Unite against poverty wages and zero-hour contracts: An interview with Heleyni Pratley

Heleyni in NY

Heleyni Pratley is an organiser for Unite Union and a member of Fightback (Aotearoa/NZ).

In May, Heleyni attended the first global conference on fast food organising. Fightback writer Ian Anderson interviewed her.

FB: Can you tell us about Unite Union and how you first got involved?

HP: Sure, so I got involved with Unite Union because I was in the Workers Party [a predecessor of Fightback], a socialist group active on campus.

At the time I was active in the Students Association, and was also working many casualised jobs. So Unite was interesting, they’d just gotten rid of youth rates and had contracts with all the major fast food companies.

Unite focuses on organising young casualised workers. The traditional union movement saw these workers, especially in fast food, as being un-organisable. But Unite proved everybody wrong… It does involve constant recruitment because the turnover’s so high.

The workers that Unite organises are mainly in fast food and cinemas. Cinema workers and fast food workers are completely casualised, the only people who technically have full-time hours are the restaurant managers. They’ll often have large workforces; McDonald’s recommends that any store should have 70 employees at any one time. The model is Taylorism, basically keep everyone on their toes, worried that they could lose their job or hours at any time; hours are used as punishment.

So Unite has unionised workers in those sectors and won collective agreements through struggle.

FB: Can you tell me about the recent fast food workers’ conference in New York?

HP: Sure, so the conference that I attended involved delegations of fast food workers and unionists from 26 countries all over the world.

We heard about struggles happening for example in Thailand, where workers are actually offered large sums of money to not join the union. For some of the workers it was actually very risky to attend the conference.

It was organised by the International Labour Organisation. It was the first ever global conference on fast food organising.

FB: Why was it important for Unite to send a delegation?

HP: Unite has been at the global forefront of this organising.

The way that McDonalds operates, and other fast food chains like KFC, is the same globally. While that’s a strength in terms of their business model and global exploitation, it’s a weakness in terms of us relaying what we’ve learnt, so other workers and other unions can draw from those lessons in fighting these companies.

FB: What was your main takeaway from the conference discussion?

HP: What I learnt was, we’re in New York – it’s the heart of the beast, the heart of the empire – and the problems are the same.

The workers are paying workers in the US, like everywhere else, the minimum they can get away with. Workers at McDonald’s in the US are actually on food stamps, even though they’re employed, so similar to New Zealand where we have employed people on Accommodation Supplements.

So the similarities were more than what I thought they would be initially, and I think that now more than ever, global workers’ solidarity is important.

FB: What was your understanding of the fast food workers’ campaign in the US?

HP: The Fast Food Forward campaign in the US seems to have come out of the Occupy movement, which is a really positive aspect.

A lot of people have said that Occupy failed, but I disagree with that because Occupy was successful at raising consciousness, and it’s been heartening to see that’s fed into more concrete, long-term ways of engaging in struggle. That fightback is really needed in the US. McDonald’s workers are on $7.25, and that’s the non-tipped minimum wage, so if you’re on a tipped minimum wage it’s actually from $2.15 upwards.

So my understanding of the fast food campaign in the US is that it’s come out of Occupy, it’s community-led, and unions are also playing a role. I think that community involvement is where the campaign’s success lies. That’s what we’ve seen in Unite as well, that you have to have the wider community involved.

FB: What actions were you involved with?

HP: I participated in the delivery of a letter to McDonald’s, to explain that there would be global actions, on the 15th of May, including workers’ going on strike. There was a press conference in New York where workers from all over the world spoke, and then we delivered the letter.

Of course we weren’t allowed into the restaurant, you know there was a little bit of pushing and shoving. In the end the letter was pinned to the wall.

I also went to Boston and helped a community group, who were getting workers at a restaurant prepared to take a strike action on the 15th, and what I saw from these workers was a real desperation. In a lot of worksites there’s fear around taking strike action, and we see that definitely in New Zealand too.

But in the US, as soon as we said that in New Zealand the minimum wage is $14.25, you could see how people were hopeful – and pissed off!

FB: What are some of the differences and similarities internationally?

HP: In fast food, there are more similarities than differences. So workers are treated exactly the same way. Hours are used as punishment. Hours aren’t guaranteed. Everyone at McDonald’s is on minimum wage, everyone is completely casualised.

Which means things that have worked for Unite in NZ, will work at other restaurants around the world, and I’m sure that we can learn a lot from what they’re doing.

The left has clearly been smashed in the US, just as it has been in NZ. The left is weak, and this is reflected in the trade union movement. So we need to be thinking seriously about rebuilding, and how we rebuild.

But similarly there is strength in a conviction, and a desire, to change our situation, to make sure McJobs are not our future. There seems to be an understanding that if we don’t stand up, things will get worse.

So I think complacency is changing. In the ‘90s and early 2000s there was a certain sense that there’s nothing we can do about neoliberalism, but things like Occupy show a global shift.

We see Russell Brand talking about revolution, and whatever you think of Russell Brand, these things are now in the popular discourse.

FB: Now that the struggle against casualization is getting globally organised, what do you think the next steps are?

HP: We established links, which is fantastic, we need to build on those and maintain those.

For example, I met people who are organising the factories where McDonald’s burgers are made. That is just awesome. I think any Marxist is like, that is the point of production! I don’t want to fetishise that too much, but I think these global networks need to increase. It’s inspirational because it’s another way for us to realise our power as workers.

And our power is by coming together and taking action, so coming together globally is something workers can feed off, I don’t think that can be underestimated.

FB: What are the next steps locally, for Unite?

HP: Unite is committed currently to changing the government, so we’re running the Get Out The Vote Campaign. After that we’re looking into launching a campaign against Zero Hour contracts.

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