Editorial & Chair’s Report – November 2017 LHP Bulletin

Welcome to our first special-themed issue of the Labour History Project Bulletin, focusing on precarious work in Aotearoa New Zealand. In early 2016, the Labour History Project committed to selecting a current labour theme each year that would determine the direction of our historical work in conversation with current issues and campaigns. Each November issue of the Bulletin will be dedicated to that theme.

We open this issue with an article by Dylan Kelly, reprinted from Spinoff (thank you!), where, in this new political climate of kindness and hopefulness, he reviews the legacy of his Mum, Helen Kelly, and the current state of issues she cared most about—labour law, cannabis reform, health and safety in primary industries, and punishment for Pike River: criminalising corporate manslaughter. We miss you Helen Kelly, and wish you were here.

The New Zealand Council of Trade Union’s 2012 report, Under Pressure: A Detailed Report into Insecure Work, informs many articles in this issue, but particularly Bill Rosenberg’s survey of non-standard work arrangements that lead to insecure and exploitative working conditions. Bill places the New Zealand situation in a global context, and builds on the work of Deborah Tucker and Guy Standing. Indicators of precarity are: no certainty of ongoing employment (or earnings); lack of employee control over the workplace; low income levels; lack of access to benefits such as sick leave, education and training; and little regulatory and union protection. A conservative guesstimate in 2012 found that over 30 per cent of the New Zealand workforce were in insecure work.

People telling their own stories is transformative work, and Ross Webb and Linda Hill do justice to this kaupapa. Linda Hill speaks to Maree, who was hired through an employment agency to be a casual ‘picker and packer’ of cheap imported clothing sold on-line in 2007. Maree explains what made her angry about her work—the exploitative workplace pay and conditions; the dual system of permanent and casual workers; and the unchecked power of shop floor supervisors. Without union coverage, it is extremely difficult for casual workers to challenge exploitation.

Ross has been building a history of the fight against precarious work at AFFCO in Wairoa by conducting oral histories. In their own words, meat workers Peter Amato, Daphne Wharehinga, Loncey Crawford and Hilton Rohe explain how the Talley Group took over the AFFCO plant and imposed systems that made work insecure. They recall their resistance and fightback, their loyalty to one another (whanaungatanga), the importance of a strong union culture inside and outside the workforce, and how they are all connected. As Peter Amato says: “I love being a unionist. I love all my mates that have been with me… If we don’t make this stand, who makes this stand?… If we did fail, if we did get shafted, I really didn’t want it to happen to the doctors, the teachers, the nurses, the bus-drivers. If the [Employment Relations Amendment Act] had made it past us, everyone would be in the firing line. And I can’t have that.”

Sam Huggard’s article explores new organisational responses to ameliorate the poor wages and conditions of precarious work. Sam reviews four methods unions use to build worker’s power in the workplace: broad-based bargaining, with the example of the Living Wage Movement; strategic litigation, such as the Service and Food Workers’ Union and Kristine Bartlett pay equity case;  external leverage to resolve workplace issues, for example, how hapū and iwi put pressure on Talley’s AFFCO to end an industrial lockout in 2012; and informal associations for labour hire workers who would not have union coverage otherwise.

Most of the articles contained within this journal relate to the recent history of insecure and irregular work, but as Jared Davidson demonstrates, precarious work is nothing new; the three-decade Fordist era was a brief interruption. Jared traces the working-class struggles for liberation from work by foregrounding early twentieth-century experiences of Joseph Goss and Henry Murphy. He explores “the refusal of work as a potential strategy for both the abolition of precarious labour, and the very relations that call capital and the proletariat into being.”

Ross Webb’s book review of Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Shiloh Groot, Clifford Van Ommen, Bridgette Masters-Awatere and Natasha Tassell-Matamua (Palmerston North: Massey University Press, 2017) is also in keeping with the precarious work theme.

The final book review of Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality, by Prue Hyman (Wellington: BWB Texts, 2017) is intended to introduce the Labour History Project’s new theme for 2018: pay equity and equal employment opportunity. It seems fitting on the 125th anniversary of women gaining the vote, to explore the histories of people who have campaigned to eradicate gender inequality and associated discrimination based on ethnicity, class, marital status, disability, sexuality and age. I look forward to your contributions, dear reader.

I want to sincerely thank the contributors to this issue, and those who assisted in copyediting and design — it has been a wonderful collective effort. I feel very privileged to be chairing the Labour History Project Committee, who are such talented and enthusiastic people: Anna Green, Asher Goldman, Ciaran Doolin, Claire-Louise McCurdy, Emma Kelly, Barry Pateman, Jared Davidson, Peter Clayworth, Richard Hill, Ross Teppett, Ross Webb, Russell Campbell, Sue Shone and Therese O’Connell. We miss Grace Millar and her institutional knowledge, but thankfully she is just an email away. New subcommittees are up and running and we are gearing up for the Rona Bailey biennial lecture, given by Therese O’Connell, on 20 November, 5.30pm at Te Whaea: the National Dance and Drama Centre.

In the last Chair’s Report, Grace reflected that the year had been “strange and at times scary.” It is quite amazing how much the mood has shifted with the election of a new Labour-led Coalition government, and policy announcements that will make life a little easier for many people. I want to thank all of you who have been campaigning for a better world. There is much work to be done to make this happen, but hope makes the burden lighter, and utopian futures easier to imagine. Take care out there.

Cybèle Locke
LHP Chairperson and Guest Editor