to be realistic and acknowledge that many workers are currently demoralised, uninformed and to some extent dis-organised or unorganised. The first part of any fight back has to therefore be a straight forward educational one of telling each other about the new law and what it means for us. This can be done directly through face-to-face discussions, public meetings, leafleting, using internet resources such as Facebook or the alternative media.

Knowledge alone is not enough to make change happen. It requires organisation and that is a trickier area to sort out. Some workers are still organised in hierarchical unions with well-paid full time organisers whose task is to negotiate the rate of exploitation of those they claim to represent. The mentality of many, is to put faith in the same political class that has collectively created the web of laws over recent decades. For example, prior to the election the President of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) Helen Kelly was putting faith in the idea that “In 100 days if Labour and Greens are elected all this negative employment law will be reversed”. This came in a press release labelled ‘Worker’s Despair at National’s Lack of Fairness’. This terminology highlights how she sees her role, namely to get whoever rules over us to please be a little nicer if they wouldn’t mind.

Labour and the Greens took a pounding at the polls. Even if they had found themselves in the dominant position National is now in, it is highly unlikely given their history, that they would have had the backbone or willingness to literally overturn all the negative labour laws that exist.

The third Labour Government in the 1970’s brought in an Industrial Relations Bill that retained many of the anti-strike provisions earlier National initiated legislation had established. This allowed them to de-register unions and curtail union militancy, which they did. Then the fourth Labour Government brought in the Labour Relations Act in 1987 and the State Sector Act in 1988, the latter in particular being introduced without warning or negotiation and was designed to erode conditions for public employees. Anti-worker measures and attacks on collective bargaining were toughened further when National introduced the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. Labour spent 9 years in power during the first decade of this century. In that period they introduced the Employment Relations Act of 2000 which barely modified the 1991 legislation. Throughout their time in power Labour happily took donations from businesses, including billionaires such as Owen Glenn. With a decades-long track record like that, why should anyone put their faith in them as protectors of working people?!

The Labour Party in its very early days made a rhetorical commitment to doing away with the current economic system through reforming it. This had appeal to many workers at the time when it was a fresh, untested idea. However anarchists have always known where that approach would end. Now nearly a hundred years later, Labour is a collection of squabbling factions comprising professional politicians who simply want to manage the system. Being temporarily a little less aggressive than National in one small aspect is hardly a brilliant reason to support them. If anything, it exposes the tweedledumb/tweedledumber nature of how things work and the need to search for ways to break out of that false choice.

Unions as they are now, have weaknesses. Not just in the sense that they currently have limited social power but also in the way that they are inherently structured in favour of the status quo. They are bureaucratic, top-down organisations with leaders who use union positions as jumping off points for seats in parliament or even into the managing of businesses. In short, while current unions may do some good deeds, they are not fighting organisations but designed to work within the economic system. While they can’t really be vehicles for the longer term change that’s required, we have to deal with the contemporary reality that for some workers the current unions are all that exist as a means to deal with the bosses onslaughts.

For those of us in traditional unions the challenge is to combat attempts to channel hopes into voting for political parties and donating time and money to them. We may have to sign the occasional petition, join a mildly irritating demo outside parliament or participate in a one hour stop work meeting but let’s not fool ourselves that this is sufficient. We need to look for opportunities to put forward alternatives that rely on workers ourselves having control over whatever forms of struggle we can develop. We can’t afford to ‘play by the rules’ when the rules the government are using, so heavily favour the bosses. When we can, we should look for chances to build broad alliances with other workers at the flaxworks level. This could be within existing unions, inside new radical ones or non-union community based organisations of our own creation.

When it comes to tactics that can be used, we should consider a wider range of possibilities than has recently been tried. Some may not be appropriate at all times and places. We also have to be aware that not everyone will be willing to go all the way in the implementation of them. Rather than stigmatise such fellow workers or see them as the enemy, we should encourage workmates and associates to lend support in whatever alternative ways they feel able to. Again it is worth stressing we also have to grow awareness and sympathy for our aims in our communities and society at large. Failure to do so will mean a lack of resources, and leave the field free for the bosses to spew their lies, without being countered. This could lead to our organisations being isolated and the development of unhealthy internal cultures of a ‘siege mentality’ or elitism.

The actual tactics used will need to be creatively applied, using the bosses’ mantra of ‘flexibility’ in our own way. For example, a lack of tea breaks could quite likely lead to poor health. This could cause workers to be sick one after the other or even en masse. With around 90% of New Zealand workplaces having 20 workers or less, it would be possible to have a significant proportion of workers suddenly off sick. This could inconveniently happen at the very point when the boss is reliant upon a new batch of products to be dispatched or service to be given. A real shame, but can’t be helped in the circumstances eh. A boss choosing to react vindictively about that is less likely to gain much sympathy if word got out.

One aspect of workers taking action that is sometimes overlooked or underplayed is the need to bring the wider community with you in support of what you are doing. Again, in certain occupations workers feeling stress due to a lack of breaks might accidentally and at random forget to charge customers for certain services. An individual case might change little but the accumulative effect if such accidental events happen at crucial moments, might make a difference. Getting something for free is of course something most customers would feel terrible about.

It is possible the workforce at a site may decide to strike within the confines of the new law. As noted, the law is intended to support bosses by giving them plenty of time to nullify the effect of a strike. Once again, if workers decide to go down this route, it is something that can cut both ways. It can be done using methods that give time to prepare and anticipate the moves the bosses might try. For example, to head off the possibility of bosses withholding pay and thereby starving people back to the company, funds can be put aside a long way ahead of time. These funds can be held in a manner that makes it hard for the bosses or government to get hold of. This may not be in an official union account or controlled by somebody at head office who is unsympathetic to those on the ground. In the age of the internet it might even be under the radar, as it were. This financial contingency plan can be supplemented by the more established approach of openly and covertly appealing for solidarity amongst those who are sympathetic here and internationally.

Another obvious reaction by the bosses to the prospect of a strike, is to prepare ‘replacement workers’ a.k.a. scabs to do the tasks the strikers normally do. The last thing the bosses want is to lose revenue by having the company come to a standstill because there is nobody around to do stuff. Given that the workers would know what the bosses have in mind, this is another opportunity to use the lead time to prepare to make life difficult for the scabs. If anybody knows the ins and outs of a workplace and what makes it tick, it is those who spend most of their time there. We all know certain essential bits of equipment that are needed to make things run smoothly. There is the possibility that those items could unfortunately go missing or somehow becoming disappointingly useless just prior to the strike. For example, computers are becoming vital to every kind of business these days and sadly they are prone to viruses.

These tactics are just some of the elements we could use. You will surprise yourself on how creative you can be when you put your mind to it and vital things are at stake. They should not be attempted without thought or in isolation to other actions, but form part of a co-ordinated reply to the government, the bosses and their new law. Once workers become aware of what we are being threatened with via educating ourselves and realise who our real friends aren’t, we can then begin to organise for ourselves. Instead of tying ourselves in knots on behalf of the bosses and their version of flexibility, we can apply a range of creative techniques that will mean we stand a chance of making the powers that be appreciate the power that we can be. Let’s get started!

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