Saturday, March 29, 2008

The feeble strength of one

The Union express, the paper of the National Distribution Union, is one of the better union newspapers. They've had some excellent coverage of the raids.

But there was one appalling article about climate change in their latest issue (not available on-line but it's February-April 2008 with a Bunnings protest on the front cover). I've been thinking about it ever since I read Anne Else's excellent piece about Plastic Bags, and realise I had to say something.

The article is called Be The Change and is based on the website of the same name.

My main objection is to the section called Save Money and the Planet, which gave all sorts of advice about what union members could do. Much of the advice assumed that you own your own home, and have capital to make upgrades, with suggestions to install insulation, and consider solar water heating. Then there's the advice to turn off your heated towel rail and your second fridge.*

I am angry to read this nonsense in a union magazine, which is going to some of the lowest paid workers in the country. While some of NDU workplaces, such as mills, are well paid enough that workers might own their own home and a heated towel rail, many are not. The assumption

I regularly turn off my hot water heater, not for energy efficiency reasons, because it's the only way I can pay my electricity bill. The idea that workers need to be lectured at how to save electricity is ridiculous. Low paid people know from saving money. What they don't have is capital, some people can't afford to buy a $6 light bulb now to save $20 over the course of the year.

There was nothing about landlords and government's responsibility to provide better quality housing, and what unions are doing about that (which is probably because the answer is 'nothing'). There wasn't even any information about the schemes that some councils are running which subsidise landlords to install heat-pumps and installation.

I would expect a union magazine to be the one place you could find discussion of environmental issues that goes beyond individualistic moralising. That it didn't, that all the Union Express had to say was the banal 'be the change' is a really bad sign. Recently discussion about climate change and carbon footprints have gone mainstream. Airlines and power companies want us to believe if we do our little bit then everything will be fine. Some environmentalists seem to see this as a victory, but it's not, it's distraction and co-option. Individuals can't save the planet, anymore than they can end war. The way the world's resources are used is not decided by consumers, but at by companies at the point of production. Action around climate change which ignores this isn't so much rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic, but telling the passengers to lose weight so it'll sink slower.

* It makes me want to write a whole series of climate change advice in a similar vein: "Turn off the heating system in your spa pool when you are going to be away for a few days. Consider an energy efficient air conditioning system for your second home." etc.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zoom out

Josie Bullock was working as a probation officer in a Maori-focused anti-violence programme. During the poroporoaki, she was asked to follow tikanga and sit behind the men. She refused to do so, and was given a formal warning for unprofessional conduct. She spoke about the incident to the media and was then dismissed.

Her case has come up for another round of media commentary, because the human rights tribunal has just found that she was discriminated against, and the warning was invalid, but offered no compensation.*

The media have quite loved this case, it's got many airings on Nine to Noon. Media and legal commentators get excited as discussing this as a case of conflicting rights, and attempting to cast the rights of Maori (who are invariably men) with the rights of women (who are equally invariably white).

There are other ways we could look at what happened. We could start with the prison system, where the programme was being run. A system that imprisons Maori at a rate far higher than Pakeha. Maori make up an even higher percentage of remand prisoners than they do sentenced prisoners, which shows that Maori are refused bail at a higher rate than Pakeha.

We could look at the women who support the men inside the prison system. We could look at how their work is rendered impossible and invisible. We could look at the effect that imprisonment has on those left outside.

We could look at the ways in which society condones and supports men's power over women, and men's violence against women.

For me, that means my starting point is that I'm fighting for a world without prisons, and without abusive men.

The effect of the media's narrow focus in cases like this, is to imply that there's a scarcity of rights and that if you want your rights you may need to trample over other people's.

It's vital that those of us who want more, those who are fighting for liberation rather than rights, reject this idea. Colonialism and misogyny are interlocking systems. We won't be able to dismantle one while the other remains in tact (and won't be able to dismantle either while capitalism is sitting there).

* This was a cowardly piece of shit ruling from the human rights commission. To state that an unfair warning wasn't the reason for dismissal, but the way someone dealt with the unfair warning was, is bosses nonsense, and shows the limits of legal redress.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

20 March 2008

The sun was shining as I sat down at the Cenotaph. Like most war memorials it looks like a giant penis. No-one else was there, but I was I knitted a few rows, and the mother of kids I used to babysat for walked by. We talked a bit, mostly about knitting and she left. I knitted a few more rows; no-one else showed up. I packed my knitting away, and walked off. For ten minutes, I'd vigiled alone in solidarity with the people of Iraq.

That was the political action in Wellington on the fifth anniversary of the War on Iraq. Maybe the people who had called the vigil turned up after I left, I don't know. It's been a hard six months for many of us here - there are extenuating circumstances

But it's not just here, the movement against the war in Iraq was at it's peak in the first six months of 2003. I own this book:

I've always loved it, I flick through and look at the sea of placards in London, the shivering scientists in Antarctica, the incomprehensible naked demos and the mass of people in Santiago. I think back to what we were doing on the fifteenth of February 2003, and what a crazy chaotic time it was, and how much we managed to do.

But tonight, I thought different things at I looked at the photos of the young woman in Sydney who had written 'Make Love Not War' written on her arm and was making out with an equally young man; the school kids on strike in London, on the first day of the war; the soccer fan who ran on the pitch with "Stop Bush" written on his backs; the hundreds of windows in Milan with peace flags flying; the two women in Washington DC who had written Peace Womb on their pregnant bellies - their children would be five by now. I want to know where they all were on Thursday, the fifth anniversary.

Almost everyone in those pictures must still oppose the war, five years later. It's not as if it's gone better than planned. But in those five years they must have lost something, all those people who came out and took action in so many ways. They must have lost hope.

I think we, by which I mean the anti-war movements in the broadest sense, must have done something wrong, not to be able to build on that hope that existed in those months. I can tell you some of the specific things that I would do differently in Wellington. But those details are too specific to explain the world-wide shrinking in the anti-war movement (unless every anti-war group had massive disagreements around meat).

The fifteenth of February 2003 was amazing, but a war cannot be stopped in one day, even one day with millions of people. Anything we do must be sustained longer than the period where urgency overwhelms us. I think the question for those of us who took part is how we can build, next time.

One more thing

I do still have one more thing to say about tea breaks. I should have mentioned in my last post that government legislation won't necessarily change the problem with getting breaks. The main reason employers don't like breaks, is that in order for some workers to take breaks you need other workers to cover those breaks. There are many industries (including white collar places where people eat lunch at their desk), where systemic under-staffing is a central way that the employers make their profit.

Legislation won't change that. If you work in a cafe and its Saturday morning, but there are only two people on at the counter, then neither of them are going to take a break, because that just mean the orders back up and youhave to work twice as hard on the other side, then many workers are just going to ignore their breaks. Likewise if you work in an office, and you can't go home till the project is done, then you might eat lunch at your desk so you can leave at seven rather than seven thirty, however much you want or need half an hour away from the office.

It's not legislation which makes a difference in workplaces like these, it's strong union organising.

100 years ago coal-miners struck for their break. The 'left-wing' version of New Zealand history says this strike was the beginning of a movement that climaxed with the election of the first labour government in the 1930s (the left-wing version of history was always inaptly named, and written well before the fourth labour government). The move from industrial action to political power wasn't a glorious one, but a step backwards. Breaks will always be better protected by unions than by legislation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Let them have cake-breaks

David Farrer asks if there are any employers who don't give tea breaks. He even asks if there has ever been a case taken to the employment tribunal around employees being denied breaks that aren't in their agreement. Which is patently ridiculous, because there are no grounds to take the case at the moment, it'd be like taking a case to the employment tribunal about not being paid extra for overtime, if it wasn't mentioned in your agreement. New Zealand has had almost no minimum employment code for 17 years now, you'd think people would be used to that fact.

It seems pretty clear to me that David Farrer's only worked in white collar jobs, because in retail and hospitality things are quite different. I have talked to a school student who was working at a petrol station on Saturday morning from 6am until 2pm without any kind of a break. I have known high-level management forbid tea-breaks after they discovered local managers were allowing them. These happened in reasonably large companies you would have heard of. It's much, much worse in small retail and hospitality outlets; I know there are workers in some cafes who never get a break.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Great Leap Forwards

There is no entitlement to breaks in New Zealand. Breaks, like overtime, hours of work, and pay rates, are decided by negotiation between the employer and employee. In workplaces without a union, these negotiations proceed the way you expect when one party has money and the other needs to eat:

Employer: We don't have breaks here
This year was the 100th anniversary of the Blackball miners' strike. That strike was to win the right to a lunch-break, and 100 years later the government triumphantly announces that they're going to reintroduce the right to a lunch-break. Which tells you a lot about union history.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Te Reo

I've already written about the Operation 8 Court appearance on March 5th. In that account I left off one astonishing fact about the way the police had pursued this investigation.

During Operation 8 the police bugged cars, houses and phones. They then transcribed these bugged conversations as part of the effort to prove that those arrested were dangerous terrorists (you may have seen snippets of these conversations on the front page of the Dominion Post). The police have to provide everything they collected as part of the investigation to the defence (this is called disclosure, and in this particular case it is ginormous).

During the lawyerly discussions on the 5th of March Annette Sykes described the transcripts the police provided. Apparently, people start talking in Maori the transcript says "conversation in Maori."

The police, despite the millions of dollars they had floating around, didn't bother transcribing, let alone translating, any Maori conversations.

It seems like a silly thing to be upset about, when the police have spent so long bugging, and basically stalking so many activists. In terms of those people's lives I think it's really awesome that those conversations weren't captured by the police. But the sheer arrogance, on the police's part, of making explicit their belief that nothing in Te Reo matters, astounds me.

Exciting new blogs

One is Else Woman, a new blog by Anne Else. I have admired Anne Else for years, and her second post shows why. She writes on plastic bags, and the Sunday Star Times current campaign to rid the world of them*:

The only sensible approach to getting rid of plastic is to throw the responsibility back where it belongs. The supermarkets, takeaway bars, yoghurt makers, et al are the ones who put all this stuff into circulation in the first place.

Then they leave us to tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid it - and feel incredibly guilty when we inevitably fail. And if there is one thing no modern woman needs, it's having another load of guilt dumped on her head.

Now that the cloth bags are really cheap, charging for plastic bags is a good idea. But I'm working on a plan to deal with plastic in a completely different way. It involves pausing just before I get to the checkout counter, carefully divesting everything in my trolley of all the surplus packaging, and leaving it neatly piled on top of the nearest display of goods.
Go check out Anne Else's blog

The second is The Hand Mirror. Julie's done a lot of hard work to create a New Zealand feminist group blog. It's got some great content and regular features. I'm going to be posting over there sometimes, and cross-posting some of the posts I write here.

Speaking of which, I am planning on posting a little bit more regularly now (it would be a challenge to post less regularly. I was working on a writing project, which meant at the end of the day I was completely out of words. But now that's all done.

* Admittedly it could be much worse, their other over-riding concern appears to be rehabilitating Clint Rickards.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Not lucky

Matthew Te Hira was arrested on Friday of last week. He was charged with drink driving and traffic offences. He'd fail to appear for sixteen months. He was remanded in prison. The day after he was arrested he was bashed so badly that he ended up on life support.

I can't really write about this sort of story yet. I can't stand anywhere else, but in the shoes of people who loved Matthew Te Hira.

So I just want to say one thing about the coverage. Beven Hanlon President of the Corrections Association of New Zealand said:

Although it's tough to say, it's lucky it's a prisoner and not a staff member
That's not unionism,or not unionism that's worth a damn. There's a history of this sort of union, tailors who went on strike to exclude women, and a whole raft of Jim Crow unions in the states. But unionism that says that your members are more important than other people, more worthy of life, that's the opposite of solidarity.

Friday, March 07, 2008


I walked up the steps of the Auckland District Court and joined the queue to go through the metal detector. I knew I would be fine; I've learned to dress for metal detectors. But I wasn't sure about my bag, which had metal knitting needles in it. I tried to pre-empt any challenge and told the guard. He asked his boss, a man who was clearly dedicated to his moustache. I showed him that I was knitting with circular needles and the pointy bit was really short (and blunt)

"What are you here for?"

"I'm just here to support some people who are going to court" I recognised him from when we'd been up last year, and I was pretty sure he recognised me.

"Well you can take them in, but keep them hidden. I wouldn't want anyone else to see them and stab someone with them."

Court always manages to describe my social position so precisely.

Also supposedly I had come up to support terrorists (albeit terrorists the government couldn't charged because of badly written law). And yet the fact that I'm a terrorist associate makes the court staff think that I'm safer to carry pointy metal things (however short and blunt).

Imagine a close-knit group you have been part of. A group of people who hang out in the same places, work together, and see each other most days. Now imagine that some of your friends would go to jail if they saw each other. Imagine that they were close friends with each other.

When those arrested with arms charges were released on November 9 most of them were placed on non-association orders. Emily Bailey and Urs Signer (previously the 23 year old Swiss Musician) were allowed to associate with each other but not Valerie Morse. It's made it hard few months for most of us who know them, I can't even begin to imagine what it's been like for them. To see someone you love and not be able to talk to them, to have to leave anywhere if they arrive.

There was a lot going on at court on the fifth. They set the depositions hearing, the media argued about how necessary it was to be able to take pictures (and then didn't use any), and there were changes to bail conditions.

The important bail condition for me, and most people who'd come up from Wellington, were the non-association orders between Val, Em and Urs. All of the bail conditions are ridiculous, but this was the one that was causing the most pain for us.

They came up sooner than I thought they would, other people were only seeking bail variations which weren't opposed by the crown. Then the registrar called 'Emily Bailey'. Almost immediately the discussion between the defence and the crown descended into a legal discussion that doesn't make any sense to anyone else. On the day of their release the High Court had ruled that Em and Val weren't allowed to associate. The crown was arguing that the district court didn't have jurisdiction and Michael Bott (who was acting for Val, Em & Urs today) was arguing that they did. The argument went on without getting anywhere.

Val went and stood at the front of the gallery

We seemed to be losing, the judge talked about how put out the High Court judge would be if he heard his decision had been over-turned in the district court.

Urs went and stood beside Val.

I didn't want us to lose it like this, over a technical matter, without even making an argument. But the judge didn't seem like he would give a judgement, and so the status quo would continue.

The pause was only a small one, but I saw Val taking a breath.

"With all due respect" she said* "You are discussing the decision about association between myself and Emily Bailey. There has been no hearing, or decision about association between myself and Urs Signer."

The crown didn't even have anything to say to that, and a few seconds later the judge ordered a variation to Valerie Morse and Urs Signer's bail conditions to allow them to associate with each other.

Val and Urs hugged and we applauded.

When I was in court on the 15th of October we didn't applaud at all. The judge threatened to clear the court when we waved to those in the dock(he also ordered a baby to leave court, because the baby loved the defendants). Those sitting in the gallery were in shock and wouldn't do anything to risk the few moments we got to see our friends.

We pushed the boundaries, a little bit, over time. We started standing, we even started applauding. In the high court on the 9th of November, when we knew they were going to be released, we didn't care. We walked around, called out, passed notes, and applauded.

Now they're out we're not so scared, and neither are the defendants - we're starting to speak back. When Watene McClutchie, one of the defendants, was told to leave the stand he replied "I want my curfew lifted" and it was (a little bit later). We're going to be embroiled in this legal system for a very long time (the depositions hearing is set down for a week in September), speaking back is a good start.

* It's up in the air exactly how much respect was due.