"The fundamental element was our confidence in the working class"

Submitted by AWL on 20 September, 2013 - 12:57

Mike Treen, the National Director of the Unite union in New Zealand (no connection to the British union of the same name) spoke to Solidarity about their drives to organise precarious workers in the fast food and service industries.


The “Supersize My Pay” campaign in the mid-2000s established Unite in the fast food industry. We won agreements with the major chains — Restaurant Brands (which owns Pizza Hut, KFC, and others), then McDonald’s, and finally Burger King. It was a long and exhausting struggle. We realised that, given the competitive nature of the fast food industry, we needed an industry-wide approach and a public, political, and social mobilisation to achieve that result. That involved a lot of strikes, including student strikes against youth rates, demos, mass meetings, concerts with supportive bands. It was a major effort.

There was another fight with McDonald’s in 2008 to renew the agreement, and in 2012, Burger King also pushed back and tried to deunionise their workforce by forcing hundreds of workers to resign through intimuidation and bullying. We’ve succeeded in defending union contracts and winning modest but significant improvements around workplace issues like guaranteed breaks and security of hours.

We’re quite encouraged by the UK unions’ new focus on zero-hours contracts. People are aware of that in the New Zealand labour movement, and it’s helped raise the profile of the issue. Zero-hours contracts are almost universal in the kind of industries we’re organising in and so far, the agreements we’ve won don’t get rid of them. We’ve won a lot more transparency and advance notice for workers about rostering, and have stopped bosses in McDonald’s using shift allocation as an arbitrary reward-and-punishment system for workers, but we’re yet to win guaranteed hours. We had a big campaign in McDonald’s to win a fairer rostering system, demanding that shifts were offered openly and there was a fair appeals process. We’ve given KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King notice that we’ll be pushing for guaranteed hours and an end to zero-hours contracts in the next round of bargaining in the two years’ time.

Rest and meal breaks are another big issue. We have a quite a major court case against McDonald’s for failing to guarantee breaks. The company has responded by claiming the collective agreement wasn’t lawful. That’s ongoing.

From the fast food industry, we’ve pushed into cinemas. There are three main cinema chains in New Zealand, and we have agreements with all of them and high membership. We have a presence at Skycity Casino in Auckland, which is the largest private-sector workplace in the city. It has over 3,000 workers, of whom a third have part time status with only eight guaranteed hours per week. We also have a presence amongst security guards, and in call centres. We have collective agreements with the two main hotel chains in New Zealand – Millennium Copthorne Kingsgate and Accor.

We launched Unite nearly 10 years ago. We currently have 7,000 dues-paying members, but because we operate in industries with 100% staff turnover, we need to recruit around 5,000 new members every year just to stand still. Tens of thousands of workers have been through membership of Unite. It’s many young workers’ first experience of the labour movement. The average time spent in membership of Unite is one year, and the average time we have a union delegate [rep] in a workplace is eighteen months.

We started Unite as a group of left activists from the Alliance, some socialist groups along with some anarchists. The Alliance Party emerged from a left-wing split from Labour in 1991,and when that project collapsed many of us, including Matt McCarten who had been the president of it, saw an objective need to reconnect leftist politics with workers’ organising, particularly amongst young workers. Starting a union from scratch was a radical idea, and went against some traditional leftist notions.

Some of our starting points were particular to New Zealand. At the time we launched the union, there’d been a period of economic recovery and growth after a period of deep recession in the 1980s and 1990s. We thought workers might therefore be more confident about taking risks and putting their heads above the parapet. The Labour-led government, which was elected in 1999, had also made legislative changes that made union organising slightly easier. Previously, union organisers had only been given access to workplaces to talk to existing members, which made organising in currently-unorganised industries almost impossible. A new law meant union organisers had more general access and could talk to non-union members. The third factor, though, is more general and is one that others could learn from. We simply had confidence that workers, and young workers in particular, would respond to new approaches that gave them the chance to fight for themselves in a militant way.

We always aimed to be a serious operation — we set up an infrastructure and an apparatus with an office, but we operated on the basis of volunteers rather than paid officials. We wanted the union and its campaigns to be open. A number of people have lent money or used personal credit cards to keep the union going. We had no financial or institutional support from other unions. Today we have an annual income in excess of $1m and our 2013 conference will be the first time the union has been debt-free!

My campaigning and mobilising experience is in the rank-and-file of industrial unions, the car workers and meat workers in the 80s, but also social movement campaigning around fighting apartheid, fighting militarism, and so on. I brought that experience to bear, and Matt’s experience as a political strategist and prominent figure in several national political initiatives was also very valuable.

The most fundamental element, though, was our confidence in the working class.

Although we were setting up a new union, we were determined to be part of the broader labour movement. We affiliated to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions [NZCTU, the equivalent of the TUC], and we deliberately chose to organise in industries where no other union was organising.

Nobody argued about our organising in the fast food industry; no-one had touched that. There were unions who claimed that hotels, security, and some of the other sectors was their territory, even though the union presence was minuscule. The old hotel workers’ union (the Service and Food Workers’ Union, SFWU) claimed we were poaching their members. It was a Labour-affiliated union, and as we’d come out of Alliance there was some hostility and suspicion on the part of SFWU and other unions’ officialdom. There was a little backlash — one union official called us a “scab union”, and a motion was moved at the NZCTU Executive to expel us. The NZCTU president, however, was sympathetic to what we were trying to do and his intervention helped stop that motion passing.

That suspicion and hostility was by no means universal. One effect of our organising and new approaches is that its enlivened members and officials in existing unions, and many union officials, including in LP-affiliated unions, were very excited about what we were doing.

We did have a situation in Skycity were 200 workers wanted to defect from SFWU to us. There’s an NZCTU protocol for those situations, which we followed, and advised the workers to seek meetings within SFWU to resolve their problems. There are close to 1,000 union members at Skycity now, with around two thirds of those being our members. We have a joint collective agreement with SFWU. We have a principle of never badmouthing other unions in our publicity. We prefer to focus on pushing ourselves positively.

Unite has also been involved in union solidarity with other workers taking action, with protests against racism, and has taken action in support of workers internationally, especially in Palestine.

Unite’s resources don’t allow us to focus too much on lobbying work. We leave that to the NZCTU, but we did make a submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee recently, because the government is trying to introduce legislation to abolish guaranteed breaks and that is an area we have real expertise on. We’re not affiliated to a political party but we’re supportive of attempts by the central union movement to act politically and secure commitments from Labour and the Greens, who have a chance of forming a coalition government after the next election. Some of us are supporters of Mana, a leftist political party based mainly in working-class Maori communities.

The idea of the living wage has become more current in New Zealand, and we supported a recent push to get the new Labour leader to commit to introducing living wages for government workers and contractors if they’re elected next year. The minimum wage is currently $13.75 per hour, and the living wage would be $18.40, so that would be a significant step forward. That issue has a lot of traction in the unions and the Labour Party.

The main political change we want is greater freedom to organise – the ability for workers to organise and take industrial action without having to jump through so many hoops. There’s severe restriction on the right to strike. That needs to be addressed, and we need to get rid of legislative barriers to organising.

If there’s a Labour government, or a Labour-Green coalition, after the next election, we want to hold them to commitments they’ve made to the unions. There are obvious limits to that, but those political possibilities shouldn’t be dismissed. [See here for more on Unite's political strategy.]

Unions need new approaches to succeed in the kinds of industries we’re talking about. The “organising model” that came out of the American SEIU [Service Employees’ International Union] in the 1990s was turned into a kind of religion in the global labour movement. It was related to as a mantra, in an almost cult-like way, and it wasn’t working. An approach of recruiting union members one by one can’t work in these industries, because the boss can find out where that’s going on and bully people out of it. People often aren’t in these jobs for long enough for that slow accumulation of union members to work or make a difference. In America, even in the places where that slow accumulation has reached the level where it can trigger a ballot for recognition, those ballots are usually lost because employers bring in professional union-busting operations. You need public, political campaigns that provide protection for workers. It’s important to move to public, political, and social movement mobilisation as early as possible in the organising process. That gives workers confidence. The union has to be framework for workers to find their voice and lead struggles.

It has to be all-or-nothing. “Supersize My Pay” was a public, political campaign against the fast food companies which exposed them as exploiters. We went after their “brand”, which they value above all else. The American unions have now taken a new approach more akin to that, which I think is very exciting. Unions like SEIU and the United Commercial and Food Workers’ Union [UFCW] are financing and supporting campaigns like OurWalmart and Fast Food Forward, which organise on something more like a minority-union basis rather than focusing on that slow accumulation of members building up to a recognition ballot. They’re bringing the community in – so, when the union members, who might be quite small in number, in restaurant go on strike, they get community activists and other members of other unions to walk back in with them when the strike’s over to give public support and prevent victimisation. When those approaches gains momentum, workers start to gain confidence that maybe the risk of standing up for themselves is worth it. That’s the key question – how do you build that confidence?

Our modern unions, in the UK for example, emerged from new models of industrial organising breaking away from craftism. There are some differences in size between the industries those unions were based in and the key industries in western countries now, such as retail, service, and finance, but a large call centre in New Zealand might have 500 workers or more — which in New Zealand terms is a pretty big workplace. McDonald’s employs almost10,000 workers – it’s one of the biggest private-sector employers in the country. Those workers are young workers, migrant workers, semi-casualised workers. Those are the people producing surplus value in New Zealand today. That’s the working class!

The bottom line is that organising in these industries, where more and more of the working class, and particularly the young working class, in western countries is now employed, has to be done — by any means necessary.


More info:
  • Interview with Mike Treen from 2008, when he came to Britain on a speaking tour organised by the No Sweat campaign.
  • Unite's website