Christchurch workers hung out to dry

What a shameful spectacle it was. The leadership of the EPMU (Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union) setting up a group of union members to be vilified – to be called irresponsible, selfish and self-centred simply because those members wanted to maintain their wages and conditions of employment.

This was the situation when the union announced last Monday that the vote to reduce wages and conditions of Air New Zealand aircraft maintenance engineers, in return for the jobs staying in New Zealand, was lost and that the group responsible for the lost vote was a small group of workers in Christchurch.

This group was now to be held responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs because of their selfish intransigence. Or so we were led to believe by the union. We were told these Christchurch workers were not directly affected in the threatened redundancies so they had made a selfish decision to retain their well-paid jobs while others lost theirs.  

The union was wrong. The real problem was that the EPMU leadership wanted to protect its own cosy relationship with the Labour government ahead of the wages and conditions of union members.

The story goes back to the 1980’s when the 4th Labour government sold Air New Zealand as part of a raft of fire-sale privatisations of our community assets. The freewheeling corporates who bought the airline then flew it into the ground. Instead of concentrating on providing high quality air services for New Zealanders at home and travelling abroad they left their knitting and, in greedy fashion, tried expanding into Australia by buying Ansett. The result was a disaster with Ansett finally being sold and hundreds of millions lost from the New Zealand economy.

Air New Zealand never recovered from this disaster and eventually Helen Clark’s 5th Labour government bailed the airline out, becoming the majority shareholder in the process. 

Shortly after the election last year Air New Zealand announced hundreds of redundancies. They wanted to get their aircraft maintenance done overseas because labour costs are lower. It’s worth noting that the $48 million the airline aims to save over 5 years through outsourcing maintenance work pales into insignificance when compared to the hundreds of millions it lost through the Ansett debacle.

The government said immediately it wouldn’t use its majority shareholding to pressure the Air New Zealand directors to change their decision and ensure the jobs stayed in New Zealand. When it came to the interests of Air New Zealand investors and shareholders the government rushed in to help with more than $800 million but when it came to 500 workers’ jobs the government couldn’t sidestep fast enough.

Despite huge community support for the engineers the EPMU refused to campaign for the government to change its position.   A march organised by the Auckland airport workers to gather wider public support was scuttled by the union and the “negotiations” with Air New Zealand began. 

At all stages the union has put more pressure on its own members to give up pay and conditions than it has put on the government to change its policy.   Just one of the ironies is that if this were a national government led by Don Brash the union would be piling on the pressure with stopwork meetings and marches demanding the majority shareholder intervene to protect the pay and working conditions of its members.  

The negotiations with Air New Zealand were a race to the bottom with the EPMU leading the charge. The final grubby scene was played out last Monday.

The EPMU says the government could not be moved. Rubbish. This Labour government is famous for its backdowns – particularly when it comes to pressure from business. Remember the so-called “fart” tax, the extra money for private childcare centres during the election campaign and the now abandoned carbon tax?

The point is that the EPMU would have had to publicly campaign against Labour government policy and this was a bottom line it was not prepared to cross. Instead it hung Christchurch union members out to dry.

Last Monday was a low point in union affairs which rivals the infamous decision of the union movement’s leadership in 1990 to abandon any serious effort to oppose the employment contracts plans of the National Government.

The precedent now set for other workers is extremely worrying. The repercussions for families in our already low wage economy are serious.

It’s small wonder that Christchurch workers reversed their earlier decision in the face of huge pressure but whatever happens from here on the lingering odour will be from a word once sparsely used in union circles. Sellout.

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The new scourge of over-employment

For the past 6 years I taught at a secondary school in Otara.   This is the Otara of urban legend which hits the news – or is hit by the news – for all the wrong reasons.  

It’s a suburb of working class New Zealanders of predominantly Maori and Pacific backgrounds and for all the problems it’s the closest to a genuine community I’ve ever experienced in New Zealand.

It’s a suburb filled with bright, lively kids, intelligent, boisterous teenagers and struggling families.

I had taught in Otara previously in the 1980’s but when I returned in 2000 it was a very different suburb.

In the 1980’s unemployment was higher but the jobs that employed breadwinners were skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector. These jobs were relatively well paid and secure and families in work were able to “get ahead”. There was the feeling that the current generation could do better for its children and despite the difficulties this was the prevailing mood and the main reason for the Pacific immigration which began filling Otara from the 1960’s.

However by 2000 cheap imports had stripped away well paid jobs in the manufacturing sector to be replaced by low paid, part time jobs in the service sector. Instead of making quality shoes for example the work now is in stacking warehouse shelves with cheap, low quality imports. Unemployment is down but this hides an even greater scourge on the community – over employment – and the impacts on children are often worse than with unemployment.

Three years ago I taught a very bright Samoan student in a Form 5 science class.   He was focused, studious and had a passion to go to university. Half way through the following year he was getting behind, failing to hand in assignments and he looked dejected and unwell.  

It turned out he had begun a job at the local supermarket working from 4pm to 10pm on 4 nights a week. Doing 24 hours work on top of full time study was wrecking his education. Probing a bit deeper he explained to me he was working to get money to help his family and to save for university. His father had been made redundant from a relatively well paid manufacturing job and had only been able to get a low paid, part time job. In fact there were four family members – mum, dad and an older brother as well – all working low-paid, part time jobs at all hours to get enough income to keep the family above water.

Don’t think this is an isolated example. Similar stories are the rule rather than the exception.

This is the new burden for the low paid. A single income earner may work as many as 70 hours a week in these sorts of part-time, casualised jobs to get the income needed to support a family.   More usually this is now shared around several family members working a variety of jobs at odd hours. It’s small wonder that community workers complain of fewer parents able to take sports teams or help in community building activities.

The huge family stresses and social dislocations can only be imagined until there is an outbreak of appalling violence among the young whereupon the moral outrage and lazy prejudice of the middle class is unleashed via the media.

Over-employed workers never show up on the unemployment statistics so while the government boasts smugly of low unemployment the figures hide a multitude of appalling injustices.

More generally it is since the Labour government’s infamous reforms of the 1980’s that wages for the low paid have dropped dramatically with job security tenuous at best. In relation to the average wage, the minimum wage has dropped by more than a third to stand now at just 45% of the average wage. Internationally a poverty income is regarded as one which is below 60% of the average wage and herein lies the reason we have one third of our children living in families below the poverty line.

Surely the most fundamental measure of an economy is whether a breadwinner is able to work 40 hours a week and have enough money to maintain a family above the poverty line. If that’s not the best measure of an economy then what is? Yet after 6 years of Labour governments and supposedly wonderful economic growth we are further from this than ever.

Don’t tell the Samoan student that the economy is working – it’s a shallow, profit driven failure. Let’s get rid of it and have a real debate about the alternatives in our land of plenty.

Where’s the funding for free education?

Parents understand that free education is a myth.

Since Tomorrow’s Schools the direct cost to parents of schooling has risen steeply in a “user pays” type trajectory. It has reached the point where some public schools receive more than half their income for day to day running from sources outside the government. The two most important of these are student fees (or “voluntary donations” as the government insists they are called) and income from foreign fee paying students.

Even middle-class parents wince when they receive invoices from schools these days.  My two sons who attend a local state secondary school generated a bill of close to $800. 

When I opened the envelope last week and saw the bottom line I had same sinking feeling I had when I glanced at the headline summarising an interview with new Education Minister Steve Maharey after the election last year. It simply said “Steady as she goes”. In other words it’s business as usual in schools – parents will face ever escalating fees, the disparities between schools will increase and the quality of education a school can provide will increasingly depend on the income of the community in which it is located.

Our education system is slowly being privatised from the inside with barely a passing nod to the “free” in free education.

This has much less impact on the middle-class drivers of Labour government policy but out there where it really hurts – in our low income communities – the disparities are keenly felt.

A simple comparison produced last year by former secondary school principal Stuart Middleton showed that a state school in a low income community has 25% less money per student than a similar sized state school in a high income community. This is despite the additional TFEA (Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement) funding which these schools receive from the government.

Isn’t this the wrong way round? Isn’t it blindingly obvious that the educational needs are far greater at the school in the low income community? Shouldn’t it receive more funding rather than less?

Is it any wonder that the single greatest problem with our schooling is the long tail of underachievement for children from low income communities?

Under pressure last year to increase funding for all schools the government neatly sidestepped and announced a review of school funding. The consultation process has begun but already the indicators point to a likely outcome which pits school against school. The Ministry of Education is suggesting that perhaps the problem with the current funding is in the middle decile schools which are missing out. This logic says that high decile schools can easily gain extra money from well-heeled parents and foreign fee payers while low income schools gain a greater degree of government funding and therefore it’s the schools in the middle which are languishing.

This is a useful policy position from the government’s point of view. It’s the equivalent of tossing a mangy bone to a pack of hungry dogs and smugly smiling at the result. Some tinkering with the allocation formula will then be recommended.

Instead of tinkering lets be bold and creative – abandon the crude decile system of school funding and move to funding based on the educational needs of the students.  Now there’s a radical idea! Or is it just common sense?

This system would take into account the size of the school roll with factors such as reading and vocab levels when students enrol, special education needs and transience specifically measured and funded above the basic operations funding.

It would mean big increases in government funding for all state schools and the end of schools invoicing parents for “donations”.   In fact schools would be prohibited from soliciting specified donations from parents.   It would mean a move back to the concept of education as a right of citizenship with uncompromising high quality delivered to all of our kids.

It would also mean the end of government funding for private schools.    

Currently some $40 million per year is poured into these schools with bizarre situations such as that in Auckland where wealthy and private Kings College receives $2 million in government subsidies each year to enhance its exclusivity while on the other side of the wire mesh fence – literally – is decile one Otahuhu College with vastly greater educational needs and which could make stunning use of this public money for children who need a big hand up.

Even without big changes in policy we have large government surpluses which should be invested in children.   As things stand it is the selfishness of the baby boomer generation which is stealing the future from so many of our kids.

Waitangi 2006 – looking for maturity in the debate on race

Growing up in Dunedin in the 1960’s was a monocultural experience.   Maori were remote from everyday life and all but invisible in the real world.   I recall only one Maori student in any of my primary school classes.   Instead they were in the social studies book.   I remember line drawings of a Maori man digging a garden with a traditional digging tool and a Maori Pa complete with palisades.

Moving to Napier as a teenager was a shock in many ways and none greater than the large number of Maori students at school and in the city at large.   Maori were real people finally who lived in the present world rather than the past.

On TV the Howard Morrison look-alike, smiling bulldozer driver from the Wrigley’s chewing gum advertisement seemed to be the archetypal representative of Maoridom to me and probably to most of the European population at the time.

The stereotype Maori was good at manual work such as driving trucks, digging ditches and mending roads; not good with their brains; lazy; ate a lot; good guitar players and singers but perhaps most arrogant of all was the assumption that they were happy in their subservient role.  

This was a time when New Zealand was proud of its race relations – or rather pakeha New Zealanders were proud of our race relations.   Nga Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers were slowly emerging from the wings but Pakeha New Zealand was blissfully cocooned in what we saw as our multicultural paradise.   So confident were we in our race relations that we were quick to make comparisons with South Africa or the Southern US States where race riots appeared regularly on our black and white TV screens.

And so the Maori nationalist movement as it emerged in the 1970’s was a very uncomfortable challenge to Pakeha and remains so today.   

Suffice to say New Zealand was never a multicultural paradise and the Pakeha middle class in particular – of which I am a card-carrying member – have been quick to take the opportunity to repeatedly prove this on issues such as the foreshore and seabed.   

To move on from where we are will take a much more mature public debate. 

Waitangi is often the focus for New Zealanders asking unhelpful questions on race. “Why are Maori so much worse off than Pakeha New Zealanders?” is not as useful as it sounds.   The answer is largely because Maori are disproportionately represented in lower income communities.   Two critically important questions then emerge –  “Why are Maori disproportionately represented in low income communities?” and “Why is it that we have whole communities of people in New Zealand (Maori, Pakeha, Pacific Island and Asian etc) living below the poverty line?”

These are the hard questions with uncomfortable answers.

But it’s not just pakeha who must shift their thinking but Maori as well.   The last year has seen the emergence of the Maori Party and while this has been a good vehicle to spur the debate around issues directly affecting Maori there has been a distinct shallowness in the thinking of the party’s leadership.

At one level the party was set up to punish Labour over the government’s decision to unilaterally remove the Maori right to argue their foreshore and seabed case in the Maori Land Court.   

Fair enough but this is no end in itself.   Two incidents from last year stand out as particularly galling.  

Firstly the refusal of the Maori Party leaders to condemn the human rights violations perpetrated by Mugabe in Zimbabwe against the Zimbabwean people.   Instead Pita Sharples claimed not to have enough information and wanted to be consistent in responding to foreign affairs issues.   One was left with the distinct feeling that the refusal to criticise reflected more the fact that Mugabe was black and being condemned by the white western world and the Maori Party therefore did not want to join the “white” side in the argument.

Secondly the public support for Donna Awatere-Huata after her conviction for fraud perpetrated against Maori youngsters.   This was a knee-jerk reaction to support a fellow Maori – because she was Maori – irrespective of what she had done.   Race was seen as the critical issue.   But it’s not and never was.

Donna Awatere-Huata is surely the Imelda Marcos of New Zealand politics.  She shares the same colour skin and cultural background as young Maori growing up in our poor communities but that’s where the comparison ends.

Our racial landscape has changed since the 1960’s but assumptions and stereotypical race based ideas on both sides are still crippling the debate.