NEW ZEALAND: Organising the unorganised

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Unite trade union has been organising workers for three years in Auckland's low-paid and unorganised sectors — hotels, call centres, fast food outlets, and among cleaning staff, and cinema and casino workers. In June, Unite initiated an intensive recruitment campaign of McDonald's workers. In two weeks, 600 workers were recruited from 53 McDonald's restaurants across the city.

Unite has had to negotiate the right of entry for its organises to workplaces with senior company managers under New Zealand's Employment Relations Act — introduced by the Labour government in 2000.

A large proportion of McDonald's workers are Maori and Pacific Islanders in the 17-20-year-old age bracket. The starting rate is NZ$8 per hour, $6 after tax has been taken out, so workers are having to work long hours.

Unite's enthusiastic and dedicated volunteer organising team has been successful in gaining the trust of young workers who have never had contact with a union before.

"The response from workers has been phenomenal", Unite organiser Joe Slade told Green Left Weekly. "First, we have to build their trust and then they are really keen to learn their rights. It is an education process about teaching workers what a union is about and how they can address problems in their workplace. We are educating delegates so they are signing workers up themselves. This is important because there is a high turnover of workers in this industry.

"The problems we are coming across are management not allowing workers their 15-minute breaks. Workers are not being paid for the hours they have worked and verbal abuse and bullying by store managers.

"One practice we have been able to stop is workers having to make up the difference when the till is short at the end of the shift. One case we had was a worker who had to pay $100 to make up the short till. The next day, this was discovered to be an EFTPOS problem and the worker was not reimbursed.

"Another time a worker was not allowed to leave work until their parent came to the store and paid the $68.60 shortfall in the till.

"We have now got management in a position where they know they cannot get away with these things any more. These workers are now more confident about speaking up for their rights."

Unite has a unique fee structure that helps young low-paid casualised workers to get involved in the union. Fees are based on 1% of wages up to a maximum of $4.50 per week. Members don't have to pay when they are in between jobs, but carry over their membership at their new workplace.

On July 26-27, Unite organised delegates' meetings for the fast-food industry. At these meetings, the delegates worked out their claims for the new collective contract that Unite will be negotiating.

Unite is beginning to reintroduce trade unionism to a whole new layer of young people.

From Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005.

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From GLW issue 640