New Zealand: Young workers join fighting union

Matt McCarten is the secretary of New Zealand’s fastest growing union, Unite. The union organises fast-food workers, cleaners, hotel, casino, security and part-time staff. It has a financial membership of 8000 members.

The transient nature of these industries means Unite has an annual membership turnover of 66%. It recruits about 600 new members every month.

McCarten is a veteran of many left campaigns, including playing a key role founding the New Labour Party after a split from the neoliberal Labour Party in 1989. McCarten hit the national spotlight for helping lead the historic 1985 occupation of the Sheraton Hotel with the Hotel and Hospital Workers Union.

McCarten contested the November 20 by-election in the seat of Mana, north of Wellington. He campaigned on three core policies: for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour, jobs for all unemployed and a fairer tax system without a goods and services tax. McCarten scored 3.7% of the vote.

Green Left Weekly’s Jody Betzien spoke to McCarten after Unite’s 2010 conference, held in Auckland on November 25 and 26.

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Unite organises industries, such as fast food and the service sector, that had largely been left unorganised by the union movement. What made Unite decide to do this?

It came out of trial and error. Initially, it involved casework and people wanting help on individual sites. But that was going to run us broke and we didn’t want to turn into a paralegal centre where workers with problems came; that’s servicing, not organising.

Then other unions gave us sites they had chosen not to organise. And what struck me was one case of a clothing factory, with a lot of older workers. We couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get any traction.

So I went there and listened to the workers. I realised the problem was the workers had memories of unions where they had been disappointed. There were stories of people who had been in a union for 12 years and had never seen an organiser.

I realised we were trying to deal with a de-unionised workforce and a lot of older workers had bad experiences with unions.

I realised the future for the union movement and the left is in the youth: we had to go and organise the youth. We started in the cinemas and now we have 50% of all the cinema workers in the country in our union.

The amazing thing was everyone I spoke to in the union movement said: “Organising among youth is a waste of time. You can’t do it, we’ve tried.”

But the concept of unionism among youth, despite youth being brought up in an individualistic society, was no problem. We were getting three out of four who would join because they understood that if we all get together in a union, and help and protect each other, we have more power.

As a result of a good experience with Unite, more and more young workers are turning up in other unions. So it is about more than just us, it is about creating the next generation of leaders.

Unite now has 8000 members. What do you think the recent conference reflected about the development of the union?

We started off very small. When I first got involved in Unite, it had about 70 members.

This conference was a watershed for our union. Previously, we held regional AGMs and attendance was low. More members would turn out for strikes than meetings — they have their priorities right.

The level of experience of members was quite low and most of our delegates had never been in a union before.

At this conference, most delegates were young and “people of colour”, and that reflects our membership.

What we saw at this conference is the rank-and-file leaders are real and they are stepping up with their own plan about organising across their industries — they are starting to see beyond their own worksites. This conference was the first time I have seen that — I get a sense of members taking ownership.

The second thing was delegates wanted to be part of the national leadership. There were 24 nominees for 10 national roles.

People were enthusiastic about taking on these roles and I don’t think there are many unions in NZ with this situation. I feel we are now in a position where the union will start to be run by its rank-and-file leaders in a real way.

What plans did the conference set for 2011?

We have coordinated all our major union agreements to expire at the same time, so that workers feel part of each others struggle. That is important because you have to get the workers, as a class, to see their interest across more than just their workplace.

We are demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Also, probably 95% of our members are part time and casual — this is the new workforce of the working poor. We want fulltime jobs.

We have run a lot of successful campaigns in the past, but this one is particularly meaningful because it is going to change the power relationship. A lot of members get their hours rostered down when they join the union or stand up for their rights.

We want to get the community involved in the campaign, which we have coordinated around the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand starting in June.

Much of the work for and around the World Cup will be by our members in areas such as entertainment, hotels, cinemas and cleaning.

The hotels are putting their prices up four-to-10 times the standard rate for the cup. But the cup is being funded by the taxpayer — that means largely the workers. So workers are funding this thing at the same time as the corporates take huge profits and workers clean hotels on the minimum wage.

I think there will be a lot of public support for our campaign. If this campaign is strong enough, it could transform the working poor in this country.

The conservative government led by John Key has introduced legal changes that make union organising more difficult, including increased restriction of right of entry to workplaces and strike action. The laws also enable bosses to sack workers without a reason in the first 90 days of employment. These laws especially affect casualised and non-union sectors. How is Unite dealing with this?

In Australia, you have had these laws for a while. It’s a new thing in New Zealand. Workers will be frightened about the ability to be sacked without a reason and that is the law’s intent.

Our union will continue to act where workers are sacked under the 90 days rule. Forget the law, forget the legal angle — I have never been a fan of that anyway.

With one large employer, we already got rid of the 90 day clause from their agreement and will do the same with all our employers. I think that we have to mobilise the community around specific uses of this law.

We have already been successful on non-unionised sites where we have picketed the employer. So far we have had a 100% success rate in resolving the issue.

At one franchisee of a fast-food chain, a young woman was sacked on her 89th day because the pervious day she had asked for her break she was entitled to. Her mother phoned other unions and no one would take up the case.

Eventually it came to Unite. We mobilised a picket with the UTU Squad. UTU in Maori means putting things right or revenge. We use placards like shields and run aggressive pickets —we don’t let anyone through.

We settled the issue in this case. The young woman did not want to be reinstated, but won compensation. But most importantly, we rewrote the company’s agreement to get rid of the 90 day rule. Instead workers get evaluated every month and have access to a procedure if there are problems. This agreement applies to 700 employees across 50 franchises.

And I will be attending all their management training as part of the deal to tell the employers “you do this to workers, we will screw you”. That is a first.

You recently contested the Mana bi-election as in independent. What motivated you to run?

There are a number of threads. The main one is, in terms of our union and our campaigns, we're running a $15 per hour minimum wage campaign. We ran a petition about this last year and we got 200,000 signature suporting the campaign.

I thought it was important to get that up. Because in the by-election, the candidates were not talking about policy at all. None.

That was annoying to me personally because its insulting to people. That’s the level of the politics.

So we ran to promote the issue of our union; $15 per hour minimum wage, 3000 full-time jobs for Mana (because that how many are unemployed in the electorate) and get rid of the GST, which is a regressive tax, and replace it with a progressive tax.

We also wanted to send a message to Labour that they are timid, weak and gutless. And they have to learn to put up some policies that earn the respect of working class people when they claim to be workers party, or at least a party that wants workers to support them.

To some extend, we wanted to embarrass them. Its a safe Labour seat, so they take it for granted.

And when we entered the race because it was just assumed Labour would win at a sleep walk. When we came in, it suddenly set the campaign alight.

And we did change the debate. We were doing very well, and in the last week the Labour party machine came in and said a vote for Matt is a vote for letting the conservatives win.

And retrospective, it was, because if our vote had held up (because we were polling about 10% of the vote), Labour would have lost. And if they had lost the seat, I would have told them to go and look in the mirror.

Its now a marginal seat, Labour won it with just over a thousand vote and it was the ninth safest seat in the country. So hopefully they get the lesson: you cannot take the working class for granted.

By the end of the campaign, all of the candidate were saying they supported our policy, because its got resonance in the electorate. We had 50% of the homes we door knocked sign the minimum wage petition; and they knew it was the Matt McCarten and Unite petition.

That was a big deal and it shocked the other candidates. So they started to come out with weasely words about how they supported it, but not quite.

There has been some recent discussion in the New Zealand left about whether or not there is space to found a new left party. What is your view of the political landscape and prospects for such a project?

Well if the Labour party is as far left as you go in a Western country, well naturally there is going to be a huge vacuum where working class people are not represented in the electoral system. So, of course, there is a need for a left party. It's more about how you would go about that and win support for it.

I was president on the Alliance party for many years, which wasn’t socialism wasn’t socialist, but there were socialists in it. It was a left party.

When the Alliance was there, Labour moved to the left. Now that we’re not there, Labour has moved back to the right.

In addition to electoral success, a party is about putting pressure on the other parties to articulate working class policies and concerns.

I think the left thinks too small; it’s very internalised. And I think a lot of their discussion inevitably goes into what I think are the smaller issues rather than the bigger picture.

My thing is that with the economic crisis moving around the world — and will get here too and to Australia — if the left doesn’t get it’s act together and take responsibly in putting forward a serious left alternative, then there will be a vacuum of leadership.

There is a real possibility, like has occurred in the states, that we get a “teabagger” type approach, where working class people go to parties on the right with more simplistic solutions.

So I think it is not a question of if the left should do it; it is just how.

There has been discussion through the Mana bi-election about a plan for a new party. We didn’t raise it in a formal sense at our conference because I thought it was inappropriate as it’s not a formal proposal at this stage.

My sense in Mana was that working-class people respond very well to the issues that concern them. And certainly, some of the delegates, for example some of the younger ones elected onto our executive, are very excited about the idea of a real workers’ party.

And certainly our leadership collectively is open to it; there is no question about that. It’s kind of about inspiring others to step up.

At the conference, we had a former Green party MP, Sue Bradford, a senior player in New Zealand, give her support to the idea.

It may be that the time has come, but I think we have to take very seriously. Because it is not just a matter of announcing it and “capturing yourself” — we’ve all had experiences of that.

It has to be real and real in a sense that it has to be down with workers’ struggle, not about them — not “we are going to represent you”.

It’s got to be of the working class and its activist base has got to be working-class people too.

What I do know is that in Mana, working-class people love the policies. They were warm to us. When I waked down the street, one in three people would look back, so that’s a good sign.

What I was also surprise about was that white working-class people were also positive. I have not seen that before. None of the left groups or the Alliance ever got that constituency.

And, of course, the other support was from Maori. Perhaps that is not a surprise, with myself being Maori and have having done a lot of Maori work. I got a lot of warm support from Maori.

For me, I went through a union period where I didn’t do any political work in my early 20s. I thought we could just do it without politics.

Then we did political work through the New Labour Party and then the Alliance party. And that just turned into electoralism.

And when that project ended, for me after all those years experience, I have a very firm view that, first of all, you have got to go and build your constituency of the working poor.

You have got to put the time in, you have to do the work. It’s their struggle, it’s my struggle.

And earn the right. Not as some NGO group that comes and helps the workers. We are organising workers; they must lead themselves.

Unless you do that prior to doing the political work, then who are you representing? I think with the Unite project, we have earned the right. It is seen as being staunch, principled and fighting for workers.

One of the teachers who was here at our conference said that when the teachers were asking students at her school what a union was, there were two things the students said: “Unite and $15 per hour”. That’s got to be a good sign.

By organising workers and doing the work, you earn the right to take the next steps. It is going to be challenging, but probably the best years of our lives.

Sue [Bradford] and I had a discussion about this today, and said “wouldn’t it be marvellous to be part of a working-class movement where you didn’t have to watch what you said”.

That was the great thing about Mana, I could just say what I believed in. And knowing that for working-class people, it is a breath of fresh air.

They want to talk about the issues I want to talk about; the state creating employment when there is unemployment, everyone getting the dignity of work. We have to legislate incomes up, because the market wont do it. The GST is a rip off. People were getting it.

If we can do more of that, I think the left and people who care about social justice will have a very good period.

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