New Zealand: Unite takes on fast food giants

Heleyni Pratley. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

New Zealand’s Unite union has made great progress in recent years in organising previously unorganised sectors of workers ― often young workers in fast food, hospitality and retail. Through organising workers, Unite has forced fast food giants, such as McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut, to eradicate “youth wages”, which pay young workers less for the same work.

Unite organiser Heleyni Pratley was a guest at the May 7-9 national conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistance in Sydney. Green Left Weekly’s Mel Barnes spoke to her about Unite’s work.

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Unite organises young workers at places such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC into a union. How do you go about doing this?

The key thing is to go in at all hours. Fast food is 24-7 so we have to be too ― where it is 6am or 11pm, whatever it takes. The crux of this is speak to workers and engage with them in a way that speaks to them.

We can’t expect them to come to us, we have to go to them. Part of that involves learning to talk to them on their terms and not ours.

In New Zealand, when I speak to anyone under 23 I often have to start by explaining what a union is.

What are some of the campaigns you’re working on now?

The main thing right now is a membership drive. With union turnover being anywhere between 66%-105%, recruitment is key.

Politically, we’ve just had a torch-lit May Day march. As a Unite organiser I’m involved in the Wellington MUTINY! Project, which is a radical non-sectarian networking group, to build skills, experience and communication amongst the left-radical groups in Wellington. So that all intersects and inter-relates.

What are the barriers to young people getting involved in a union or knowing their rights at work?

There has been a generational gap with young workers, there is no real framework to pass on intergenerational knowledge. You see that in the age of our union organisers and in the make-up of our membership. Young people aren’t pro or anti union, most of the time, unfortunately they don’t even know what a union is.

Global capitalism has been ruthless in the way in which it has attacked this link, severed it and attempted to purge the concept of collective solidarity and union work, let alone the class struggle from the public consciousness.

Have you had much success with organising young workers? What are some of the wins you've had?

I think bosses and managers have found it a bit more difficult trying to staunch out a young, female union organiser. I’ve managed to get a bunch of workers out of sticky situations as well as building up density in a lot of the stores I organise.

The best bit though is building delegate structures and consciousness. The individual day-to-day operations are important, but the bigger-picture struggle will be won on the success or failure of the wider collective organising. So delegate/store building/organisation is some of the work I’m most proud of.

What’s the situation with workers rights like in NZ at the moment? Are things improving or going backwards under the current government?

I think it’s more useful to look at a longer-term perspective. Under both Labour and National governments you can have dips up and down, but the overall trend is down. Over the past 30 years the average family income has dropped by 30%, currently it is being held up by a staggering amount of household debt.

This is the way in which capital has maintained its growth in consumption while undermining the material basis of the working class.

But a lot of these recent attacks by the National government are just reflecting the reality faced by 90% of the non-unionised work sites in NZ, what the boss says, goes. That’s no different than under Labour, except for making it a legal recognition of the reality as opposed to just ignoring it.

Until we’re organised and conscious as a class we'll keep being buffeted by the bourgeois political winds and there’s not much we can do about it ― part from organise and educate.

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