New Zealand: Minimum wage campaign aims to strengthen working class

Issue 

The article below is by Don Franks, an organiser with the . Unite is seeking to organise a citizens' initiated referendum, a non-binding vote allowed for by New Zealand law, to raise workers' wages.

Unite needs to gather the signatures of at least 10% of the enrolled voters, or 300,000 people. Unite has until May 2010 to collect the signatures.

The campaign is supported by the NZ Council of Trade Unions. Most unions have pledged their support and are appointing a staff member to coordinate the campaign inside their unions. The goal is for each union to gather signatures equal to the size of their membership. That alone would gather the required number.

The government must call a referendum within a year of the submission of the signatures, typically by postal ballot. That deadline can be postponed for up to one year by a vote of parliament.

The Green Party and Maori Party have indicated their support. Formal support has not been received from the Labour Party, but its candidate in a recent by-election supported the petition, as does the party president (also leader of the engineers union).

Radical left groups like the Workers Party, Socialist Worker and Socialist Aotearoa are actively petitioning.

Meanwhile, hundreds of workers at the Sylvia Park shopping mall in Auckland have joined Unite, spurred by demands for parking and public transport for work purposes, and improvements to working conditions.

More than 300 workers from 70 different shops can now speak with one voice to mall managers and employers. Unite said this was the first successful mall workers' union organising campaign in the world.

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One bright star above the recession gloom in New Zealand is the Unite union's campaign for a living wage. This campaign takes the form of a Citizens' Initiated Referendum (CIR) on raising workers pay.

In New Zealand, a CIR requires parliament's clerk approving wording for a petition to be voted on nationwide if supported by 10% of enrolled voters — 300,000 people. Unite's petition demands that the minimum wage (NZ$12.50 an hour) be raised to $15 immediately and then move in stages to two thirds of the average wage.

One-hundred thousand NZ workers are stuck on the minimum wage. Some 450,000 are paid less than $15 an hour. Alongside these poverty wages, profits increased 11% each year from 2000-2004, the New Zealand Reserve Bank said.

Unite's campaign aims to raise workers sights and activity at a time when our rulers keep talking down our expectations.

Support for the campaign was sought from Unite members in a union vote. Every member of the union was visited by an organiser and given the CIR proposal. Organisers explained the campaign and distributed free post cards for members to send back.

The whole process took uncountable hours and involved much discussion. A clear majority voted for the proposal. Most union members expressed enthusiasm for the project as soon as they saw it.

The petition campaign is seen as a good multiple organising tool. For some workers, it's a big deal to just sign the thing. Others become an activist for the first time by taking it around, engaging with others, defending their position and developing arguments.

The petition fosters debate about what constitutes a living wage and what value should be placed on our work.

The government has to mail Unite's proposal to 2 million households. Unite is placed at the centre of the ongoing debate over the economic crisis — who profited from the boom years, who caused the crisis and who should pay for its consequences.

The campaign follows the successful 2006 Unite-led Supersize My Pay initiative. That was a mass struggle against youth rates and low-paid work, centred in the fast food industry.

It involved many short strikes at companies like McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Burger King, mostly in Auckland. It pressured the Labour government to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and to abolish youth rates for most of the workforce.

This achievement built a movement around workers' rights among young people and students for the first time in a generation.

It is hoped we can establish broad networks of activists and supporters in workplaces across the country. There is space on the petition form for anyone to give their email address and phone number if they want to get campaign email newsletters.

NZ governments are not bound by the results of a CIR. Members of parliament ignored the 82-92% majority votes in the three previous referendums — in 1995 on the number of firefighters, in 1999 on seat numbers in parliament and on the length of prison sentences.

It's quite on the cards that well-paid politicians will balk at making any serious improvement to the wages of those who clean, cook and carry for them.

In some ways, the official result of the CIR is irrelevant. Its main purpose is to inspire and strengthen the working class — a process well underway. After less than three months, the campaign has raised awareness, improved union organisation, extended networks, developed working-class activists and created some new ones.

Unite's $15-an-hour Campaign for a Living Wage officially got underway at a very lively launch on June 11. Candidates for by-election to the national parliament in the Auckland constituency of Mt Albert turned up to take questions from more than 200 Unite members.

The workers were determined to get answers about low wages and support for a $15 minimum wage.

Around 90 delegates attending a training day were joined by union members from the Mt Albert electorate to officially launch the $15-an-hour campaign and hear from the candidates just two days before the poll.

Unite organisers got the crowd warmed up with some chants and songs before Unite national secretary Matt McCarten spoke about the petition.

The candidates — David Shearer (Labour), Melissa Lee (National), John Boscowan (Act) and Russell Norman (Greens) — gave brief presentations before the floor was opened up for questions.

Lee got the biggest (negative) response with her widely reported comment that she earned $2-an-hour as an MP. The audience immediately responded — they knew it was rubbish. On a salary of $131,000 per year, she would have to work 179 hours each day to earn $2 an hour.

Several members asked very pointed questions about wages and poverty — especially whether or not the candidates could live on the current minimum wage of $12.50 an hour. They all admitted it would be very difficult if not impossible.

McCarten asked the candidates to sign an oversized version of the petition. Shearer and Norman willingly did. Lee tried to fudge it, but ultimately joined Boscowan in refusing to sign.

Then a floor vote was taken. Despite getting the biggest cheer at the beginning of the meeting, Labour's Shearer was well beaten in the preference vote by the Greens' Norman. The right-wing National and Act candidates were supported only by their own campaign workers.

It was a very lively finish to the by-election campaign and a promising beginning to Unite's minimum wage campaign.