Share Button standard

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Musing on Minto

John Minto wrote an excellent opinion piece in the NZ Herald on Thursday, Oct. 27 about the rise of the juvenile gang culture that has been in the news with the violent attacks over the last couple of weeks. Many of the "street gangs" that are seen as responsible for this violence have been identified in Otara, South Auckland where John teaches, so he would have seen the situation close-up. John blames the violence on "a strong sense of alienation" originating from the poverty rife in places like Otara.
Low income levels result from the low wages many people are paid in casual and insecure employment. The low wage rates mean long hours are worked by parents, exacerbating the situation facing the young in the area. Lack of hope for a better future combined with poor or non-existent parental supervision of, or involvement with, their children (because of work demands), provides a local breeding ground for the imported gang culture celebrated in the music videos, computer games and films many of these kids are exposed to and identify with.
John Minto slates the Labour governments of the last six years for not seriously dealing with poverty. He says that after the introduction of income related rents, "which was a plus", it has been "a long, slow, downhill slide". He says even after the Working for Families package is implemented, 175,000 children will still be living in poverty.
Schools in poor areas are also disadvantaged by up to 25 per cent because of the extra income the schools in wealthy areas can raise from parents and fee-paying students.
He concludes that: "The poor can go to hell in a hand-cart as far as Labour is concerned."
All this is true; to a point. That point is: what would things be like under National? This prospect is disregarded by John.
He does not mention that it was National that cut benefits and smashed-up the unions with the Employment Contracts Act so that non-union low-paid jobs became the norm. Mass poverty was the result.
Of course the Labour administration of the 1984 – 1990 period initiated the neo-liberal reforms that led to massive increases in unemployment through closures and "restructuring" of industries. This was the result of "Rogernomics"; the capitalist-empowerment project that was carried out in the name of "deregulation". That administration, however, flew apart under the weight of the contradiction between the right wing leadership and the working class support-base of the Labour Party. Most of the right-wingers responsible for the 1984-90 betrayal by Labour ended up in the ACT Party or the political wilderness.
Labour has been forced, in words and in some of its practice, to renounce its Rogernomics past. Many of the underpinning neo-liberal legislative changes remain intact (like the Reserve Bank Act) but Labour has repealed and replaced the ECA, for example. Although strike action is still severely restricted by the new law, unions at least have legal recognition and protections they had lost under National.
And no-one could deny that the support of the working class was crucial to Labour's victory in Election 05. This means that a Labour-led government is susceptible to pressure from the working class through its organisations and its independent political action, even if Labour only acts out of a sense of political survival and opportunism. This is why the real masters of the universe on the right want to keep Labour out of governmental power. They want a National-Act government.
A naive or non-political-activist reader could be forgiven for taking from the tenor of John’s Herald article the implication that he must be a National supporter because he comes across as so virulently anti-Labour. Of course this would be a gross misjudgement of John’s politics, but sometimes the anti-Labour vitriol from those to the left of Labour is hard to distinguish from the rantings of those to the right who also wish to destroy Labour.
This is something those of us who wish to build a left alternative to Labour should ponder. The first task of such an alternative is to defend the working class and its organisations from the attacks of the capitalist class enemy and its open agents on the right. Only from that high ground can the genuine left have success in undermining, in the eyes of the working classes, the more insidious support base for capital provided by the mis-leadership of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy.

Friday, October 28, 2005

New Standard article - US 'democracy' - yeah right!

An example of a New Standard report - worth a look at this site (Click title to go to it) or look under Links

House Passes Bill Discouraging Voter Outreach

by Michelle Chen (bio)

In legislation providing much-needed funds to affordable-housing advocates, lawmakers inserted a clause prohibiting recipients from even remote involvement in any electoral activity.
Oct 27 - The link between moving into an apartment and stepping into a voting booth might not be immediately clear, but it is a cornerstone in the work of many nonprofit housing groups -- and a perceived source of political trouble for some conservative members of Congress. The entanglement between housing and politics is now thickening in a controversial proposal to restrict affordable housing funds for nonprofit groups that promote political participation.
The Federal Housing Finance Reform Act of 2005, which passed the House of Representatives yesterday by a vote of 331-90, contains a provision that establishes a national fund for developing affordable housing, by skimming 5 percent off the profits of the government-sponsored home-finance companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
The funding would be a boon to the nonprofit housing sector – worth up to an estimated $1 billion within two years – but it comes with strings attached: nonprofit organizations would not be able to tap into the fund if they have recently engaged in activities that encourage people to vote.
A product of negotiations between a faction of conservative legislators and the House Financial Services Committee leadership, the clause is supposedly intended to prevent grantees from misusing federal funds, but housing advocates have denounced the so-called "gag rule" as dangerously broad.
"They aren't targeting abuse of anything," said Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which advocates on behalf of charitable organizations. "What they're targeting is the activism of organizations that don't think the same way that they do."
Taking Aim at Charity
Under the weight of a nationwide affordable housing crisis, nonprofit groups say the proposed rules paradoxically open doors to equitable housing by restricting access to democracy.
"To build affordable housing and have to sacrifice nonprofit free speech and advocacy rights," said Cohen, "is a bargain that, really, nobody should accept."
The legislation essentially bars nonprofits receiving the government money from spending their own private funds, raised from non-federal sources, on any election-related activity. For instance, grantees could not help people register to vote or host a polling site at a housing facility.
The legislation also restricts grantees from associating with groups engaged in such activities -- a caveat critics fear could break up mutually supportive nonprofit networks through guilt by association. According to a legislative analysis by the government watchdog group OMB Watch, "affiliation" could be defined as funding support that constitutes over 20 percent of a group's yearly budget, overlapping board members, or even a shared computer server.
The proposed restrictions apply to nonprofits for the duration of the grant and are retroactive for a year prior to the funding request. But they would not impact for-profit companies, which already enjoy relatively few limitations on political activities under existing federal statutes. In contrast to their profit-driven counterparts, charitable groups and other nonprofits, are heavily restricted in using their resources to influence government policy, though they can advocate around specific issues.
A broad coalition of nonprofits has argued that the housing fund rules impinge on groups' free expression and association.
Linda Banks, executive director of the housing provider Southwestern Louisiana Homeless Coalition, fears that the restrictions would conflict with her organization's community advocacy work, which involves informing congressional representatives about local housing needs. Moreover, if her organization attended a community gathering where other nonprofits were helping to register voters, she wondered, "does that mean that we'll have to pay back any funds that we were issued because our agency was a participant?"
However, Banks mainly opposed the restriction not out of financial concerns, but on principle. "I'm just afraid that what they're attempting to do with this restriction is to not allow people to practice their constitutional rights," she said.
Nonprofit advocates say the restrictions would cut off a major funding stream for housing groups working to rebuild the physical and civic infrastructure of the devastated Gulf Coast, where the proposed fund would initially be targeted.
Banks said that in the Louisiana communities served by her group, hurricane victims are still stranded in shelters, waiting for homes to be rehabilitated. "Someone needs to be able to build those units," she said. "If we're not allowed to do so, then we won't have the housing inventory to address their needs."
Or, she predicted, the rebuilding effort could be hijacked by "private developers that have no clue -- and no compassion for the very-low- and low-income person."
The housing fund is part of a broader bill that tightens regulations on government-sponsored enterprises, private finance companies established by Congress to facilitate home ownership. After the Financial Services Committee approved the bill in May, a coalition of conservative legislators known as the Republican Study Committee pressured Financial Services Chair Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) to insert the additional housing fund restrictions.
In a letter dated May 25 to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), obtained by The NewStandard, members of the Republican Study Committee warned, "[T]he money from this fund could be used to finance third-party advocacy groups that have agendas… that are antagonistic to the free-market principles we value."
An unsigned memorandum recently circulated among House members contended that the bill "would require the government sponsored enterprises to pump billions into left-wing organizations."
Michael Kane, director of the subsidized-housing advocacy group National Association of HUD Tenants, views the restrictions as part of a conservative agenda to disenfranchise underserved communities.
"They're trying to criminalize democracy," he said, "while allowing unrestrained, government-subsidized… activities by for-profit companies for their own private gain."
More than Bricks and Mortar
Advocates of affordable housing say the connection between political participation and housing work is fundamental to community development.
As community-based institutions, nonprofit housing organizations often serve as a bridge between the advocacy of civil rights groups and low-income and minority constituencies. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, said that housing groups lay the groundwork for political organizing, by helping "to build the involvement of people… so they can protect their communities using the political process."
In voter mobilization drives, Shelton added, housing groups are "strategically positioned" to bring local citizens to the polls.
In the 2004 election season, nonprofit organizations played a major role in promoting voter participation. According to survey data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has led the opposition to the funding restrictions, housing groups registered an estimated 84,000 new voters.
The proposed restrictions could clash not only with the principles of various groups but with existing state and federal laws as well. According to the OMB Watch analysis, electoral reform laws like the Help America Vote Act facilitate partnerships between nonprofits and government agencies to boost voter participation.
Minnesota state law actually mandates that nonprofits receiving state support "shall provide voter registration services for employees and the public."
Chip Halbach, executive director of the advocacy coalition Minnesota Housing Partnership, noted that "state grant dollars go into pretty much every affordable housing unit that gets developed in this state," which would automatically exclude Minnesota nonprofits from the national fund.
For many nonprofit groups involved with affordable-housing work, their voting-related activities never assumed a partisan taint before the ensuing legislative battle.
In the affordable-housing communities managed by the faith-based charity Volunteers of America, voter registration is provided to residents alongside counseling programs and computer training, as part of an array of services.
A national housing fund could be critical in the group's efforts to rebuild damaged units in the Gulf Coast region, many of which house disabled and elderly adults. "We would hate to be precluded," said President Charles Gould, "if there's something we're doing on a daily basis to help people who need help in exercising their rights."
For the Child Welfare League of America, an association of social service providers that also helps develop supportive housing, voter education is as political as a high school civics class. Ruth White, director of the League's housing program, said the restrictions would undermine programs that teach independent living skills to teenagers transitioning out of foster care. Since the goal is to instill a sense of community responsibility, she said, "we can't, in good conscience, not tell these young people… what it means to be of voting age."
Nonprofit advocates say that the bill mistakenly equates encouraging democracy with manipulating votes. Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, pointed out that, like other citizens, "low-income people do not vote as a monolith. They just don't vote enough."
Dismissing the suspicions of conservative officials, she said, "You're left to conclude that people don't want low-income people to vote."
© 2005 The NewStandard. See our reprint policy.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

"Creative destruction" by Air New Zealand

Six hundred workers are to be thrown onto the economic scrapheap by Air New Zealand. The company, which is 82 per cent government-owned, has decided to transfer the heavy maintenance of its aircraft off-shore to Europe and Asia. This is expected to save $100 million over the next five years (ie $20 million a year on average). This is a company that made $250 million profit this year and expects to make $100 million next year. The redundancy costs will be $13 million.

Air New Zealand claims it cannot find enough work for all its maintenance engineers. Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Cullen, washed his hands of the announcement, saying that it is "company business".

This is the government welcomed by the Council of Trade Unions as having a "commitment to an investment approach to economic and social development". The announcement by Air New Zealand of the sacking of a highly skilled workforce is a massive disinvestment in New Zealand. It is reminiscent of the closure of the railway workshops in the early 1990s which destroyed a similarly skilled workforce and dismantled another significant section of this country's industrial infrastructure. The CTU must demand that the government intervenes to prevent this act of economic vandalism.

The early twentieth century economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called closures like this the "process of Creative Destruction, (which) is the essential feature of capitalism". Well he was right about the destruction, but what is creative about it is not so clear. The newly elected Labour-led coalition government should act urgently and "creatively". It must step in to take direct control of Air New Zealand. These jobs can be saved if the government has the will to do so. If the government will not act, the workers can. They should take a leaf out of the Argentinean workers' book and occupy the maintenance hangers to keep them going.

The loss of these engineering jobs is completely unnecessary. It is not about the engineering operation losing money. It is all about return on capital. It is about extracting more profit to ready Air New Zealand for another round of privatisation. The company chairman John Palmer is blatantly promoting a sell-down of the government's shares. The government would do better to take-over the whole company. It could be run as a peoples' co-operative under the control of the workers who, after all, know better than anyone how to operate the enterprise most efficiently.

The need for democracy

Instead of the mantra; "Discipline, discipline, discipline", unions and other political organisations of the left should march to the beat of; "Discussion, debate and democracy".
True united action by an organisation of people fighting for their rights can only be guaranteed by real agreement and understanding that what is decided is the best way for the organisation to further its aims. Such agreement and understanding cannot be assumed, or imposed from above. Discussion, debate and democratic decision-making is needed to ensure "buy in".
Democracy is not an expensive overhead. It is essential to build progressive mass movements. It is the way an organisation establishes and maintains its links with the people it represents. Without the infusion of energy and enthusiasm from new members and the wider and wider politicisation of the mass of the people with a new vision of the future, left organisations ossify. Without democratic participation, inspiration quickly degenerates into bureaucratism. Organisations are likely to wither and die.
Real strength comes from the support and participation of the mass of the people in the implementation of progressive policies. This is what must be fought for. Who is going to join, or build, an emancipating political movement that does not give its members the right to decide what that organisation does?
What is needed is a form of organisation where the leaders advise and the members decide.