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Our generation has no shortage of causes. It’s probably because of the internet, which makes it easy to know about a lot of shit things that exist and also to register some kind of opinion about them, be it a like-comment-share or, if you really believe in it, the lending of the weight of your email address to an online petition to try oust some media jerk, or hold a smarmy misogynist accountable, or get a nifty clip-on bike lane fastened to the underside of the Auckland harbour bridge. It’s never been easier to express our allegiance to and our sympathy for and our disappointment in whatever cause we choose to give a shit about, whether it’s performing ironic grief for Harambe, or shitting on Lena Dunham, or getting riled up about the sexist idiots who represent us in grunting boysports. Some of our causes are closer to home than others. There are local ones (housing crisis, flag crisis, Chloe for mayor, whatever Massive has done lately) and global ones (sexism, inequality, global warming, war), as well as weirdly specific and far away ones that no one would know anything about if it wasn’t for their speedy beatification into meme-hood—the one true universal language. (On that note: has anyone heard from Kony lately? I hope he’s OK. Or not OK, I think he was the bad guy. Also, supposedly the Ice Bucket Challenge actually worked! Crazy.) I still wonder whether there’s actually anything more to the New Zealand obsession with the US election cycle than a weird sycophancy (the “the actions of the American government affect us” argument is tangential at best and, even if it’s true, I don’t think keeping up to date with #Trumpfest16 is likely to help us prepare for a slight increase in import levies seven years down the line). Whatever it is that does it, we, for some reason, care about it.
It’s hard to argue then that we millennials are an ignorant or apathetic people. We might not have actually donated money to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis research, but we definitely knew ALS was a thing, because lots of people poured ice on themselves about it. We have our finger on the pulse of the world, for the most part, occasional unaccountable priorities aside. One of the most confounding mysteries then is the one giant issue that we millennials statistically don’t care about, even though it’s something that affects basically every New Zealander at least once in their lives: work. That boring shit of a chore, that crappy cafe or store that we have to show up to every week and donate to it our time like blood, that we waste a big part of our lives at so we can afford to live indoors and buy packet curries. We don’t care about it because young workers have the lowest rate, by far, of unionisation in the whole New Zealand workforce. Not that it’s a New Zealand issue alone—board rooms in union offices the world over are basically carpeted with hair ripped from the heads of anguished union leaders fretting about the low numbers of youths who are signing up. And it’s a mystery because we do give a shit about a lot of other things, things that take up way less of our weekly schedule and, on the whole, are a cause of considerably less grief and stress in our lives.
Working rights were one of humanity’s Original Causes. Ever since the idea came about that we would all have jobs, we’ve been trying to make those jobs less shitty. It’s easy to take for granted a lot of the things that the early labour movement sorted out for us—eight-hour work days, weekends, breaks, holidays, etc.—because most of them now are protected by law (for the moment). We also take them for granted because we know now that, without those rights, it just wouldn’t be possible to work at a job and also live a life where happiness was a possibility. To the people who originally ran the steel mills and the mines, though, workers were basically a cheap, naturally occurring, resource whose energy and time was there to be wrung out to the last drop. That basic dynamic has largely stuck around since then, with the people who run companies seeking to find how much they can get away with (how little they can pay their employees, how much work they can squeeze out of them), and the people working for the companies trying to make their working lives better (arguing for more money, fairer hours, better conditions). Interestingly the best case scenario for a business (i.e. the scenario where the most money is made for the shareholders) often arises from the best case scenario for the employees too. This is the idea that if you make your employees happy, by paying them a decent wage, giving them regular hours, giving them free coffee to drink or music to listen to, whatever, then they will happily be good employees. They will be more productive, more efficient, and they also quit less, so not as much money has to get sunk into retraining new employees. They might even stay late every so often to see something through because they feel like their work is meaningful. If workers have a good relationship with their job they will be better workers. And, historically, workers have the best relationships with their jobs when they are part of a strong union.
Unfortunately for pretty much everyone the days of the traditional union supreme are behind us. There are many reasons for this and most of them are directly or indirectly political. The introduction to 1980s New Zealand of the latest political fashion sweeping the world, neoliberalism, with its blind faith in the free market and its maniacal deregulation, saw the loss of most of the country’s manufacturing industry to cheap offshore megafactories and, with it, the vanishing of thousands of decent, stable, blue-collar jobs. More recently technology and automation has swooped in to clean up even more work in the manufacturing sector, meaning that fewer and fewer jobs exist in what was previously a union stronghold, decimating membership numbers and union resources. In the early 1990s the official unemployment rate was 11.2% and for Māori it was a devastating 30%. For those lucky enough to have jobs the unionisation rate—and with it workers’ ability to argue for better conditions—went from around 65% of the working population to more like 20%, largely due to something called the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA), a tricksy bit of National Party legislation that overnight made it a lot harder to be in a union, and to be a union. (And, while correlation doesn’t equal causation, this was basically the time where the trajectory of our minimum wage stalled and parted ways with Australia’s, which is why theirs is now a more respectable $18.26 NZD.)
But while the power of unions has faded in recent history, the need for unions certainly hasn’t. Over the years since the ECA came into force (the effects of which the union movement never really recovered from, even though Aunty Helen replaced it in 2000 with the current Employment Relations Act which protects the rights of unions to enter into workplaces to recruit and enshrines good-faith negotiation, among other things), workers have had to deal with a bunch of attacks on the conditions of their jobs. There’s the shitty concept of ‘split shifts’ (where you’re basically away from home for like twelve hours, but only get paid for eight), supercrap ‘youth rates’ (which, on a personal note, was why I only got paid $6.50 an hour when I worked at Pandoro as a fourteen year-old), and, more recently, all this zero-hour-contract bullshit (where even if you do have a job, in certain industries your boss isn’t actually obliged to give you any work and so could make your life a lot harder by withholding hours or just being useless and not rostering properly). Twenty-nine miners lost their lives at Pike River because the mine boss didn’t give enough of a fuck about their health and safety. And remember that time when Warner Brothers asked the government to change our labour laws so that they could legally fuck over the people who worked on The Hobbit and the government actually agreed to do it? And that’s to say nothing of our minimum wage, which is a full four dollars an hour short of a living wage.
And while most people on the minimum wage are too busy trying to make it work than to sit around moaning about the state of contemporary market economics, the fact is that our jobs—and our lives—could be a lot better for all of us. Back in 1930, pro economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we’d all be working fifteen hours a week and spending the rest of our time hanging out with our families and writing poetry and just generally enjoying being alive. It’s easy to lose sight of the alternative future we could be living in. We probably have the technology needed to work 15 hours a week but the problem is that employers tend to only bring in technology when they want to make more money, not when they want to improve the lives of their employees (for example, by having them work fewer hours for the same weekly pay). You can trust the unions though to keep the dream alive.
But one of the biggest concerns of the union movement now is their ageing membership base. In 1990 half of young workers were in unions, since Y2K though that level has hovered around the 10% mark. A few ideas have been floating around to account for the massive drop and a fair bit of research has had a go at cracking the case. The notion that generations X and Y are complete narcissists who have no interest in being part of a collective was found not to in fact hold water (and it does have that familiar whiff about it of aggrieved middle-aged grumpiness), but there does seem to be some evidence that supports the idea of union membership as an “experience good” (i.e. it’s a “try before you buy” kind of deal—young people are way more likely to join if they’ve had good union experiences before or their friends / family have). But by far the best explanation is simply that the nature of work is changing. We young folks don’t stick in our jobs for very long and certainly not for the 20+ years that was standard a couple generations ago. And when you’re switching jobs every one or two years it’s hard to give much of a shit about wherever it is that you currently happen to spend your waking hours. There seems like less of a point in paying union fees to try to improve your job if you’re quitting in a few months anyway. And, unfortunately, this casualisation of the workforce mostly benefits employers (as was seen in a few cases regarding the “ninety days bill”—for some employers the ideal situation is where they churn through employees on three-month cycles, getting rid of them before they build up the nerve or the leverage to ask for more money).
Unions and young people are a natural fit in a lot of ways. The unions could really do with the members and for a few bucks a week the young people could be part of a cause that would have a positive, tangible effect on their daily lives. Clearly though, as that 10% shows, unions still need to do something major to attract young members and secure their future. Not that they aren’t trying. The Young Workers Resource Centre is an organisation that goes around informing high school kids about their working rights—using that “experience good” argument to introduce young people to unions early on in their working lives. There’s also the Unite union which is actually managing to organise members in what are generally considered youth industries, like fast food shops and cinemas. Their modus operandi is action-based and they rely heavily on the publicity of canny staged protests (They have a six-metre tall inflatable rat that they lug around and drape in banners like “Don’t be a rat! GIVE WORKERS A FAIR DEAL.” And once at a picket of Reading Cinemas in 2004 they gave away free popcorn to people going into the movies and, haemorrhaging money from the concession stand, the management quickly capitulated and opened negotiations.) It’s usually pretty effective and it’s Unite we have to thank for the end of zero-hour contracts, but they have an understandably massive turnover and have to recruit like maniacs to keep themselves going. For another one of their campaigns, “Super Size My Pay”, the Unite leadership had to max out their credit cards and refinance their homes.
When we have them, young people’s opinions on unions are usually pretty positive. The problem is that most young workers just don’t have opinions on unions. The union movement, it seems, needs to work on its image. The language of previous generations of labour activists—the marxist vocabulary of class, of bosses vs. workers, of industrial struggle—sits awkwardly with the current crop of young people, it feels passé. And even if they do manage to join, unions are often hierarchical organisations and young members can find themselves struggling to have their voices heard in a meaningful way. More fleet-footed unions like FARSA (who cover flight attendants) are finding ways to maximise the input of their younger members by promoting them to leadership positions and harvesting their ideas about how best to communicate with their generation, but many other unions are still working off clunky, old-school frameworks. Maybe the union of the future will be a multi-headed beast, one which uses collectivity to address more of the challenges facing our world—inequality, exploitation, climate change—as well as sticking up for good old-fashioned labour rights. It must be tempting for unions to invest in a ‘union app’, or something, as a one-simple-trick to regain their young membership, but really, the only way to have a shot at returning to the glory days of union relevance is to listen to those little voices from below—or risk young folks beating unions to the punch.