How to end race and class inequalities destroying working people’s lives in NZ


A recent study found that Maori had twice the mortality from various cancers than non-Maori.

This statistic is not new. I came across a similar finding in my notes from three decades ago. Cancer deaths twice that of Pakeha whilst medical interventions were half that of Pakeha.

So we have to take a long, hard look at why the system has failed Maori despite three decades of progress in certain areas. There has been a significant growth in professional and middle-class layers amongst Maori which is a good thing. There has been an expansion in Maori-run businesses and assets under Maori control that deliver services directly to Maori people.

Yet despite this progress Maori continue to die from preventable diseases at 2-3 times the rate for non-Maori.

What is clear is that other social and economic processes over the last three decades have served to undermine and reverse any progress that may have come from the changes at the top.

Principally, this is the consequence of the anti-working class (and anti-Maori) policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s that destroyed collective working class organisations and drove a large proportion of the working class (and again disproportionately Maori) into poverty wages and insecure work.

Prior to this recession, Maori and Pacifica had higher labour force participation rates than did Pakeha.

New Zealand went through a period of economic restructuring that radically transformed the way we worked during a six-year period starting with the second-term of the Labour Government following the sharemarket crash of 1987 and then continued in the first term of the National government until 1993. This embedded a so-called free-market orthodoxy that said the market was always right and the pursuit of profit a god-given endeavour we would all benefit from – eventually.

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Unemployment went from 4% to 11% overall and was 25-30% for Maori and Pacifica communities. Unemployment was the weapon the bosses deliberately used to break workers willingness to resist. Wages were cut, welfare benefits were cut, health care and education were being turned into commodities to buy and sell. The country was encouraged to become debt slaves as well as wage slaves.

Full-time employment collapsed. In March 1986 the first year of the Household Labour Force Survey there were 1, 369,600 full-time jobs in the economy. This represented 54.1% of the working age population. By the September quarter of 1992 there were 1,174,500 full-time jobs representing 43.8% of the working age population – a loss of nearly 200,000 full-time jobs which was equivalent to 10% of the working age population.

It was worse for men. Male full-time employment fell from 73.1% of the male working age population to 57.4%. In absolute terms male full-time employment didn’t pass the 1986 number until the December quarter 2001 when it reached 909,000 but at 63% of the male working-age population it was still 10 percent below the numbers for 1986. At the end of 2020 it was only 64%.

Families were forced apart as it became impossible for men or women to support families on a single income. Both partners needed to work in multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. Many made the practical choice to live apart and one claim the sole-parent benefit and live in a separate household. Loving parents had to avoid the spying eyes of the government-paid or volunteer peeping-toms who watched out for too many overnight stays than was permissible. Special “hotlines” were created which allowed anonymous complaints to be made which were then aggressively investigated by WINZ.

The reactionary moral crusaders against the growth in the numbers of solo-parents in the community were precisely the same people supporting the reactionary economic and social policies creating the unemployment that led to the breakdown in family life that fed the rise in numbers on benefits.

Employers used the fear of unemployment to go after the wages and conditions or workers and break the unions that stood in their way. Real wages were cut by about 25% and there was the additional loss of overtime rates and allowances for most workers.

Instead of secure work on union-negotiated agreements we had the flexibility we all wanted to choose the zero-hour contracts that mushroomed and became the dominant form of employment agreement in whole industries.

By far the biggest impact of the assault on full-time work was borne by Maori and Pacifica families.

Of course, to hide the crime that was being perpetrated Maori and Pacifica families were demonised for “choosing” to go on a benefit.

It was claimed the benefits were “too generous” and were cut by the 1990 National government from around 40% of the average wage to around 33% for the adult unemployment benefit. Their value compared to the average wage has been allowed to steadily decline for two decades since because it was only ever increased by the consumer price index rather than average wages like superannuation has been.

The 1992 benefit cuts were worth approximately $1.3 billion – about the same size of each of the tax cuts handed out in 1996 and 1998.

An explosion of poverty was an inevitable and foreseeable consequence. Prior to the cuts in 1991 around 25% of children in beneficiary families were identified as poor in the Household Economic Survey. That rose to 75% post cuts and hasn’t changed much since.

Since the current Labour government was formed three years ago there has been a $25 a week one-off increase and two annual increases matching inflation rather than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The value of a main unemployment benefit is still only 19% of the average wage – under half its value from before the cuts by National in 1990 and then maintained by labour because it kept the National policy of only increasing benefits by the CPI during the 1999-2008 Labour government.

In addition, housing has doubled as a percentage of people’s expenditure because nothing has been done to reign in the housing market speculation by both governments over these decades as well.

To make matters worse, a vindictive and punitive culture was imposed on WINZ in the mid 2000s by the previous Labour government that led to a halving in the percentage of unemployed people accessing benefits. Many genuinely unemployed people were forced to try and survive with no income at all and rely on friends and family, rather than face ritual humiliation, belittling and bullying from caseworkers. This can be demonstrated by the following data from the Household Labour Force Survey which started in 1986.

The Household Labour Force Survey measures the number of people officially unemployed, as well as a broader number of people who are “jobless”.

Between 1990 and 2003 the number of people on benefits never dropped below 64% of the jobless number. Over the next decade, it dropped to only 18% of the “jobless” number. It also went from 120% of the official unemployed number to only 45% in 2013.

The end result is that since the late 1990s the percentage of working age adults receiving a benefit has been reduced from 13% to 8% of the working age population while the average unemployment rate has only fallen from around eight to six percent.

Getting that 3% of the working age population (about 110,000 people) off benefits essentially has just removed about a billion dollars a year from working class communities.

It is reflected in overcrowded homes, people living in garages or on the street, kids staying at home longer, poor health, poor nutrition.

The fact that Labour and National conspired to reduce the relative value of the benefit and restrict access to it while housing costs are allowed to skyrocket is the explanation for the current crisis in homelessness and escalating number on social housing waiting lists.

Benefits must be radically increased in value and individualised in terms of legal access so families aren’t penalised for staying together which seems to be the policy design at present.

Social housing build rates need to be doubled and then doubled again to at least 10,000 a year until everyone who needs a home at an affordable rent is able to access one.

Feeding an out of control housing market with cheap money for speculators is the opposite of such a policy. Inequality and homelessness are being bred by giving virtually unlimited free money to the banks with no control over how they use it.

Again, it is Maori and Pacifica that will be left behind even further because they have the weakest rates of home ownership.

What this all demonstrates in my view is that affirmative action, especially measures to create space at the top of society which are fully justified, are not enough to end inequality and oppression.

We need measures that lift all working people together. A good example and a good start would be increasing the minimum wage to a living wage.

ll Maori and Pacifica can benefit from a radical increase in social housing but we need additional mechanisms that empower Maori, in particular, to have access to capital and resources to collectively tackle the needs of their own communities.

These principally have to do with measures that lift all those at the bottom up much faster than has been happening so far. But people at the bottom need power to make sure that happens.

That means restoring working-class power through unions that exist and that need to be built or rebuilt for the new working class emerging in the gig economy. And because Maori and Pacifica are disproportionately represented in those layers of the class they will rightly benefit disproportionatelyfrom any uplift for the class as a whole.


  1. Problem you have is that the union model as used in the past is not what people want. As an ex Engineers union delegate I can say hand on heart that the Engineers union was but a vehicle for the promotion of socialist/communist agenda and, the conflicting self aggrandisement pluspolitical ambitions of the union leadership. Bill Anderson or Jim Knox were no more interested in the members wishes than the current Labour government is interested in today’s workers wishes.

    Often were called to strike for reasons not for the betterment of the members, but ideology.

    Before you start to promote compulsory unionism perhaps a more modern union model needs to be designed. The days of the cloth cap (sorry Mr Bradbury, the cloth cap as a symbol of union solidarity is really old hat) has gone.

    Worth a look at how a modern union might look.

    Note the sections on training, safety and jobline. Also the extent the retirees are looked after. The union organised apprenticeships. Their helmets to hard hats assistance for ex military workers wanting to start a new civilian life.

    A lot of people would pay union fees to get those and many more benefits.

    • Supposedly ‘non-ideological’ trade unions are the complete opposite of ‘modern’ (they were backward by the mid 19th century!), even though ‘modernisation’ is always the euphemism used to hide new attacks on workers.

      Dumping any coherent vision of how the economy should be organised lead to corrupt ‘business unionism’ and ‘tripartism’ — a disease that left unions incapable of fighting back against Reaganomics in the 1980s. Unions ended up being run by bureaucrats from the liberal political machine: people only interested in campaign donations, parliamentary faction fights and being gifted a primary win in a safe seat (and hostile to rank-and-file power).

      The race-obsessed nationalists, which have been imported into Third Way Liberalism, are also trying to conceal the class basis of poverty. Any discussion of desegregation was virtually banned in the press. Thus the institutions of social democracy degenerated on the racial question also, with the once-abolished phenomenon of slum ghettoes spreading into nearly all cities (ensuring black workers are more likely to be stuck in the very worst slums than whites).

      • Unions can be purposed as ‘the industrial road to socialism’ but the average person doesn’t want their union to be for that purpose, either because the internal politics get dysfunctional and it stops serving the members, or because they disagree with the broader goal of socialism.

    • when were you in a union gerrit the 1950s?

      when the alternative is individual contracts even fucked up unions look attractive…just ban ‘professional union officers’

      • Why the question? Were the unions better or worse in the 70’s when I was an engineering union member then the 1950’s?

        I don’t know how the unions worked or the political persuasion of the leaders though the 1951 (when I was dropped from the womb) watersiders strike was heavily influenced by cloth cap socialist union leaders.

        Worth a read;

        “The watersiders’ militancy had isolated them from most unionists, who were affiliated to the more moderate Federation of Labour (FOL). Fintan Patrick Walsh and other FOL leaders called on wharfies to ‘abandon their Communist-dominated misleaders’. Meanwhile, Walter Nash’s Labour Party Opposition sat uncomfortably on the fence, denouncing government repression but refusing to back either side.
        Attempts at mediation were undermined by the ideologies, intransigence and egos of those involved.”

        • the implication is you are harking back to the right wing tropes of a time long gone gerrit

          google mick lynch for a modern take

        • Gerrit I agree with everything you say.
          Just a note the Watersiders were locked out they weren’t on strike.
          Their demands were preposterous.

    • @Gerrit Interesting recollections and information about union attitudes. I too have conflicting ideas about them after my experience. Definitely some body/ies need to care about wage slaves, bosses can be so whimsical? I like your whimsy about the cap Gerrit – on that note perhaps this is a time for some Edward de Bono exercises to be carried out to get our heads going. If there was a rash of hat-oriented de Bono exercises held throughout the motu over the next few months it would be helpful to get brains moving, in an adult-like bouncy-castle way, both ‘stirred and shaken’.

      What is Edward de Bono’s concept of creativity and the six thinking hats?
      Six Thinking Hats® –
      Looking at a Decision in Different Ways
      “Six Thinking Hats” is a way of investigating an issue from a variety of perspectives, but in a clear, conflict-free way. It can be used by individuals or groups to move outside habitual ways of thinking, try out different approaches, and then think constructively about how to move forward.
      Six Thinking Hats® – Looking at a Decision in Different Ways › six-thinking-hats

  2. An organisation that was genuine in improving working conditions would be welcome,but as Gerrit says they have mainly been a vehicle for political and ideological reasons,that were driven by the Union hierarchy.

  3. Mike – Nice article, but tends to gloss over a few interesting points, such as:

    – Why do Maori have such a high rate of cancer?
    – Why do Pacifica have such high rates of poverty?
    – What role do Governments, and there supporters, play in gutting the Union movement?

      • Dr Hulda Clark claimed all human disease was related to parasitic infection. As our theme park politicians have seemingly outlawed ivermectin this fits the agenda.
        Nice clear article, thanks Mike.

    • Another , we have had many right wing governments over the years, why have any of the questions you asked not been addressed by the trickle down theory, why do we have any poverty at all?

  4. This is great work, Mike.

    I’m not sure though that old still unionism – in and of itself is enough to meet the challenges of current times, especially as workers become less necessary to the functioning of an economy for people who ‘matter’.

    It seems to me there needs to be a unifying force bringing working class people together not around particular trades (though that’s important separately), but around the status of being kicked around outside of the lives of those who are making decisions.

    Unity of status. I don’t know how this can be achieved, but there is an urgent need for it.

    • Good stuff. I’ll throw in government corruption by big money interests and the need to address this issue as a potential unifying force, bearing in mind that government crafted today’s world and that forever rising economic inequality is the greatest indicator as to whom they crafted this world for – the burgeoning billionaire class. There’s a starter for ten.

  5. May I suggest that the unions were kneecapped by the old nineties ideology of the Contracts Act,
    “save the rail” Prebble, Dodgy Douglas and Mother of all budgets Ruth Richardson and lets not forget born again sorry about the employment contracts act Jim Bolger. Unfortunately there was not enough membership or money to grow modern day unions under these conditions. We all ready see Seymour wanting to play around with workers rights . Maybe with good solid union growth the workers would not have needed many of the erroneous health and safety, privacy acts because a good solid union movement would have been tasked to really look after the workers and ensure worker’s rights were maintained and growing not shrinking . There are many affluent unions in NZ under the guise of capitalism such as Federated Farmers, the many and varied business associations” roses by any other name”. Its very strange that the affluent need their form of unionism at the same time decrying workers rights. These are the very people who donate to the right wing parties and bugger the working class

    • Whilst you may suggest that unionism membership collapsed, after compulsion was removed, due to ideology of the contracts act.

      It is simply not true. The unions collapsed as their members were no longer in charge nor were beneficiaries of the POTENTIAL the unions could have been (as outlined in my earlier link to the Ironsiders Union). The cloth cap unions did nothing to grow into a modern union whilst they still had compulsion. Sure they had many wins but members wanted more.

      The reality was that once freed from the slavery that was compulsory cloth cap unionism, the members voted with their feet. There was simply nothing on offer to make them want to stay members.

      The politicians at the time read the room regarding workers dissatisfaction with their unions and used that to their political advantage. The union leadership were simply too locked into the ideology of union leadership being the supreme commander that they could not change the unions to what the members wanted.

      Much like Marx’s theories on the proletariat and owning the means of production. It sounds all so good until the proletariat (in this case the union members) wanted the means of production (how the union was run) that modern unionism could bring (refer again the my earlier link),

      A strong union movement that benefited its members better would have easily embraced voluntary membership with quality services to members. Instead it fell into dust.

      Lesson there for all leaders, deliver or have support disappear. AKA the current Labour government. Death by a thousand undelivered cuts for the proletariat, but heaps for the court jesters and advisors inside the jerk circle.

      • I’m sure that the Spanish Mondragon co-operative adoption has some defects but it has stayed and built up remarkably.
        I have heard the term ‘muscular Christianity’. It would seem to apply to
        this; workers need a bit of distance from their disputes and a guiding hand that is practical as well as ethical.

        Union leaders have trouble managing the different aspects, holding short-term thrusts to a reasonable limit for one; not being cock of the walk and ‘making the bosses sweat’ sort of approach. Bargaining down from a high figure down to about halfway was a regular practice I think. Killing the golden goose is what we do good at in NZ.

      • You are so wrong Gerrit, neoliberal trickle down thinking lead to the death of unions. The contracts act was the nail in the coffin. You say death by a thousand cuts, thats what happened to the union movement. The National government hated unions and all that they stood for and hammered them into the ground . There was never any real opportunity to modernize because along with the unions went many of the jobs. The railways ( save the rail prebble ), the car factories , the freezing works, etc.etc. Unfortunately the modern day worker has absolutely no idea who gave them workers rights, they decry unionism and worship David Seymour Now that should tell you something. He’s already meddling in worker’s rights a man whose never done a decent days work in his life. You seriously think that the modern day employers are interested in workers rights, they are no better than the mill owners and mine owners of the past Just look who exploits and who looks after migrant workers, no one. These employers can do what they like with them pay them or not. No wonder they want to let the immigration doors open because these bosses can blackmail these workers to work for nothing.

        • And yet 9 years of the Clark led Labour government, 5 years three months of an Ardern led Labour government, 6 months of a Hipkins led Labour government and not a sign of a return to compulsion.

          Ask yourself why? Blame neoliberalism if you like but the reality is that a policy to return to compulsory unionism, as a policy, is not what the voters want.

          Neoliberalism is but a excuse. Look instead at the unions and lack of market appeal they had to workers. Workers could not wait to be free of the patronising cloth cap yoke.

          If they had kept pace of what the workers wanted in the product they offered, compulsion to be part of the union, would not have been necessary.

          Ask yourself why is ETU making such little headway if the complaints regarding workers conditions are so dire? What are they offering that would make a downtrodden worker want to join and receive the perceived benefits?

          If compulsion is the only answer, then unions in New Zealand will never be beneficial to the worker. That is what your problem is. Not neo-liberalism.

          Cloth cap unions are not beneficial to the workers. They need reinventing to become relevant again. Hence my link above. Have a relative in the Electrical Workers Union stateside. He actually works for the union as a hands on electrician. Anyone that needs electrical work done (from large contracts to the home owner) rings the union, obtains a quote to get the work done and if agreed to, union labour carries out the work. Labour hire if you like. Yet no union or unionist in New Zealand would even contemplate that scenario nor the apprenticeships the union runs. Called organised labour hire. Much like the Ironworkers union. Construction companies engage and employ the union to erect their structural steel work on an agreed time frame and cost. Unions looks after having the right number of skilled people on site, the training of new staff, site safety, workers welfare, etc.

          But never mind unions in New Zealand simply don’t get what the workers want and how to improve the conditions of those workers. Here they simply want to collect fees and lobby unresponsive Labour party ears to change governace of workers rights.

          Unions need to get off their fat arses and do some real work.

          Worth a read;

          “Today, the IBEW conducts apprenticeship programs for electricians, linemen, and VDV (voice, data, and video) installers (who install low-voltage wiring such as computer networks), in conjunction with the National Electrical Contractors Association, under the auspices of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), which allows apprentices to “earn while you learn.””

          The union actual trains electricians in conjunction with non union contractors. Imagine that happening in New Zealand?

    • Yes Queeny quite right, the unions were crippled yet the federated farmers union sail on with their political agenda unfetted.
      Without unions imagine where we would be today, no breaks, $5 an hour wages, no holidays, marriage breakups, massive suicides.
      Exactly the type of policies Nact would promote.

  6. “Social housing build rates need to be doubled and then doubled again to at least 10,000 a year until everyone who needs a home at an affordable rent is able to access one.” Certainly agree with this bit – Govt should not be building first home buying houses – stick to state and perhaps when things are better sell them to tenants.

  7. Thank you for the clear & concise article, Mike Treen. It is unfortunate that unions were shafted by not only government policies but also infiltrated by those now in government positions or heading companies of their own. Any frictions between employers and workers were exacerbated by the “in between” man, seeing ‘value’ and espousing ‘leverage’ as a lucrative course of action.


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