New Zealand: 'We will fight you forever' — Unite Union forces McDonald's backdown


Photo: Unite.org.nz

New Zealand's Unite Union, which organises fast food, hospitality and retail workers, announced a big win on May 1 with McDonald's finally agreeing to join Burger King and Restaurant Brands and cease using controversial “zero hour” contracts.

Unite called off strikes across the country planned for May 1. The win came after a sustained campaign by the union against the contracts, which deny workers guaranteed hours each week.

Unite national director, Mike Treen, said: “This is a historic agreement. Now all of the major fast food chains have committed to ending zero hours. This is the culmination of a decade-long campaign for secure hours by Unite Union.

“It will be welcomed by tens of thousands of workers in the fast food industry and hundreds of thousands more who will ultimately benefit in other industries. It represents a fundamental shift in the employment relationship of the most vulnerable workers in the country.”

Before this agreement, Green Left Weekly's Duncan Roden spoke to Unite senior organiser Joe Carolan, based in Auckland, about the campaign.

* * *

Can you explain the “zero hours” campaign?

We've been fighting zero hours in fast foods for 10 years, since we started our first campaign called Supersize My Pay. Back then, many fast food workers were on youth rates, NZ$7.35 an hour.

The first thing we did was win the debate on minimum wage. After that campaign it went to $12. It's now $14.75, so we've come a long way in terms of pay.

But the big issue, workers kept telling us, especially during the last McDonald's strike, was that even if we won $1 extra an hour, it doesn't mean anything because they can steal hours from workers, they can take it away in the roster.

We tried using different phrases to highlight this issue. It wasn't until we used the phrase “zero hours” that people started to get it, especially in the media. Zero hours relates to how many hours you are guaranteed per week. If there's no guarantee then you're on a zero hour contract.

It doesn't mean that you work no hours, it is about how many hours you're guaranteed. Once we named the problem like that, people grasped what we were talking about.

It is important for even a small union like us to win the ideological battle and put the government on the defensive. I think there's an onus on us to fight for everything we can get, because we're not just fighting for the 12,000 workers in McDonald's, of whom we organise a plucky minority of about 15%.

The government will probably legislate on what we settle on. This will probably affect tens of thousands of workers on these zero hour contacts.

We are determined to fight for the idea of fixed shifts, so that you're guaranteed a certain number of hours a week. This stops employers from socialising their losses.

For example, a cinema worker has bills to pay, food to buy, rent. They might get five shifts a week while The Avengers is on, it's a popular movie. But when 50 Shades of Grey is showing, the boss cuts their hours. But the worker still needs to eat.

The boss has socialised the losses, in other words they've put the risk onto the worker rather than the company, so they can cut back on labour whenever they want. The workers are the ones who take the hit if a film is unpopular and the company takes the profits when times are good.

We've won fixed shifts at KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and even Burger King. When Burger King said they'd go straight to a fixed shift regime in July, the other companies followed. But McDonald's still resisted.

Why did Burger King go straight to fixed shifts?

Because they would have been terrified of the industrial campaign we were about to unleash on them. They are a minimum wage employer. Unlike most of the other companies, they don't have a big pay scale.

After six months in KFC, for example, you get an extra $1 an hour, courtesy of the union. Whereas in Burger King, there are people who have been working there for 15 years on minimum wage.

When KFC backed down on zero hours, for instance, there was an unholy strike ready to go. I think there's a lesson in that. It shows that if you're strong enough, if you have the union density, the bosses know you have the density. If you have a leadership that's not afraid of struggle, they know that too.

Why has McDonald's held out so long against fixed shifts?

It's not just because they're the biggest employer, it's because they're the most ideological. There are many other things we are fighting McDonald's on. They won't let us put notices up, which we have won as a right in other stores. They'll try to censor the union newsletter if they don't like it.

In nearly all the other companies, we've got a union benefits scheme. We've got schemes that provide life insurance, we've assisted with funerals and benefits like movie tickets.

But McDonald's has never conceded these things, because they know union density would shoot up. It would grow from the hardcore ideologically committed people, which is normally about 20% or 30% of the workforce, to where we're at with KFC, where we now have closed shops all over Auckland and 56% density around the country.

In the cinemas, it is probably higher, 100% closed shops on most Auckland sites and 50-60% density around the country.

McDonald's have been picking on our delegates. So after our “McStrike” campaign two years ago, we signed a peace treaty with them, which included promises of fairer rosters. They tore that up within weeks and started cutting the hours of delegates to drive them out.

Also, they're fighting us because they've got their eyes on the $15 minimum wage movement in the United States. On April 15, there were strikes in the US. We've made links with these workers.

If we win this campaign in NZ, zero hours will probably become a major thing in the US. Because if you're not getting the hours, the pay rate is meaningless.

McDonald's opposition comes in the face of overwhelming public opinion. There's been loads of so-called right-wingers who have been won to the left because of this. They've said: “Oh my god, have things got so bad, has the pendulum of neoliberalism swung so far to the right that now a worker doesn't have any guaranteed hours?”

The media goes out to interview businesspeople to get some balance, because opinion is so overwhelmingly on our side, but these people say: “No, no, no, the union's right, I wouldn't have anyone on a zero hours contract.”

These are small businesspeople who give people 40 hours a week guaranteed because they just think it's the right thing to do. It's the big multinationals that are the worst.

What are the positions of the political parties?

It could be that we're dragging the parties back to class struggle. The Greens have a bill in parliament, but interestingly they've been a bit quieter than Labour.

Labour has been quite active on this actually. The Mana Movement (a party spearheaded by militant Maori activist) and the grassroots have been there. The north of Auckland is a heavily Maori part of New Zealand and they're prepared to invade and occupy McDonald's. There's a bunch of prominent young Maori leaders who have been organising the pickets up there.

The support from Mana has been fantastic and shows the need for the left-wing movement to be an ally of a small plucky union. Because we couldn't do this without that kind of support, we always welcome the support of Mana and socialist groups.

Labour have been quite good, their MPs have joined the picket lines. And they haven't just left after they've done their speech, they've actually hung around. And that's been noted.

Labour seem to have realised that its time they took politics seriously. Even a minister in the governing Nationals has conceded that zero hours needs to go.

What are you planning for the future?

We have a duty on behalf of the whole class to fight for as much as we can. This is why we want to win the argument around fixed shifts. And we want this to finish this year, we don't want this to go on for another decade.

We rely on the only strength we've always relied on, which is not our charisma or superb negotiating skills, but the power to withdraw our labour and appeal to the rest of the working class.

McDonald's has to look out for this danger. Many workers not only refuse to cross picket lines on the day, but form life-long habits. Burger King cited this when we had a dispute against them a few years ago when they tried to bust the union.

The best we could do in that campaign was hold informational pickets and gain media attention, but their sales fell by 10%. They sued for peace within two weeks, because it was dangerous to their profit margins.

McDonald's is in decline. Their sales are falling. If they want to fight us and think we won't stay in the trenches, then there's a Maori phrase “Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou, ake ake ake!”, which means “together we will fight you, forever and ever and ever!”

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