Lyndy McIntyre’s memoir outlines how the Living Wage Movement took hold in Aotearoa.
Lyndy McIntyre’s memoir outlines how the Living Wage Movement took hold in Aotearoa.

BooksJuly 9, 2024

Fighting for the dignity of the working poor: Power to Win by Lyndy McIntyre, reviewed

Lyndy McIntyre’s memoir outlines how the Living Wage Movement took hold in Aotearoa.
Lyndy McIntyre’s memoir outlines how the Living Wage Movement took hold in Aotearoa.

A new book about how the living wage movement took hold in Aotearoa celebrates the people who do the hard, unglamorous work of pushing society forward, writes Oliver Clifton.

It’s October 2022, we’re at a wild-west themed Chinese restaurant in Mt Eden waiting on some charcoal barbecued beef tongue. Marlon Drake has forced me to spend the afternoon on the corner of Mairo St with a megaphone, shouting at commuters coming off state highway 20, trying to get them to enrol as voters in the mayoral election. He’s sitting beside me; across the table is Labour MP Ibrahim Omer and this guy called Nick, who holds no official position but seems to be some kind of legend in the Fijian-Indian community.

Six years earlier, it’s our first week in Wellington, Marlon’s dragged us along to a Young Labour event at parliament. Grant Robertson walks us around the chamber where we sit in those green chairs and debate the exclusion of Dat Boi from the political establishment. Grant takes us back to his office where there’s a spread of Anzac biscuits and three red scrumpys that we drink from plastic cups. We’re ejected half-cut into a hazy afternoon and I make Marlon promise not to take me to a Young Labour event ever again. A promise he keeps until 2018 when he makes me aux-DJ their election party. 

Fortunately for me, Marlon discovers community organising. His hero is Lyndy McIntyre, the head organiser for the living wage movement. McIntyre’s book Power to Win details the history of the movement in New Zealand. It’s more than just a modern history, it’s a political manifesto, an instruction manual on how to harness the dormant power of the worker. 

I met Lyndy at a living wage forum at a church in Newtown. A group of high school students performed a Casiotone rendition of ‘Jesus Is a Friend of Mine’, after which Marlon and his team pressed council candidates to continue paying their workers a living wage. Lyndy is a familiar type of New Zealander, understated and pragmatic, possessing a raw charisma that manifests in mysterious connections throughout the country. The kind of Kiwi just as likely to be close personal friends with Lorde as the Mad Butcher. 

I was hoping to learn more about Lyndy’s life in Power to Win. However, in typical style, she doesn’t reveal much. The book opens with three sentences detailing her pleasant childhood in the Stokes Valley before she dedicates the rest of the page to Lemo Lemo, a labourer/cleaner who lives in her old neighbourhood, gets home at 11.30pm and rises at five every morning. I’ve attended a number of living wage forums in my official capacity as mover-of-chairs, and it’s the movement’s strategy to centre the workers. Marlon and Lyndy rarely touch a microphone. 

Living Wage campaigners celebrating a win. (Photo: Supplied)

Revisiting landmark speeches at living wage events is a highlight of the book. I witnessed many of these, but I didn’t realise how much was at stake. Take for example Rebecca Nyakuong Kuach, a cleaner at Victoria University who nearly lost her job by speaking about her pay at an event on campus: “At five o’clock I go home, clean the house and cook for my kids. They shower, we eat, then I help them with their homework. We go to bed. I’m awake again at four-thirty. I make my lunch and the little ones’ lunches and drive to work. If I got the living wage, oh my God! Life would be different!”

When I worked at Galbraith’s (where I was paid $1 over minimum wage in 2021), it took me about two months to realise the new bartenders were on a better wage than me. When I brought this up with my manager, my pay was rectified immediately. However she wanted to know who’d told me about the disparity, as there was a clause in our contract that prohibited us from discussing our wages. I didn’t snitch, of course, but the incident stuck in my mind as a reminder of the anti-worker sentiment implicit in our labour laws. That Rebecca might lose her job for simply telling the truth seems insane. 

Meetings in Wellington reached a crescendo when the city became the first living wage council in the country, securing a living-wage not only for direct employees but contractors like security guards and cleaners. A lot of establishment political action feels showy these days. Conversely, community-organised wins are often more tangible, but less public, so it’s nice to see this major event immortalised in Lyndy’s book. 

Ahmed Dini, a refugee from Somalia with three children, had to drop his English studies to work longer hours. When council pay rates increased by 30% he was able to quit his second job. “A lot cleaners who got the living wage were refugee background, cleaning council flats and public toilets,” says Ibrahim Omer. “[E]very success was significant … That is what this movement is all about: participation in community, living a dignified life.”

The history in Lyndy’s book is recent and niche. It’ll be fascinating to anyone who has lived in Wellington or Auckland in the last 20 years, full of familiar names, places and businesses. For those without an interest in the machinations of local council, the various acronyms and minutes might be as tedious as that Labour election party at which I left Nature’s Best on shuffle and skipped out to drink Foster’s under the City to Sea bridge. 

However, these dull moments are bolstered by bits of gossip that provide critical insight into the remarkably analogue workings of local politics. There’s a surprising moment in which RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan decides to act like an intern at the Taxpayer’s Union and forgoes an interview with a living-wage organiser to ring Celia Wade-Brown and challenge her commitment to introduce the wage without yet knowing the rate (at this point there was only a ballpark figure). 

Moments like these are painful reminders of the economically conservative beliefs that pervade our media, even our sacred centre-left media. I remember the GFC and that National government well, when we had the chance to fix the precarious global financial system but instead doubled down on austerity, fuelled by a national obsession with getting NZ in the black. It seems strange to me that people were able to care so much about something as abstract as international debt and so little about the lives of the working poor. It’s depressing to see that mindset be reprised in the post-Covid era, with inflation scare-mongering the new weapon of choice for politicians and economists. 

Fortunately, this book doesn’t get too much into the economics of the living wage, which I’m largely thankful for. It’s not really Lyndy’s prerogative, and there’s little point discussing progressive economics with those willing to sacrifice themselves at the altar of supply and demand. I’ve had enough Dunedin-bros tell me about their plans to launch an RTD company to know this country is run by economists who did about three of the assigned readings and have as much imagination as Chat GPT. 

The unorthodox methodology of the living wage movement is a much more interesting subject. I lived with Marlon while he held his living wage position but barely understood what exactly a broad-based community organisation was, or what he did day-to-day. In the first few chapters Lyndy explains how they synthesised years of experience working in conventional unions with ideas borrowed from the living wage movement in London, and concepts invented by US organiser Saul Alinsky. 

Celebrating Kāpiti Coast District Council becoming the first district council, earlier this year, to achieve living wage employer accreditation, from left, Jacqui Aliva, Lyndy McIntyre, Jim Babbington and Fale Aliva. (Photo: Sophie Handford.)

There’s a moment in the book where the movement faces criticism from political commentator Chris Trotter. He argues that the organisation relies too much on the complicity of the employing classes, which stuck out to me as a great point. I mentioned this to Marlon who immediately replied: “It’s about leveraging power on democratic institutions and then leveraging those institutions on the private sector, but along the way, absolutely, all the proactive employers are welcome to come along for the ride.”

Until recently, I’ve been of the Trotter mindset. Can you really disassemble the master’s house with the master’s tools? But I’m coming to terms with my position as an upper-middle class idealist, too often immobilised by my own holier-than-thou sense of right and wrong (see Eleanor Catton’s Tony in Birnam Wood). It’s too easy to retreat into our ivory towers of critical theory and Hegelian dialectics and avoid doing any actual work.

Incidentally, Chris Trotter was a regular when I was a bartender at Galbraith’s. He’d drink merlot by the fire with a chain-smoking professor of philosophy, a nice enough customer, but I don’t recall him ever leaving a tip. 

I’m done with party politics, it’s organising forever,” said Marlon one night on the waterfront. He pointed out the red and green lights, explained how they showed whether the boat was turning to port or starboard. Marlon’s dad had shown him this down at the port in Auckland, the same port my grandfather came out to work on as a mechanic in 1972, bringing his family all the way from Birmingham. 

It’s certainly less glamorous picketing at the plastic plant in Wiri than it is debating policy in those comfy green seats, but I’m proud of my friend who’s doomed himself to a political career that only exists in the whispers at the back of church halls and community centres. Lyndy’s book is a celebration of these types. 

I’m actually on the living wage right now, living in Edinburgh. This article’s taken me about a week to research and write, something I’m able to do because I only work Friday-Sunday, but can still take just over a thousand pounds a month, cover my rent in Leith and have enough time to sit in the Victorian central library and work on stuff like this.

In the UK, there’s little hope in the air. Everyone on the left has to vote for Labour, but no one really wants to, particularly seeing as the only strong leader in recent years was smeared for speaking out against Israel. However, union culture is strong over here, and I’m hopeful there are good people making small but significant changes to the lives of low-paid workers. And if I hear one more Kiwis-in-London-PWC-consultant complain about the train strikes, I’m walking down to Kings Cross and tying them to the tracks. 

I don’t really believe in the emancipatory potential of democracy any more, but Marlon and Lyndy have taught me to believe in the power of the community. The power of a well-timed dinner in Mt Eden, a good story, and a bit of pressure applied in the right spot. People say “do the work” a lot these days, but who’s really doing it? It’s the Lyndys and Marlons, standing at the back of St Stephen’s in the city, one hand gripped firmly around a megaphone, the other around an Arcoroc mug.

Power to Win: The Living Wage Movement in Aotearoa NZ by Lyndy McIntyre ($45, Otago University Press) is available from Unity Books

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