New Zealand: Unite takes on minimum wage

Issue 

Unite is the fastest growing private sector union in New Zealand. Since being formed in 2004, it has grown to 8000 members.

Their latest campaign, which calls for a referendum on the minimum wage, has the potential to improve the lives of the half a million workers in New Zealand who struggle to make ends meet on wages of less than $15 per hour.

Unite organises largely in areas abandoned by the traditional unions, such as the fast food industry, security work, hospitality, call centres and English language schools. The union is open to any worker, regardless of occupation.

In New Zealand, 100,000 workers live on the minimum wage of NZ$12.50 per hour, which is just 51% of the average wage.

Unite's "campaign for a living wage" calls for the minimum wage to be immediately raised to $15 per hour. Then, it would be further increased in stages and set at two thirds of the average wage.

The union is organising a petition drive, aiming for 300,000 signatures calling for a citizen's initiated referendum by May 2010. If this is achieved, the government would be required to call a referendum on the demands within a year.

Unite national director of organising Mike Treen was a guest at the January 2-5 Socialist Alliance national conference in Sydney. He told Green Left Weekly: "We've had some success ... but to achieve our goal requires some of the big unions and other organisations to come on board between now and May."

The New Zealand Council of Unions (NZCU) , the Green Party and the Maori Party have given official support, and radical left groups like Socialist Worker New Zealand and Socialist Aotearoa are actively involved in petitioning.

A poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald in January found that 61% of those polled supported a minimum wage increase to $15. Unite organiser Joe Carolan said in a January 19 post on Unite.org.nz that he believed this figure underestimated public support for the campaign from the indications he has had at workplaces and campaign stalls.

He said there were 10,000 signatures collected from three festivals alone in January, bringing the total number of signatures collected so far to 100,000.

The campaign has been a useful organising tool for Unite and a good way to raise worker consciousness.

Treen told GLW: "We've been able to use the petition campaign to have a broader political discussion in society as to who caused the [financial] crisis and who will pay for the crisis."

He said Unite had distributed a lot of information focusing on the inequalities that exist in income and share of GDP — and why an increase in the minimum wage should occur, even while the bosses say it can't happen.

On January 27, the New Zealand government announced an increase to the minimum wage of 25 cents to take effect on April 1.

Carolan said: "The government throwing 25 cents to minimum wage workers is a cheap shot. This is barely 2% of nothing, and will be well below real inflation when this government raises GST in the budget.

"What workers need is a living wage."

NZCU president Helen Kelly said on Union.org.nz on January 27: "The [New Zealand Institute of Economic Research] forecast for the increase in private sector wages to March 2010 is 3.5 percent. If this turns out to be correct the minimum wage will actually fall as a percentage of the average wage.

"This means low paid workers are going backwards not forwards."

Unite's previous "supersize my wages" campaign was instrumental in building a broader young workers' movement. It campaigned against youth payment rates (80% of the adult rate) and succeeded in forcing major employers in the fast food industries, including McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut to end the practice.

With often only a minority of workers in a workplace being Unite members, the union was not strong enough to win demands through industrial muscle alone. Winning public support was important.

Unite ran campaigns targeting the particular companies, for example staging small strikes outside busy McDonald's stores to embarrass the fast food giant into signing collective agreements.

Treen said: "McDonald's were more ideological and resisted longer ... before they signed a collective agreement. But in the end they just realised we were never ever going to give up, we were going to keep coming at them."

Unite used different styles of organising as a way of reaching out to young people.
They staged concerts, marches, community events and even had a New Zealand Idol winner, who had worked at KFC, sing at one of their events.

Treen said: "We tried to keep it youthful and exciting and dynamic ... with the knowledge that it had to be sustained over quite a long period of time."

Treen said: "Prior to the latest [financial] crisis, we had almost a decade of uninterrupted economic growth. So part of the reason we were confident that we'd be successful when we set up Unite was that workers, including young workers, were more confident.

"It didn't matter with a minimum wage job if you got sacked ... you could go down the road and get a another one.

"My experience as a worker during the late 1980s and early '90s, when there was high unemployment [is that] people do stick their heads down.

"But this time, we've got an organised presence in a lot of these industries, we've got a bit more confidence that workers would join unions and take part in the struggles if they are given the opportunity.

"Now, we've got the problem of the crisis and the pressure that puts on people, but it also has the other side that people are actually seeing the value of unions and the need for them — even young workers.

"So [workers say] yes, I've got to keep my head down, I don't want to lose the job. But I need the union with me as well.

"Because who else is going to protect me?"

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