The challenge for women in 2017

I was asked to speak on a panel of “Inspiring Women” with MPs Jenny Salesa and Mojo Mather (no pressure!) at the PPTA Conference on 4 March, on the topic of “the challenges for women in 2017”. Here’s my speaking notes, which are probably a lot clearer than what I managed to burble out live!

There are a lot of challenges for women in 2017. There’s the issues which get boxed away as “women’s issues” like equal pay, and there’s so many issues which disproportionately affect women, which we don’t always acknowledge, like poverty, and housing, and childcare, and the population getting older. There’s the big orange elephant in the room, because right wing authoritarianism as embodied by Donald Trump is going to be terrible for women, not just in the United States.

But across all of this, the huge challenge is keeping up hope when there’s so many battles to fight. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves that we can’t do it all and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.

That’s an area where I think everyone here can take a lot of comfort. Because you’re doing your bit every day. Education is fundamental to progress and social change

People – usually right-wing people – try to act like education is just about facts and figures and career-focused skill development, but we all know that it’s a hell of lot more than that, and I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without the education I got, not just from what I learned but because for five years I was taught that educating women is the most important thing you can do to effect social change.

My high school was Baradene College, a Catholic girls’ school in Auckland. It’s part of the Society of the Sacred Heart, which was founded in 1800 by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, who placed huge importance on educating young women. Baradene emphasised the five Sacred Heart goals, several of which are obviously about God, but goal four is: A social awareness which impels to action.

In those formative years, I wasn’t just learning to read and write and calculate molar masses. I was becoming a member of a society which has values and principles, a citizen who has a duty to think about the world around me and be active in making the it a better place.

So just by working in education, whatever job you do, is tremendous. I’m not going for cheap pop here. The next generation of fighters for social justice who will change the world are being shaped right now in your classrooms. Hell, why do we think the right keep trying to screw the whole system up?

That’s a bit big picture though. I work for a union, and although I can go home every day knowing I’ve done my part for this broad enduring movement of ours, it’s also good to have little concrete things to hold on to. That’s another challenge, doing small things every day to stand up for ourselves and for all the women around us.

I’ve worked in the public service myself. I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I know a lot of us have had the same experiences: men dominating the discussion. Men being presumed to be the experts. Men making suggestions that we just made ten minutes ago but getting all the credit.

Soraya Chemaly wrote at Role Reboot and then at the Huffington Post about ten words every girl should learn:

“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”

Sometimes it’s easier to stand up for other people instead of yourself. When President Obama took office, a lot of the women who came into the White House felt sidelined, or that their contributions weren’t being properly appreciated. So they got together and came up with a strategy of amplification – when one woman made a good suggestion, the next woman would repeat it, and give credit. It’s as simple as saying, “I really liked Jenny’s idea, let’s try that.” or “Mojo made a great point when she said …………….”

We can even flip those ten simple words from Soraya Chemaly around to speak up for each other.

“Stop interrupting her.”
“She just said that.”
“She doesn’t need an explanation.”

We’re union members, so we appreciate the importance of solidarity, and standing together. And even though it feels like such a cliche, getting together with a bunch of women to have a glass of wine and a moan about work or life or living in a patriarchal society can do immense good for your mental health.

These big issues like equal pay and gendered violence and the rise of authoritarianism are going to take a lot of us a long time to overcome, so we have to help each other not burn out.

I’m just going to finish with the scolding heard around the world, when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced as she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King in the US Senate. Justifying why he had blocked Warren from speaking for the rest of the debate, Mitch McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” I think that’s our greatest challenge in 2017: persisting.

Who wouldn’t want ambulance drivers to be safe and healthy at work?

St John ambulance drivers aren’t asking for much: regular breaks, fair pay, and not being sent out on their own to deal with dangerous or violent patients.

But that’s apparently too much for St John – a charitable organisation whose values include “doing the right thing” and being “straight up” – who have not only taken legal steps to close down collective bargaining, but docked workers’ pay 10% for taking industrial action.

Let’s be really crystal clear here – we’re not talking about strike action. Ambulance drivers who are members of FIRST Union are still showing up to work on time and getting the job done. They’re just wearing a t-shirt that says “Healthy ambos save lives” while they do it.

Side note: what is with some employers and a kneejerk hatred of cool union t-shirts?

What’s struck me is the number of comments I see from people – “ordinary” New Zealanders, if you like; people who don’t spend nearly as much time as you or I nerding out about politics – asking how this is legal. This can’t be okay, surely? How can the boss take 10% of your pay just because you’re wearing a silly t-shirt?

Well … no one likes to hear “I told you so.” But here we are.

In 2013 the National-led government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Among other things, it included:

  • docking pay 10% for industrial action – if an employer couldn’t be bothered figuring out the proportion of work being affected by, say, an overtime ban (or, perhaps, just punishing workers for wearing t-shirts!)
  • making it easier for employers to walk away from collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements, which maintain basic standards of pay and conditions and stop cowboy operators undercutting everyone else by paying poverty wages
  • removing mandatory minimum rest breaks and giving almost all the power to the employer to decide what a “reasonable” break would look like
  • weakening protections for workers like cleaning and catering staff, whose jobs might get taken over by new contractors who want to pay them less
  • tightening the rules around strikes so bosses’ lawyers can tie unions up in legal action for months over a typo.

The law weakened the position of workers and their unions, and strengthened the ability for dirtbag employers to be dirtbags. That’s precisely what it was designed to do.

And of course there was resistance. Thousands of people rallied in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the bill. There were submissions, and op eds, and public speak-outs.

And National did what they have done so well for eight years: they dodged the issues. When unions pointed out that this law would remove the right to a rest break, Simon Bridges said “It’s about flexibility, we can’t have teachers and air traffic controllers just walking off the job to have a cup of tea, can we?” – as though this answered the question, as though this would ever happen. When unions pointed out people could be disadvantaged by not being on the collective agreement for the first 30 days in their new job, Michael Woodhouse said “It’s about fairness!” – as though it’s fair to expect someone new to the job and new to the company to know what to expect, what to negotiate for. As though 90% of employers bother to genuinely negotiate individual agreements with workers who don’t join the union.

Maybe unions could have done a better job talking about these issues. Maybe the media could have done a better job getting government ministers to actually answer the questions put to them (instead of, say, using a workers’ rally to attack Grant Robertson for being gay, as occurred in one particularly shameless piece).

The point now is that the industrial action being taken by people who do an incredibly important job, driving bloody ambulances, is making many people realise how broken employment relations are in New Zealand. Yes, folks: your employer can dock your pay 10% because you and your coworkers stand together and wear union t-shirts while doing your jobs. That’s not fair. That’s not about flexibility. That’s not something we like to think of happening in our country.

So tell St John. Tell every employer who tries to walk away from the bargaining table when they don’t like people taking a stand for health and safety and decent work: it’s not on. It’s not how we do things. And tell the politicians, too. Because laws change when we make them change.

Earworm for the day: for Helen Kelly

When I was helping to organise the inaugural conference of E tū earlier this year, we knew we wanted to make Helen Kelly the first life member of our new union. But what song to sing for her? She had very decided opinions about some classic union songs; there was a lot of careful consultation to be done, without letting her in on the surprise.

We settled on “Bread and Roses”, which I have to admit isn’t my favourite – I’m a metal girl, I like something you can bang your head to.

This one didn’t make the shortlist. It probably felt a little on the nose. But Helen had a great sense of humour; I think she would have appreciated the black comedy.

Here’s to her, and here’s to the union.

Stopping the clock

First up, I need to make make it clear as someone who’s spent the majority of my adult life in the movement and who still does a bit of contract work for unions, including the current push to get the Holidays Act payroll problem fixed: I’m perhaps not the most impartial commentator on union issues.

That aside, I’d want to see this business with the Holidays Act sorted even if I’d never heard the word “union”. The idea that one million dollars of debt owed to Kiwis could be written off every single day, or that $2.3bn (!) could be owed to hundreds of thousands of us is a Big Deal.

Watching One News last night I was a bit surprised to hear John Key refuse to stop the clock on this debt-bleed by claiming legislation takes too long. It’s not something I noticed last year when the validation of speeding tickets was passed from whoa to go in one sitting. Or when they passed the Hobbit law in just two days back in 2010 – a law that took work rights off hundreds of Kiwis.

Sam Huggard from the Council of Trade Unions is right. This is a matter of priorities:

 

What I find most surprising is Key’s antenna has failed on this issue. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that people feel a bit differently about speeding tickets than they do about surprise extra back pay. And, even further on that limb, I imagine that many New Zealanders probably have a few choice opinions about a Prime Minister who urgently addresses the former while letting the latter disappear over the horizon.

So why not just do it? It’s not like freezing the statute acknowledges any government liability, nor does it lock them into accepting the union movement’s fix for the problem. It merely stops people from losing money while the problem gets sorted out.

My guess is that, caught on the hop, Key’s natural response was to say no to “The Unions”. I think that’s a mistake based on his, and other National Party folks’, unwillingness to acknowledge that “The Unions” is in fact a group of democratic organisations comprising a huge cross-section of New Zealanders, including many National Party voters.

In my experience, the union movement mostly consists of people from “middle”* New Zealand. Which is why reflexively pushing back on unions has repeatedly put National on the wrong side of public opinion, from the Hobbit law, to health and safety reforms touting dangerous worm-farms, to trying to lock zero hour contracts into law.

That said, Key’s found himself on the wrong side a lot in the last few months from the trivial (flags), to the very very serious (homelessness). Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s out of touch, maybe he’s just not getting good advice any more.
Whatever the case, he should do himself and all working New Zealanders a favour and stop the clock on the back pay. Even if it’s just in the name of the good politics he’s built his reputation on.

By the way, if you want to join thousands of others who are telling John Key to stop the clock the Together petition is here.

~

*note: I use the term only as shorthand – the notion a homogeneous “middle” New Zealand exists and can be identified and targeted is responsible for some of the silliest political decisions of the last 30 years.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

The people win against Talleys

Congratulations to the members of the Meat Workers Union who have won in court against New Zealand’s most douchebaggy of employers, Talley’s.

The Court unanimously decided that the lockout of workers across the North Island earlier this year was illegal, and Talley’s AFFCO had breached Section 32 of the Employment Relations Act 2000 by not acting in good faith while negotiations were going on.

MWU National Secretary Graham Cook said the decision was fantastic for Talley’s AFFCO workers and their families.

“Talley’s have tried just about everything to stop these workers from being able to bargain for a fair deal. They’ve forced some workers onto individual agreements, they’ve tried to undermine the union behind closed doors.

“But today Talley’s have lost.

Talley’s are an absolute blight on New Zealand industry. They’re basically a caricature of a bad employer. They’ve knowingly and wilfully paid women less to do the same work as men. They literally believe that making money is more important than keeping the people who work for them safe on the job. They have a terrible health and safety record and a kneejerk hatred of unions.

They’re the kind of employer that our government stands up for, time and time again. And the (grimly) hilarious thing is how counter-productive their attitude is. As new CTU president Richard Wagstaff says:

Good employers know that treating employees fairly and respectfully is the way to build a happy productive workplace.

Paying the people who work for you enough to feed their kids, keeping people safe and healthy, treating people with basic respect and a bit of dignity – shockingly, it’s good for business. Treating people like people and not robots – terrifyingly, it makes them happier and healthier, it makes their families happier and healthier, it benefits our entire society, including the profit-making business-owning parts.

The radical idea, which the Talley family and the Key government simply can’t get their heads around, is that short-term thinking doesn’t return long-term benefits. Screwing over workers now to make profit now doesn’t support the society which sustains your business.

This is what gobsmacks me about the right in New Zealand: they’re not actually very good at doing capitalism. But as long as they get their knighthoods and can retire to Hawaii, I don’t think they really care.

You can support the meat workers’ campaign at the Jobs That Count website.