PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog



A troubled day for collectivism

Labour Day, created as a public holiday to celebrate the eight hour working day and other achievements of the worker movement has become just another holiday. To restore a touch of authenticity the Blackball Museum of Working Class History mounted two events in the village. Last night we held a debate on the topic that Blackball workers (those employed in the village) should be unionised and covered by a multi employer collective agreement. It proved to be an intense ‘conversation’.

Those on the affirmative argued the proven benefits of a collective agreement for wages and conditions, the more general benefits of collectivisation in times of crisis and change, as well as the benefits of having a collective voice and a sense of belonging, plus the hypocrisy of a village whose main heritage story is that of worker activism not currently living its union story – except as a brand.

The opposing stories were revealing and based mainly on the blaming of unions for failing to provide solutions in often complex situations. For example, a local school is down to one teacher because of a falling role so the teacher aide inevitably assumes, by default, a teacher role yet is not paid accordingly. Teacher aides were created when mainstreaming of disabled or neurologically different children was brought in. But the position has been paid from a school’s bulk fund so has always been competing with other needs. The drop in roll is caused by a combination of demographic factors: retirees from the cities attracted by cheap housing so as to have a retirement nest egg or to add to the Mum and Dad bank; investors buying houses for Air BnB now the great walk is up and running; further holiday houses now the village is becoming trendier… None of this can be blamed on the union, it is simply the incoherent saga of the market. In fact the teachers union have supported teacher aides’ struggle for better wages and conditions and advocated that they be paid from the department salary budget rather than competing with general school expenses, yet it still somehow gets the blame for the situation. Another story of feeling let down in a redundancy/restructuring situation led to a skilled worker advocating for individual bargaining. A third opinion was simply for peace and harmony – local employers are kind hearted so why create friction; the battles have been won and unions are no longer necessary?

It is strange that anger and bitterness should be aimed at unions rather than at the capitalist system, yet, in reflection, unsurprising, for there was in the Muldoon era a concentrated government and employer campaign to discredit unions, leading to the Trades Hall bombing. And then the Employment Contracts Act era of the 1990s saw another onslaught on the ‘bloody unions causing trouble.’

A second event is today’s opening of an exhibition on the midwife story, a story of women achieving an independence from the patriarchal and hierarchical medical control of birthing practice. The Lead Maternity Carer (LMC) system introduced in the late 1990s was celebrated internationally as a progressive model to be emulated. But in setting it up, the midwife representatives failed to include regular negotiation of pay and conditions in the agreement with the Ministry of Health. This has led to a failure of payments to keep up with inflation and a further failure to recognise inequities for rural practitioners and the need for paid time off. A return to union advocacy is required and underway.

As usual I dream of a working class museum existing and these sorts of face to face discussions taking place, in villages and towns throughout the country over Labour Weekend.

The intricacy of inequality

Workplace Relations legislation is important. The details can bypass the ordinary citizen, but changes reverberate.

Here’s an example. A new company has taken over the Grey District Council’s rubbish collection, recycling and landfill operation contract. The previous contractor was an Aussie cowboy outfit looking to get a toehold in New Zealand and in order to do so, tendered too low. Council thought they were getting a bargain, but there were endless problems: equipment breakdowns, staff not paid on time, not meeting outcomes…the parent company went broke and the NZ offshoot was obviously heading the same way. The Council found an Auckland-based company to take over the contract, but something had to be squeezed to make it viable. Labour costs were the only available option. Here’s how workplace legislation brought in my National enabled that to happen.

The previous Labour Government had brought in legislation that forced a new contractor in low paid sectors of the economy to take on existing staff at the same rates of pay and on the same conditions. This stopped the precarious, low paid and vulnerable cleaners, catering staff and the like from being endlessly squeezed by the contracting out process. (Boss: ‘Sorry, Teuila, I can’t pay more than the minimum wage because if I do I won’t win the contract and then everyone will lose their jobs. You understand?’) National changed that legislation. If there were 19 or less staff involved the law no longer applied.

So, the new contractor in Greymouth sacked all the existing staff and asked them to reapply for their positions – and to take a wage cut. If they were re-employed they were covered by the 90 day legislation that National also brought in, which enables the employer to dismiss an employee within the first 90 days – without giving a reason. Because of the previous issues, some of the employers had joined a union and even held a picket. The new contractor is anti union and gave these employees the sack.  He could do so because of the 90 day law. There won’t be any collective bargaining taking place on this work site, and collective bargaining is the proven way to get better wages and conditions.

Mission accomplished: labour costs down, potential troublemakers expelled, workforce bargaining power weakened. No wonder we have a society of growing inequality.

And the Council? Well, this is not a governance matter, this is management. The councillors, who are elected and could have pressure brought to bear, have no role to play. The mayor tried to intervene and was told to shut up. The Council staff belong to an in-house or ‘yellow union’, negotiating with the CEO, who is of South African origin. So much for good old West Coast working class heritage: ‘We don’t take any shit down here.’ Pull the other one, mate.

Members of the NZ Taxpayers Union are laughing all the way to their gated village.


Politics as storytelling

Mayday pic

Dairy worker delegates and organisers with Cuban Ambassador.

The Mayday seminar on the way forward for the Coast economy was designed as a story-telling event, to test whether there is a narrative we can begin to inhabit. The seminar was union led, with the unions being joined on the organising committee by Runanga and Blackball community organisations and the Grey District Council Economic Development Unit. This in itself is a story, which questions whether the discussion is necessarily led by managers and political leaders.

The seminar began with union organisers and delegates reporting from their survey of what Coast workers want? It proved to be a coherent story. The well-organised and fully unionised primary teachers want to retain their collective agreement, don’t want to be individualised by performance pay (instead want a better career path), are fully aware of and will resist corporate attempts to colonise the public system via charter schools and corporate product, and are acting in solidarity with support staff to raise the wages and conditions of these valued colleagues.

The health workers are equally committed to their collective, but are suffering stress and overwork from the underfunding of the service, underfunding designed to drive those who can afford it, into the private sector.

In the government sector and in midwifery, equal pay remains a big issue, as does work life balance. Midwives, self employed yet funded by the state, have only had a 2.5% increase in twenty years.

Those outside the state sector want well paid, secure and meaningful jobs, with career paths available. Not an extravagant  request, but one threatened by the increasing trend to precarious shift work, symbolised at its worst by zero hour contracts.

A cultural worker, who because of the nature of the field, has always worked precariously, stated how a Universal Basic Income would assist people faced with precariousness, as well as pointing out the injustice of arts funding being directed to urban areas.

The story told was a coherent one, of a desire for meaningful and secure livelihoods based in the Coast region.

The politicians and executive officers working in economic development were then asked to respond, this constituting another story. Kevin Hague identified the problem: we focus purely on economics, rather than focusing on the needs of people and the environment – the latter focus should then generate the economic system. But otherwise the response was highly individuated:  visions, personal aims and hopes, institutional charters, with two specific proposals for Buller being mentioned: the wood waste to diesel proposition and the incinerator proposal. But there have been community campaigns in Sicily against their poor region becoming the dumping ground for rich regions’ waste. Will there be community discussion and assessment or is any corporate offer to be jumped at? We seemed to be in a story of fragmentation.

The Cuban ambassador then told the story of the extensive and thorough consultation process (which is ongoing) as that country began to restructure its economy – every strata of society, from unions to farmers to students to neighbourhoods responding to a set of proposed changes.

After lunch three young professionals told their stories of ‘living on the Coast’. Nick was brought up here then left to further his education but has since returned, Elena managed to educate herself while remaining on the Coast (at one stage that required enrolling in a Queensland University on-line course) and Te Whaea has come here to teach. Each of these wonderful young people told of their reasons for living here, the advantages and compromises and their commitment to the community. Lifestyle, access to the natural world are balanced against fewer consumer and cultural opportunities. Affordable housing is a big plus. They reported excellent colleagues and mentoring, but Te Whaea felt the lack of visibility of the Maori story and the lack of multi culturalism (Mayor Tony Kokshoorn stated that funds have become available to tell the tangatawhenua story). But the simple fact that these young people were here, enjoying life and are committed to community involvement was a very hopeful story.

Of course there had been an elephant in the room, the neo liberal master story: that the economy and the political system should facilitate large, usually multinational corporations, to exploit labour, society and the environment in order to return a profit to an increasingly small number of people. We had avoided this story but were reminded of it by Karen Davis as she told of the dairy industry expanding to Chile and China and developing unsustainable farms on the South Island East Coast during the price boom, leading to cows being turned into machines, an inevitable over supply and the inevitable bust (politely called market adjustment), but during which bankruptcies, suicides and community implosions occur. As well, dairy farmers pay very little tax. But we didn’t want (and shouldn’t want) to be sucked into this story.

Three local small business people then told their stories, all equally moving and entertaining: of the creation of the iconic Blackball businesses which had proved sustainable and involved risks, guile and passion, of the absolute integrity of the Garden Shop and its body of skilled workers; of the Putake Honey people, moving from the higher echelons of the corporate world to bee keeping in Marlborough and now the Coast (supported by DWC), because life wasn’t making sense in the flash Sydney apartment. They were stories of passion and commitment, and stories based here.

Finally, there were two possible stories introduced: one the co-operative model developed by the Australian union movement, where union networks provide a committed market for a collectively created product; the other the social enterprise model, where the community organisation grows into a business serving local needs. It is a model which is now at the centre of the economy in many of the marginal rural areas of Scotland.

In the reflection process, there was a feeling of hope, based on the stories of committed people choosing to live here and making that choice a viable one. Damien O’Connor made the point that a change of government is required. It does require political institutions supportive of both collectivism and individual aspiration within that collectivism.

And it was here that there appeared a different beast in the room, the notion that the political party, if you like the story of representation, must originate from within the stories being told, rather than telling a story outside these stories. And of course, the story of socialism developing social democracy was of this nature. As soon as it diverted it disastrously failed. The environmental movement is another such story. Once again, as soon as it diverts it begins to fail.

How this story can be told is another story, yet to be told. Perhaps we could begin with a West Coast charter. Here are some suggestions of what might be in it.

  • That the Coast recognises the special place of tangatawhenua in the history and culture of the region;
  • That the Coast upholds unionism and the value of collective agreements to ensure equity and collaborative management;
  • That the Coast upholds the principles of pay equity;
  • That the Coast values work-life balance and flexible working schedules which contribute to that balance, as well as career paths in all work sectors;
  • That the Coast upholds the public ownership of education and health services, requests adequate funding and that collegiality be preserved;
  • That the Coast, realising an inevitable seasonality in some sectors, the pressures involved in small business and the precariousness that results, is supportive of a Universal Basic Income;
  • That the Coast celebrates and supports sustainable small business loyal to the region and passionate about quality and service;
  • That the Coast celebrates young people committed to the region and to their life here;
  • That the Coast will seek ways and means for a range of online tertiary education to be available to its young people in a supportive environment;
  • That the Coast insists on a regional royalty payment for materials extracted here;
  • That the Coast encourages local processing and the adding of value to materials extracted here;
  • That the Coast recognises the uniqueness and value of its environment and insists on sustainable practices in all areas;
  • That the Coast welcomes investment and corporate ventures but will scrutinise ventures according to the above values;
  • That the Coast in order to rectify the rural/urban divide requests population based access to funding in cultural and research and development areas;
  • That the Coast requests its remoteness and special needs be recognised in the funding of the health and education sectors;
  • That the Coast welcomes refugees from war torn and oppressive regimes and will enter partnerships that enable their transition to our community.

Wouldn’t it be great if such a charter were to be discussed at all levels of Coast society?

Blog at

Up ↑