Wednesday, May 10, 2017

We are Union - sort of

Image result for worker new zealandImage result for worker new zealandImage result for worker new zealand

To the tune of 'We will rock you', fifty women thump their thighs and chant 'We are, we are union'.
Where am I? Training to be a union delegate.

My first training was a day of empowerment for women delegates. The union I belong to represents many different industries, from aged care to aircraft engineers, but many of us work in precarious, low paid low status, female dominated industries such as support work, caregiving and process work. Union membership is fairly low. We are in too much of a state of permanent sleep deprivation to be 'woke'. This training was an attempt to bring on women workers.

It was an odd mix of Rosie the Riveter and standard self improvement schtick. We watched a Ted Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook whose net worth is 1.6 billion, talking about why there are so few women at the top and - I dunno I can't remember - how you have to believe yourself and then you can do anything, or something, whatever. There were some bonding exercises and talks by union leaders and the local mayor, who was inspirational until she was asked about pay equality for her own staff, when she became strangely evasive. Many of the women there saw themselves as outspoken and strong, and described numerous scraps with difficult bosses.

We did a bit of getting into small groups and talking about the barriers to leadership for women, and many of the groups felt that the biggest barrier was motherhood. Not capitalism or patriarchy or equality. Motherhood. One woman told a story that was held up as inspirational. In order to make ends meet, she worked long night shifts at a factory some distance from home. This meant she could not have her child living with her, and so she arranged a kind of child swap with her brother. This was seen as a fine example of how women adapt and stay strong. Except during the tea break, she started to cry, remembering how much she had missed of her child's growth, how hard it was, how little sleep she had, how much she needed to connect with this daughter who had somehow become primary school dux, seemingly with no influence from her hard working, inspirational mother.

Motherhood is where the heart is. Motherhood is where it hurts.

Next up, was a forum for delegates. By this time I had been involved in some disciplinary action for a workmate, which fortunately was resolved well, and several small spats about rostering and hours of work with management, so I was hoping to learn some skills. What I got was talks from union leaders and politicians, some ideas about how to persuade people to join the union, and some truly disturbing stuff about how some working people think.

Truth is, they are desperately conservative. At the beginning of the forum we were asked to place marbles in jars which were labelled with issues, in order to find out what were the most pressing issues for us. The top issues were:
- decent wages
- affordable housing
- better health care
- better education system
- fair economic system

Broader social and systemic issues, such as the environment, did not feature. Fair enough, people want the best for themselves and those close to them. Then when we got talking about the reasons for the problems, people's conservatism let rip. Migrants are the problem. They take our jobs, and then they do them poorly. The jabber away in their own language, and don't you just hate that. They should learn our ways, because they are in our country now. Mind you it's not their fault; the government shouldn't let them all in. They can get away with murder. And so on. It was the kind of language I left home to avoid, and I never expected to hear it again in any open forum.

Previously the union leader had talked about migrant workers, and he pitched it carefully. He saw migrant workers as vulnerable to exploitation, and felt they should be unionized. He also saw the need for balance between support for migrant workers, and support for those New Zealanders needing decent employment. I agreed with him. But the mood on the floor was very different, openly xenophobic and, well, conservative.

It was equally conservative when it came to the idea of jobs. While people condemned the increasing casualization of work and low pay rates, they did not link these problems with the rise of the precariat and the gig economy. They wanted steady paid employment, what used to be called real jobs, and to be paid better and have better conditions for what they already did. Which was working for a boss, for a wage, selling labour. I felt that these largely older, Pakeha working people were in the eye of a storm, racing around trying to save their possessions, unaware that part two of the storm was about to sweep them all away. The generations after them are Uber drivers and sub contractors and agency workers. They don't hustle to keep in place, they hustle to get anything at all. 

I was disturbed by the conservatism and rank populism. I had entered a world devoid of theory or even context; everything came down to personal stories and matters of taste. It was reactionary. And I think it is dangerous - while it would be naive of me to expect a room full of activists, I had hoped to see something of the genuine Left in actions, and I didn't. Without the coherence that theory provides, this kind of populist conservatism lacks discernment and opens itself to anything that appears to offer tangible goodies. There are very good reasons for this, and I understand how people can become depoliticized through sheer exhaustion. But on the day, I went away too depressed to care.