Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Taking a hit for the team

In the late eighties - the last time the global economy spat the dummy on a grand scale - I remember having a conversation about unemployment with my mum. She felt that it would be wrong for her, as a stay-at-home mum, to go looking for work - our household already had one income, and many other families had none. Mum wasn't meaning to be sexist, but simply humane. In a society and economy still largely based on male breadwinners and female housekeepers, it seemed to make sense.

Twenty years later and, once again, there aren't enough jobs or money to go round. To some extent, everyone's being asked to take a hit for the team, and our parliamentarians have even volunteered to accept a pay freeze. (At first, I thought the MPs' pay freeze was a pseudo-magnanimous gesture, aimed to make it easier to avoid giving payrises to those on lower incomes. Since then, an increase to the minimum wage has been announced - but we'll see what happens when state employees' pay rounds begin to be negotiated.)

Tightening public and private purses represent a real challenge to the labour movement. What are you supposed to do when there's just not enough moolah? As a public sector employee (and a reasonably well paid one), I'd be quite happy for whatever can be found in the coffers to go towards the lowest paid public employees. But there's plenty of problems with taking that position. For a start, I can't assume that everyone paid the same or more than me is well off - I don't know their circumstances. More importantly, when workers agree to cede their rights, for whatever reason, these can be very hard to recoup at a later date.

I was horrified to see a Christchurch firm offer its employees two options: everyone takes a pay cut, or some of you get laid off. The firm might have been trying to do the right thing, but it put the workers in the awful position of having to duke it out amongst themselves, trying to decide who had the best claim to a job.

Slightly better was the response of the Tiwai aluminium smelter in Southland. They asked who amongst their workers would like to work fewer hours per week. They had so many responses that they were able to shed more equivalent full time workers than they'd hoped. Probably, this is the most humane trade off to be made - no one's been laid off, and wages and conditions have stayed intact. But I can still see alarming possibilities. If a workplace is asked who's willing to take a hit for the team, they must look around themselves and start saying things like, 'Such-and-such is practically at retirement age - why doesn't he cut his hours?', or 'Her husband's got a good job - she's only here for something to do'.

Capitalism stinks - but since the revolution is unlikely to arrive in the immediate future, that's not a very helpful response. The greed and stupidity of some may have contributed to the recession, but the strife that many employers find themselves in is quite real. As a labour movement, it will be a challenge for us to maintain solidarity in troubled times - and to avoid divisive arguments about who should take a hit for the team.

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