Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holding Up Half the Sky

A few weeks ago, Jacob Zuma was named the new head of the African National Congress. This is part of a larger struggle in South Africa against the policies of the ANC, which has been carrying out a neo-liberal agenda ever since it gained power. Zuma is the left-wing candidate; Zuma's supporters sang Lethu Mshini Wami (bring me my machine gun). I haven't read much discussion of this on the blogs I read, which surprised me. I don't know enough about South African politics to offer any analysis of the ANC. But I wanted to comment on the discussion of Zuma's election, or the lack of it. There's definitely been more attention among the socialist blogs I read than the feminist blogs, and the analysis is a little bit like the paragraph above. From Lenin's Tomb:

Zuma is far from the ideal man to lead such a fight, burdened as he is with corruption charges over bribes from a French arms company, and he is actually doing his best to present his policies as pro-business. He is in all probability an opportunist who has harnessed a unique chance based on the unrest. However, the fact that he has successfully channelled the energy of this revolt into a leadership bid which may lead to him taking power in the ANC (but not the country) is itself significant. And however disappointing Zuma is likely to be (Chavez, he ain't - even Chavez isn't always Chavez), the very fact of ousting the wretched Mbeki may give further confidence to the already insurgent working class.
There's something missing from these stories. Zuma is a rapist. He was acquitted - they always are. But in 2005 he raped 31 year old woman who was a friend of the family. I wrote about the trial last year:
The trial sounds hideous, and familiar. She was put on trial and her sexual history, including other times she had been raped, was put into evidence. When Zuma took the stand he argued that she consented by wearing a knee-length skirt and complaining that she didn't have a boyfriend: "She had never in the past come to my house dressed in a skirt. Including times when I was living in Pretoria. When she came to me in a skirt after those talks I referred to earlier on, well, it told me something."
This has been treated as a side-note by many different people. From AP Zuma was acquitted of rape last year, but could still face bribery charges in a multimillion-dollar arms deal. From WSWS "Zuma was sacked from office as deputy president by Mbeki and then faced a further trial on rape charges last year, in which he was acquitted."

Maybe it's just that the New Zealand left has developed some clarity on these issues, but if a powerful man is accused of rape and is acquitted that doesn't mean he's not a rapist. It means he is a rapist.

The inability to call a rapist a rapist displays an indifference to rape as a political issue. When asked in 1999, 1 in 3 Johannesburg women said they had been raped in the last year - they deserve more than one line in an analysis of the political meaning of Zuma's victory.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Xmas, prison is over

I didn't watch Outrageous Fortune when it was first on. I've been catching up on DVD ever since watching the second episode. Last night I watched the Christmas special, and so I've watched everything out on DVD.

But I almost couldn't watch it - because the first ten minutes are about Cheryl's boyfriend Wayne trying to get out on bail. Partly because it was wrong. They showed Wayne using a cellphone in front of a guard at court - it doesn't work like that. Plus, Wayne would be in Auckland Central Remand Prison and I know what visiting at A-CRAP is like(I even know the prison nickname) and it's not like that.

But actually I was just upset. One day I may be able to hear stories about bail and let them be stories, but at the moment they resonate like an electric shock and take me straight back there.

Now it doesn't take much. The media reports they have every year about how they spend $4 a day feeding prisoners, and that on Christmas Day prisoners will get a mince pie dusted with icing sugar. They don't tell you that there'll be no visits on Christmas Day, because it's a public holiday. Tuesday was a visiting day for my friends every prison they were in.

Or this post, that I got from debitage:

I sat outside that cheerily bedecked detention center on a bird shit stained bench while I told a five year old that neither Santa nor God nor any of the other deities in a child's pantheon could bring his daddy home from Christmas. Daddy will be spending his fourth Christmas in immigration detention, a sentence 400% percent longer than any he served for a criminal conviction.

The child bawled. His mom hugged him and whispered endearments to him in her native language, although the son is a bilingual U.S. citizen. But then she had to send the son away to play under an ailing tree, because I needed to interrogate her about horrors she and her husband had faced in their native country. Part of the joy of litigating an asylum claim is that you have to grill everyone involved until they have PTSD from reliving their experiences. But if I'm not ruthless, the judges and government attorneys will confuse and humiliate them. Even if I do prepare them, a little of that happens anyway.
I'm not sure that I want the day to come when I can read that without physical pain. I want to hold on to the vivid reality of the prison system, because it's going to keep on being real whether or not I ignore it.

Napier & Newtown

I've done quite a bit of picketing this last week.

The first picket I went on was at Bunnings. Bunnings is a hardware chain, which has recently given their CEO a 61% pay increase to six million dollars. Many of the workers at Bunnings are on the minimum wage of $11.25 an hour. After months of negotiations the company offered a 0% wage increase for a six month term (their starting offer was 0% over a three year term). As if they were asking to be made fun of the company offered a monopoly set to each worker, to go along with the 0% pay increase.

The Newtown Bunnings picket was a short picket - just an hour. There are dozens of Bunnings stores across the country, and organising in retail is hard. These short pickets are just the beginning of the fight that'll be needed to get the company off zero.

But it was a great picket to be on - for most of the workers it was the first industrial action the power they had when they worked collectively was clear. You can see the backed up trucks when the workers stopped unloading them.

The other picket line I joined this week was at the Port of Napier. In terms of union history you couldn't get two more different workplaces than retail and the waterfront. On the waterfront they have a long, proud, history of union militancy, and everyone joins the union.*

The companies don't like this strength or this militancy, so they do try and break the unions. The latest attempt at the Port of Napier came when the Stevedoring (unloading containers) contract was given to a new company called ISO. I've written about contracting out earlier this year, during the Hospital lockout

Theoretically businesses, and government organisations, contract out services. They contract a company to clean, or to perform a certain task. But in reality they're contracting out employment.

Cleaning is a really good example of this. It's a low capital industry, and large cleaning companies don't get huge economies of scale. Companies get their printing done by a contract because they don't print enough to justify having the equipment sitting around all day. It takes about the same amount of equipment to clean a hospital whether the equipment is owned by Spotless or the Hospital, and neither of them can use the equipment elsewhere. In fact, by contracting out companies, and government organisations have to pay extra, to cover the profit that any cleaning company is going to make.

So why do hospitals (or businesses or anyone else) contract out their cleaning? Because they can use the tendering process to drive down the cost. To win tenders, and bid lower than other cleaning companies, the winning company has to either pay their workers less, or get their workers to do more cleaning in less time.

Contracting out is so effective, because everyone can claim that they're not responsible. The cleaning companies aren't responsible, because they can't afford to pay any more than they're given. The hospital that contracts out its cleaning isn't responsible because it's up to the sub-contractor how much money to pay.
It doesn't matter where you are, contracting out works in the same way. In this case ISO were planning to use non-union, non trained workers - so all the existing workers would lose their jobs.

So the union went on strike and called a picket and shut down the port. The picket started 6am Saturday and went 24 hours a day. Four of us drove from Wellington to Napier in my little car, and we were excited about it. By the time we got to Napier we were tooting at every sign that 'Port', and when we got to the picket we tooted got mad.

The picket was well set up, with tents, a generator, a tv, lights, a barbecue, a portaloo, signs and chairs. The workers had been picketing a long time - some were exhausted. Those on the picket line, the men and women who work on the port, women whose husbands worked the port, and kids whose parents worked the port, were going strong. It was an honour to get to hang out with them and be part of their picket.

When we left on Friday morning it was looking good. The union had gone directly to the shipowners, and most of them agreed to use union labour. By the time we got back to Wellington they'd won. All the shipowners had agreed not to use the scabs, and the port was going to abide by that.

The shipowners didn't agree to this out of the goodness of their hearts - they're bosses themselves. They agreed because of international solidarity. During the dispute ships bypassed Napier port, even when the company had managed to bring in scab labour. If the ships had been loaded with scab labour there isn't a port in the world that would unload them. The International Transport Federation - the global union

The last few days have made me think about a story from the lockout last year:
The 7 year old daughter of a locked-out worker went to visit her grandmother (who worked in a nearby factory) during the grandmother's afternoon smoko. The little girl was standing on the pavement asking, and her grandmother asked what she was doing. She replied "I'm on strike, I'll wave at them and they'll toot at me, because they agree."
One thing these picket lines had in common was tooting. At Napier almost every car that drove past tooted - often not just once or twice, but continually as they drove past the picket line. The picket had been going for almost a week by the time we got there; the people of Napier had chosen a side.

Newtown Bunnings is on a busy intersection and there was constant tooting. There are lots of unionised work places in Newtown; the buses and delivery vans all tooted as they went past and so did heaps of cars. It was raining really hard so the placards wouldn't have been that visible and the negotiations at Bunnings aen't exactly common knowledge. But it didn't matter, the people who tooted supported the picket line because they support unions.

The belief that unions don't have that much support is reasonably common. When the AA technicians were on strike even the delegate agreed with Mary Wilson that drivers would be pissed off. But when workers do go on strike, or are locked-out, then the toots and donations tell a completely different story.

In terms of union power there's not a huge amount of difference between an hour picket that delays some trucks being unloaded and day six of a picket that shuts down a port. But it's possible - making the union at Bunnings strong so the workers don't just get pay rises, but protect their jobs and change the working conditions. No workplaces, not even the waterfront start strongly union. It's hard, but it's possible.

* That long proud history involves a lot of losing - but at least they fought.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Just the year? How about the decade?

Louise Nicholas was named New Zealander of the year by the New Zealand Herald. It's a great article, and it shows how far the media has moved on this.

Media outlets were always willing to have a buck each way on this story. The coverage during the trial last year was sensationalist and more sympathetic towards the rapists than critical of them. The media were perfectly willing to give Brad Shipton's brother, and airtime to trash Louise Nicholas. Even now Clint Rickards gets huge coverage for his interview with Willie Jackson.

The media has also given space to Louise Nicholas's supporters, particularly after the suppression orders were broken (which was ridiculous - because the media sure knew all the suppressed information).

As time has gone on Louise Nicholas and her supporters have got more airtime, and the rapists' supporters have got less. Partly that's because as the trials have ended Louise Nicholas has been able to speak for herself. But I think it's mostly because Louise Nicholas's story resonates.

Many people, far too many people, believe Louise Nicholas story, because of personal experience. But the resonance in Louise Nicholas's story goes further. I've heard radio hosts, on shows like Nine to Noon, expressing surprise at the unanimous support for Louise Nicholas. The media sympathy for Louise Nicholas is a result of the huge support she had, not the other way round.

So I congratulate the New Zealand Herald for getting at least one thing right this year. But it's not the New Zealand Herald that gives me hope, but the people who read the Herald. There's a lot of work to do, to create a world where Louise Nicholas's . But the response to Louise Nicholas suggests that there are people who want that work done, which is start.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

It is not known if any of the defendents were from Jupiter

I've decided to publish some of the drafts, even though I didn't have the energy to finish them at the time. I'll be catching up for a while I think

One of the things that astonished me about the media coverage was the utter banality of it, and the inability for the media to have any information not handed to them in a press release. One of the government's lines was that most of those arrested on October 15 weren't even Maori. The minister of Maori affairs claimed that just four were Maori, and two were Ngai TÅ«hoe.

This is ridiculous nonsense. There were 17 people arrested on 15 October; 12 of them are Maori.

At the end of the first week, newspaper articles on the government's claims would still say, 'the ethnicity of those arrested is not known'. By that stage everyone had appeared in court. While that might not have informed journalists of the whakapapa of each of the defendants, it'd give them a fair idea of the possibility that more than four of the defendants were Maori.

This was supposed to be the biggest story of the year, and they couldn't even be bothered doing the most basic research.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A question...

One of the things I haven't worked out about my politics is what I think about prison guards. At Arohata the guards were mostly older Maori and Pacific Island women. When I visited the guards told us that we weren't allowed to be hug our friends too much, because the guards had been told off by their bosses for being too lenient the day before.

Don't get my wrong guards, and the absolute power they have over prisoners, have driven me to exhaustion, and they can do far worse to those inside. But they are workers, and reasonably well unionised ones. So driving out to prison one day, the question became, would I support a corrections strike?

On one level the answer is of course, I support any strike, and I would. But after the last few weeks I immediately started thinking about the effects of a strike in the prisons. When they're short staffed in prison they respond by locking prisoners down for longer and cutting back on activities which increase the need for guards, like visits.

I know I absolutely would not support a strike which restricted visiting and increased lock-down, if my friends were in prison. Hell, I hated Labour Day while they were in jail, because we couldn't visit. Knowing that can I say that I'd support those tactics when it's not my friends being effected?

Ultimately it's not my call, I'm not a Corrections worker (and will never be a Corrections worker) - and I do believe workers have a right to choose their own tactics. But I think I could only get on the picket line if Corrections were disrupting the prison intake in some way, if the number of prisoners were reduced. If the only effect of a theoretical strike were to further reduce prisoners freedoms then I don't think I could support it, and I didn't think I'd ever say that about any industry.

This is a question that only really troubles those who automatically support workers struggles and also believe in prison abolition (Asher? Byron?). But I know there are at least a few readers of those blog who share these positions. What do you think?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The next visit...

The week after I first visited Rimutaka, I visited Arohata - the women's prison. I'd gone to the prison half a dozen times already, to drop off books, letters, newspapers and visitors forms; I knew the prisons were different. At Arohata they weren't set up for supporters. At Rimutaka there were signs, forms and boxes for anything we might want to do. At Arohata they weren't as rigid, but after a week they wouldn't let us drop any more newspapers off, because they'd never seen this number of newspapers.

I got to Arohata half an hour early - just like I did at Rimutaka. When I rang the bell they told me that visiting didn't begin for half an hour and I'd have to wait outside. About ten minutes later another woman came, she was Maori and there to visit her mother. She'd come down from Palmerston North and we talked a little bit as we waited. I leaned against the fence, and she sat on the grass. She was pregnant, and needed to pee. I wanted to fight for her to get in and get a proper seat, but I'd already spent long enough in the prison system to know that it would just make me tired and get us nowhere.

Theoretically women prisoners on remand have much more visiting time than male prisoners on remand. Visiting time was in two hour blocks, rather than one hour blocks. All visiting time is cut into by the slowness of the prison system, but at the men's prisons they at least seemed to be expecting visitors. At the women's prisons they didn't even realise we were coming, until visiting time began.

As I said, from 12pm Monday 15 October to 4.01pm Thursday 8 November my happiest hours were spent prison visiting. While I was visiting I knew that they were really there, and that they were still them and fears that I couldn't even acknowledge dissipated.

But visiting at Arohata made me so sad, sad and angry, because the other female prisoners didn't seem to get visitors. The woman I'd waited on the grass with was the only other visitor the day I was there, and when other friends had visited the day before, none of the other remand prisoners at Arohata had got visits.

There are fewer remand prisoners at Arohata than there are at Rimutaka (18 vs 81 in the 2003 prison census). There are only three women's prisons in the country, so women as far away as Gisborne would be held in Wellington. But even taking the numbers into account there were five times as many visitors over two days at Rimutaka, than two days at Arohata.

I don't think that I can extrapolate out total support from two days of visiting, but there's other evidence that implies this is a pattern. Three times as many women as men had custody of children immediately before they were locked up (35.5% vs. 12.1%). For men, almost 80% of the children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner. Whereas for women less than 25% of children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner (full figures here. Instead it's immediately family, larger whanau or CYFS.

Women do the work when men go to prison, and when women go to prison there isn't necessarily anyone to fill the gap.