Mike Treen, National Director of the New Zealand union Unite, will be touring the country in February as part of a No Sweat national week of action. [Details here]
He will explain how his union organised the world’s first Starbucks strike, winning recognition and better pay. What can we learn from Unite’s approach?
The scandal of jobs in fast food chains has often been exposed. The GMB union found that Burger King were making their staff clock off when a restaurant was empty. Workers paid the minimum wage were being forced to work many extra hours for no pay, because for much of the time at work they were not “officially” working.
Starbucks too pay the minimum wage — which we know is well below a real living wage — but they do not guarantee staff a fixed number of hours work per week. If your manager does not like you, or fancies some extra hours themselves, you can have far fewer hours in any given week. From week to week you simply do not know what you will be earning or when you will be working.
These are the working conditions that millions of workers are suffering from. Often young, and always exploited, these are the British workers least likely to be in a union. But while British unions talk a lot about the scandal of Mc Jobs, they put the task of systematically organising these millions of workers in the “too hard, not much fun” box.
Even from their own point of view — keeping the union ticking over, so that it continues to pay out wages to the union’s bureaucrats, this is a serious mistake. British unions have suffered a drastic decline in membership since the early 1980s; numbers have halved from 12 million to fewer than 6.5 million today. In the private sector, union membership and organisation has collapsed — only 16.6% of private sector workers are in a union. Only 5.3% of union members are under 25. Yet the young are the future of the unions. The conclusion should be clear, but most unions do little or nothing to deal with their organisation crisis.
In fact British unions have responded by merging, managing decline, or simple defeatism — “young people are not interested”, they say.
Almost everything, from TV ads through embarrassing “yoof campaigns” to just waiting for better laws and support from New Labour, has been tried and failed. Very few unions have done what they should — a concerted effort to organise the unorganised. This is where Mike Treen and other organisers like him can help us out.
The New Zealand trade unions also collapsed in the 1990s. Membership went down from 500,000 members, 43% of workers in 1991, to 300,000, 21% of workers, in 1999. Some unions froze in the headlights and went bankrupt, many merged. But some got serious about organising.
Unite (no relation to Unite in the UK) was formed in 1998 with only 200 members; today it has 10,000 members, with 6,000 in the fast-food and restaurant sector and 1,000 in hotels. Unite organises in Burger King, McDonalds, Wendy’s; it also organises Restaurant Brands Ltd NZ, which includes KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.
Unite was built out of a campaign against a compulsory work scheme for dole claimants. With those roots, Unite was not afraid to organise low paid young workers in Mc Jobs.
In 2005 Unite launched a Supersize My Pay campaign to organise workers in the fast food sector. By 2006 they had won union recognition at Restaurant Brands. The main demands were for a $12 an hour minimum wage, abolition of youth rates, and security of hours. Mike Treen explains what they did.
“Our campaign was above all political. We used a combination of on-the-job pressure tactics and mobilisation of broader community support to win union representation.
“We bought a bus, decorated it with the campaign material, and attached big bullhorn speakers. Then we would use it to travel from one worksite to another, and mobilise very loud and visible support outside the workplaces where we were organising or bargaining.
“Dozens of short strikes were held with the young workers making a real noise on the busy highways and intersections where these fast food outlets are situated.
“When we launched the campaign, we did it with what we called ‘the world’s first Starbucks strike’ [in November 2005]. Because the pizza delivery network had one national call centre, it didn’t require a lot of industrial action to put a lot of pressure on the company. We would have a rally outside the call centre on a Friday or Saturday night. The call centre workers would come out and take part. Workers could stay for as long as they liked. Some would only stay out for half an hour; some would decide to go home for the rest of the night. The net effect was to back up calls for hours.”
British unions and union activists have a lot to learn from Unite New Zealand. The first step is to move from abstract propagandist condemnation of Mc Jobs to serious focused campaigns to organise young workers in these and other “new” sectors. To get some ideas about how we can do that, come along to one of the meetings in the tour.
• More information:
Unite website: www.unite.org.nz
No Sweat: www.nosweat.org.uk
• Tour details, see page 9