Tony Simpson on the suppression of the general strike in 1991

•27/08/2015 • Leave a Comment
Anti ECA march 1991

Anti ECA march 1991

This is a great piece by Tony Simpson about the notorious right-wing public sector union, the Public Service Association (PSA), and what their leadership got up to in 1991 during the struggle against draconian Employment Contracts Act. Tony Simpson has written a lot of history – including the fantastic oral history of the 1930s depression called ‘The Sugarbag Years’. This piece was given to me by someone I know – I of course believe in respecting copyright – and is published solely for educational purposes. Funnily enough, this piece does not appear in the stories section of the PSA’s centenary website – wonder why?

Tony Simpson, ‘The Employment Contracts Act’ in Mary Ellen O’Connor, The State and the Union, An Oral History of the PSA 1984-2012. Steele Roberts, 2013.

I will never forgive the leadership of the trade union movement for their failure to react to the Employment Contracts Act because to my certain knowledge the workers of the day were ready to have a go, to serve notice on the government of the day. And from my subsequent information, the government was expecting that. They wore absolutely flabbergasted. They couldn’t believe their luck when the trade union movement backed off.

I went to one of the biggest union meetings I’d been to in my life. 6000 in the Wellington Town Hall, packed to the gunwales, every public servant in Wellington, and they voted unanimously for a general strike. I took that back to the national policy council of the PSA (I was a Wellington councillor at that stage), where we voted to go for the strike.

But a senior staff member of the PSA intervened after the vote was taken and said, ‘If you do this, you jeopardise the salary settlement we have just reached with the government.’ I knew this was rubbish, but nevertheless there were enough inexperienced members of council who were influenced by that so the vote was retaken a changed by a very narrow margin. And the PSA was crucial in the CTU decision. If the PSA had come down in favour of the one-day general strike, it would have gone ahead.

Failing to fire shots across the government’s bows over the ECA revealed their own weakness. The trade union movement in this country has always been a balancing act, in which you try to hide your relative powerlessness from people who think you are more powerful than you are. And to be fair to those who decided not to strike, some of them had memories that went back to the 1951 lockout. But, as I said at the time, the difference was that in ’51 the members were fundamentally divided; in ’91 the workers had never been more united. That fear of division was misplaced, it was a blunder tactically. They failed to read the situation and a lot of workers were disillusioned that failure, and in my view that contributed materially to the subsequent weakness of the trade union movement.

The workers said ‘What’s the point of belonging to a trade union? When the chips are down, they don’t defend us and our working conditions.’ (Although employment law had been changed significantly by the previous Labour Government so the trade union movement had already become a bit shaky prior to the ECA.)

I think the trade union movement now reaps the consequence of this decision and therefore the ECA. It is not taken as seriously as it should be. They have tried painfully to rebuild and I applaud their efforts, but they have been marginalised and that is the principal reason in my view why you have this enormous wage gap between New Zealand and Australia. In Australia, they never gave up their system of industrial awards and collective agreements that applied to everyone and they continued to build a wage floor under the workforce.

I was furious after the ECA decision and decided to put a lot more energy into the PSA again. I did not want to see it go down this path. They were developing a very pernicious philosophy, what they called ‘partnership’ with management. In my estimation, that was a mistaken philosophy. Partnership is what the shark said to the minnow. But there were some people in the senior management of the PSA who were pressing it very hard. I saw my role as combating that.

Though I’m not a Marxist, I have a certain sympathy with an opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto which says that the working class and the ruling class have nothing in common. I’ve always taken that as a credo. Furthermore, any power the unions once had had already been very undermined, so to try to enter into an equal partnership in those circumstances was a recipe for disaster. I said so at the time and made myself very unpopular in some quarters. But it gives me no pleasure at all to have been vindicated in my view. It has been a very sterile philosophy and approach, and it has gained workers nothing but a significant fall in wages in real terms.

I don’t think there was any moment that ‘partnership’ was adopted as a policy by the decision-making bodies of the PSA. Senior staff of the PSA just decided that this is what we’ll do from now on. So a lot of members were angry and walked away, and other unions were set up because people found this unacceptable.

Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works

•07/08/2015 • Leave a Comment


This is a poem from James K. Baxter called ‘Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works’ about when he worked at the Chelsea sugar refinery in Auckland in 1969. Hone Tuwhare found the job for him, but he was soon fired. The poem is reproduced from the ‘independent socialist’ magazine New Zealand Monthly Review of Dec./Jan. 1970. The sugar works is still open, although many of the jobs have been mechanised.


chelsea sugar

Oh in the Stonegut Sugar Works

The floors are black with grime

As I found out when I worked there

Among the dirt and slime;

I think they must have built it

In Queen Victoria’s time.


I had the job of hosing down

The hoick and sludge and grit

For the sweet grains of sugar dust

That had been lost in it

For the Company to boil again

And put it on your plate;


For all the sugar in the land

Goes through that dismal dump

And all the drains run through the works

Into a filthy sump,

And then they boil it up again

For the money in each lump.


The bricks are held together by dirt

And the machines by rust

But I will work in any place

To earn myself a crust,

But work and never bow the head

As any grown man must.


And though along those slippery floors

A man might break a leg

And the foul stink of diesel fumes

Flows through the packing shed

And men in clouds of char dust move

Like the animated dead.


To work beside your fellow men

Is good in the worst place,

To call a man your brother

And look him in the face,

And sweat wash the sweat away

And joke at the world’s disgrace.


And sweet on Auckland harbour

The waves ride in to land

Where you can sit at smoko

With the coal heaps close at hand

And watch the free white gulls a while

That on the jetty stand.


But the Clerk and the Slavedriver

Are birds of another kind,

For the clerk sits in his high glass cage

With money on his mind,

And the Slavedriver down below

Can’t call a slave a friend.


Instead they have (or nearly all)

The Company for a wife,

A strange kind of bedmate

That sucks away their life

On a little mad dirt track

Of chiselling and strife.


But work is work, and any man

Must learn to sweat a bit

And say politely, ‘O.K., mate’,

To a foremen’s heavy wit

And stir himself and only take

Five minutes for a shit.


But the sweat of work and the sweat of fear

Are different things to have;

The first is the sweat of a working man

And the second of a slave,

And the sweat of fear turns any place

Into a living grave.


When the head chemist came to me

Dressed in his white coat

I thought he might give me a medal

For I had a swollen foot

Got by shovelling rock-hard sugar

Down a dirty chute.


But no: ‘I hear your work’s all right’,

The chemist said to me,

‘But you took seven minutes

To go to the lavatory;

I timed it with my little watch

My mother gave to me.’


‘Oh thank you, thank you’, I replied

‘I hope your day goes well’.

I watched the cold shark in his eye

Circling for the kill;

I did not bow the head to him

So he wished me ill.


The foreman took another tack,

He’d grin and joke with us,

But every day he had a tale

Of sorrow for the Boss;

I did not bow the head to him

And this became his cross.


And once as he climbed a ladder

I said (perhaps unkindly) –

‘I’m here to work, not to drop my tweeds

At the sight of a Boss; you see,

The thing is, I’m not married

To the Sugar Company.’


As for the Company Union,

It was a tired thing;

The Secretary and Manager

Each wore a wedding ring;

They would often walk together

Picking crocuses in spring.


You will guess I got the bullet,

And it was no surprise,

For the chemists from their cages

Looked down with vulture eyes

To see if they could spot a man

Buttoning up his flies.


It’s hard to take your pay and go

Up the winding road

Because you speak to your brother man

And keep your head unbowed,

In a place where the dismal stink of fear

Hangs heavy as a cloud.


The men who sweep the floors are men

(My story here must end);

But the clerk and the slavedriver

Will never have a friend;

To shovel shit and eat it

Are different in the end.

chelsea sugar refinery


Unions as sunday school picnic associations: the NZ response to the international day of action on the right to strike

•22/02/2015 • 3 Comments

I don’t normally post polemical pieces on this blog. But something recently irked me enough to write one. 18 February 2015 was an international day of action on the right to strike. It was sponsored by the International Trade Union Confederation. Over 60 countries participated with 100 forms of action around the globe.

Image result for right to strike

Yet what was the response in little old New Zealand, tucked away in its little south seas bubble, largely disconnected from the rest of the world? The CTU responded massively. Massively. Let’s quote them:

As part of New Zealand’s support for the international campaign “Our Right to Strike” the CTU wants to highlight the behaviour of Business New Zealand at the International Labour Organisation, where they have been active in the campaign by the global business lobby to undermine the right to strike in international law.

Wednesday 18 February was International Right to Strike Day. By entering your details below and clicking send you will forward a message to 20 of New Zealand’s biggest businesses – who are all members of Business New Zealand – asking them to hold Business New Zealand to account for its involvement in the distasteful attack on workers rights at the ILO.

Please send a message and show Business New Zealand that Kiwis accept the right to strike is an international human right and understand that in many parts of the world the failure to uphold that right is costing people their lives. (see

Yes, that is right folks. In response to Business NZ lobbying to make strikes illegal, on an international day of action about the right to strikes, they send in a bloody email to Business NZ! That will tell them! I am sure they want to listen.

In the past, the right to strike was something supported by not just leftist bureaucrats, but also right wing bureaucrats. While Tom Skinner of the FOL and some of the Catholic right wing bureaucrats who ran unions like the Electricians only viewed strikes as a last resort, at least they did use them when pushed. And they could use them effectively. The CTU seems to be further to the right than these leaders. As Tu’u’u Ieti Taule’alo, former president of the Samoan PSA once said during the Samoan general strike of 1981, without the right to strike ‘a union is a Sunday school picnic association.’ That sentiment used to be common…

Most unions in NZ are now Sunday school picnic associations. Striking is pretty much off the agenda these days. The lack of struggle from unions has directly led to cuts in pay, overwork and stress, longer work hours, intensification of exploitation, more precariousness, job losses, and a generally shittier and more stressful and more commodified, plastic, hollow life…the list goes on. And many workers have become alienated and disenchanted with unions due to their inability to stop or even mitigate the continual restructuring of the workplace (and society) by capital and the state for a long time. Yes, there are still 3-4 strikes per year (I am kidding, but in some recent years it has been that bad), and mostly they are inneffectual ‘show strikes’ where workers go out for a few hours at a time at best.

The purpose of the show strikes is not to disrupt capital’s imposition of work, nor hurt capitalists in the pocket, but to hold public rallies (often at lunchtime) or ‘pickets’ (ie. a few people holding placards outside a business) which are supposed to shame employers into paying workers more. Unite, which is probably the most militant union in NZ, specialises in these sorts of strikes. But the right-wing pro-partnership business union PSA does too. They occasionally get the point where they are facing such drastic attacks from their partners in the government that they take tokenistic, inneffectual action. Nowhere do I know of is there a genuine attempt to build from below grassroots organisation. My experience is that delegates and rank and file members are only given somewhat of a free reign during a strike to organise local actions. At other times they are simply viewed as those who must follow orders from above.

There is a sad paradox here: how during a period when striking has become more and more necessary and vital, it has almost dissapeared.

NZ has become virtually strike-free (in fact, there was a right wing group called strike-free in NZ, it has got its wish, sadly). NZ used to way ahead of largely conservative countries like West Germany in the strike ladder. Now Germany, despite being under threats of severe restrictions of strikes, experiences large strikes by railway drivers, posties and airport pilots, and has also seen some strikes in new areas, such in warehouses (by Amazon workers) and fast food joints. NZ is way behind.

But at least Unite, which is a fairly unique union in NZ in that it is solely based on precarious service workers, ironicially held a strike at Wendy’s in Christchurch on Feb 18 over the use of zero hour contracts among other issues. Sure, a show strike, but hats off to them.

Their blog said:

18 February 2015 has been designated by the ITUC General Council as a global day of action in defence of the right to strike, which is under attack by employer groups at the ILO.

The right to strike is a basic human right, which was won through struggle – yet all over the world this right is under attack. Unions exercising the right to industrial action are routinely met with repressive measures ranging from sackings, detentions and arrests to violence and even murder. The ITUC’s Global Rights Index shows that the right to strike is frequently restricted in law and violated in practice around the world

But that doesn’t mean we ought to get tangled up in a legalistic fight for bourgeois rights and freedoms, nor try to organise more strikes based on upsetting capital’s spectacle and branding. The real struggle is to get to a situation where all the restrictions on striking, and in NZ there are many, are overcome through struggle, through workers ignoring the law and taking matters into their own hands. This used to actually happen in NZ fairly regularly, only 30 odd years ago. Workers and even some unions would try to find ways to go around the law, or simply ignore it. For example, political strikes were banned in 1976, but large-scale strikes against the visits of nuclear ships and even some bans on land development in support of Maori struggle occured. The 1979 general strike was illegal, but the govt. simply could not prosecute the hundreds of thousands that took part.

Sure, we can’t turn back the clock. And strikes aren’t the only answer. Other forms of struggle can be more effective and important, as the anti-austerity and Arab spring movements of the squares overseas has shown (tho I think that community-based struggle ought to supplement and supports workplace-based struggle, rather than being a substitute for it). And for sure, the struggle to overcome all the chains heaped and double-heaped on workers has to come from workers themselves, rather than unions and union bureaucrats. And the working class at the moment is in a state of prolonged decomposition. Many of are simply struggling to get by with huge rents, lack of employment and precariousness (including zero hour contracts), and even though we get treated like shit at work we put up with it because of the threat of unemployment.

But that doesn’t mean struggle does not occur: it occurs in a myriad of everyday subterranean forms at the workplace, where a battle is still waged between workers trying to minimise and avoid their workloads, and management and capital trying to maximise them.  These struggles still exist, even if they are subdued, isolated, fragmented, and often individualised ways of coping with work, rather than collectively resisting it. We may have lost the strike culture that was passed down through generations of militant workers, but everyday pockets of resistance remain, and that culture can be re-learnt and updated for today’s conditions. Well, at least I hope so…

Toil and Trouble: The Struggle for a Better Life in New Zealand

•01/12/2014 • Leave a Comment

Here is a PDF copy of Bert Roth and Janny Hammond’s book Toil and Trouble, The Struggle for a Better Life in New Zealand that some mysterious person gave me. It is a pictorial history of the labour movement and class struggle in New Zealand up to 1981, and serves as a historical introduction to that subject. To download, please click here: Bert Roth and Hammond Toil and Trouble

toil and trouble


Office work diary part three: the incredible absurdity of positivity, and the messiness of the speed up

•12/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

battle-vs-office boredoe


It’s been a while since I blogged. The data entry job is long gone now, thankfully, and I’ve ‘left the office’. I don’t miss the constant sound of mouse clicking…clicking here, over there, a neverending cacophony of clicking. And the mindless, relentless boredom. But I miss the people I met. Originally I intended the diary to follow a typical day’s work, so this blog entry would have been about the final few hours in a day at the office, ending on that feeling of tired relief when you’ve done your time and can take off home, and leave the glare of the lights and strange sterility of the office behind. Instead, this post will be a few jumbled thoughts and recollections about working as a data entry temp worker, working in a low paid, near minimum wage, completely non-unionised white-collar workplace for a temp agency. This type of work and workplace is becoming more common, so it’s worth having a glimpse at everyday work and the potential for conflict in such places.


Management attempted its big speed up mentioned above in the last post, and bugger it, they mostly won. They got us to work faster through some pretty crude methods, although some work groups and individual workers held out. This was not unsurprising in today’s context of an incredibly low level of class struggle in NZ, but can some other more specific reasons be teased out?


For a start, the temp employment agency put us all on individual employment contracts which granted them all of the power. We had to sign the contracts or else we wouldn’t get the job. The contract outlined how we could get fired or disciplined for literally anything. At the end of long list of reasons why they could discipline us, including the normal insubordination and the like, there was a clause which said we could be fired or disciplined for anything not included in the list above!


If that was bad enough, there was also a specific clause which contained the ominous assertion we could be sacked or given a warning for not having a positive attitude!! In reality, ‘positivity’ could mean anything. Bosses could just bide their time, and pick on someone or some informal work group they disliked whenever they deemed they were not being ‘positive’. And when you are working a mundane, repetitive data entry job – a ‘bullshit job’ if there ever was one – you don’t exactly feel positive most of the time. The work by its very nature was not fun and positive, it is mundane, zombiefying and absurd. It is as if management think if just we just become happy shiny positive little automations this data entry work will somehow become fun. If you think this clause is absurd, and would have never be used by management, think again. At least one worker was fired for having a poor attitude as far as I am aware.



Management believes that the ‘positive atmosphere we [i.e. the team leaders] created at the start’ meant that there was not a high turnover of workers (this was an actual quote from a team leader during my ‘assessment’, which involved being taking aside and told to work faster). Yet I got the impression that most workers saw through their simplistic, crude propaganda and feel good manipulative ‘energising’ techniques were seen through right from the start. Maybe some bought into the crude ‘pumping up’ and bullshit talk about how wonderful it was to be here, how great it is to be part of a team, what an important job you are doing, and all the collective exercises complete with upbeat music and stupid motivational talk. But most didn’t. We were there for one thing: money. And as my co-worker pointed out ‘that’s bullshit [that a positive atmosphere stopped people from leaving]. We didn’t leave because there are no other jobs.’ Unemployment is high, and jobs are scarce. So most put up with all the ‘smile or die’ positivity bollocks, the quizzes and exercise breaks, because at least we are getting paid for it. Anyway, as the job went on after a few months, a few left after they got new jobs, and during the breaks and sometimes during work time people openly talked about how they were looking for other jobs, occasionally even to team leaders.

scary positivity in the office

scary positivity in the office


Perhaps the most surreal part of the day was the exercise breaks, which formed a core part of the positivity bollocks they tried to enmesh us in. We had two such ‘breaks’ a shift, at about 2 hours in, and 2 hours before the end of a shift. The exercises took place in the ‘break out’ area (namely an area where we had our lunches and cuppa tea during our real breaks). We would line up and face a hyped-up team leader together with a couple of willing cronies who would stand up the front, like at a gym. Then they would go through the weird routine of the gym: pep talk, playing loud, upbeat music (which was given some sort of democracy because workers could choose what to play themselves) and then into the exercises. A few gym junkies liked it, and most of us put up with it, maybe a bit embarrassed at first at just how silly it was (particularly the more weird exercises, like pretending to swim, and twirling your arms around in circles). But as the job went on an increasing minority grew to loathe the exercises. A few of us went to the back where they couldn’t be seen very well, or took long toilet breaks, or faked injuries. Some people occasionally stood behind poles where they couldn’t be seen at all, and just read magazines. But the most common form of resistance was when a group of work friends did the exercises with little enthusiasm, or barely did them at all, while all the time chatting to each other and ignoring all the histrionics emanating from the front. A lot of us made fun of the instructor barking out the enthusiastic orders, and many refused to do certain exercises which seemed humiliating or silly. This lack of enthusiasm did lead to conflict, with the team leader calling out individuals for harassment during the exercises if they were not doing them well enough. People did fight back a bit, and still continued to do the exercises poorly even in the face of warnings from team leaders, but overall it was not a major site of conflict, unlike the speed up.


A major reason why people disliked the exercises was that they were absurd: they were not really designed to help us, but more designed to stop any legal action against the temp agency for things like repetitive strain injury, namely injuries to our wrists and fingers through repetitive clicking (which did happen to a few people just after a few months at the job), and sitting in our seats for too long, straining our eyesight and backs. The absurdity of the exercises here was that they were not designed to help our wrists, fingers and hands, or our backs, but instead were something out of a football exercise manual! The whole thing reminded me of being at school again in phys ed class, rather than specific ones for office work. They didn’t take actual health and safety seriously, and just reduced it to advice about not tripping over power cords and the like. Office work, while nowhere as dangerous as manual work, is a pain if you do it for years on end, and often leads to bad backs, RSI, poor eyesight, and the like. These injuries tend to be hidden but I reckon you ask most people who have worked in an office for 15 or 20 years they would have suffered from one of them.



Onto the big speed up. At first, we are ahead of schedule. The work is easy. So most agree on the need to slow down, including some team leaders. Team leaders even devise ‘team games’ and give us half an hour off early in order to slow us down. But one young nerdy guy wants to push himself, and aims to do 3 times the set work rate. This leads to open arguments. ‘You’ll put us all out of work’ ‘if you work harder you will reduce our pay’ by getting the overall job done before time (if the job was completed a few weeks early, we will lose a couple of weeks pay). He ignores the arguments and says he wants a reference, it is only the second job he has had, and it is a step up from his previous job in the Warehouse – and he explicitly says he only cares about himself, and not others. These sort of internal conflicts will come more to a head when the pressure is put on.


A new manager is appointed, promoted from being a team leader. She claims that we are now actually behind on schedule. So she enforces a new mean regime based on a big speed up. Oh the irony, because when she was a team leader she was encouraging people to slow down. We are sternly told we are slacking off, talking too much, our ‘numbers are down’, and we come late back from breaks. Perhaps the real reasons behind the speed up are probably to get the work completed a few weeks before the temp agencies contract with the firm that wants the statistics is over, so the agency can save all that money and our pay; and also her head is now on the line. So new targets are enforced: 2500 forms to process per work group in an 8 hour shift, 250 per head. Targets are written up on a board, but thankfully only work team numbers are put up there, not our individual ‘outputs’ like in some call centres. People are pulled up for arriving to work or back from lunch just a minute or two minutes too late, and a crude regime of rewards for ‘person of the month’ in each ‘team’ is introduced. Yet when we begun the job, we were indoctrinated into the need for ‘quality statistics’ and making sure we got things right. But now, as one workmate says to me, ‘it’s all about the numbers.’ So quality begins to drop off. It’s all about getting the work done fast; management doesn’t care about quality any more.


Some speed up – they tend to be the young and inexperienced individualistic types who are concerned about themselves (and their job reference), and not anyone else. Maybe they also want ‘to prove themselves’. A few are out to impress as they want to get promoted and become a team leader if a position becomes available. As well, many young people treat the data entry work like a video game, as if they have to dismiss problems as fast as possible, as if they as going for a high score, just like that nerdy guy. They looked wired and intense at work, like when they are playing. This is encouraged by team leaders, who constantly up their individual targets. (This is not to write off young people, who are often the most rebellious in the history of class struggle – in NZ the young workers who don’t have kids and mortgages and the like are often the ones with least to lose, and probably more likely to struggle – and I found quite a few young workers to be subversive, and willing to fight but just had little experience of how to do it in a very difficult climate, how to bring others on board and get people working together. For example, one young guy said to me ‘temp agencies are like cancer, they drive down wages and conditions’ but he did seem to know how to fight them.)


But others do not speed up – especially the older workers, who have a bit of work experience and know that if you increase your work speed, they will just keep increasing your targets, until you are worn out. Which is exactly what management did, of course. Many of the older workers say you can’t keep working fast all the time, as you will get burnt out. So they say ‘I will just do the same numbers I have always done’, reasoning you don’t get more pay for it. They find a comfortable level that they are happy with, and stick to it. But generally they just keep to themselves, and do not encourage the younger ones to slow down, maybe hoping they will learn through experience.



One older worker did attempt to get the fast, individualistic ones to go slower, and did get a few people in their particular work group on board, but the plan was upset by a fast young worker out to prove herself by going as fast as possible. So it is very difficult to get some collective action going. Obviously, some sort of informal collective go-slow, or at least limiting of the speed up, was needed.  The new manager is unpopular, and speed up puts much pressure on some people. We talk, on our way home, or on breaks, about how to reduce work intensity, how awful management is, how absurd the work is. The talk is refreshingly open and critical, compared to working in some jobs where you have to be very careful what you say and when you say it, because it could be reported to management. But does still lead to open resistance? A sort of everyday war over work intensity does occur. Yet, again, individual coping strategies were mainly used, and only a few collective slow downs occurred between some small circles of work friends. A big problem is that because the work is so boring, some work fast just as a means of coping with it: they need a fast numbing rhythm to get thru it, if they stop and think it makes things worse, so it seems to me a few welcomed the speed up. Myself, I have to admit I initially got swept along with the speed up like almost everybody, even though I didn’t want to speed up at all. You know it is wrong to speed up for all the reasons above, but somehow you think jeepers most people are speeding up here, and I don’t want to get in more trouble, so I will have to go quicker so my ‘output’ is not so low. But after a while, I realise this is silly, I can just set an easy pace and encourage others to do so now and then.


When the pressure was put on everyone to increase their targets, people find ways to increase our outputs without doing much work. Some ‘up their stats’ simply by short cutting their work, by not filing certain forms correctly, but it looks like on the system they have completed the problem. Also, people can send through many of our problems that take a long time to do on to a specialist work group that deals with problems that are ambiguous and hard to answer. While team leaders can monitor your individual output, they can’t tell exactly what you are doing with the individual problems, so this is possible. However, some (especially the more ‘nerdy’ ones who want to ‘up their stats’) do this to such an extent that they don’t do anything but the easiest of the problems, ones that take only 10 seconds or less to solve, and this creates resentment that they are not pulling their weight.


Part of the speed up is to pick on workers who are working too slow, but again, this is applied unevenly as some team leaders just recognise that is the speed people are capable of. Some workers deemed too slow are dragged into meetings, and offered ‘training’ to work faster, with the threat if they don’t work faster warnings and the sack is around the corner). Yet still some slowbies resist. However, some workers again see the ‘slow’ workers as problems, bringing the team statistics down. There is a general lack of goodwill to everyone. That workplace reminded me of school in more ways than one.



Part of their divide and rule tactics that make resistance difficult is how they move people around from seat to seat in their work groups. They move people around every 3 weeks or so, so you have to sit at a different desk and get to know new people. This is particularly the case when they notice strong friendships develop between workers, and you talk too much to certain people. This is incredibly frustrating as it feels like you’ve just got to know the people sitting beside you. You can get around it a bit, by talking to your mates during the breaks and lunchtime, but still you need somewhere to natter away with on the job. Yet a good side of being moved around is that you are forced into nattering to the new people you sit beside after a while, I found, or else the boredom would set in. A few people remain quiet and I wonder how they do it.


The speed up does lead to morale starting to crack though, and many start to grumble. You get the feeling if we were pushed further, or another absurd twist to this job (being told it was all about quality but then told it’s all about working fast) a collective fight back would have occurred, and management would have had to pull back in some ways. If the job had maybe lasted for 6 months I think such a fight back would have occurred. It would have been messy and uneven, but many would have taken part.


Although we wield more power than we thought on the office floor, most workers didn’t realise it. The majority of the workers were very young (under 25) and inexperienced. For some, it is their first job. Probably a majority have university degrees, so have high expectations that they are going to get well-paid and somewhat stimulating jobs, so this is what is called ‘not a real job’ for them, just an ‘in between’ job before they supposedly get those well-paid and somewhat stimulating jobs (that mostly doesn’t happen, of course). Overall, my impression was that few had experienced open workplace conflict, or collective struggle, or even unions for that matter. A lot are just shuffling around from temporary contract to temporary contract, so think that they will just put up with things if they get bad, because in a few months they will be working somewhere else (or on the dole queue). The workforce was multicultural – a majority were white, yet a substantial minority were Maori, Samoan, Cook Island, Tongan, Indian, and Japanese. A few are migrants from Britain, Zimbabwe and Eastern Europe. The workforce was also evenly divided between female and male workers. Peoples political views are diverse, ranging from right wing to far left. Most of the young workers don’t have firm politics, with some coming across as a bit nihilist. Yet this diversity did not create problems between workers, as most people got on pretty well. But in the short time we were there (the job lasted 4 or 5 months) it was difficult to build lasting communal bonds between all the workers (while of course a few solid cliques formed). This was especially difficult on the job with the management technique of moving people around all the time.

Management view of an office

Management view of an office


Yet, at the same time, there were plenty of reasons for collective struggle. The work was intensely boring. Management were pretty shambolic and ad-hoc, we had no say in what was going on, but had the pretence of ‘consultation’ now and then. Overall management treated us like school kids: they thought we were dumb and thick, in constant need of being monitored, and constantly making mistakes. Just like school, the team leaders had a few ‘naughty girls and boys’ who they picked on, and used as examples to keep others in line. One technique was to put the ‘naughty ones’ in ‘hot seats’ right next to the team leader who could directly look at their screens. Their work gets closely monitored and commented on. This is a familiar technique – it is common in many offices I’ve found, to put the worker deemed too rebellious in the most exposed place in the whole open office, so they can be seen and monitored (one guy who I met in another job said he was put right in the middle of an open office where his work behaviour was in the line of sight of 3 managers). As well, team leaders take on board ‘teacher’s pets’ who have buttered up to the team leader and thus were considered angels no matter what they did. Thus they could get away with more. And the super fast workers who treated their jobs as a computer game were never disciplined for being inaccurate. Of course, this crude favouritism suits management perfectly, as it is a classic and tried and tested form of divide and rule (and I’ve found it in all the offices I’ve worked in, including ones where the workers have permanent jobs in the ‘public service’).


Overall, it was the messy, contradictory tension between inexperience and a crude disciplinarian management (and behind it the dictates of capitalist exploitation, as management has to follow the dictates of capital) that created a messy, contradictory workplace, one in which there was lots of subversion, but little of it was collectively organised. I have written this to perhaps try to understand a wee bit why there are virtually no strikes in New Zealand today – despite there being falling real wages, widening inequality, restructuring due to the global recession, strange human resources management techniques being thrown on workers, and productivity speed ups. The answer is complex – a combination of capital having enormous power over workers (eg. through individual contracts and a constantly recycled precarious, temporary workforce), high unemployment, little job security, low expectations, widespread inexperience in successful class struggle for young workers and so on (as outlined above) all make it very, very difficult to struggle. Yet we shouldn’t write off all workers as compliant, individualistic and obsessed with gaming, facebook and the like, and then rabbit on about how the working class has disappeared/been restructured/decomposed, and how workers’ identity, culture and class consciousness has been lost, and then launch into some form of nostalgia about how great class conflicts were in the past, or mythologise some group like the NZ IWW, or argue what is really needed is ‘a fighting union’. A lot of these critiques, while they contain many grains of truth, are based on critiques from afar, on abstract theories like for example the communisation current. I get the impression these theories are the product of a few intellectuals who look from the outside on workers, and often down on workers (although I agree there is a real need to re-assess working class politics today in the light of the ongoing and quite successful assault by capital since the 1970s). It is not like I am an expert in all this, I am continually learning from my experiences (and those of others too) and making mistakes; I don’t claim to really know, or have greater insight or experiences, than the vast majority of other working class people. Or that I think, in a moralistic way, that people must take jobs in offices or factories or whatever. But I do think there is a need for politics to be based on the actual everyday conditions we experience, and the messy contradictions of them – ie. for politics not be based on gazing or condemning from afar, but on the actual, real conditions people face today. And part of that dealing with current conditions is to find out how modern office work actual works, and how working with temp agencies in temp jobs works, and how these modern forms of capital are actually an area where the contradictions of capital still exist, rather than assuming capital has completely won, dismissing all office or temp agency workers as having no potential for class struggle, and lamenting the decline of the traditional blue collar work and identity and so on. I once wrote: ‘Strategy is more effective in the long term if it is the product of workers’ direct experience and struggles. That is, a well-thought out strategy just builds upon the actual strategies used by workers on the shop floor, except in a more clear, systematic and coherent way. If strategies are not a product of workers’ direct experience or actual struggles, then they are likely to become either artificial and lacking any support (eg. setting up “pure” anarcho-syndicalist unions) or lead to a top-down approach where workers are manipulated by a few bureaucrats, organisers, delegates or politicos.’ To that we can add abstract theory which claims to have a grip on the actual conditions we face under capital today.

Office work diary part two. Work: rhythm, repetition, resistance

•03/08/2013 • Leave a Comment


I begin my day of data processing. We get thousands upon thousands of data forms to process. After a click, my first form for the day pops up, with the first ‘problem’ highlighted. I make sure people are assigned the right code for the place they live in, and assign individuals their correct number. We sometimes have to go through a few screens and steps in order to do this. Each ‘problem’ takes about 30 seconds to a minute to solve. Some take a few minutes when all the data is messed up or is unreadable. Others take a few seconds. As soon as the problem is solved, the form is processed, and the next form and problem appears. And so on…


The job is a bit like being a sped up filing clerk, having to put forms in the right places and give them the correct code. Except all the filing is done on a computer. Soon they will develop a computer programme to make our jobs obsolete. I loathe the work. It makes me feel like a machine. I am constantly processing and moving data around, clicking on stuff, organising stuff, sorting stuff. Its neverending, trivial, meaningless. It does my head in at times. Most others here agree: they say things like ‘this job makes me feel like a zombie.’


At the start of the day, I find the work absurd, dumb and painful. The problems are boring and simple. Time moves incredibly slowly. Aw, how can I get through this day? This job is madness.


Yet after a while, my reaction to this cycle of repetition differs. I find I can cope. I like the easy, non-taxing nature of the work. I don’t have to think much. I can turn my mind off, and get into a sort of rhythm, and click through problems. Time moves faster. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I get a weird sort of perverse pride in getting the problem correct, even though the work is silly and management absurd. This highlights a basic contradiction and ongoing tension between trying to get some satisfaction out of the job, and the horrifically unsatisfying nature of the job.


After about an hour of processing, I experience another phase of intense boredom. I become numb and I am not even aware of which problem I am solving. We get only about 8 or so problems to solve, and data to fix up, so our response to these problems becomes automatic. Sometimes I have to click back to the start screen in order to find out.


My mind wanders, watching myself do the tasks, while I think of over things, dream of home, of my partner, of my life, of what I am going to do outside work, of the important stuff outside work. But unfortunately I am stuck here in front of a computer having to sell my labour and time in order to live. And this job requires us to keep concentrating just enough to keep doing our job. It is not like an assembly line job where you do the same physical movement over and over again, and can totally escape and dream for a while, while you do the same tasks.


How can we escape from this imposition of work and its boredom? They’ve set up the computers here so that we have no escape. We don’t have access to the net, so internet surfing is out. We don’t have emails. We don’t even have games on our computer. All we have access to is our data processing programme.


Instead, I begin chatting with the person opposite me. I joke about funny aspects of the data, absurd things that come up. She talks about absurd things she has just processed. We then talk about home life, geography, films. Anything to keep our minds off work. But we can’t talk too long or else the team leader will notice too often, and we will be shifted to another desk, around people we don’t know. So we develop the art of quick, funny conversations. Sometimes though the job is just so painful the talking blows out into ten minute natters.


Boredom, and dealing with it, is a constant subject of conversation among us. While some of us natter, many sink into music. Others banter and tease. After another round of bantering, the guy next to me says ‘if you didn’t have banter in this job, you’d go mad’. Which is true. Others take toilet breaks, others wander to the water cooler, others share funny notes and funny drawings, and pass around pictogram games between each other. The creativity of the banter, joking around, and doodling is impressive. Some, who tend to be management’s pets so they can get away with more, openly joke to team leaders about working slowly, trying to reduce the workload, trying to avoid work.


I wonder if all this minor informal resistance is just a way of coping with work, rather than open and collective resistance to it. It certainly feels like it. At first, management mildly tolerated the banter and chatter and doodling, as they realise the job is mind numbing and we have to cope with it somehow. But they’re currently imposing a big speed up, which will create some workplace conflict. They’ve also got a raft of crude propaganda techniques about ‘attitude’, ‘being positive’ and ‘happy’, despite the job being inherently tedious and humdrum. And they’ve got divide and rule tactics, prizes, and even an over the top ‘motivational’ exercise session to try and keep us temp agency workers in line.




Office work diary part one: Swipe in, login, begin…

•17/06/2013 • Leave a Comment
A fairly typical open office, not our workplace, but vaguely similar.

A fairly typical open office, not our workplace, but vaguely similar if you remove all the clutter.


I’m treading slowly down a white, shiny corridor. As I head towards the lifts, I get a bit anxious about having to get through yet another shift as a data processor, and how to deal with the boredom. I get that oh shit feeling, here goes another day wasted in this slow, ritualistic daily torture, like I’m snared in an absurd Kafka-esque nightmare full of meaningless but neverending nasty games that we call work. Oh well, I think ‘it has to be done’, ‘another day, another pay’ ‘I need to pay the bills’, so I can force myself to enter the workplace and avoid that fleeting feeling that you just want to flee, to escape, and say to bugger it with it all. That daily lived contradiction between being legally free, but having to sell yourself in the work marketplace in order to live. Even though I’d love to steal some time and arrive late – or better still take the day off – I’ve managed to get there just in time.


As I walk, I reluctantly hang my lanyard around my neck, which contains my swipe card and ID card. Some workers are seemingly happy to wear their lanyards on the street, like some sort of perverse pride in these days of high unemployment that you have a job, to get some of that dignity and status that many associate with work. Instead, I quickly take off my cards during breaks when I duck out for fresh air, or some grub. It reminds me of my meaningless job, something I want to forget about. To me, the cord is a bit like a noose. Or maybe a prisoner’s ID.


I enter the lift and greet fellow data processing temps taking the ride. Most of the time I don’t know the others by name as it is a relatively large office. I swipe in so we can access our floor. As we ride up the floors, my mind wanders, back to one of those interesting conversations I had years back. An amiable guy, with rough features and his face always covered in stubble, said he used to like exploring office buildings, and find his way to the top of buildings. As in some kind of derive, the game the Situationists used to play in Europe when they wandered around cities everywhichway as their desires took them, consciously becoming disoriented and lost. But he said he couldn’t wander anymore because the buildings have been enclosed, either by security systems or swipe cards.


The lift opens. We’re spat out into the weird, unnatural glare of the modern office. We’re immediately greeted with a swagger of bright flouro lights that make your eyes wince, and take some time to adjust to, if ever. Under this fierce glaze it never feels right, it always feels artificial. Everything looks white and bright. I gasp for air in the sealed air conditioned environment. The air is suffocating, stuffy, and lifeless. My craving for fresh air will get worse throughout the day.


The data processing office itself is a sterile place. It’s spartan, non-descript, boring and ugly, with white walls and roof, industrial carpet, fake wood desks, water coolers, and small kitchens. I suppose such an artificial environment is engineered to try and keep your focus on work, and to maximise our ‘productivity’.


It’s a large open office, with about 100 people working our shift. While our desks are not organised in neat rows as if we are in some rigid 1970s or 80s office factory, they are huddled together in tight ‘teams’ of 10, with a ‘team leader’ sitting amongst you. The vast majority of our computer screens are organised in such a way that they can be seen by a team leader. The ‘team’ is sort of fenced off by low level partitions from other teams. But the other teams are crammed in beside you, and you can see and hear them at all times. The problem, of course, with open offices is that you can and are easily monitored at all times, in terms of team leaders keeping an eye out on how much you natter to others, take toilet and other breaks, and what is up on your computer screen. Conversely, having at least three or four fellow workers in your line of sight at all times means that there are plenty of opportunities to have a chat, and pass notes and drawings. This tension created by the office design will lead to many minor skirmishes between management and us lot, us workers.


Off to the side, there are a few individual offices, where the big wig managers and assorted other high ups sit. They make sure that people can’t see what they have on their computer screens.


I wind my way past the offices, people and desks, greeting people along the way, find my desk and sit down. It’s good to see my workmates. The best thing about work, of course, is the people. There are some interesting types, from all sorts of backgrounds and ages, here. All thrown together by work. We get on pretty well. Most of us are united in our hatred of the our absurd work, and the way we’re treated by management. Heaps of friendships develop, although there are many don’t really get on that well.


Phew, arrived on time. Bugger it, no time to catch up with my workmates as I have to login on time or get in more trouble. The bosses keep an eye on us, and tell us off for arriving even two minutes late, which after a couple of times means a round of disciplinary meetings and strict surveillence.


Groundhog day: here we go again. I sit down, tap in my operator number and password to login. For a while I didn’t remember my number and password, but now it is imprinted in my brain. Our team leader circles, making sure we have logged in and started work. I wait for the processing programme to load, and begin the endless cycle of repetition that is data processing. My day will consist of thousands of mouse clicks and checking innumerable numbers – until after a while all the data before my eyes starts to melt into one.