Unite Union’s first national conference

The Spark December 2010 – January 2011

Mike Kay, an editor of The Spark, caught up with Mike Treen, National Director of Unite just after its first national delegates conference on 25-26 November, which was followed by a one day political conference.

The Spark: This was the first national Unite conference. Why did you decide to take that step now?

MT: From our point of view it’s a bit of a coming of age of Unite. The Auckland project was started 5-6 years ago based on the transformation of an already existing union with a small  membership of 100-200 members, a place where, on a voluntary basis, some union officials were giving support to workers who were unable to get representation through traditional union structures. The structure of that organisation no longer fits Unite today. We now have 8000 financial members, broad industry representation and membership engagement and involvement is through the delegates. Given the character of the industries we work in, with a high turnover, we depend all the more on the delegates for communication, mobilisation and so on. We were unsuccessful in general membership meetings, except for a few workplaces. So the most democratic aspect of membership input is through the delegates, so we decided to base the democratic decision-making structure through a national delegates conference, and even, ambitiously, to project doing that every year.

It was a very empowering thing for those who were at the conference. We made it as big as we could – financially, organisationally and resources-wise. We had about 150-160 registered for the conference. We saw a whole new layer of people step up who want to play a leadership role in the union. Out of the conference, we got delegates wanting to get together more on a regional or industry basis. And we had the wonderful spectacle of 22 delegates standing for 10 executive positions.

The Spark: How have you been able to generate that kind of enthusiasm amongst delegates?

MT: It’s still a struggle in a lot of the workplaces, especially those with high turnover, because that means there’s a high turnover also of our delegates. Fast- food, it’s maybe two thirds to 100% turnover per year. In terms of representation, the high-turnover industries were much less than their percentage of the membership. We could have done better, and we will do better in the future.

Our industrial campaigns are never set-piece battles over bargaining every one to two years. Often our negotiations, especially when we were first setting up, took months and months – or in the case of McDonalds, a year – of constant campaigning and actions before settling a collective agreement. That gives people an opportunity to grow. We have also been doing our delegate training on a regional basis in a similar way to the national conference for the last five years. It helps build the camaraderie, and helps keep the delegates’ engagement and a sense of their essential role in the movement as a whole.

The Spark: Do you anticipate any problems with union access with the recent changes to the Employment Relations Act?

MT: Every employer will I think be seeking to restrict our access. With the main employers we do have protocols that appear to work. However, McDonald’s and Sky City made submissions to the Select Committee supporting greater restrictions on access based on things we were alleged to have done, mostly fictitious. Instead of using an actual example, McDonald’s used a “what if” example. Sky City said we threatened to go onto the floor and talk to people while they were dealing. What actually happened was that they refused to let us meet with members in work time when they were in the middle of a restructure. The threat was that we would go down and ask them to leave the floor, not to intervene while they were dealing.

The law on what is reasonable access is unchanged, but it gives the employer, in the first instance, the right to interpret what’s reasonable. In call centres, the main opposition is to us walking the floor. However the right to walk the floor has been established in case law by the EPMU in a Telstraclear call centre.

The Spark: Unite would not have happened without the voluntary work of committed activists. Some on the left had warned about those activists substituting themselves for the workers. Do you think that has been overcome by the stepping up of the rank and file?

MT: When you’re starting in an industry like fast food that hasn’t been unionised for two decades, it takes a little while to get things going. I don’t accept the argument of substitutionism. We operated on the premise that workers would engage with, support and struggle for the type of messages we were putting out. It was a confidence in the workers, including young workers. There were no rank and file workplace leaders when we started, but we were confident we would find them. The difference between Unite and many other unions was that we did not lose confidence in the working class. In the more established workplaces like Sky City and some of the larger call centres, very much these are self-managed affairs. We’ve got no desire to substitute for anybody. We encourage that self-management. We’re keen for that model in the security industry and English language teaching – autonomous associations within the unions.

The Spark: Is there something unique about New Zealand, or could a Unite-type union be built anywhere?

MT: What the right wing did was set up a free market in unionism with the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) by abolishing all particular privileges for unions; they just became bargaining agents. They encouraged unions to fight amongst themselves for coverage. But by the end of it all, you could end up with a union like Unite that could represent any group of members. You didn’t have to have majority ballots for recognition. Minority unionism is effectively prohibited in Australia, the US and the UK.

The Spark: So, effectively the law lowered barriers to entry for new unionism? An unintended consequence of the ECA 20 years later?

MT: Yeah… we are still a small union though. We’ve got big ambitions.

The Spark: What was your view of the political conference on Saturday?

MT: Part of the Mana byelection campaign and the conference was about was a bit of testing of the waters. And the message it gave us was that the waters are still a little bit tepid, rather than warming up. We supported Matt in Mana because we wanted to raise the issues, and we successfully did that – around GST, jobs, minimum wage.

The level of struggle at the moment is minute. What Unite does is involve a relatively small group of workers on episodic campaigns, which are effective, but on a sort of vanguard level. The workers we represent, and their social weight and power is more limited than the big battalions of the working class. We hope that it is an example to others to stop putting up with crap and enter the struggle.

I think also, in the words of Jane Kelsey (one of the speakers at the conference), in New Zealand we are living in a bit of a cocoon, being aligned economically with Australia, and by extension China. Banks aren’t collapsing, governments aren’t bankrupt and the dominant party for decades is not down to 10 or 11% in the polls, like in Ireland.

In NZ we had savage attacks in the late 80s and early 90s accompanied by rising unemployment which led to an initial fight back against the ECA, but then a deep demoralisation and collapse in social struggles. But in Europe the mobilisations have been sustained. The level of resistance that is emerging is quite encouraging.

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