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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Little Room for Marx?

In a question and answer column in the NZ Herald (10 Dec. 2005, pC6) Andrew Little, the national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), said that "unions provide a necessary countervailing force to ensure bad management is challenged and employees’ rights are protected". He continued; "unions that do their job properly play a key role in the labour market by keeping upward pressure on wages, advocating for decent health and safety, providing employees’ perspective on issues like productivity and labour market regulation".
According to Andrew Little, the fatally divided capitalist society that Karl Marx described and analysed in his ground-breaking study, Capital, back in the mid-to-late 19th century, no longer exists. Little admitted Marx’s ideas are among "the most enduring political and economic theories of all time" but he said they were only relevant for Marx’s time "when the excesses and contradictions of powerful capital were at their height". For him, capitalism has "survived fully intact" and Marxist solutions have been proved "not so flash". Therefore capitalism’s existence cannot be challenged in the 21st century.
The six hundred maintenance engineers facing the sack at Air New Zealand might have a different view. For Little it is just a question of setting "bad management" back on the right track. At Air NZ this means cutting a deal by which half the workers lose their jobs and the other half do the same or more work for less pay.
However, it is not "bad management" that is the main problem. At the root of the Air NZ attempt to sack 600 of their engineering workforce are the exigencies of the globalised labour market which pits overseas workers against New Zealand workers. The contradictions of capitalism are still very much alive and kicking.
The French trade unionist, Emile Pouget, explained in his early 20th century pamphlet entitled Sabotage, that workers and capitalists, exploited and exploiters are caught in an "ineradicable antagonism". There is a "fundamental opposition of interests between the two parties" that remains as long as human labour power is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold.
There is nothing more normal in a capitalist society than for the "flesh for toil" to be sought after and bought at the lowest possible price. It is not the labour that the worker supplies that is bought but the very power to work itself, which is then used by the employer to the fullest possible extent while the worker is being paid to be a "wage slave" (to use Karl Marx’s still apt description). The wage paid bears little or no relation to the amount of labour performed. It is supply and demand, bottoming at the lowest possible "necessary" wage to keep a labour supply in existence, that determines the price of labour power: that and the ability of the organised working class to push up wages. Little understands that last part.
Pouget observed that the problem for the capitalists is that "labour power is an integral part of a reasoning being, endowed with a will and the capacity to resist and react". This power to resist has, for as long as people have been exploited by others, led to various forms of revolt. The one that Pouget examined is called "sabotage". This word derives from the French "sabot", meaning wooden shoe, and refers to the clumsy way sabot-clad peasant strike-breakers carried out the work otherwise done by the more skilled and experienced workers who were on strike for better pay and conditions. French workers adopted this word to describe their tactics of simulating such clumsy work in order to put pressure on the capitalist owners to accede to their claims.
Glasgow dockers in 1889 were some the earliest recorded exponents of this form of resistance. Their strike of that year was broken by the employers use of farmhands to load and unload the ships. The scabs worked very inefficiently because of their lack of experience at dock-work. When the strikers were forced to return to work without making any gains in pay they decided to "ca cannie" (ie go slow). They emulated the mistake-ridden work habits of the scab replacements who had now returned to their farms. After a few days of rough cargo handling that led to not a little of it falling overboard or being otherwise damaged, the employers caved in and gave the sought-after pay rise.
The main point being made by Pouget is that workers naturally attempt to restrain the natural exploitative tendencies of their bosses. Other means of direct action, like striking, boycotts, sit-ins and the like are also employed by resisting workers.
No completely "fair" contract is possible between boss and worker because this would eliminate the surplus that makes up the essential profit margin of the capitalist. Only unequal "lion and lamb" contracts exist in this social relationship. From this fact, Pouget explains, "it necessarily follows that in the labour market there are nothing but two belligerent armies in a state of permanent warfare ... between employers and workers there is never, nor ever will be made, a binding and lasting understanding, a contract in the true and loyal sense of the word". Pouget stresses: "Capital and labour are two worlds that violently clash together!"
If Andrew Little started from this inescapable reality of modern society, he might be able to come up with a strategic and tactical response to the proposed closure of the heavy repair facilities by Air NZ that would put workers’ interests first. Instead he clings to the fiction that bosses and workers share a common interest in running efficient work sites, that workers cannot exist without bosses, and that capitalism is the only possible way to organise society.
Air NZ, although it is being run as a profit-making capitalist enterprise, is 82 per cent owned by the government on behalf of the people of New Zealand. Those people, if asked, would, I am sure, rather keep Air NZ running as a safe and essential part of our country’s transport infrastructure than see its existence and safe operation compromised by the requirements of "the market". The main purpose of an airline should be providing safe and reliable air transport, not maximising profits.
The EPMU must mobilise public opinion to force the government to take full control of Air NZ and operate it for the public good. In the event of a shut-down of the repair facilities, workers should stage an occupation of their workplaces until the decision is reversed and their jobs are safeguarded. The Argentinean co-operative movement that grew out of the collapse of capitalism in that country in the 1990s was initiated by worker occupations to prevent the destruction and liquidation of vital manufacturing and transport infrastructure. New Zealand workers should take a leaf out of the Argentineans’ book.
In conclusion: The history of the 20th century was one of wars and revolutions; what has changed in the 21st century? Marxist analysis endures because the conditions it describes endure to this day. While the labour market prevails, the class struggle continues. Denying this can only help perpetuate the destructive capitalist society that daily blights our lives, our environment, and our humanity.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Air NZ unions sell conditons for jobs

Rather than confront the Government, the EPMU (Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union) and the AMEA (Aviation and Marine Engineers Association) unions have turned to an anti-union accounting firm to come up with a cost-saving scheme at the expense of workers conditions to save only half of the more than 600 jobs that Air NZ plans to slash with the shut-down of its heavy engineering aircraft repair workshops.
Michael Stiassny and Brendon Gibson of the accountancy firm Ferrier Hodgson have produced a plan that will mean, according to the NZ Herald, "far-reaching changes in work conditions" in the hope that enough money can be saved to convince the company to save 300 engineers’ jobs.
Stiassny said it was "phenomenal", an "amazing surprise", to see "how far the delegates and members have moved on labour reform." It is "unusual", he crowed, "to see a union make those ... deliverables". He said that because it is so unusual for a union to make such big concessions Air NZ should take advantage of the situation.
Andrew Little, the national secretary of the EPMU, said the accountants’ plan was "a viable alternative" but in selling workers’ conditions in return for an unenforceable undertaking that some jobs will be saved, Little and the unions are playing right into the company’s hands.
Only a few days before the presentation of the union concessions to Air NZ, the company said that even a 25 per cent cut in labour costs would not be enough to save their jobs. In fact Air NZ said only across the board concessions from all 2100 engineering workers could see some of the heavy engineering jobs saved. Chris Nassenstein, Air NZ’s engineering services general manager, said that even changes in shift patterns, removal of penal rates and an "hours bank" to manage the work load would not be cheaper than outsourcing off-shore.
The unions have buckled under to the blackmail of the company which is cynically using the threat of a complete closure of the repair workshops to extract ‘voluntary’ concessions from the workers. Even with the cuts proposed by Stiassny and Gibson proposal, over 300 jobs will go. The workers that remain will have to take a major wage-cut and yet still be expected to do the same or more work.
The company that Stiassny and Gibson work for is known as a "corporate undertaker", having dealt with several high profile company receiverships. In one, a so-called "phoenix" scheme in 1998, a stevedoring company went into receivership and then arose from its own ashes under a new name. This was done to cheat wharfies, who had been made redundant, out of their holiday and redundancy pay. The wharfies, through the liquidator, successfully sued Ferrier Gibson for nearly $2 million.
To think such a company would act in the interests of Air NZ engineers as Andrew Little obviously does is, at the very least, the height of naivety.
Instead of making concessions, the unions should be waging a campaign to force the government, which owns 82 per cent of Air NZ, to take full control of the airline and ensure the engineering repair facilities are kept open.
Threats of closure should be met with an Argentinean-style occupation of the repair workshops. Privatisation of transport has been a disaster for New Zealand as has been seen with the fiasco’s dogging the railways and bus companies. An integrated, planned transport system is only possible through public ownership and democratic control.
The loss of our country’s heavy aircraft repair capacity would be a major blow to our strategically important transport infrastructure. The Labour-led government should act in the interests of the people who elected it and protect the 600 jobs at risk while ensuring New Zealand continues to have a viable national airline.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Cut Out "Pokie" Cancer

What absolute rubbish the apologist for pokie machines was spouting on the Jim Mora afternoon show on National radio today. He implied that people could not lose much money in the machines because they are programmed to return 90% of turnover in winnings. However, he neglected to point out that if the return from winnings is 90% or 95% or even 99%; if it is any figure under 100% (which it must be if owners of pokie machines are to make any return at all); then if you keep playing the machines long enough you will eventually lose all the money you started with.
Say, after an hour you have $90 left from your original $100 (it usually goes much quicker than this). Then after another hour you lose another 10% and only have $81 left. Then after another hour you lose another 10%, and so on and so on, you will eventually end up with a very small amount of money – in practice you will lose all your money sooner or later. In the scenario outlined here you would have less than $10 after 22 hours. It is an inescapable mathematical truth that your money will continue to diminish at an average rate of minus 10% each cycle of the machine (not each hour as in my hypothesis). You must end up with nothing if you play long enough.
Such is the addictive quality of these machines that many people who can ill-afford to, lose thousands of dollars. In cases I am personally aware of people have lost tens of thousands of dollars over a period of months and years. People have lost their homes, been driven insane by the destructive results of the pokie gambling habit, and I am sure some have committed suicide.
It is the poor suburbs that are particularly targeted, with the pokie bars typically being sited right next to those other predators of the poor, the loan-shark shops. It is time to end the pokie culture once and for all. The machines should be banned. The community can raise all the money it needs for useful social purposes in other ways , including taxation on those who can most afford it.
The salient fact is that the longer you play a pokie machine the more you lose. You cannot win in the long run, you can only lose. And you will always lose all your money it you play for a sufficient period of time. This why these machines are so pernicious. They are open all hours and there is no limit to how much you can lose. Most other forms of gambling have some cut off points, like the closing of the tote or the time of the draw. In that sense they are less liable to be addictive. All gambling is a blight on a civilised society, but pokies are a social cancer. This cancer must be cut out!

Report From Alliance Conference

The Alliance annual conference was held in Christchurch last weekend. The conference was small, about 30 delegates compared with closer to 60 last year. Nevertheless, those present were determined to continue with the Alliance project.
The rival project that goes under the nomenclature of "The Workers' Charter" was given a hearing with a presentation by John Minto. We later voted to endorse the Charter as a "minimum programme" (largely) consistent with our own manifesto, but we expressed concern about the lack of democratic process in its establishment and its on-going organisational structure.
Some Alliance members are quite strong supporters of the Workers' Charter, but they see it as a parallel project rather than a rival one. However, the main promoters of the Charter, the Socialist Workers Organisation (SWO), have stated openly that they expect it to lead to the formation of a "mass workers party". Good luck to them.
However, the Alliance showed with its feisty election campaign that it is still a significant force to the left of Labour. Its very existence is an achievement that should not be lightly dismissed. It is better to build on what has already been achieved, and to honour the legacy of past achievements, then to start from scratch again.
Those who want a "mass workers party" to the left of Labour should seriously consider joining the Alliance. We have no objection to people holding joint membership of other compatible organisations while building the Alliance up to again challenge for a place on the electoral scene. Only parties with a serious political agenda will be taken seriously by workers in Aotearoa/ New Zealand.
In her address to the conference, Alliance President, Jill Ovens, confronted the delegates with the reality of the Alliance's present situation. She stressed the need for an urgent party-building and recruitment effort if the Alliance is to survive as a viable electoral force.
Jill was re-elected as President. We had earlier voted to change the constitution, on Jill's initiative, so that the President could not also be a Co-leader. Jill indicated in her speech, and in pre-conference correspondence, that she would be stepping down as a Co-leader. In the event Paul Piesse was nominated again as a Co-leader and a Christchurch delegate, Tom Dowie, nominated me for the other Co-leader position. There were no other nominations, so that was it. The triumvirate is Jill, Paul and me.
We have new people taking over the membership and finance responsibilities. A heartening sign was the fact that some new young people have joined up or become active in the recent period.
We set targets for recruitment and we also agreed to hold a gathering of our youth wing, Staunch, during the year. Linda Boyd (Christchurch) and Sarita Divis (Auckland) are keen to help organise this. The Alliance has atrophied for many years now. An urgent injection of new blood is needed.