Unite’s long fight for improvements at McDonald’s

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By Fightback writers

Unite union members employed at McDonald’s have entered a campaign to fight for better pay and better hours of work. This is the fourth time that Unite has negotiated over wages and conditions with McDonald’s since the SupersizeMyPay campaign in 2005.

Before the SupersizeMyPay campaign there was no union agreement for McDonalds workers or other workers in the fastfood industry. The 2005 campaign brought good improvements at Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks) stores. The improvements at McDonalds and Burger King were more modest. However McDonald’s and Burger King Unite members got benefits from the first union agreement being achieved in those workplaces for decades and from legislative changes that resulted from the campaign. The largest win was the removal of youth rates over a two-year period.

The SupersizeMyPay campaign seriously shook employers across the fast-food industry. The McDonald’s bosses – especially individual franchisees – maintained a conscious fight against the union by victimising people who joined Unite. For example, in the case of Kaipoi McDonald’s a membership of a whole store was bullied out of the union with the excpetion of one member. The remaining member and Unite challenged the employer. The McDonald’s boss employer was fined, forced to pay damages to the employee, and forced to pay costs.

In 2008 the union began negotiations for its second collective agreement with McDonald’s. The company stalled negotiations for months and the pay gap between McDonald’s and Restaurant Brands workers continued to grow. McDonald’s made a near-zero offer to its staff. The months of wage freeze were brought to an end by a significant industrial campaign by McDonald’s workers in which there were more than 60 stoppages.

The result was a union agreement which secured specified amounts above minimum wage that the company had to pay to workers graded at various levels above minimum wage. This meant that all employees got an increase whenever the minimum wage went up. There were also percentage increases locked in for supervisory staff for each year of the agreement and other improvements to working conditions.

That campaign set a different tone with the company. The next agreement was resolved without strike action as the union had been able to negotiate a significant improvement regarding hours of work. In particular, a clause was entered into the agreement which provides that the company can’t cut the hours of work of employees with one year or more of service by any more than 25%. (Of course every agreement has resulted in a range of improvements and this article is concerned with the highlights and key issues).

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This year the McDonald’s bosses came to negotiations wanting the union to agree to a significant clawback, namely the reintroduction of youth rates. As with clawbacks in general, Unite was unwilling to concede. The government’s reintroduction of youth rates creates an interesting situation. The company could have chosen to apply youth rates to young workers who don’t belong to the union. However, if they did so they would have provided an incentive for all youth rates-aged employees who were not yet in the union to join the collective agreement. It is these types of expression of the union’s power – not anything to do with the company’s sham idea of corporate social responsibility – which ensured that the company could not implement youth rates. The fact that the company has been unable to implement youth rates is a source of confidence in the union and its potential to make real changes.

The deflection of the implementation of youth rates, however, is not enough for McDonald’s workers to settle on a new agreement. The company made a narrow final offer consisting of a one-off increase of 25 cents. Wages and conditions need to go forward or the workers will face wage stagnation and real wage decline. One aspect of pushing on wages has been to raise the demand that the McDonald’s bosses must agree to pay at least the same as what other fast-food chains pay.

Hours of work is the other key issue. The union routinely deals with cases whereby workers are exposed to insecurity of work. It means that people cannot plan their weeks or budget properly. In many instances this insecurity is used as a management tool to prevent people from standing up to frequent abuses of the work legislation and the union agreement. Over the years Unite has made significant in-roads on this issue, but the workforce understands that such improvements need to be deepened as well as extended to cover the broadest possible number of workers. Only then will there be anything approaching a satisfying situation for the employees.

This round of negotiations has been difficult so far but this is not because of the resolve of the employees and their union. The difficulty has been due to the external situation whereby there have been rafts of anti-worker employment legislation changes and significant attacks on unions, such as at Ports of Auckland, and at meat processing plants. Such attacks by the government and employer’s at traditional union strongholds have given confidence to the McDonald’s bosses and other employers.

McDonald’s employees have responded with actions across the country. As well as gaining public support on basic issues like wages and conditions, specific events have put a spotlight on other issues. For example the company’s favouritism towards the police, expressed in special police discounts, has been exposed. Additionally a store management’s discrimination against a gay worker has been uncovered.

The resistance of Unite members is required for their own wage negotiations and for continuing to make gains for workers in the fast-food industry in general. It is necessary because companies like McDonald’s are part or a whole class of employers who are holding down wages as a response to the economic crisis. Their resistance symbolises a point of resistance against the green light that the government has given employers; a green light to attack wages and conditions.

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