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We Don’t Need Efficiency

Unsurprisingly industrial relations in New Zealand seems to be heading into chaos. Various major disputes are currently active and we seem to have more employment related strife than we have for many years. As I said, this isn’t surprising, because the combination neo-liberal/conservative agenda of the current government should be obvious to everyone. And that type of government is always against the workers.

These disputes all seem relatively justified because they involve either resistance to the erosion of existing pay and conditions (the Ports of Auckland workers and the Affco meat workers) or the employers failure to compensate workers adequately in the first place (the Oceania Group rest home staff).

The counter-argument is that in the current global financial position we all have to make sacrifices and it is important for New Zealand companies to be competitive.

I don’t think this is true.

For a start the people asking for sacrifices aren’t making any themselves. Top pay rates continue to climb while the rest of us have to survive on less (effectively). So the morality of management asking staff to accept cuts while they just get more themselves is extremely problematic.

The next question is can we really be significantly more productive and competitive? New Zealand workers are already very productive, according to global surveys, and a recent survey showed the majority of them do work at home for free. What more do employers want?

Finally there is the question of whether we really want to get caught up in a global competition to be “efficient” when this efficiency takes the form of being paid less and having much poorer work conditions. If that is efficiency do we really want it? Why not introduce the ultimate efficiency and make slavery legal? That last point is rhetorical and an example of a “slippery slope” fallacy but I think it demonstrates the point I am trying to make.

If we make the Ports of Aukland (for example) more efficient isn’t that just going to encourage its competitors to also become more efficient, which will then bounce back to Auckland again, and so on? Where will it end? There has to be a point where “efficiency” (and what efficiency is can be debated) is given a lower priority and fairness and long-term stability are considered as well.

I think shipping companies will use Auckland in preference to other ports if they know the workforce is there and happy to work. After all, it costs extra to transport from other ports (Tauranga, Wellington) to Auckland anyway so where is the advantage in going elsewhere even if it is slightly more expensive?

Many people look at these disputes and don’t care. They tend to react based on political lines: the right just see useless workers failing to cooperate with the reasonable innovations introduced by management, and the left see evil managers forcing their once loyal workforce into a desperate situation to save their employment conditions.

As you might have guessed, I tend to favour the second interpretation and I think other people should too. Even if you think port workers are over-paid or if you think they should be more flexible in their work conditions (neither of which I agree with) there is still good reason to support them.

That reason is (assuming you are like the vast majority of people and are paid a wage or salary and are not one of the ruling elite) that once pay and conditions start coming down in one area they are likely to follow in others. First, employers will see that they can get away with the dirty tricks which were blatantly used at the port and will use them in other places. And second, it will seem only fair (sometimes even to the victims) that if one group has sacrificed their conditions then others should too.

I know this sounds like another slippery slope argument but I think it has some merit. Sometimes the slope really is slippery.

Remember what Martin Niemoller famously said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I’m not saying the government and employers are like Nazi Germany (that would be a real example of Godwin’s Law) – well, not exactly anyway – but they cannot be trusted and it will be easier to stop them now rather than later. The easiest way to get Ports of Auckland running again would be to fire the immoral and incompetent CEO. But it goes a long way beyond that because this sort of behaviour is encouraged by the type of government we currently have.

We need to vote these despicable scum (see my previous blog entry) out of office as soon as we can but until then we need to support the workers who are standing up to them. The Ports of Auckland, Affco, and Oceania Group workers who are striking are doing the right thing. If you don’t think so then think again when you’re the next victim of this so-called efficiency!


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