Dr Dylan Taylor, lecturer in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, is a sociologist with interests in social movements,political economy, and political philosophy. He is a researcher for Economic and Social Research Aotearoa, and a member of the editorial board of Counter futures: Left thought & practice Aotearoa. Here, Dylan reflects on the recent increase in industrial action in Aotearoa New Zealand and asks whether this increase might signal a renewal of class-based struggle.
Upwards of 70,000 people took part in strike action in 2018, including workers in health, education, service industries, transport, and industrial production. A stark contrast to 2017, when only 421 workers took industrial action.
More recently, some 55,000 teachers walked off the job in what was called the'mega-strike' for better pay and conditions. The May 29 mega-strike was the first time primary and secondary school teachers had come together for an all-schools strike. On the back of this sustained and highly visible action, primary teachers have now ratified a proposed settlement that would restore pay parity with their secondary colleagues.
The teachers were tenacious in pursuing this settlement, having rejected four previous offers from the Government. Importantly, they united around a message that was highly visible and drew public support: that our teachers are worth it.
In assessing this action as part of a broader uptick in worker organisation, it is interesting to ask if we might be witnessing a renewal of class-based struggle in this country after a long period of abeyance.
In asserting that they are ‘worth it’, the teachers were organising from the perspective of a downwardly-mobile middle class block. Statistics New Zealand has collected information on average pay rates for 16 sectors of the workforce since 1989 as part of its ‘Earnings and Employment Survey’. The ‘education and training’ sector, which incorporates teachers as well as workers in the tertiary sector, has experienced a dramatic shift in fortunes. In 1989 it ranked as the second highest paying industry in the country, it is now ranked seventh.
The average rate of wage inflation over this period has been 158%, the education and training sector is the lowest at 122.5%. With few exceptions, most other sectors of the workforce have maintained relatively stable positions.
The plight of teachers highlights the shifting class dynamics of this country. A once solidly middle-class standing has suffered a dramatic decline in remuneration and status. This decline has happened in a period in which younger New Zealanders from middle class backgrounds have found themselves burdened with student debt, locked out of the housing market, and subject to ultra-exploitative landlords. Over the same period inequality has deepened dramatically, and society has become increasingly polarised.
Historically,significant egalitarian-focused social change occurred when dissatisfied sections of the middle-class aligned with the working-class and other precarious groups.
At this point the various sites of union struggle and other sites of activist organisation in the country appear to be, for the most part, disconnected from one another. There is no overarching political project informed by class-based analysis. While the current Labour-led Government has made some welcome concessions, as seen in its response to the teachers’ demands, it is a party that seeks to avoid overly antagonising the multi-property-owning class, as seen in the shelving of a capital gains tax.
The current period is, to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, an interregnum—the old society is dying, yet the new cannot be born. The question of what type of society we want to live in is an important one. While the sectoral struggles the labour movement is engaged in are important, we also need to actively connect theses struggles to a broader project for social change.
If such a project is to be pursued, there is a need to build and sustain a broad movement. A movement that is not afraid to analyse the current moment through the lens of class dynamics and exploitation.