Labour has committed to working for what its Coalition Agreement with New Zealand First calls a ‘transformational government, committed to resolving the greatest long-term challenges for the country’. Listed amongst those long-term challenges are getting ‘decent jobs paying higher wages’ and reducing ‘poverty and inequality’. Jacinda Ardern campaigned on a message of hope and change.
It’s clear we cannot take more of the same. Nine years of National meant nine years of underfunding in health and education, regressive reforms promoting inequality, increases in poverty, homelessness, unemployment and wasted human potential. The young, locked out of the housing market and admonished that the days of secure employment are gone forever, voted clearly for change, backing Labour and the Greens. This deal speaks to that hope for change.
Labour has announced plans better than the International Socialists dared hope possible. There are real reforms set up here, and proposals which, if implemented, will bring real benefits to the lives of working people. But we – trade unionists, students, workers – need to make sure that reforms beneficial to our side are carried through. All sorts of pressures will come to bear on Ardern and her new government: from conservatives in Labour’s own ranks, from New Zealand First (leaning left for now economically but wedded to a conservative world-view and institutional base), from the ruling class and their mouth pieces in the mainstream media. Commentators and columnists are already seeking to undermine the government’s mandate. So our slogan should be: “Labour must deliver!”
And there are areas we will need to fight around. Jacinda Ardern has been clear that there will be no support for workers’ right to strike under Labour. She insists hers will be a government ‘of partnership’ with business. The Greens may support the right to strike on paper, but this has never amounted to much publicly. Don’t expect Labour support for PPTA members if teachers need to strike to win their pay claims next year, for example. We are going to need to learn again to organise for ourselves.
‘We have a big job reminding people what is possible, what is decent.’ That’s what Richard Wagstaff, CTU President, told the Council of Trade Unions conference in October. He’s right. The union movement will need to mobilise to put pressure on the government, both to strengthen the best of Labour’s resolve and to threaten the worst of its weaknesses. The next three years offer us an opportunity both to win reforms – important for our lives in the here-and-now – and to rebuild our self-confidence as a class and as a movement of organised labour. If political change can come when it seemed impossible, what else might we achieve?
Raise the minimum wage!
Labour will progressively increase the Minimum Wage to $20 an hour by 2020, with the final effect to take effect in April 2021. It will go up to $16.50 next year.
A big increase to the minimum wage is an essential reform. Even John Key accepted that you cannot live a meaningful life on the minimum wage, and research from the Living Wage Movement has calculated that $20.20 an hour is needed for someone to ‘pay for the necessities of life and participate as an active citizen in the community’. The current minimum wage is $15.75. A close to $4 per hour pay increase for the lowest paid workers is a reform worth defending.
Expect resistance from business to even this moderate extension. Kim Campbell from the Employers and Manufacturers Association argues that the raise will ‘bring the economy to a grinding halt’. That’s a threat: business will put pressure on Ardern, just as they did to Helen Clark in 1999/2000 to try and water down Labour’s promises. Much of the focus is, as business wants it to be, on small businesses threatened with bankruptcy if they have to pay staff more. But this is a myth. It’s some of the biggest employers making the fattest profits – Foodstuffs South Island, for example, with profits of $342 million – who keep their workers on the minimum wage. They are rich because we have been kept poor, and that’s the situation they want to maintain.
Unionised workers should look to bigger pay claims in the next few years too, if our conditions are to be kept above the minimum wage. There is a chance to fight for an end to the ruling class’s vision of a low-wage economy.
End the WINZ regime!
One of the ways successive governments have kept workers on the defensive has been by driving a wedge between employed and unemployed sections of the working class, playing off images of the ‘underclass’ and the ‘dole bludger’ to demonise beneficiaries. A host of punitive sanctions and humiliating requirements from WINZ keep workers on benefits cowed. Metiria Turei told the truth about this reality and paid the price of her political career.
The Labour / Greens Confidence and Supply Agreement commits the government to ‘overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working for Families so that everyone has a standard of living and income that enables them to live in dignity and participate in their communities, and lifts children and their families out of poverty’. This is admirable…but vague. Without concrete details as with the minimum wage, it is all the more important that pressure comes from outside parliament to ensure genuine, far-reaching changes are made to the institutions of social welfare. For too long WINZ has been able to bully and harass people seeking legitimate entitlements. It’s good that the incoming government has agreed to overhaul this. But what counts as an ‘excessive’ sanction? How much is needed to ‘live in dignity’? It will take a movement from below – independent politically of Labour and the Greens – to turn these fine words into something real.
The left must welcome migrants
Labour’s disastrous and irresponsible anti-migrant rhetoric was, thankfully, toned down during the 2017 election campaign. Andrew Little’s attacks on migrants over everything from Auckland housing to the state of the roads won Labour few supporters, and bolstered the anti-migrant climate favourable to a charlatan like Winston Peters. Both major parties are pursuing an anti-migrant agenda. In this context it is especially important for the left to stand with migrant workers, and to stress the politics of internationalism. As Anu Kaloti and Sunny Sehgal of Auckland’s Migrant Rights Association put it: ‘Exploitation of migrant workers is rife in many workplaces. A week doesn’t go by when the media doesn’t report news of migrant exploitation in the form of unpaid wages, withheld entitlements of annual leave, sick leave, missed breaks, verbal and physical abuse, threats of deportation etc. The last government’s lack of will to genuinely fix this issue has led to a racist and xenophobic narrative causing a deepening division between workers of New Zealand. Allowing migrant workers to be exploited not only hurts them but it also hurts Kiwi workers. The exploitation drives wages and working conditions down for all workers and not just migrant workers.’ The Migrant Rights Association is calling on the new government to bring the unfairly deported Indian students back to New Zealand, and they are right to make that demand.
In this context, the Coalition Agreement is thankfully vague about immigration. Both Labour and New Zealand First talk of cutting numbers – and the left must oppose any attempts to blame migrants for the problems of the system – but the anti-migrant focus is less than we had been expecting.
Welcome too is Labour’s announcement it intends to double the refugee quota, testament to the hard campaigning work refugees and their supporters in the activist group Double the Quota have managed over the last three years raising this demand and bringing it to public attention.
Possibilities and Dangers
These reforms, and those discussed elsewhere in this issue of Socialist Review, will make a difference to the material conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers. So they should be defended. And we can look to a change in government bringing hope, especially for young workers who have never known anything but National rule. This has to raise expectations and widen horizons. Good things for those of us who want more far-reaching social change.
But there is a danger too. Labour gave a stick to its opponents to have them beat it with when the party ruled out any increases on tax for the wealthy. What not tax the rich? This has been a social democratic demand for much of the last century, and Helen Clark won in 1999 promising tax increases. Labour’s commitment to Budget Responsibility and ‘partnership’ with business means that, in a conflict between their promised reforms and the needs of the economy (read: capitalist class), business will always win. This will then demoralise Labour’s supporters and pave the way for a return by National, preening themselves as the ‘natural’ and competent managers of the country.
That does not have to happen. But, to win what our side needs, we have to be prepared to fight. Labour must deliver.