Mike Treen is National Director of Unite New Zealand, a union which has successfully organised young workers in fast food. In February 2008 he toured Britain speaking to meetings organised by No Sweat, and we published his speech to the London meeting Solidarity 3/127. After that meeting Mike Treen spoke to Colin Foster.
Your approach contrasts with most other union organising drives these days, in that you started with a clear declaration of across-the-board demands that the union was going to fight for, rather than trying to recruit individuals on the basis that if they had a individual problem, then the union could help.
Yes - though when we first went to the some of the workplaces were weren’t always clear what the big issues were. We had to find that out. In our initial recruiting drive we were identifying the relevant demands, and through the organising drive we were seeking to get collective solutions to those issues. Our goal was always a collective agreement with the boss, not to sell union-sponsored insurance or whatever.
We had limited resources. We borrowed substantially to get started. We had a small organising staff - three people, to start with - on the minimum wage, but we needed more people. Some of our recruiters were workplace delegates from already organised industries, e.g. hotel workers. One woman took redundancy to volunteer. Another was a part-time bar worker.
We also approached left-wing people, socialists and anarchists. We said to them: you talk about organising workers, here’s your chance to do so.
So we had about a dozen fully-engaged organisers, paid or unpaid, to start with. Initially a lot depended on a previous network of the Alliance party [a left-wing party, originating in a big split from the New Zealand Labour Party, which fell apart shortly before Unite was launched].
People usually came in as unpaid, but as they proved themselves to be in it for the long haul the union started to pay them. We now have nine staff, and we still use volunteers if we have a campaign on.
Unite also has close links with the Postal Workers' Association. The PWA has no paid officials at all, but is near to organising a majority of postal delivery workers in New Zealand.
It has a deal with Unite whereby Unite provides paid full-time organiser time when the PWA wants it.
How important was left involvement?
Key Unite people had been involved in the Workers’ Charter, a broad left-oriented group. The Workers’ Charter initiative became a newspaper for Unite.
Two of the key United people, myself and John Minto, were well-known in the broader anti-war and social justice movement in New Zealand. John is the spokesperson for the Quality Public Education coalition. I’m an organiser in Latin American solidarity, the Global Peace and Justice campaign, and other movements.
We’ve seen this as an opportunity to unite the broader left, to work together and break down divisions.
How do you keep up involvement?
We have various specific targeted newsletters, focussing on nitty-gritty issues, and Unite News. Every little victory we have, we try to write up. That helps people to get confidence. It is something to learn from.
To start with in the fast-food campaign we used mass email and texting a lot. Not so much now. We don’t have a regular electronic newsletter right now, but we should do.
If we are doing a stopwork meeting now, or an action, we still do a mass text and email to everybody. Or even it’s a regular meeting which you’d think people would know about, but they don’t.
How do you keep up the membership, in an area with such a fast turnover?
We absolutely insist on a routine of visiting to all of the sites. There is regular contact. We have a monthly newspaper which gets out to all of the sites. We also have a constant process of identifying new union workplace delegates.
We make a particular effort to organise among the lower level supervisors. That group is important because they tend to be longer-term in the job than other workers. Whenever we formulate demands, we make a conscious effort to address the concerns of that group. They carry a bit of the memory, and can give it to new people.
We’ve managed to keep up 100% membership at the picture theatres, among 300 very part time, very casual, very young workers. It’s harder to do that in fast food, but we’ve mostly kept up the membership base. We must be doing something right!
In the picture theatres the bosses know now that we can cause them a little bit of mayhem (though in fact there have not been that many strikes) and they negotiate seriously. Each time we’ve been able to make improvements. The workers are pretty proud of the union.
If we can emulate that in the fast food sector it will be a great advantage to us, though it’s a bit harder there.
The next big demand in the fast food sector?
Well we’ve just won the abolition of the youth rate and the legal minimum wage has gone up, so we’re not expecting a big fight in this round of negotiations. Our aim is to raise the bar on the bottom wage, to bring it up to $15 a hour. The current level is $12 a hour.
We want to get the public thinking that the minimum wage for everyone should be two-thirds the average wage. The two-thirds target is the official position of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. We want to get to the two-thirds and keep at that level as average wages move up.
We’re going to have a meeting on this with the other unions who represent low paid workers.
The other big issue is security of hours. There it is still no minimum guarantee of work hours.
I also spoke with Mike Treen about the extent to which Unite NZ's approach reprises that of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the great movement of the casual and "unskilled" workers in the early 20th century USA.
The rest of the US trade-union movement at that time organised almost exclusively among better-off, more "skilled", white workers in permanent jobs. The IWW's approach was different in many ways:
* industrial unionism (as against craft unionism)
* energetic class-struggle agitation, propaganda, and agitation
* low membership fees
* low or no initiation fees
* concentrated, high-intensity waves of organising
* addressing workers in new areas with a set of demands to be won by the union once organised (developed after a lot of preliminary discussion with workers in those areas) rather than with general agitation about the advantages of having a union in the abstract; following up the recruiting drive with immediate preparation for action on those demands
* organising areas by getting volunteers to go in and take jobs in those areas, then talk union on the job
* using street corner agitation, and colourful, high-profile public agitation generally (e.g. the IWW's free speech fights, to establish its right to street-corner agitation in cities which tried to ban it)
* trying always to make industrial action short, sharp, and decisive. If a dispute drags on regardless, constantly and imaginatively trying new active tactics - never leaving the workers passive
* an open, democratic approach, with disputes always run by strike committees elected from the workers and regularly reporting back.
Mike agreed that in fact Unite NZ had largely followed that approach, though not by conscious imitation of the IWW.
The IWW in the USA, however, also made a principle of never signing agreements with the employers. Unite, on the contrary, made it an objective from the start to seek formal negotiations with the employers and to get gains nailed down in formal written agreements. Mike agreed that the old IWW approach makes it almost impossible to sustain ongoing trade-union organisation outside the high points of strikes and campaigns.
Noting what Mike had said about the success of Unite having depended on a sufficiently large core of activists, mostly political people, socialists and anarchists, being willing to put long hours into the initial organising drive, without pay or on minimum wage, I asked about the political feedback. Once up and running, has Unite produced a reverse flow of young people, activated by the trade-union organising, who move on to political activism?
Mike cited a recent case where Unite delegates attending a union conference - Unite's basic democratic forum is the delegates' conference - had gone from the conference en masse to a civil rights demonstrations against anti-terror raids.
As regards newly-unionised young people moving to socialist activism, however, he was more cautious. The returns are not in yet. And Unite's relation with the organised left has not always been easy.
Some left groups, Mike said, have set up "Unite branches" which are actually just a mechanism for them to seek a few contacts, and are more trouble than help to Unite generally. Some were stand-offish at first, but are more engaged with Unite now. One group has moved on to try to set up its "own" more militant alternative union.