Sunday, July 06, 2008

Matt McCarten: Mayor's truckie support brings food for thought on lowly paid

I was wondering when New Zealand truckers were going to join their brethren in the rest of the world, and gridlock our major cities in protest at oil prices. But obviously our truckies have already worked out that the price of petrol is driven by monopoly oil producers and greedy speculators rather than any mismanagement of our politicians in Wellington. Most of us know that governments of the world are pretty much hostages, the same as the rest of us. Even George Bush couldn't get his client state Saudi Arabia to increase production to help his political image at home.

It's a struggle for us to fill up our cars just once a week. So I can't imagine how truckies must feel, whose livelihoods are at the mercy of the petrol pump. Many owners of small transport companies must lie awake at night knowing that the future of their business is bleak and it's only a matter of time before big transport corporations run them into the ground or snap them up for a song.

The Government's decision to raise the road charges for trucks without notice has become the catalyst for our truckies to take to the roads and flex their muscle. Transport Minister Annette King is right when she argues that the truck owners have to pay their fair share of road upkeep. After all, their trucks cause most of the damage to our roads and I can't see why the rest of us are subsidising the owners of the huge rigs that bolt along at excessive speeds, just about running us off the road at times.

But given the huge hikes in their operating costs I would have thought, only a few months away from the general election, the Government would have been more sensitive, or at least careful, to the possible reaction.

Particularly as it's common knowledge that the organisations behind the protests are led by National Party stalwarts. Their lead spokesman, Tony Friedlander, is a former National cabinet minister. Given his political track record in not being supportive of other people's collective protest actions I suspect his motivations are entirely political.

The same trucking company owners who pay Friedlander to co-ordinate their protests to win our support are the same people who tell the drivers, whom they employ, to drive through picket lines of other workers protesting against their rising costs and inability to make a living.

Of course, I'm a great supporter of any group who feels they are being shafted to protest and publicise their grievances. However I'm a little suspicious about what's really going on when another former National Party cabinet minister and now Auckland's mayor tells the media he was on the street supporting Friday's truck protest. As we all know, John Banks also isn't known for his support of street protesters.

If I assume Banks has had a change of heart then it's a shame he wasn't showing this public support a week earlier when another group of Auckland citizens who have been taking protest action could have done with moral support. This group of protesters aren't as high profile as our trucker community but have arguably a more-deserving case.

These food court workers at our airport have probably the worst employment agreement in New Zealand. When they first protested at their plight, their employer cut their pay and, after three years of "negotiating", they finally took strike action last weekend. But the good people of Auckland's tax money was used to pay for a large number of police who corralled these low-paid, vulnerable food court workers out of public view, under threat of arrest.

You may think I'm being a little hard on our mayor as there isn't really much of a link between his support for the truckies and the foodies at the airport. But there is a link.

The mistreated airport foodies are employed by the airport company which, in turn, is partially owned by the Auckland council on behalf of the people of Auckland.

Last week, when the left-leaning City Vision councillors at the monthly council meeting tried to raise the ethics of Auckland city owning a company that has New Zealand's worst employment practices, our mayor and his National Party supporters on the council voted not to have the matter tabled.

You have to suspect the motives of anyone who rails against injustice when they can't personally do anything about it but deliberately ignores the ones they can.

Recently, we have seen a lot of the protests against anti-smacking and election finance laws led by prominent right-wingers. In all their public protests their placards about the issue are outnumbered by placards that have anti-government and pro-National slogans. I saw the same placards on some of the trucks on Friday, which makes me suspicious.

I do not doubt the sincerity of many of the grassroots protesters at any of these protests but I suspect the motives of their organisers have more to do with party political agendas than with the cause.

I look forward to our Auckland mayor proving me wrong and turning up at the next protest by his low-paid foodies at his airport.

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