They Will Never Crush Out The Union! The Role of Women in the 1890 Maritime Strike

An early action for International Women's Day.

An early action for International Women’s Day.

By Ciaran Doolin. Reprinted from issue 2 of What She Said, magazine of UC Femsoc.

By 1889 women workers in New Zealand had established their first industrial organisation, the Tailoresses’ Union. Lead by Harriet Morison, the union delivered marked increases in wages and substantive improvements in working conditions. The union was influential in the suffragette movement, achieving a harmony between political and industrial functions that contemporary male unions struggled to match. The tailoresses had overcome the prejudices of their employers and the labour movement, and demonstrated that women were eminently capable of industrial self-organisation. However, most women workers remained unorganised, their lives characterised by drudgery and exploitation. Strikes intensified these conditions. Nonetheless, many working-class women saw the security of their families as integrally tied to the fortunes of the labour movement and backed their husbands when they ‘went out’. The Maritime Strike which rocked Australasia during 1890 saw these tensions between the different perceptions of the role of women come to a head. The rise of class conscious ‘New Unionism’ ran in parallel to a feminist upsurge.

The 1890 Maritime Strike is one of cornerstones of industrial history memorialised by the Australasian labour movement.[1] It had its origins in the development of the class conscious ‘New Unionism’ which swept the world after the dramatic London Dockers’ Strike of 1889. This new approach to organising promoted the solidarity of labour over the loyalties of craft. As one New Zealand Watersiders’ leader declared in the 1890s, “We [workers] have no flag, we have no country”. [2] Their loyalty was, instead, to their union and their class.

The upsurge in union activism during the late 1880s put the employers on the offensive, and the unions saw their rights as under threat. As an historian of the period, J. D. Salmond, puts it, “All the bad feeling between employers and workers in New Zealand which had been accumulating for years and had found only occasional means of escape, came to the surface. It was an industrial war pure and simple.”[3] By international standards the strike was huge, still more so considering the small populations of the two colonies. In all, 60,000 workers (with 200,000 dependents), went on strike, compared to 100,000 in London.

The direct precursor to the Maritime Strike was a dispute between the Typographical Association and the employers Whitcombe and Tombs. In October 1889, the Maritime Council, a national federation of trade unions, had been formed. It was immediately effective in settling a number of standing disputes. In early March 1890, a dispute between the Typographical Association and their employers was taken up by the Council. After the employers proved recalcitrant, the Council threatened to turn the dispute into a general strike. However, the Council retreated at the last moment and opted for a continued boycott. Industrial tensions were thus at their apex and many in the labour movement were of the view that the very principle of unionism was under threat. It would only take a small push to take the country over the edge.

The Maritime Strike proper began in August via a dispute between the Shipowners’ Association of Australia and the Marine Officers over the right of the latter to affiliate with their Maritime Council. The New Zealand Maritime Council, now affiliated with the Australian Maritime Council, pledged to stay out of the dispute provided New Zealand ships were handled by union labour. When the employers violated this, the spread of the strike to New Zealand was inevitable.

In a staggered fashion, all 22,000 New Zealand workers went out, seamen first, followed by wharf labourers and then the miners. The workers received support from surprising quarters, considering the indirect origin of the dispute. The soon-to-be Liberal premier Richard Seddon denounced as base the accusation that the unionists were holding the country to ransom, and he called on the farmers to join the unionists to defeat the employers.[4] Meanwhile, the government assigned mounted police and the military to maintain ‘order’, while farmers and members of the urban middle class were enlisted as strike breakers. When negotiations to end the dispute proved fruitless – the employers were intent on putting an end to ‘New Unionism’ and refused to compromise – the strike began to fizzle. Finally on November 10, the Maritime Council formally called off the strike.

But what role did the women play in the strike? As historian Bruce Scates observes, “Feeding those families was foremost a woman’s concern. Much has been written of the strikers’ valour and determination, of the way the men defied the shipping companies and the banks. We remember little of . . . the homefront: that unequal, inglorious struggle against hunger, illness and rent”.[5] Added to this ‘homefront’ role was the presence of a large minority of women on the front lines of the dispute: the picket line, the public meeting, the march, and the boycott.

Despite the great suffering the strike brought for women at home, many remained fiercely loyal to the cause. A mother of eight defiantly declared the bosses would never “crush out the union”; it was in “the poor folks” heart to “rebel”. The government would have to “take them out, men, women and children, and shoot them down at once, one and all” before the strikers gave in. Conservatives appealed to women to intervene for their family and home. One woman responded: “we have as much interest in the strike as our husbands have, as much to lose, and as much to gain . . . On its results depends our condition [and our ability to live] in comfort with recognised rights and fair wages or as slaves”.[6] Mary Hoarder’s ‘A Wives Manifesto’ echoed these sentiments and went further, defying any man that put her family in jeopardy. She called for ‘brave women’ to seize their place in the public domain: “The women of Boston insisted on throwing the taxed tea into the sea; we will throw th[ese scabs] into the gutter and if necessary live on one meal a day . . . neither we nor our husbands will ever surrender”.[7]

Women were in the forefront of militant strike action as well. In October, a large group of Glentunnel women descended on the home of a prominent scab, Alfred Ashton, chanting ‘blackleg’, ‘burn him’ and ‘bring him out’. He watched in terror as his effigy was put to the torch: “a great noise of tins rattling rose in the night”.[8] In the same month women in Dunedin lined the wharf and spat on scabs. Indeed, it was common for women to ‘man’ the picket, and they took part in many heated, and occasionally violent, confrontations with the police and strike-breakers. They also attended public meetings, participated in marches, and wrote letters to politicians and newspapers. The boycott was one of the most effective weapons the strikers had at hand, and women were predominantly responsible for enforcing it. It was not just coal or wood that was declared black, but the butchers and bakers who fed the scabs, the boarding houses that sheltered them, the hotels that stood them drinks. In Wellington young women refused to dance near ‘black legs’, “lifting their skirts in unison” and “marching” from the hall.[9]

The response of conservatives to the militancy of many women was nothing less than horror. In their view, Scates observes, “women’s forceful mobilization in the Maritime Strike was little short of madness. It was not so much the unity of the working-class men and women that angered and disturbed them but the apparent inversion of masculine and feminine roles”.[10] A story published in the Otago Witness at the height of the strike illustrates this alarm. In ‘The Reign of Terror: … or What Might Happen to a Man in the Year 2,000’, the author describes a dystopian Dunedin in the 21st century where the strikers had succeeded. Society was now organised by the unions who set wages and working conditions; “the ancient order of things . . . subverted”. Empowered by the vote, women now lived independently of men. The protagonist, an archetypical rugged male, is tired of the new order. In the dingy tea room where he works, he is brought before his employers, the Society of Waitresses, to apologize for asking for lunch during their tea break:

Everyone was chattering. The chairwoman was continually knocking on the desk with a small wooden hammer and crying out ‘Order!’ and ‘Silence!’. ‘There’s a man present!’ one declared. ‘Drive him out!’ demanded the others. I turned to go, when some she Devil cried ‘Duck him in the pond!’ Instantly I was set upon by about 20 strong girls, jostled, knocked down, lifted up, carried out, and hurled, amidst shouts of laughter, into a dirty pool of water.

That night a civil war breaks out across the country, and he joins a squad of men who share his disdain for the system. During the night they encounter a column of waitresses-turned-militiawomen and slaughter them. “If these women have unsexed themselves and demand manhood suffrage, manhood suffrage they shall have,” one of his number cries before opening fire. [11] That the author intertwines the two movements – feminism and labour – as well as the almost sexualised violent tone with which the story ends is indicative of how profound a threat many in the establishment saw the ‘New Woman’ of the strike.

Contemporary feminists, too, realised the significance of the moment. Going beyond the limited demands of the suffragette movement, Louisa Lawson’s journal, The Dawn, predicted that 10,000 women were about to go on their own strike – for the housewife’s eight-hour day. The Maritime Strike, she concluded, would prefigure a new era of gender relations. Women must break out “of the abominable seclusion” of the home, to take their place as equals in the union hall. “Union men demanding rights and liberties…must grant the same to their wives”.[12]

However, Lawson was to be sorely disappointed. The loss of the strike severely damaged the labour movement, especially in New Zealand where unions had only just gained a footing. The Maritime Council collapsed and many unions went out of existence or were replaced by company unions. Scapegoating ensued and women were an easy target. While the role women played in industrial disputes was frequently acknowledged by unionists in the mining towns, the urban union movement had a more circumscribed attitude towards women. As the strike began to falter the stereotype of the ‘nagging wife’ became common. Moreover, as women occupied the most vulnerable position in industry, they suffered the worst from the decline of union influence.[13] It took well over a decade before the movement regained its power.

Despite the upsurge in feminist feeling that coincided with the Maritime Strike, the rapid progress of industrialisation and the increasing influence of the State in people’s lives combined to reinforce society’s gender prejudices and define the role of women as one of dependence and domesticity.[14] The concept of the male ‘breadwinner’ became near universally accepted by both capital and labour, and by the State. The Arbitration Court, for example, defined the living wage in the early 20th century as the amount needed for a man to support a wife and children. Nonetheless, women were to continue to play an important, and at times leading, role in the labour movement, standing on the front lines alongside the men again during the heady period of strikes in the early 20th century. Moreover, the first seeds of feminism had been sewn and these were later to blossom into a powerful social force.



[1] For a general history of the New Zealand strike see J. D. Salmond, New Zealand Labour’s Pioneering Days, ed. Desmond Crowley (Auckland: Forward Press, 1950), pp. 79-94; or, for a more extensive treatment, Ian A. Merrett, A reappraisal of the 1890 maritime strike (M.A. Thesis, University of Canterbury, 1969). Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners: Women and Industrial Action 1889-1913 (Wellington: Working Life Communications, 1993), explores the theme of this essay in more detail.

[2] Mark Derby, “A Country Considered to Be Free: New Zealand and the IWW”. Accessed April 27, 2014.

[3] Salmond, op. cit., 85.

[4] Salmond, op. cit., 89.

[5] Bruce Scates, “Gender, Household and Community Politics: the 1890 Maritime Strike in Australia and New Zealand”, in Women, Work and the Labour Movement in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, eds. Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates (Sydney: The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1991), 75.

[6] Woman No. 3, Advertiser, 21 October 1890, also second letter, 31 October 1890; ‘Striker’s Wife’, Otago Workman, 3 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit., 79.

[7] “A Wives Manifesto”, Globe (Wellington), 6 September 1890. Quoted in Bruce Scates, “Mobilizing Manhood: Gender and the Great Strike in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand”, Gender & History 9(2) (1997): 292.

[8] Press, 20 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit. 7, 290.

[9] Evening Post (Wellington), 8 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit. 5, 86.

[10] Scates, op. cit. 7, 291.

[11] “A Reign of Terror”, Otago Witness, 4 September 1890. Quoted in ibid., 287.

[12] “The Strike Question”, The Dawn, 5 November 1890. Quoted in ibid., 302.

[13] Stephen Robertson, “Women Workers and the New Zealand Arbitration Court, 1894-1920” in Frances and Scates, op. cit..

[14] Erik Olssen, Building the New World: work, politics and society in Caversham 1880s-1920s, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995), 70-73; Erik Olssen, “Women, Work and Family: 1880-1926”, in Women In New Zealand Society, eds. Phillida Bunkle and Beryl Hughes (Auckland: George Allen & Unwin Australia, 1980).

MANA and Industrial Relations: “Between equal rights, force decides”

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

Fightback participates in the MANA Movement, whose stated mission is to bring “rangatiratanga to the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed.” Capitalism was imposed in Aotearoa through colonisation, and the fight for indigenous self-determination is intimately connected with the fight for an egalitarian society.

Leading up to the election, we will be examining the major policies that have been developed within MANA over the last three years. As members of MANA we have been a part of the critical (and some times heated) discussions at branch, rohe and national levels, discussing what these policy areas mean as well as what is needed to bring about these radical changes.

This article by Joel Cosgrove (Fightback) examines MANA’s Industrial Relations policy in relation to wider struggles.

Industrial relations are an essential area of struggle. The workplace – the “point of production”  (the space where decisions about what is produced are made) is a primary site of struggle between workers and bosses. The right to strike, the right to organize and the right to associate have been resisted by bosses and their organisations and fought for by workers.

Youth rates, (low) minimum wages and the gender pay gap, are all structural tools that drag down wages as a whole.

Anyone who has worked in the jobs that generally pay youth rates (supermarkets, fast food, retail etc) knows that the work done, whether by a 17 year old or a 19 year old, is no different. Historically it used to be argued that women couldn’t work as hard as men, or do jobs that involved complicated thinking. The point of these claims is an attempt to undermine our pay rates.

Even when the working class is successful in winning gains, the bosses will constantly try to claw them back. Currently in Australia, weekend work is paid out at time and a half (150% of normal pay) and the Abbot government are trying to undermine that by drawing it down to time and a quarter (125%) Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO John Hart has been quoted as saying:

“The industry will most likely save about $112 million each year – with this decision ensuring the industry continues to push for further penalty rate reforms under the Fair Work Commission four- yearly review of Modern Awards.”

Of course, NZ workers have already lost penalty rates for working weekends or after hours.

The battle between workers and bosses is a battle for the profit created through the work of workers and it is at this point, over the pay and conditions that bosses are forced to pay, that the struggle is fiercest.

This is why MANA’s policies around ending the 90 day trial period, youth rates and extending paid parental leave to one year are important elements in a fightback. Supporting gender pay and employment equity is another important aspect of this policy, with the case of Kristine Bartlett’s claim that caregivers (made up of 92% women) being paid at just above the minimum wage demonstrates a gender bias against women currently going through the Court of Appeal.

Aotearoa is a nation framed by overwork or underwork. On average according to the OECD, New Zealanders work 1,762 hours a year compared to places like Germany and Netherlands who work 1,397 and 1,381 hours per year respectively. When you compare the average wages of the respective countries you find that Germans earn $US30,721; the Dutch $US25,697; and New Zealanders $US21,773. Yet polling company Roy Morgan reportthe unemployment rate as being 8.5% (compared to an official rate of 6%), with a further 11.3% under-employed. Collectively, 19.8% of the workforce ( or around 519,000 people) were are either unemployed or under-employed.

British think tank New Economics Foundation has outlined a plan where the average working week is 21 hours a week, almost halving hours worked, while maintaining wages through increased taxation and a number of other measures. The question remaining is how this political change would actually be brought about. As Eco-socialist Ian Angus says, change will not happen just because it is the right thing to do.

Mana’s policies around this area include initially strengthening a return to a 40 hour week and restoring penal rates for those working for over 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day;  increasing sick days from five to ten; and bringing in a minimum redundancy payment of six weeks’ pay for the first year of employment and two weeks’ pay for each subsequent year of employment. The initial aim of these reforms is to make it more expensive for employers to make workers bear the brunt of any changes they make. Employers in Aotearoa have a history of exacting cuts in pay and conditions of employees to increase their rate of profit. Unite Union head Mike Treen has pointed to workers’ productivity increasing by 83% while real wages (inflation adjusted) fell by 25%. This is the result of weak defences of workers’ conditions around hours and penal rates.

Competition between companies over the past few decades has centred on who can cut workers’ pay and conditions the most. In the past industry conditions (or awards) set out minimum conditions and pay that in part functioned to undermine the ability to cut them – the minimum wage is an example of this in action. This is another area covered in MANA’s policy, setting out industry awards/minimum conditions as well as making sure that workers performing any outsourced government services are not employed in worse conditions than those in government, something which is currently endemic with cleaners’ contracts.

As good as these various policies are, they rely on the workers to uphold and push them forward, and to punish employers who break them. The right to strike is central to this. Workers en masse downing tools and stopping production cuts to the chase and forces the issue. The right to strike has been progressively cut back over the years, until in almost all situations it is illegal to strike. MANA policy puts forward “the right to strike for workers to enforce their contact and on any significant political, economic, cultural and environmental issues.”  MANA policy extends the right to strike to these issues but also gives an example of “workers for Fisher and Paykel in New Zealand taking action in support of Fisher and Paykel employees in Thailand”, an important aspect of internationalism demonstrated by the worldwide protests around the world recently in May against McDonalds’ global anti-worker policies.

Yet it was Karl Marx who said “between two equal rights, force is the arbiter”, namely the right of employers to legally undermine workers conditions and workers fight for improved conditions.  For example, from 1990 to 1999 the minimum wage moved from $6.13 to $7.00 and from 2000-2009 the minimum wage increased from $7.00 to $12.50. That the National party (who increased it in the 90’s by 87 cents) have increased the minimum wage since 2008 by $1.75 is something worth investigating further. The difference is the mass struggle that was waged in the 00’s, particularly by Unite Union, which forced the political situation to change – to the point where the National party felt they had to increase the minimum wage each year (in the face of opposition from their own supporters).

What we can see from all this is that these rights are not given, they’re fought for.  MANA might have an excellent industrial policy, but actually bringing this about will be a massive struggle. There are already examples that show how struggle can be waged to win these conditions. We need to learn from them and develop new and creative ways to push forward the fight for a fairer and egalitarian society that benefits the many and not the few.

Socialists and trade unions

bunny st mcdonalds strike unfuck the world

By Ben Petersen (Fightback – Wellington)

Socialists have a long relationship with trade unions. There are exciting chapters of history where socialists have led important working class battles, such as the fight for the eight-hour working day. Today, socialists will often meet in union offices and often will seek to involve unions in our campaigns.

This is not just a coincidence. The socialist movement has important contributions to make to the trade union movement, and needs to consider these organisations to achieve radical change.

Common ground

The socialist movement is a project for revolutionary change. Socialists want to overthrow today’s society based on exploitation, and build a new world where ordinary people have control over their lives and communities. The agent for this change is the working people themselves.

Trade unions are organisations for working people. Trade unions seek to organise workers in a particular industry (such as teachers, construction workers, or dairy workers). A trade union should then represent workers and their interests. Unions fight on the job for better pay and conditions, or for better legislation from government to protect workers or strengthen their bargaining position.

The overlap is obvious. Socialists seek to empower working people to change the world and trade unions are organisations for working people to defend their interests. Socialists participate in trade unions because they provide an important space to build an alternative.

Unionism is a living question

Often socialists talk about trade unions as a question of the past. Historical events are remembered and eulogised, but can be presented in a way that is divided from the present. It is important to remember the important events in union history, such as the great strikes in 1913 or the lockout of the waterside workers in 1951, but this is not to rote learn a historical narrative. Socialists study the radical past to learn lessons to build from today.

Radical unionism is not an identity. Radical unionism is not confined to particular historical periods or militant industries. Unionism is not confined to white men in overalls. The first strike in New Zealand was by Maori forestry workers who demanded to be paid in money or gunpowder, instead of in rations.

Some industries have long traditions of unionism, such as waterside workers and the West Coast miners. But today’s economy is much broader than these industries. There are thousands of workers in education and health care, or in service industries.

For socialist unionists, it is important to be part of building the unions in these areas. Capitalism is a system that serves to exploit. This exploitation changes and develops over time. Capitalism in Aotearoa today has important education industries, and a vast civil service that administers capitalism as a whole. To challenge capitalist exploitation, it is important for trade unions to be in all sectors of the economy.

When workers are organised they can exercise their collective power. A unionised workforce can therefore dictate the terms of their exploitation by going on strike or refusing to work for shit pay, work long hours, or in unsafe conditions. This process is a challenge to the authority of the capitalist system.

Reforms for revolution

Of course, socialists have a vision that looks much further than limiting the forms of exploitation that working people submit to. Any radical that is true to their ideals dreams of overthrowing capitalism and building a new world based on co-operation and social ownership. So for some, this can seem contradictory – if unions are fighting to reform and limit exploitation, is it really a place for revolutionaries?

Fighting for socialism will be a long and complicated process. Achieving a revolution will not be by simply convincing a majority of people that change is necessary, but by building a movement that makes change possible.

One of the challenges in fighting for revolutionary change will be a question of confidence. If working people do not have the confidence in their ability to fight and win a pay rise, do we think that working people can have the confidence to fight for fundamental social change? Winning these small gains can help to show oppressed people their collective strength, and only this strength can open the road to more fundamental change.

Even to be aware of this collective strength is not enough. The power of working people has to be organised and developed. To enable a world where working people run their own communities will need organisation. A socialist future will be built on participatory democracy. To make this democracy possible, working people will need the experience of participating in and organising their workplaces and communities. If working people don’t yet have the organisation to win a pay rise, it won’t be possible to have the organisation to run an alternative society and an economy to support it.

If socialists are serious about working class power, we need to understand that this will not just fall into place. It will need to be built.

Problems of unions

Part of the challenge is that this is not a simple task. The existence of unions is not enough. Many unions today are run by bureaucrats that are more interested in a cushy job than in working class power. Proportionally, wages have decreased for decades, but unions have failed to resist the slide. Failing to protect working people, the union movement has struggled to make itself relevant for working people today. Union membership has decreased to the point were as few as 7% of workers in the private sector are union members.

In many unions, the leaders are divorced from the workers that they are supposed to represent. Union officials often haven’t worked in the industries they nominally represent, and are on wages that are well above that of the industry they organise. Spaces for union members to democratically engage in their union are weak or non-existent. Unions have become ‘professionalised’, where the services of union officials replaces the activity of activists in workplaces.

Socialists support trade unions as organisation for workers to fight for their interests. Therefore, socialists do not support practices that undermine unions, and seek to challenge them.

The militant minority

Socialists support unions because we believe in the power of ordinary people. The role of a socialist in a union can be varied. Socialists will always try to be good unionists at their work, but this can take different paths, depending on a range of factors.

Being a union radical can mean assisting with initiatives in the union and building organisation for the next fight with the boss. It could mean opposing a rotten leadership and building rank and file networks to challenge entrenched bureaucrats. Sometimes socialists may work for unions to contribute to building the organisation as an official.

But always, radical unionists seek to build the capacity for the working class to fight against their oppression.

See also

“The Sin of Cheapness”: Harriet Morison and the Tailoresses’ Union

suffragettes - harriet morison

By Ciaran Doolin, Fightback (Wellington).

Early migrants to New Zealand had high hopes. From the slums of the East End to the peasant villages of Guangdong province, they carried with them a shared vision of a fresh society, one where the injustices of the “Old World” would be no more than painful memories. However the discontinuity between their dreams and the reality of colonial life was marked.

The moneyed class in early New Zealand had a different future in mind. They were intent on replicating the modes of production prevalent in the industrialised world, while avoiding the reaction from below – the “evils” of Chartism and other progressive working-class movements.

While male workers in early New Zealand were forced to endure the vagaries of a barely regulated labour market, with only the flimsy shield of a balkanised union movement to protect them, women faced an oppression that was manifold. Not only were they paid considerably less than men for the same work, they were also expected to spend their “non-working” time tending the home and raising children. They were denied political representation, and the trade union movement made painfully slow progress in organising unions for female workers.

However, in the late 1880s there was a paradigm shift: the first all-female union, the Tailoresses’ Union, was formed, and working women found a champion in Harriet Morison.

In 1879 the New Zealand economy spiralled into a deep depression. There was widespread unemployment, a substantial fall in the general rate of wages, and child and female labour proliferated. Fierce competition drove employers to cut every corner, and the union movement, fragmented and consistently on the defensive, could do little to protect the most vulnerable workers – or at least that was what many thought. In January 1885 a Trades and Labour Congress was held in Dunedin to discuss the general problem of labour throughout the country. Hitherto no mention had been made of organising female workers, but at the conference a prominent unionist read a paper on female labour:

It has been generally conceded that female labour is far more at the mercy of unscrupulous employers than that of males in consequence of their want of organisation and forming themselves into trade unions, and, though the females of this colony are much indebted to Mr J. B. Bradshaw, M.H.R., for getting the Factory Act passed, there is much to be done yet in the way of protecting females by getting them to form into trade unions, upon the basis of the Victorian Tailoresses’ Union, so that they could become a power for good in the colony and assist in future legislation for the advancement of their own and the children’s welfare.

The sentiments were echoed by C. J. Thorn, the President of the Congress. Despite the aspirational tone of the conference little immediate action was taken.

However, through the courage and persistence of a small group of men and women, the scales of industrial power began to turn. In late 1888 the practice of “sweating” was exposed in Dunedin. The Reverend Rutherford Waddell, concerned with the social problems in his parish, discovered large numbers of women working excessively long hours for a pittance in cramped quarters. He delivered a sermon on “The Sin of Cheapness” which was widely read after it was reported in the Otago Daily Times. In January 1889 a capable reporter with the Times made investigations into the practice. In a series of articles he made further revelations largely confirming Waddell’s impressions. The associated agitation led to a Royal Commission in 1889.

The Commission f­­ound that in almost every trade child labour was rife and underpaid female work common. It was in the tailoring trade, where “sweating” was most prevalent. Male tailors, who were earning £3/10/- a week in 1874, were now unable to get £1/15/-. In comparison, girls worked excessive hours to earn just 10/- to 12/- a week. Frequently girl apprentices worked for 12 months for no salary and then had to make their way as volunteers. Conversely, middle men were found to be taking upwards of 30% on shirts. In one case, fourteen young girls were found busy hand-sewing in a room 21x11x8 ½ feet ? less than a quarter of the space considered adequate. Lunch rooms were not provided and men and women had to eat their lunch on the streets. To avoid inspectors a number of girls often worked on the roof.

At the end of January 1889 Waddell published a letter in the Otago Daily Times calling for the establishment of a Board of Arbitration and a Working Women’s Association. In early February, he convened a meeting of concerned citizens to decide what was to be done, and a Committee was set up. The Committee resolved to submit to the large employers a minimum price list. The price list was approved unanimously by the manufacturers, but the warehousemen (who played a key role in the supply chain) rejected it and it could not be enforced. The Committee then advised that the only practical solution was to form a union, and a motion was brought to that effect, which passed without opposition.

Thus the ground was laid for the formation of the Tailoresses’ Union. The significance of the new union was two-fold. It was at once contending both with the forces of capital and the prejudices, shared across the classes, that women were simply incapable (or not worthy) of successful combination. By early July the Committee had everything it needed to launch the union. John Millar, leader of the Seamen’s Union and later the Maritime Council, was elected the first secretary, Waddell the president, and Harriet Morison the co-vice president, and 564 initial members were registered. The Committee, which had up to this point been handling basic negotiations with employers on behalf of the tailoresses, handed the management over to the women of the union.

Having effectively held the position of Secretary (the most important position in the union) through 1889, Morison immediately took over the role when Millar relinquished it in 1890. Born in Ireland in 1862, Morison immigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1874. Taking tailoring as her trade she began a lifelong career as an advocate for working-class women. Under her leadership the union established reading and luncheon rooms and a benefit fund for sick workers. The net result of the union’s organising was wage increases between 12.5% and 50%, a considerable reduction in work hours and the abolition of home-work. The Dunedin union grew to 900 members and, within 12 months of its formation, branches were established in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch with memberships of 450, 422 and 700 respectively.

In May 1890, the Dunedin union assisted other workers on strike. Levying 6d per week for female workers and 1/- for male workers, the union pledged £20 weekly to the Auckland tailoresses and £5 weekly to the Petone millworkers. The union gave strong support to the Maritime Strike which began in August 1890, with grants of £50 and £25 made to the strike fund. In 1890, the Otago Trades and Labour Council was re-established and the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union was one of the leaders of the process. Morison travelled throughout the country assisting other branches. In late 1891, she was sent to Auckland, where she spent seven months trying to revive the Auckland branch. On arrival she found the union on the verge of collapse and the workers being coerced and sweated. She was influential in a re-enactment of the same process of agitation – public meetings, newspaper investigations etc. – that had occurred in Dunedin. By the end of her visit Morison had managed to lift the minimum wage to 7/6 per week, and, after the failure of conciliation proceedings, sent a petition to the government calling for the introduction of compulsory arbitration legislation. One historian has argued that it was the difficulties faced by the Auckland union that persuaded William Pember Reeves, the Minister of Labour in the reformist Liberal government, to include the compulsory clause in the historic Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894.

Morison was involved in many other issues concerning women beyond the industrial struggle. She led an unsuccessful attempt to set up a convalescent home for Dunedin clothing workers, and sat on a local committee to manage ambulance classes for women. She edited the “Working woman’s corner” in the Globe newspaper from January to March 1891. Morison was also a committed suffragette and Christian. She was a founding member of the Women’s Franchise League in Dunedin, the first in New Zealand, which she formed with Helen Nicol in 1892, and a member of the suffragist New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Morison, alongside rank-and-file union members, circulated suffrage petitions. The strength of local unions influenced the number of signatures collected in the three national petitions. Dunedin, in particular, consistently did well; Nicol reported that two-thirds of those signing were working women. In Auckland in 1891, 397 women signed. The local union was revived, thanks to Morison’s organising, before the next petition in 1892, and it was signed by 2,479 Aucklanders. Morison and the union were influential in a public campaign which helped prevent anti-suffragist H. S. Fish, member of the House of Representatives, from winning the 1892 mayoral election in Dunedin.

Despite her outstanding talent as an organiser, Morison did not competently manage the union’s finances, and in 1896 she was forced out of the union due to an accusation, probably false, of embezzlement. She continued her advocacy for working women outside the union as an inspector of factories for the South Island from April 1906. However, so many complaints were laid by factory managers that Morison was removed from her position, and in May 1908 she was placed in charge of a newly opened Women’s Branch in Auckland, which was essentially a labour bureau for domestic servants. After years of difficulty with senior figures in the Labour Department, in 1921 Morison finally resigned from the public service when the Department of Labour closed the Women’s Branches and made her and three other women redundant. Harriet Morison died on 19 August 1925 at her home in New Lynn. She had never married. The union she worked so tirelessly to build outlived her by 20 years.

Morison and the Tailoresses’ Union shattered long-held assumptions about the role of women in 19th century society. Not only were women in industry capable of combining, but they were able to do so with a high degree of success. In the context of a depression, wage increases of up to 50% were unheard of, especially for workers in such a weak industrial position. While many male unions were denouncing the phenomena of class-conscious “New Unionism” that was sweeping the Western world in the 1890s, the tailoresses were providing substantial support during the great Maritime Strike of 1890 and to unions involved in day-to-day struggles in other industries. Moreover, the Tailoresses’ Union was able to integrate a political arm – namely suffrage – into their organisation without diminishing the efficacy of its industrial functions, a harmony which few unions had yet been able to attain. Their leader, Harriet Morison, epitomised the step change that was occurring in New Zealand society, a shift that would define the course of the country’s history in the coming century. As a woman she stood for the right of her gender to be represented politically and to self-organise industrially, and as a trade unionist she stood for the liberation of the labouring classes from exploitation.

300 hotel workers strike in Fiji


300 workers strike in FijiOn December 31 close to three hundred workers at Sheraton Fiji, Sheraton Villas, and Westin Denarau Island Resort took industrial action. Workers held a spontaneous protest against the unilateral removal of their staff benefits. The strike was initiated by the land owning committee (LOC) after maternity leave and overtime pay entitlements were taken away.

“In fourtee n days we will go back to work… sort things out. All those temporary staff who were supposed to be permanent, they have to be made permanent and those who are owed maternity  leave and sick leave etcetera – they have to be paid,” LOC spokesperson Simione Masicola told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.  [Read more...]

World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers: A history of New Zealand’s labour movement

if blood be the price of your cursed wealth

Notes from a talk delivered by Ciaran Doolin (Fightback, UC Marxist Society) in Christchurch.

1821 – The first recorded wage dispute in New Zealand was in the Bay of Islands in 1821. Māori timber-workers stopped work because they wanted to be paid ‘for their labour in Money, as was the case in England, or else in Gun Powder’. They were probably being paid with food and other goods, and felt this was unfair. [Read more...]

Wobblies and Cossacks: The 1913 Great Strike

1913 general strike

By Ciaran Doolin, Fightback Christchurch.

The industrial actions in New Zealand during 1913 marked one of the high points of the militant labour movement. . The 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, which was violently repressed by the police and “free” unionists, was of the primary the catalysts for the events of 1913. The driving organisational force behind the strike was the Federation of Labour, often referred to as the “Red Feds”, who were greatly influenced by the US-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies”. The strike was decisively defeated in the end, and the majority within the labour movement turned their focus away from radical unionism and towards the ballot box. Despite the subsequent ascendance of political labour, there was a small but vigorous core of unionists who rejected this move and continued to employ the weapon of direct action. It was to this sector of the labour movement that the 1913 Great Strike offered inspiration and hope.

Rumblings and antecedents

The 1890 maritime strike was the first major industrial confrontation in New Zealand. While the workers were defeated, they emerged with a new understanding of the power they could wield by united action. It was on the crest of this wave of class consciousness that the first Liberal government took office in 1891. In 1894 the government introduced a raft of new laws to protect and improve workers’ wages and living and working conditions. Among these was the historic Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 (IC&AA) which established an independent court to arbitrate industrial disputes. Unions were encouraged to register under the Act, which meant giving up the right to negotiate directly with employers or engage in direct action. With unions flocking to register under the IC&AA, a period of relative industrial peace was achieved between 1894 and 1905. Although the policies of the Liberals did deliver substantial improvements for the working class, as the new century dawned some unions were starting to complain that Arbitration Court decisions were failing to keep wages in line with rising living costs, as well as doing little to improve working conditions like hours and safety. In 1906 the court stated finally that it did not settle wages on a profit-sharing basis. “The onus of proving the necessity for any increase in the standard rates was thrown upon the union,” wrote economist J. B. Condliffe. “It was recognised that the cost of living must be allowed for, but the Court gradually drifted into the position of calculating nominal wages at the standard of the years about 1900 in terms of cost of living.” Therefore real wages were not rising, in fact between 1901 and 1906 they declined. By contrast, during the first years of the Court wages had increased enough that they outdistanced the cost of living. An American industrial relations expert who visited the country in 1909 expressed surprise that wages had not risen, considering the worldwide increasing wage trend during this period. The stagnation of wages was occurring against a back drop of economic boom from which employers were making record profits. Conflict was inevitable. The utopian picture of harmony between capital and labour – the “workingman’s paradise” – was punctured in 1905 by the brief but successful Auckland tramwaymen’s strike.

In 1908 the Trade Unions Act (TUA) was passed advancing more rights to unions that chose to remain outside of the IC&AA, including the right to strike. In quick response to the passage of the TUA and following on the heels of the success of the Blackball miners’ strike earlier that year, a conference of West Coast miners met in Greymouth to form the New Zealand Federation of Miners. The purpose of the organisation was to present a clear alternative to arbitration (a system referred to pejoratively as “labour’s leg-iron”) based on class struggle and direct action. The objects and preamble of the conference borrowed closely from those of the American Western Federation of Miners and the IWW. In 1909 the name of the organisation was changed to the Federation of Labour to better represent the much larger and broader membership, which now included most unions of watersiders, general labourers and shearers. The Federation cut its teeth in the 1912 Auckland general labourers’ dispute and later the same year in the Waihi miners’ strike. Both actions resulted in defeats, with the Waihi strike ending in a medieval-style drama when a strikers’ meeting at the Trades Hall was invaded by a mob composed of a mix of police and some union members loyal to the company. A striker, Fred Evans, was severely beaten and mortally wounded, and the “Red Feds” along with their families were chased out of town.

While the actions themselves produced few material gains for the workers concerned, the spirit of struggle they engendered in workers across the country was electric and contagious. By the end of 1912 the Federation’s membership totalled a quarter of all organised workers in New Zealand, and its journal Maoriland Worker was prolific in all centres with a circulation of about 10,000. In January 1913 a unity conference was held which brought together erstwhile opposed moderate and militant unions. This proposed the foundation of two new workers’ organisations: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the United Federation of Labour (UFL). The UFL, like its predecessor, was a revolutionary organisation taking the overthrow of capitalism to be its ultimate objective. The constitution declared the organisation’s function would be “[t]o organise systematically and scientifically upon an industrial union basis, in order to assist the overthrow of the capitalist system, and thus bring about a cooperative commonwealth based upon industrial democracy.” The scene was thus set for the Great Strike.

1913 − the year of tumult

The actions of 1913 began rather unobtrusively in March through a dispute between Wellington shipwrights and the Union Steam Ship Company (USS Co.) over the failure of the latter to pay workers for travelling time or provide transport to the company’s new workshops. In May the shipwrights cancelled their registration under the IC&CA and joined the UFL-affiliated Wellington Waterside Workers’ Union (WWWU). On October 17, after protracted negotiations, the employers rejected the shipwrights’ claims, and the following day the shipwrights went on strike. On the 22nd the watersiders had a stop-work meeting to consider the grievances of the shipwrights. Their employers declared the stop-work meeting a strike and replaced the unionists with other workers. The watersiders then handed the control of the dispute to the UFL. The next day mass meetings and pickets began. On the 28th a conference of employers and unions chaired by Prime Minister William Massey concluded with an offer to the shipwrights to reinstate the old collective agreement, provided the union put up a £1,000 bond. While the UFL accepted the proposal the WWWU rejected it. The ship owners then handed the control of their side of the dispute to the Employers’ Federation. At this point Massey decided to involve the military. Colonel Hewer, Chief of the General Staff, urged that the command structure of the territorials be used to recruit special constables from the civilian population, advice that was swiftly actioned. The specials were later to acquire the name “Massey’s Cossacks” and became infamous for their baton-swinging horseback charges on demonstrating strikers.

On October 29 Auckland and Westport watersiders went out on strike in sympathy. The next day the first contingents of mounted specials arrived in Wellington. Marines from the HMS Psyche were marched through the streets of Wellington, setting up barricades complete with machine-gun nests at strategic locations. By the end of October Otago, Greymouth and Oamaru watersiders had joined in the strike, and miners throughout the country began to join. On November 3 over 2,000 watersiders and supporters gathered at the intersection of Taranaki and Buckle Streets in Wellington and confronted the specials. The specials repeatedly charged the strikers causing numerous injuries, some serious. Following this confrontation negotiations between the UFL and employers were broken off, with the latter insisting that any agreement must be registered under the IC&AA. The employers then called on “free” labour to man the wharves, a call backed by Massey who said specials would be provided to protect those “lawfully carrying on their business”. By this time there were 1,000 mounted specials and 500 foot specials patrolling Wellington. On November 6 a new watersiders’ union was formed in Wellington and its members started loading. Meanwhile, specials were flowing into Auckland, with 2,000 having set up camp in the Domain. Two days later the specials occupied the waterfront. This set off a general strike in Auckland; by noon 4,500 workers in 14 different unions had joined the watersiders on strike, including brewery workers, bricklayers, carpenters, drivers, labourers, painters, seamen, and timber, furniture and hotel workers. Within a few days 10,000 workers were on strike in Auckland, and a number of other unions refused to do any work for the specials and offered financial support to the strikers.

By mid-November strike action was starting to lose momentum. The UFL call for a general strike in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin was met with a tepid response. The moderate United Labour Party leadership and the Christchurch Strike Committee spoke out publicly against it. Nelson reopened its ports with company unionists, goods were being trucked through Wellington by a new drivers’ union without interference, and some Auckland unions returned to work. At the point of origin of the dispute, the Wellington docks, the new union membership had risen to nearly 600. However, by this stage, the employers were concerned not with the resolution of the dispute through negotiations but instead with the destruction of the UFL. Indeed, their obstinacy was cause for consternation within their own ranks; on November 13, with business in Auckland paralysed, 300 shopkeepers and businessmen petitioned Massey pleading with him to bring pressure on the local Employers’ Federation to “not allow their stubbornness to ruin our trade”.

Nonetheless workers continued to struggle. On November 16 roughly 7,500 Auckland strikers marched to Victoria Park where they met thousands of others who swelled their numbers to 12,000. Clashes between specials and workers continued throughout the country, with the Wellington Employers’ Committee brazenly declaring on November 21 that “until the funeral obsequies of the Federation are complete … the time is not right for further negotiations”. The following day the Auckland Strike Committee called off the general strike for all workers except watersiders, seamen, drivers and tramwaymen. With that, the strike in the main centres across the country had effectively been broken. However the miners on the West Coast and in the Waikato continued to strike. With company union membership continuing to grow, on November 26 the UFL proposed binding arbitration by the Arbitration Court, but the Employers’ Federation rejected this and continued to refuse to negotiate with the UFL.

In early December a ray of hope punctured the gloom when the Australian union conference resolved not to handle cargo to and from New Zealand. Unfortunately the trans-Tasman sympathy strikes were too late to halt the decline. On the 20th the UFL declared the strike over for all workers except the miners (whose strike ended nine days later). Some unions returned to work on versions of their pre-strike agreements, others through the new company unions, and an unfortunate few, like the Huntly miners, were blacklisted. In the immediate aftermath of the strike the UFL was a shadow of its former self and barely limped along during the war years. However, after the 1917 Russian Revolution radical unionism experienced resurgence. In 1919 the UFL became the Alliance of Labour and fought the Labour Party for the loyalty of the workers, arguing for industrial over political action. Falling export prices in the late 1920’s followed by the Great Depression in 1929 intervened, bringing mass unemployment and contributing to the decline of radical unionism. The 1935 election of the First Labour Government symbolised the triumph of political Labour.

The significance of the Great Strike

There has been considerable debate among historians over the long-term impact of the Great Strike on the labour movement. While there remains much disagreement over the nuances of this legacy there is a clear consensus that key sections of both sides of the dispute concluded that the way forward was industrial peace through arbitrationism and political labour. As social historian Erik Olssen argues, on the one hand:

The labour movement, thanks to the strike, achieved a new level of unity and consensus about the path forward….The way forward required One Big Union (strongly decentralised) and, if not revolutionary political action, then certainly very, very radical political action. If one compares the platforms of the various labour parties within the empire, the New Zealand one was certainly vastly more radical than any of the others.

And on the other:

The extent of the government’s education became apparent during the war. The private papers of people such as James Allen and Downie Stewart [prominent conservative politicians] show that they did not like unions – revolutionary unions particularly, but they certainly did not want to provoke them into open warfare. The cost was too high.

There were unions who clearly operated outside this consensus. The watersiders were one example, and they, for a fleeting moment, channelled directly the spirit of 1913 during the 1951 waterfront lockout, when they dropped out of the pro-arbitration Federation of Labour and founded their own radical Trade Unions Congress committed to direct negotiation and action, and challenged the employers to deliver their much overdue wage increases and reduction in overtime.

One question remains outstanding: Was 1913 a revolutionary moment in New Zealand history? The capitalists at the time seemed to be convinced of it: the editor of the New Zealand Times asserted that the strike could lead to a “bloody civil war”; Charles Holdsworth, general manager of the Union Steam Ship Company saw it as “an incipient class war”; the Governor, Lord Liverpool, got so caught up in the events that he went so far as to suggest that the UFL had declared a provisional government. At the other polarity, as Olssen observes, “Many Australians had come to view New Zealand as the best chance for a socialist revolution. In Australia, Labour parties got in the way; in New Zealand the lines of class conflict were crystal clear, thanks to the strength of the Federation of Labour and the virtual absence of a labour party.” Historian Miles Fairburn claims that “In 1912 and 1913 New Zealand came closer to class war than at any other time in its history”. However, the picture of revolutionary change was illusory. The working class and its leadership were divided in both strategic vision and tactical direction which led to a failure to act decisively at crucial moments, ultimately playing into the hands of the employers and the government “It seemed like a revolutionary moment”, Olssen concludes, although “nobody quite knew what a revolution would look like.”

Fijian sugar workers face threats, intimidation

fiji sugar workers

Workers at the state owned Fijian Sugar Corporation (FSC) have voted to take strike action after they were offered a 5.3% pay rise. This equates to just $7.10 a week after tax, or in terms of purchasing power, enough to buy half a chicken. The bigger issue though is that wages for sugar workers in Fiji have declined 40% since 2006 when the government was deposed by a military coup.

The Lautoka sugar mill workers, who crush sugarcane to extract sugar, have also been impacted by a decline in the country’s sugar crop over this time, from 3.8 million tons to 1.6million tons annually, resulting in less weeks of work each year, in some cases people were without work for eight months of the year. The Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union (FS&GWU) had been demanding a wage review for two years.

Just days before the vote to take strike action, a worker was fatally injured on the job. Samuel Sigatokacake was admitted to Lautoka Hospital ICU Unit with burns covering over 50% of his body. The accident occurred when the support structure of an evaporator gave way, pouring extremely hot water onto the factory floor. Further investigation found the release valve on the vessel, which stored water at high pressure, had not functioned since 2010. The vessel itself was in very poor condition with corrosions found on the inside. Earlier that same week it had l burst through the cracks in the welding, but cracks were re-welded and operations continued as normal. The union has since made a Criminal Negligence complaint.

The management of the mill have intimidated workers, some requiring them to fill in a form indicating if they were going on strike. Others were threatened with termination if they took industrial action. Almost a third of the 770 workers did not vote in the secret ballot, likely a result of this intimidation, but of those who voted 90% were in favour of strike action. Management has also offered five year contracts to retired workers to take on the work of the strikers, and threatened to bring in workers from overseas to replace them.

Fiji’s Attorney General and Minister for Industry and Trade Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum urged workers not to go on strike “We [the government] have made a substantial investment to rescue the industry from collapse. This investment has begun to turn around the Fiji Sugar Corporation, without a single job being lost, and it is in the national interest for this to continue.” Of course, workers have seen little benefit from this investment, instead they have seen seven years of declining wages.

“It is a sad indictment on the Regime where the workers real wage is allowed to decline by more than 40% forcing workers into extreme poverty.” Said union president Daniel Urai “Workers deserve recognition from this Regime in the development of the Sugar Industry and indeed in all other industries in this country. Workers create the wealth and sustain the economy despite the hardship, intimidation and the bullying by the authorities and they deserve better.”

On August 21st two truckloads of military officers today drove into Lautoka. Workers were warned that should they go on strike they would not be allowed to return to work and would be dealt with by the military. As we go to press no industrial action has yet occurred and the company continues to refuse to negotiate with the union. Unions in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the sugar workers and condemned the actions of the regime. Sugar is Fiji’s largest industry, with sugar processing making up a third of industrial production in the country.

New collective agreement at McDonald’s

report by Mike Treen, Unite general secretary. Reprinted from The Daily Blog. Fightback analysis to come.

Unite Union is in the process of ratifying a new collective agreement with McDonald’s that is a significant step forward in getting improved security of hours for that company’s 9500 employees. It comes after negotiations broke down at the end of April and four months of action by members and supporters at stores around the country.

Unite delegates training at day at the Unite office

The new fairer rostering clause is the most important change in the agreement and applies to all members. The power to roster someone or not is the most important weapon for controlling and disciplining the workforce.

The new clause affirms the the importance of “rostering employees fairly and reasonably”.

It says that “Where additional hours become available in a restaurant current employees will be offered additional shifts before new employees are employed.” There is an added obligation that “additional shifts will be notified to employees on the crew notice board”.

When hours have to be reduced in store then the reduction “will be uniformly applied” so they can’t cut just some members shifts while other stay the same or even get more.

Where members have problems with their shifts they can raise the matter with their manager, get their own wage and time records, and if they are not satisfied with the response have the issue escalated to the HR department who must “investigate and share relevant information.”

A union representative can be involved at any stage of that process. If the union believes there is a store wide problem it can be taken to the HR department “who will investigate and share relevant information.”

The obligation to “share relevant information” is an important obligation as it has often been difficult in the past to get information from the company regarding rosters and hours in a store.

The company has also committed to stronger education of managers and monitoring and enforcement measures, including the issue in crew questionnaires and posters in store explaining the policy and the escalation process crew can use if they aren’t happy.

Union member only payment

All union members who joined before April 29 (when negotiations broke down) will receive a special payment when this agreement is ratified. Nonunion staff do not receive this payment. In return for this payment the union agrees to allow the company to pass on the terms and conditions to nonunion staff. The amount paid depend on the average hours worked in the previous 8 weeks. Union members who work over 30 hours on average get $200 (gross). Union members who work 21-30 hours on average get $125 (gross). Union members who work 20 hours or less on average get $100 (gross).

Improved breaks clause

An important part of the new agreement is ensuring that the current legal obligations to provide breaks (which is being repealed by the government) is maintained. The company had also wanted to go back to a 10-minute rest break. Unite has been able to get the legal rest break of 10 minutes increased to 15 minutes in all its collective agreements.

The new clause ensures a 15 minute paid break in the 3-hour minimum shift. The 30 minute unpaid meal break is required for working more than 4 hours and a second 15 minute break kicks in for working more than six hours. This is the first time it has actually been in the agreement that the second rest break must happen for working more than six hours.

Workers will be compensated an additional 15 minutes pay is they miss a rest break. We believe workers should also be compensated for missing the meal break but the company and union are in dispute on that issue with differing interpretations of a clause in the old collective agreement and will probably end up in court over the issue. If we are successful workers could be owed several million dollars.

In this agreement we included a clause that the union had the right to seek a penalty and compensation for individual workers if they miss their meal break. The company has also committed to doing a more thorough auditing process of stores to ensure compliance with the breaks clause.

Wage increase modest

The wage increase is modest and constrained by the 25 cent an hour minimum wage movement. This was increased to at least 30 cents an hour for most workers but McDonald’s still remain behind rates paid at KFC – a gap which we had hoped to close more.

There were other small improvements around training being available to everyone within three months of starting and the higher rates that result from completing the training to apply from the date their books are submitted. The agreement also spells out that no one can be forced to work outside their availability – especially overnight shifts.

The new collective agreement will also be made available to all new staff with a membership form attached for those who want to join the union. The collective agreement itself has been radically rewritten to make it make more user friendly and is now half its previous length because a lot of company propaganda has been removed.

The on-line vote on the new collective agreement is currently running at 90% in favour so it seems that the members agree that the agreement offers us an opportunity to push back against the casualisation that has marked the fast food industry since the deunionisation of the industry in the early 1990s.

In 2003 when Unite Union decided to start reorganising some of the sectors of the economy that had largely lost union representation and collective agreements we were horrified at the prevalence of what overseas has been dubbed “zero-hour contracts”. Most of the workers we represent today in fast food, movie theatres, security, call centres, and hotels had individual employment agreements that had no guaranteed hours. Workers also rarely got their proper breaks – especially in fast food.

In the UK the fact that an estimated one million workers are on zero hour contracts has become a national scandal. In the USA there is the beginnings of a widespread revolt against insecure hours and low wages with nationwide strikesplanned for yesterday.

Whilst we haven’t eliminated those problems we have introduced clauses in all the main agreements that affirm the right to secure hours and constrain the employers right to hire new staff before offering the hours that are available to existing staff first. Each new collective agreement has tightened up on the clauses to increase the protections. With the most recent Restaurant Brands agreement (covering KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks) and now the McDonald’s agreement we have included clauses that demand the sharing of information with members and the union when disputes over staffing and rostering happens. We think this will significantly strengthen our position when we get into arguments over whether the company is actually complying with its obligations under the collective agreements. However Wendy’s is the only company we have an agreement for guaranteed hours for crew after 2 years service.

It is probable that the percentage of workers on zero hour contracts in New Zealand is larger than the UK. The labour movement as a whole should be making the issue a national scandal in this country.

In 2015 Unite will be renegotiating the major fast food contracts with the goal of moving from secure hours to guaranteed hours for most staff.

The missing piece: The far-left in the workplace

Reprinted from Rabble (Canada). David Bush is a community and labour activist based primarily on the East Coast.

As the Canadian labour movement stumbles from defeat to defeat in this crisis period it is worth asking why this is the case. What accounts for the trade union movement’s inability to mount an effective political resistance to austerity? Is it the poor and unimaginative leadership? Maybe it is the ossified and inward-looking culture of trade unions? Is it the poor objective conditions of the crisis? Or perhaps it is the culture of docility and defeatism amongst rank and file members resulting from the regular drubbing the working class has taken over past two decades that explains the current state of labour?

While all these explanations contain a kernel of truth, I think they miss a key element in explaining why the trade union movement has become a paper tiger. The objective conditions for the left and the labour movement in Canada are far from ideal. Over the last 30 years governments and employers have become increasingly emboldened in their anti-union tactics. The neoliberal assault on working people has seen the rollback of social benefits and the power of unions. The changing nature of work in Canada and the restructuring of the global economy has put labour on the back foot — one need only to look at the fall off in strike activity to confirm this. Add to this the depreciation of the U.S. labour movement and this goes a long way in explaining the weakness of the Canadian labour movement.

However, we should be very careful about subscribing to an explanation of labour’s current predicament as primarily a function of unfavourable objective conditions. This view can too often be used as an excuse by labour leaders and other leftists to make peace with the status quo through various forms of collaboration or resignation from struggle. Yet, we cannot just hunker down and simply weather the storm of the crisis waiting for things to magically get better. That is a fantasy.

The truth is that the explanation for labour’s weakness is much more complicated. Yes, labour leaders share some of the responsibility for labour’s recent defeats. Yes, the bureaucratic structures of unions have been more than problematic in stifling creative and strident rank and file activity. But simply locating the problem at the level of bureaucracy is in effect mirroring the explanation put forth by some of the most regressive labour leaders; it is the bad economy, it is external conditions. We should not expect structural reforms and rank and file radicalism to benevolently flow downwards. There is a real danger in having a persecuted mentality if we simple think that the problems facing trade unions are the result of corrupt labour leaders and bad economic conditions. Undoubtedly there is a lot of truth in that analysis, but it more often than not serves as a deflection

The problem with the objective conditions explanation is that it only goes so far. The labour movement in North America was in many ways facing a much worse set of problems in the early 1930s. Unionization rates were minuscule and unions were primarily organized along craft lines, making them fairly conservative. The Great Depression created seemingly impossible conditions for workers to organize and push for gains in their workplace. However, over time, workers did organize industries that were previously impervious to unions, such as auto, and small unit service industries with multiple employees, such as trucking.

This was made possible by the growth of active rank and file networks within workplaces. Successful and strategic organizing drives in key industries such as trucking, rubber, shipping and auto were built from the shop floor up. An active rank and file using creative tactics on the shop floor and in the broader community was what made working class gains possible. It was the rank and file pushing up against the existing labour movement that drove labour leaders and the union movement to adopt a more militant and effective stance.

The question we should be asking is what accounts for vibrant rank and file networks and movements? The conditions of struggle were certainly different in the 1930s than they are today (though not as much as we would like to think). For instance, the working class was less fragmented geographically within cities themselves. But explanations such as this miss the most important factor: the activity and orientation of the left.

Far-left militants, communists, trotskyists and fellow travellers, were the key driving force in building and sustaining rank and file organization that achieved substantial gains for the working class. This was not something that was unique to the old left of the 1930s and 1940s, but can also be seen in the rising workers militancy in the 1970s and early 1980s in Canada.

The far-left, for a variety of reasons has largely abandoned a practical orientation towards workers’ movements in Canada over the past twenty years. Largely this is a capacity question, membership in far-left organizations has dwindled and thus there is an organizational inability to carry out a concerted strategy within workers movements. Implicating oneself in workers’ movements is hard, unsexy work that requires time, resources, and patience. It is the type of work that only really produces results in the long-term and thus only groups with a long-term sense of struggle can engage in it.

The Canadian far-left since the mid-nineties has largely shifted away from organizing long-term strategic struggles. This shift, when coupled with the sustained attack on working people in the neoliberal era, has resulted in ossified unions, weak rank and file movements, concessionary contracts and emboldened state action in support of employers.

Of course, rank and file networks continue to exist and organize. For instance, in Nova Scotia the paramedics in the Local 727 of the International Union of Operating Engineers rejected three contract offers from their employer, EHS. Two of those were in defiance of their own union’s recommendation. This was done through a loose rank and file network that extends across the province. Rank and file paramedics, many of whom were shop stewards, also self-organized pickets across the province to protest the NDP’s stance and EHS’ inability to move at the bargaining table. While the paramedics have had their right to strike taken away, they continue to organize which may result in industrial action if they see no results through arbitration.

In Ontario, the Rank and file Education Workers of Toronto (REWT) were active in organizing the fightback against the Liberal government’s Bill 115. REWT and informal networks that have yet to be consciously-organized, were key in pushing the OSSTF to not just passively accept Bill 115. While REWT was Toronto-based it reflected broader sentiments that existed in the OSSTF outside Toronto. A number of OSSTF districts were critical of Ken Coran’s leadership during the Bill 115 fight, rejecting tentative contracts against Coran’s wishes and forcing the union to follow ETFO’s lead in escalating its tactics. OSSTF districts and members even organized to help humiliate Coran’s election bid as a Liberal in the London West provincial by-election. REWT is currently looking to expand its network across the province and link up with the networks of dissidents across the province and across union lines.

There is a role for the left to play in this current moment of rank and file reconstitution. Left wing organizations should be offering their energies, capacities and analysis while also humbly recognizing and understanding it is a learning process for the far left. This does not mean whole-hearted agreement with every step, but it does mean making engagement with rank and file movements a strategic priority. It also means we need to encourage, facilitate and organize rank and file activity where it does not exist.

It is important for left-wing activists to have a nuanced understanding of the problems facing the labour movement. It is not a matter of simply railing against labour leaders or writing off the union movement’s weakness as a product of the bad economic conditions. We must understand our own responsibilities. If we are serious about challenging capitalism and injustice in Canada and winning real gains for working people the left must organize itself in manner that can orient itself to building and enriching rank and file movements. This means we must build organizations capable of sustained political struggle that connects anti-capitalist and left militants within the workplace.

While this may seem like a herculean task, it only takes a few successful and well-organized rank and file movements to change the mood of large sections of the working class. Confidence is infectious.


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