The Utu truck, pictured at Auckland’s Aotea Square, during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri © 14 June 2020)

The working class — male, female, white and brown — is powerless to protect their rights, let alone advance them, writes Matt McCarten.


I’m a union man. Always have been, always will be.

In my day job, I support workers to win justice. Every day, I see people who’ve been exploited and abused by their bosses and have nowhere else to go.

Class and economic justice have always driven modern societies. Before women and brown people were considered important, the fight for fairness was simply a fight between rich white men and the many poor white men.

Politics was cruder, and simpler. It was about the class divide — the struggle between capitalist control and a socialist vision.

When I was a young union activist, it was unremarkable that my union’s leadership and paid officials were white males, despite the rank and file being overwhelmingly brown and female.

I was bemused when the top table addressed us men at union meetings (at least the white ones) as brothers. The non-brothers were referred to as “madam” and “ladies”. Any Māori who was articulate made them nervous. Pasifika always were quiet. I can’t remember any other ethnicity ever turning up.

In the following decades, the union brotherhood eventually surrendered to the inevitable. It’s uncontested now that no discrimination is acceptable. But I think an unintended consequence of stepping up to the oppressions of sexism, racism, sexuality, and disability was that class and economic justice lost its primary focus.

The traditionally working-class principles of collective solidarity have been replaced largely by individual freedoms. The fact is that the working class — male, female, white and brown — is worse off. The working class as a whole is powerless to protect their rights, let alone advance them.

Just putting women and non-whites at the top table doesn’t make any difference to the working class at the bottom. Does anyone want to argue that “diversity” appointments don’t quickly adopt the traits of the ruling class?

Does a female professional board member have more in common with the mother coming in, once the kids are in bed, to clean her office, than with her fellow male directors? Or a Māori executive with a Māori worker? Of course not.

We’ve made enormous progress on social inequality. But we’ve lost ground on class equity. Working people are consciously and legally discriminated against.

Look at renters versus landlords. Taxes are paid on workers’ income, yet nothing on passive wealth. No taxes on capital gains and inheritance. But 15 percent tax on everything a worker must purchase to survive.

The working poor have to take a loan for education and pay 10 percent of their income back. Another 3 percent is deducted for their retirement. The rich pay none of this. Or very little of it.

After the trade union movement was dismantled by successive governments, workers outside the big employers and the public service were left to an employment legal system that denies them any effective redress.

In the past, unions got prompt outcomes without cost to the individual worker. Now 93 per cent of private sector workers are not in a union. Most can’t even join a union. Instead, they must find a professional advocate or lawyer, if they have a dispute with their employer. They’re on their own. Even if a victim wins, the legal fees are frequently more than any compensation if they win.

Under current laws, a worker has to wait for six months to finally get their “day in court”. Most workers have given up before they get to mediation because of the cost and stress. I’ve never seen a case where a worker’s allegations aren’t true. I’ve never seen a case where the boss was honest. Never.

Most times the boss’s lawyer doesn’t even put up a defence. Instead, the boss doesn’t say a word and the lawyer admits nothing.

In many of my cases, the amount claimed is over six figures. They will offer an insulting amount to resolve the matter — normally 10 to 30 per cent.

The condition for any settlement is that all proceedings remain confidential and there must be no disparaging comments made by the worker or their representative after settlement.

The mediator calls a break and huddles with the boss’s lawyer and the worker’s advocate while the worker sits in another room alone. They broker a deal that includes an agreement that ensures the worker’s advocate has their fees paid.

The mediator and the worker’s advocate then meet with the worker to convince them to settle. Many professional advocates have a clause in their contract requiring the worker to pay their costs if they refuse the deal. Nice trick for “no win-no fee” lawyers.

A mediator told me she was instructed by her manager to settle 80 per cent of her cases at mediation. Many workers get nothing. Even when it’s clear they’re right, it’s still a fraction of what they are owed.

It’s a criminal enterprise. I’m not blaming the people involved. Some work hard for justice. But the system is rigged against the worker.

Of course, when the worker is accused of stealing, the law is very different.

When a boss accuses a worker of a $100,000 theft, the cops promptly arrive and arrest and take the worker to jail. They are photographed and fingerprinted. They appear before a judge in public. They will be jailed, fined and frequently ordered to repay the money. They are easily found on the internet forever and never get a position of trust again.

Imagine if the worker had the same laws as the rich.

That would mean, if they were accused of stealing, the cops would refuse to get involved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the worker could wait for six months to have to attend a mediation and not put up a defence? Instead be able to offer less than 30 per cent compensation while admitting no liability?

And, once agreed, it’s all confidential and the boss can’t tell anyone what happened nor make any disparaging remarks to anyone else. That then leaves the worker free to do the same thing again and again.

That’s what the current employment laws permit exploiters and abusers to do to their workers.

The Treaty of Waitangi proudly and rightly enshrines one law for Māori and Pākehā. After 172 years, we still have not addressed the oppressive laws protecting crimes of the employing class against the working class. Most New Zealanders are oblivious to this brutal and insidious discrimination.

We have formed a new flaxroot movement to win justice for the working class. We call ourselves UTU FOR WORKERS. We will keep exposing these exploiters and abusers until the anti-worker laws and systems are changed.

Workers: You must return to the frontline.


Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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