Lots of good reasons to support this $15 petition

Last Saturday I spent three hours at Auckland’s Grey Lynn Festival collecting signatures for Unite Union’s $15 minimum wage campaign.

The aim is to get 300,000 signatures for a citizen’s initiated referendum which asks the question “Should the adult minimum wage be raised in steps over the next three years, starting with an immediate rise to $15 per hour, until it reaches 66% of the average total hourly earnings as defined in the Quarterly Employment Survey?” (For the record the adult minimum wage is currently $12.50 an hour with the minimum for 16 and 17 year olds set at 80% of the adult minimum for their first 200 hours or three months employment)

In general I’m not a fan of CIRs. The experiences here and in places such as California have been negative with contradictory outcomes being common.

However unlike most previous New Zealand referenda this one asks an unambiguous question and if adopted would do more to close the wage gap with Australia than any of the pontificating from the Don Brash-led taskforce.

It’s a popular petition. Nine out of ten agree immediately and sign without a second thought – the issue resonates immediately. Instinctively people know New Zealand workers are well behind where they should be and are still losing ground.

The reactions of the 10% who won’t sign are interesting. One man told me the problem was too much taxation and politicians were wasting public money. There’s always an element of truth in politicians wasting public money – Rodney Hide comes to mind – but when I asked him why it was that countries with the highest taxation had the highest standard of living he exploded. “Liar, liar” he fumed. I gave the example of the Scandinavian countries where taxes are high but services in areas such as health and education are the best in the world. Confronted with an uncomfortable challenge to his prejudices he became more agitated. “Liar, liar, liar” was all he could splutter loudly and continuously while his partner signed the petition. I made a last attempt to break through with reason but he was a lost cause. His partner apologised as she handed back the clipboard…

Several people I spoke to were small business owners who employed staff. A woman dealing in cut flowers said the profit margins were too small and raising the minimum wage could put her out of business. However it turned out she paid her staff $18 an hour and agreed $15 wasn’t an excessive ask for any employer. She agreed the problem for employers would be greatly reduced if the minimum moved in all businesses at the same time.

One young man shrugged off the petition. He said he’d started out being paid $7 an hour and because he did it hard others after him should do the same – he wasn’t prepared to lift a finger or engage in a wider discussion.

Another woman quizzed me at length about the effect raising the minimum would have. She said it might make it harder for young people to get jobs. I told her this was predicted by employers several years back when the campaign to raise the minimum to $12 an hour (from $9.25) was launched. It didn’t happen. Youth employment actually increased throughout the time Labour moved to $12 over three years. We agreed that this could change in an economic downturn but the country is coming out of recession (so we are told) and by the time the referendum is held unemployment should be decreasing steadily.

Only one person said to me he thought “the market” should set pay rates and there should be no minimum. Roger Douglas would have been proud – here was a true apostle. He didn’t stay to explain how a family should be expected to survive with a breadwinner earning perhaps $5 an hour at times of high unemployment. Already we have too many working families living in poverty.

Another said she’ll never sign a petition again after she signed one and ended up on a mailing list. I sympathised but she moved off before I could ask why she would let someone else’s behaviour limit her democratic participation.

But what surprised me most was the depth of feeling which accompanied the willing signatures. About 200 signed my sheets in three hours which I thought was pretty good despite knowing another 250,000 are needed before May 1st next year.

Getting enough signatures will depend on how many people across the country can help out. If 1000 people commit to getting 300 signatures each we will get there. The union is calling such people working-class heroes. Indeed!