Unions Wellington sent me a survey a few weeks ago, asking my views on a range of issues relevant to their members. Many organisations do this as a way to inform their supporters votes in the upcoming election.
I vote to the right of centre, so I knew they weren't going to like my answers or give me an endorsement.
I do think it is really important that we make an effort to engage with people we disagree with. If we want to depolarise our society we have to find ways to talk to one another, and so I gave a their survey a full response.
One of the greatest parts of being involved with The Opportunities Party was that there were people from the right and left involved. We came face to face with our different ways of framing conversations, which can often make it seem like we are much further apart on issues than we actually are. Trying to find ways to talk to one another across that divide is almost like learning to translate from one language to another. You have to think about how to say things so that the other person will understand your point without pushing any of their buttons that generate a visceral response.
That's what I was genuinely trying to do when I responded to the Unions Wellington survey. I wanted to clearly articulate where I agree with them and where we disagree, without pushing any of their buttons.
Reading the conversation on Twitter today, I clearly failed to achieve that, though it wasn't through lack of trying.
Since there is always something to learn from our failures, I thought it might be interesting to go back and look at what I actually wrote, discuss what I thought I was saying, and what Unions Wellington apparently heard, based on their Twitter replies.
I will just focus on the first question and answer as an illustration. (My full replies are on their website.)
Do you support a living wage for all staff directly employed by the council?
Do you support a living wage for all contractors employed by the council?
Do you support a living wage for all staff employed by the council controlled organisations?
People should not be in a position where working full time leaves them unable to afford a warm, dry home, and food for their families. New Zealand’s minimum wage is comparatively high by international standards, yet many people find themselves in this position. I believe the solution is to reduce the proportion of income taken by housing costs, rather than universally raising wages.
I applaud the campaign for a living wage and look forward to negotiating about the living wage with unions. I pledge to keep workers who are now receiving the living wage at that rate. I will not commit to any future changes.
What was I trying to say here?
To start with I wanted to focus on areas of agreement - I agree there is a problem when people working full time can't afford the basics of life. Then I identify where we disagree - on solutions. Unions are campaigning for higher wages through the living wage as a way to close the gap between income and living costs. It's not my preferred solution for city councils. My emphasis will be to try to close the gap by lowering housing costs - an area local councils have a lot of influence over through planning rules and directly building more housing.
I believe unions are an important part of our society - they do good work and it should be easy for people to join them. However as an employer I believe that when the city council is negotiating wages they should sit across the table from the union, rather than on the same side. The characteristics of a wage negotiation is that the process is adversarial. I want unions to be a strong adversary advocating for their members.
What did Unions Wellington hear?
According to their responses on Twitter I was "implying the minimum wage is too high." In another tweet they said "Well, yes, New Zealand workers do get paid more than indentured child labourers in Bangladesh. Not disputing that as fact, but in our view its pretty concerning (and frankly weird) that that is what first came to mind when we asked you if you supported the Living Wage."
This is the part where I struggle. It's a pretty big misrepresentation of what I said, and the urge to hit back is strong. Instead, I'm going to try to see things from their point of view.
I could have done better when I said the minimum wage is comparatively high by international standards. I should have been more specific and said that our minimum wage is high as a percentage of the median wage. I intended it as a factual observation, rather than a suggestion that it was too high. I'm a policy wonk moving into politics, so I've been trying to reduce the technical details in what I write, which is why I chose not to include that. It honestly never occurred to me that anyone would think I was talking about absolute rather than relative amounts.
For the record, I had the OECD in mind when I responded to the survey, as it's a much better set of countries for us to compare ourselves with. Based on 2018 data, only six countries in the OECD have a higher minimum wage relative to median wage - Chile, Colombia, France, Portugal, Turkey, and Costa Rica. I do not think we should be comparing our minimum wage rates with those of Bangladesh.
Thanks Unions Wellington for all that you do advocating for workers' rights and our lowest paid workers. Sorry that I pushed your buttons with my survey responses.
Like many, when I have an experience like this I just want to throw some shade and go back to the people who agree with me on whatever the issue is. But that won't get us anywhere. So instead I will roll up my sleeves and try to do better at expressing myself next time.