P1060271

Locals about to enter the struggle

Class struggle: An old fashioned title and an old fashioned concept, side lined currently by the weekly increase in the number of gender possibilities.

But in an age of growing inequality perhaps class struggle remains relevant?

Unions West Coast and the Mawhera Ministers Group went to the Grey District Council’s Annual Plan with the proposal that they research what it would cost for the Council to become a Living Wage Employer, and then consult the ratepayers as to whether they might bear the cost, which by our estimate would not be large. Such a move, as well as providing the proven benefits of increased productivity and less staff turnover, would have a reputational benefit, with the Council being seen as progressive and up with the go-ahead cities, rather than red neck and conservative. It would of course also provide an example to local employers.

The Living Wage Movement is interesting politically. It’s not advocating under a party umbrella, or a union umbrella, but seeks a broad coalition of community groups in each locality to argue the case. And the case is to a large degree, an ethical one.  Employers should pay a sufficient wage for families to have enough to live on.

And the Living Wage case has been well researched. The concept is based on a ‘normal’ family of two adults and two children, one of the adults in full time employment, the other in half time employment. They now need $20.20 an hour to cover their costs. It means that if they are earning the minimum wage they are $300 a week short. That’s a considerable sum. Of course poverty is relative, but nevertheless poverty in New Zealand is leading to homelessness, overcrowding, malnutrition, health issues, the reappearance of diseases like TB and rickets, children deprived of educational opportunity, chemical abuse, family violence and criminality… All this is well known and statistically verified.

It would seem hard to argue against this case. Can you really advocate that families should not have enough to live on? Yet Council rejected our proposal. ‘It is not Council’s role to intervene in the setting of the minimum wage and Council relies instead on the market.’ Suck that up.

Well, we did and discovered that there had been another submission on the Living Wage, and one we hadn’t noticed: from the NZ Taxpayers Union. This is an Auckland-based lobby group set up by people to the right of the ACT Party. They are obviously worried about Councils getting involved in this Living Wage nonsense and have done their own ‘research’ which they are now presenting to Councils up and down the country. They have decided that the Living Wage concept is flawed. Here’s why:

If you raise low wages ‘artificially’, it will mean higher-skilled people rush in and take those low-waged jobs and then there won’t be work for low-waged workers. Quite an argument. Don’t abolish slavery because then all those free whites will want to work in ‘dem cotton fields and there won’t be any jobs for the black folks – or the illegal migrant or the backpacker on a working visa…There won’t be work for those people who milk the cows, tend the grapes, pick the apples, collect the rubbish, clean the office blocks, serve the coffee, wait the tables – for the higher echelons of society (the teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, managers etc) will be rushing to take their places. They also throw in the perennial neo liberal argument that bodies funded by rates or taxes and therefore not being disciplined by market forces, have no business distorting the market. It would be better of course if they didn’t exist at all.

What is most alarming is to realise that the Grey District Councillors, all of whom are local business people, accepted this nonsense rather than the Living Wage argument, and did so for class reasons. They are there to make sure Council looks after their own interests. As employers they have no wish for an example to be set. But at least  they have revealed their politics, and can no longer hide behind a ‘service to the community’ mask.

Battling these people and the class tendency they represent is what is meant by the term, class struggle. To summarise: while the gender issue may be rolling down the highway, the class issue hasn’t moved an inch.

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