Organising young workers: it can be done!

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2008 - 2:57
Super Size My Pay

New Zealand union organiser Mike Treen and French union activist Axel Persson spoke on organising, unionising and fighting for the rights of — mostly young — workers in the fast food industry.

They were speaking at a No Sweat meeting in the University of London Union on Saturday 16 February.

Axel Persson

Union activism in the fast food industry first started up after a 2002 strike in McDonalds that lasted for over a year. About a year ago a few of us in the CGT union decided to do some serious union work in the industry. We decided that we needed at least one person in each restaurant if we were going to be successful. Given that no one was coming to the union by us leafleting outside, we decided to “colonise”, to send members in to work there.

I applied for a job at a Quick in Paris [Quick is a French fast food chain, similar to McDonalds]; it is the biggest in France with over 150 workers. I needed to let people know that someone in the restaurant was a union member. Either I could try to talk to each and every worker (and of course I tried to talk to many people) or I could produce a bulletin to get out to everyone. The bulletin option proved to be the most useful tool, providing a backbone for the union.

The bulletin’s contents related to the working conditions of the restaurant; everyone could recognise what the bulletin was talking about — this was their working life. Facts about the inadequacy of the equipment, about a manager making a racist remark, about promises on wages being reneged on, and so on.

I produced this bulletin on my own initiative, but others in the union helped me to do it.

I started handing it out in front of the lockers, talking to people about what was in it. I also put it in each and every locker. The bulletin told the workers that the union would be operating in the workplace and if they wanted to discuss anything they could come to me.

Some of these workers had never met a union activist before, and maybe didn’t even know what purpose the union served. The first step then is to explain the role of the union, that it was there to stand up for the workers.

After a few weeks of handing out the bulletin, discussions began to multiply. People began to talk about the content, point out what was missing etc. I would suggest they should write the next article... people began to be associated with the bulletin. I was no longer the only person.

After about two months we had a group of members and union sympathisers. We decided to announce the presence of the union in a bigger, more public way. We put a union table outside the restaurant with flyers, papers, leaflets. Union activists from other fast food restaurants came along. We advertised the event to the workers inside and told people they could come along to discuss any issues they might have. Several dozen people came and talked to us. It was the start of a real union of seven people within the restaurant.

After asking people what the main demands should be, we launched a petition. The demands were better pay, better job security and more regular and predictable hours. We didn’t think the managers would cave into our demands. The petition was to help build organisation, to get names and contact details. And we wanted show the workers what the managers were about — they rejected the demands. We got about 60 signatures.

We haven’t managed yet to organise a complete walkout at my restaurant. We have organised strikes of specific groups of workers. Usually these take place between 11am and 2pm, as that is the time when 80% of the profits are made. We organised a picket line in my kitchen, to demand gloves for handling hot water.

We are not yet at the stage where we can organise a national campaign against Quick. We are still building the organisation at the grass roots.

This kind of union activity has been much more successful in southern France. This month the CGT managed to organise a 24 hour strike simultaneously at 17 McDonalds restaurants.

It is also important to address the issues that affect these young workers outside of their work. In Paris especially these workers come from the poor neighbourhoods and they face poverty, unemployment, poor housing and sometimes police harrassment. Usually they end up in the fast food industry because they need the money and there are no other jobs for them. So we used more direct political propaganda to get talking to people and get into wider discussions.

A significant proportion of the workers leave after a short time. There is an extremely high turnover. They want to find something better. It has been difficult to convince people to join a union if they don’t intend to stay. That is why we make sure that the people building the union whom we rely on intend to stay there for at least six to eight months.

All of us working in fast food unionism in France agree that our activity has to be extremely dyamic, offensive, radical and directly political. If union activism has no backbone no one will see the need for it. As the saying goes, you should be “as radical as reality itself” if you want to be up to the task.

Any time strike action has happened in fast food in France it has always been very radical, pretty impressive, with demonstrations, picket lines and occupations. People don’t usually go on strike but when they do it usually lasts.

For example the first strike ever in fast food was not over pay, but a solidarity strike in defence of two sacked union activists. It lasted for a year and they won.

Mike Treen

IN 2005-6, over those two years, there was a campaign to reunionise the fast food sector as well as call centres, hotels, casinos and similar industries. At the end of that campaign we had union-negotiated collective employment agreements at all of the big fast food chains: McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, Wendy’s and some smaller ones.

We had recruited two to three thousand fast food workers. And we had organised a major political campaign associated with the key demand for $12 [about £5] an hour minimum wage and the abolition of youth rates for 16 and 17 year olds countrywide. From beginning of this year we will have a $12 an hour minimum wage and the abolition of youth rates in fast food. Winning those key demands was a big issue in New Zealand’s broader political and industrial news.

Where did it all start? It was a very long way from here. In the early 1990s, the New Zealand labour movement went through a deep recession, lasting five or six years. During this period, industrial activity declined to the lowest point since records began. Union membership went from 49% of the workforce to 22%.

Industrial laws were adopted that made it very difficult for unions to organise: outlawed strikes outside the negotiating period, outlawed political strikes, outlawed solidarity strikes. It made it very difficult to access workplaces to recruit etc. It was illegal to organise industrial action for a multi-employer collective agreement.

When the law was brought in every single worker was put onto an individual agreement that was the same as their previous collective agreement, but in order for the union to be able to continue to negotiate on your behalf you had to sign an individual authorisation. It was very difficult for some unions to manage that. Many were eliminated overnight.

The central bureaucracy of the union movement capitulated completely to these changes and refused to organise broader industrial struggle, let alone a general strike, despite the fact that there was overwhelming sentiment for such a struggle and a general strike. Motions calling for it in workplaces were crushed by the bureaucracy.

The impact of the recession and the new law was intensified by the demoralising effect of this failure to resist. From that time real wages were under sustained attack. In New Zealand real wages, hourly rates, for unskilled workers declined by 25%. Real incomes for the people we represent declined by 30% or 40%.

All of the legal wage protections which stipulated overtime rates, Sunday rates and so on, went. Minimum conditions were now very limited - three weeks holiday, five days sick leave, that was about it, especially in areas were the workers were more vulnerable. The unions had no strength. Everything else had to be negotiated again. It was a stunning assault on working people.

Officially unemployment was 10% (although in real terms higher). Official unemployment for Maoris (who make up 14% of the population) was 30%, again higher in real terms. Working-class communities in south Auckland were devastated.

The free trade policies adopted by both Labour and the Tories [the New Zealand National Party] led to massive factory closures. The entire car industry was eliminated, textile industries were closed. Other industries with traditionally strong union organisation, like the meat industry, were restructured and thousands lost their jobs. There used to be four meat plants with one or two thousand workers each. There is now one plant.

Union bargaining became concession bargaining only. Over 15 years there was no attempt or struggle to maintain levels of income or organisation. In so far as you had a collective agreement, it was how much below inflation your settlement was going to be. It was accepted that it was going to be below inflation. There were exceptions, but in general that was it, espcially in the private sector.

In the private sector levels of unionisation went down to 9%. In other countries union rates went down, but collective bargaining coverage remained very high (in Australia for example). In New Zealand that wasn’t the case at all.

Concession bargaining remained the norm until 2005. In that year things began to change. Even the more conservative unions, for instance the engineering and manufactuing union, were calling for 5% when inflation was running at 3%. This was a radical change. But it happened far too late.

From the mid-1990s there was a sustained economic recovery. It came after a decade of rising employment. Unemployment levels are down to 3.4% of the workforce, one of the lowest in the OECD. From 1996 the union movement should have been reorganising and rebuilding in the private sector. Unemployment was no longer the terror it had been prior to 1996.

In 1999 a Labor-Alliance [the Alliance Party was a leftish split from Labor] government changed the law on union rights. Union organisers regained access to workplaces. The unions now had the right to pursue multi-employer collective agreements through industrial action. Political and solidarity actions are still outawed, and you can only take action in the bargaining period. But there are few other limitations. You don’t have to give notice to employers or ballot for example. In 2000, replacing striking workers with outside scabs was also outlawed. However, there was still voluntary unionism, there was a freemarket in unions and the unions still competed for each others’ members.

Left activists, in the Alliance Party, were bewildered by the failure of the unions to take advantage of this new law. If someone rang up a union for help, it wasn’t a recruiting oppourtunity. They would refuse to talk to you. If you weren’t a paying member of the union you had no rights to any support. The loss of confidence in organising workers for struggle, the cynicism involved, was total. However, more struggles began to happen in the mid-2000s, as some unions began to raise their sights.

As a consequence of the implosion of the Alliance Party [over sending troops to Afghanistan, which the left opposed] some of us were liberated from the parliamentary framework; we were able to reorient, to help to organise the people we’d claimed to be the political repsentatives of. We needed to re-earn the right to speak for working people. In the 2002 election the vote for the Alliance Party (now two organisations) collapsed.

Many of us still wanted to be part of a political anti-capitalist project, but we felt we had to re-earn the right to do that. One way we can do that is by seriously engaging in struggles to advance the interests of workers, through political and industrial campaigning. In some cases that involved getting jobs with existing unions.

In my and Matt McCarten’s case there was another job we wanted to do — to organise the working poor, to reunionise the precarious. We decided to form a new union.

In the end we didn’t have to do that because a little union called Unite existed, with less than a hundred members, run in a voluntary capacity by Alliance Party union officials, with a broad membership clause. We were given the mandate to do an organising campaign in Auckland and an initial donation of $500.

We had a gut feeling and confidence that we could do this. We did not believe young people wouldn’t join a union if they were asked and we had the right now under the new law to ask them.They were on the minimum wage, and with minimal unemployment there was not much to lose even if you did stick your neck out. It would always be possible to get another job with no rights.

Surveys also said that the main reason people don’t join unions everywhere in the world is that nobody asks them. That statistic applies to young people as much as anyone else.

We had no plan B. This was not play acting. We borrowed, begged, stole money to do this. We weren’t new to this, of course. Matt had been a union organiser and leader of the hotel workers’ union, leading a struggle to democratise it, before he became President of the Alliance Party. When Matt said he was going to do something, people took note. They gave or lent us the money we needed.

In Unite, we faced no encumbrances. No-one telling us they knew better. No one telling us about the “organising model”.

I had never heard about the “organising model” until we started doing this. We were told off for not following the model that had been so sucessful in the previous decade in organising no one at all! It was almost like a religious mantra with some unions.

Our premise was to have a public political campaign, and that we were going to throw everything possible at the organising effort. We had three or four paid organisers, on the minimum wage. That’s all. All the rest was done by volunteers.

These workers had nothing to lose. But in order to fight, they had to believe you were going to fight with them, you weren’t going to be there one week and gone the next week, you were going to come back. If they were victimised you were going to protect them. If you could show that militancy, people would rise to the occasion.

We tested it out in a couple of places, and as we had no bureaucracy involved, we could change our minds, switching things around if they didn’t work.

We had a membership form which we copied off another union with all the usual personal details. One day one of our organisers, a hotel worker and volunteer, went to one of the nice hotels in Auckland to speak to the housekeepers and came back with a notebook full of names and addresses of people interested in joining the union, 60 names. We thought “if only she’d taken some membership forms.”

Then we thought, hang on, all the information we want is name and address, phone and email. So our membership form became like a petition, with half dozen names per sheet. The process of signing up became more collective.

We made our fees simple. Our fees were 1% of earnings up to a maximum. We had to give people something before they started to pay. We told them we would deliver the company to the negotiating table. You don’t have to pay the fees until we’ve got them to sit down with your representatives.

We hand over the memberships at that point. Everything is a collective process and there is no chance of victimisation. What we achieve at the negotiation is up to you we said. That depends on how many members you have, how willing you are to fight, what sort of struggle you want to organise.

A lot of people hadn’t seen a union before, they didn’t know what a union was. Our message was that you can’t negotiate individually, you can only do it as part of a collective.

The trial in two places, two cinema complexes, was a great success. It was a very young, very casualised workforce. We signed up around 300 workers, which was pretty much everyone.

We discovered the big issues were ones involving personal dignity. These kids were given two free tickets each week, but they were taken off you for every petty infraction. If you were five minutes late, if you had a sick day, looked the wrong way at the manager, you lost your “comps”. The main issue was having the tickets as a right.

We also got an extra five mintues on the paid break in the shift inserted into the contract, so that people could actually have a cup of tea, or a cigarette, or whatever. This was the first time a paid break had actually been negotiated in New Zealand for a very long time.

We also found that we could sign people up very quickly. That gave us confidence to move on.

We were never going to be able to organise trench warfare in these industries, pull people out for long periods of time. But we were going to be able to push employers into signing agreements.

We went after the brands with a public, political campaign, to humiliate them.

In May 2005 we launched a recruitment drive in against Restaurant Brands, who run Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC in New Zealand. They were the biggest. They had 7,000 employees, the biggest employer of young people in the country. We signed up about 1,000 members in Auckland.

We had little strikes, for a couple of hours each, in different stores, moving from store to store. This helped build confidence. But it wasn’t enough. So then we did marches in Auckland, a Town Hall meeting with a broad range of speakers, a big concert in the park. But none of this was enough.

Then a group of high school students came to us and said they wanted to organise a strike of their own. They had been inspired by this campaign (and many of them worked in the stores). They wanted twenty buses, so we hired twenty buses. They filled them! The police tried to stop them marching, but they streamed through the centre of town, stopping, sitting down and screaming outside every fast food outlet. A few days later the company called us and said they wanted to talk.

We got a deal. Security of hours, a youth rate that was 90% of the adult rate, minimum length of shifts, union rights. It was only a matter of time before we knocked over McDonalds. They fought it. They gave a pay rise to all the non-union staff, they threatened to sue workers who went on strike, they threatened to sue us; but we won. The very last was Burger King.

What was proved conclusively was that young workers will fight if they think they have a chance of winning.

During the campaign there were lots of texts and email messages going out. We did mass texting and emailing to let people know what was going on. We should have a regular electronic newsletter, that’s on our agenda. Even when we do our stop-work meetings, at Sky City for example, we will do a mass text to everybody. We use it whenever we have an event.

How will we keep up the membership? We have an absolute insistence on routine visits to all of the sites. We have a monthly newspaper, which gets out to all of the sites. We also have a constant process of trying to identify delegates and get them to our regular delegates’ conference. They have a role in maintaining the organisation on their site. We can keep up membership through developing a delegate structure.

Getting the supervisors in is very important. They are the people that carry the experience to pass on to new people. We are careful about formulating demands in contract negotiations that relate to that group, and each time we’ve negotiated we’ve managed to win improvements. We’ve not had to have strikes in this round, mostly, though there have been a few in the picture theatres.

Generally the employers know we could cause them quite a bit of difficulty if they don’t negotiate seriously. So delegates are pretty proud of the union and make sure people join the union.

We have mostly kept up the membership, despite the huge turnover, so we must be doing some things right.

We are now looking at ways to get the minimum wage up to something like $15 an hour (which is almost two thirds of the average wage). If we can do that for some groups of workers, it will help win it more generally. The next big thing is to raise the bar of the minimum wage. We need to develop a pubic campaign around that.

The other thing is fluctuating hours. Hours are more secure now, but not good enough; the companies are still are still not obliged to offer regular hours. There is still lots to be done.