A young migrant woman’s experience of work in NZ

Unite Burger King occupation: "Burger King has always remained to be the fast food company which pays the lowest wages."

Unite Burger King occupation: “Burger King has always remained to be the fast food company which pays the lowest wages.”

Wei Sun (Fightback, Christchurch)

After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) in 1840 anyone could immigrate to New Zealand, while most settlers in the nineteenth century came from the UK, substantial numbers of Chinese labours immigrated to work on the goldfields of Otago. These migrants faced discrimination from white migrants but were not discriminated against in law until 1881 when a ‘poll tax’ was introduced for Chinese entering New Zealand.

The 1920 Immigration Restriction Act allowed the Minister of Customs to exclude any people who were ‘unsuitable’. While not officially adopting the ‘White New Zealand’ immigration policy, the law was used in practice to restrict the immigration of Asian people, especially Chinese. The idea of a ‘White New Zealand’ was supported by the early Labour as well as the Liberal and Reform parties (forerunners of National, which formed when they merged).

While Asian students began coming to New Zealand to study under the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, some choosing to stay after completing study, the 1920 law was used to restrict Asian immigration throughout most of the twentieth century. From 1974 criteria for entry to New Zealand gradually changed from race or nationality to merits and skills, but it wasn’t until the 1987 Immigration Act that legal discrimination against some races and nationalities was ended.

Today migrant workers are still struggling for their equal rights.  Burger King has always remained to be the fast food company which pays the lowest wages. Even some of those who have worked there for over ten years are still struggling on minimum wage. One of the biggest issues presented is the exploitation and bullying of migrant workers.

Many employers threaten their migrant workers by saying they might withdraw the workers’ work visa. Thus many migrants end up working under unreasonable working conditions and extremely low wages. While some unions still maintain a hostile attitude towards immigrants, Unite has made an impact organising in migrant workers in fast food, an industry which employs a large number of international students.

As an international student myself, I am currently holding a student visa and I am allowed to work up to 20 hours a week except for summer and winter holidays. In 2011, which was my first year in New Zealand, I had three jobs at different Chinese restaurants in Christchurch. Due to my lack of knowledge of New Zealand’s employment law and a strong English language barrier, I believed that it is ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable’ to work on nine dollars an hour in the first three-month trial period. At all of these restaurants I was getting paid cash.

I was being told off all the time. My bosses pointed at my nose and yelled at me almost every time I was on my shift, mostly because I was not moving fast enough or smiling enough to the customers.  I had to cover all the ‘losses’ made by myself due to careless working. The worst times were when the till was fifty dollars short, or when customers ran away without paying the bills.

The first place I worked at was called Zest Noodle House. My bosses would tell me to leave when there were not enough customers so they could just work by themselves. Sometimes after a long commute to work they told me to leave after one and half or two hours because it was not ‘busy enough’.

I signed the date, my name, starting time and finishing time of the day on a notebook they had for all the staff, and they paid every one of us cash on our last shift of the week. Unsurprisingly, the cash was always short, sometimes 50 cents, sometimes a few dollars.

I ended up quitting the job, like all the other previous staff had. I never got time and a half pay on public holidays, or sick pay. As I heard from previous co-workers and Chinese friends, this sort of thing is a common experience, and a common response; leaving instead of reporting the employers or taking other action. It is a sad but ‘normal’ thing that we are all shy, scared, or confused and never tell anyone else or get help.

Now it has been over two years since I was employed by those Chinese restaurants’ owners, and I do regret not standing up for myself and the co-workers. Of course horrible things as such do not just happen to us Chinese girls. One of my Thai friends told me the situation is exactly the same at the restaurant she was working at. She was threatened that her visa would be withdrawn if she refused to get paid ten dollars per hour cash.

More recently I was employed at a dairy shop in south west Christchurch. I was extremely happy when they decided to hire me, because they agreed to pay me proper minimum wage and tax to the government rather than cash ‘under the table’, but I left after one year due to sexual harassment over the last two months at the dairy shop.

One shift I was doing the ‘end of the day settlement’ and closing the shop, my boss threw 50-dollar note at my face, ‘he said the camera was off and no one would ever know, plus I needed cash anyway’. I said there is no way I am going to do that, and then quit the job not long after.

I had a long talk with him. I said “Look, you’ve got a lovely wife and a 23-year-old daughter. If you stop doing this, I will not report you, because your wife (the other boss of mine) is the nicest boss I have ever had. But you have to promise to stop doing this, otherwise I really will go report you” He agreed.

A little over six months since I quit the job at the dairy, a young woman who works at a neighbouring shop (owned by the same people as the dairy shop) contacted me and told me that the boss attempted to harass another Chinese girl who works there, who then quit.

This time I will not let him go. We have agreed that the girl from the dairy, the girl from the neighbouring shop, and I are going to report this boss together.

At the beginning of last year, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies pointed out that Kiwi xenophobia has been growing. I have experienced Xenophobia myself. Some employers only seek for similar values and beliefs, and avoid ‘the others’.

Maintaining a work visa is of upmost importance to many migrant workers. To some of us, the most difficult condition we face is that we could be arrested and deported for militant action. But since we have the most to lose from militant action, sometimes we do know a lot about unionism and politics.

A Japanese friend of mine also told me that his previous boss promised to get him a work visa for his permanent residency if he agreed to work under certain wage and conditions. He worked for a year, but the work visa or residency never happened.

Migrant workers are part of the working class too. Regardless of our ethnicity, we do work and we contribute to New Zealand society. We bring our experiences from our home countries, and help the New Zealand working class to be more cosmopolitan and international. It is important to defend all workers against attacks, including the controls put on migrant workers that help maintain their oppression and exploitation. Capitalism exploits the global working class as a whole, therefore, the more we unite workers together, not divide workers along lines of race or nationality, the stronger we get, and the better we can fight against the system itself.

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Union movement gathers for ‘Fairness at Work’

MANA at CTU biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

MANA at Council of Trade Unions biennial conference (including Fightback members Heleyni and Grant)

Adapted from an article for Kai Tiaki Nursing NZ. By Grant Brookes, delegate for the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and Fightback member.

132 delegates, representing nearly 300,000 union members, met in Wellington on 9-10 October.

The Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference 2013 examined the issues facing working people in New Zealand since the last gathering in 2011, and debated how to promote “Fairness at Work” as we face a fork in the road over the next two years.

Down one possible path, our future will see the end of guaranteed meal breaks, a loss of bargaining power, rising inequality and growing insecurity at work.

But the good news, conveyed in a speech to the Conference by Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, is that we are heading towards election year with the momentum to create a different future.

Former NZNO organiser Jeff Sissons, now working as the CTU General Counsel, began by giving an overview of where we’re at now.

The proportion of workers belonging to a union fell from 50% to just over 20% during the 1990s, he said, as the National Government removed the legal right to belong to a union, in breach of our international human rights obligations.

The Employment Relations Act, passed by the Labour-led government in 2000, enabled unions to halt the decline. But it wasn’t enough to generate any real recovery, and workers in many jobs (especially in the private sector) are still without union protection.

As a result, New Zealand had the fastest growing gap between rich and poor of any developed country over the last 20 years.

Jeff Sissons discussed international research by two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, showing that this inequality is behind many of today’s public health problems, from obesity, to mental illness and child mortality from accidents. And New Zealand’s income gap is still growing.

The Conference also launched a major new CTU report on the silent epidemic of insecure work (http://union.org.nz/underpressure). Under Pressure: Insecure Work in New Zealand shows that at least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are now in jobs without guaranteed hours, ongoing certainty of employment, or employment rights like sick leave, holidays, safety at work and freedom from discrimination. These workers often lack sufficient income and are powerless to change their situation.

CTU President Helen Kelly said the problem of insecure work could affect up to 50% of New Zealand’s workers. It has spread far beyond groups like young people working in fast food and is now creeping into the “good jobs” in health, banking, higher education and in government departments.

Helen Kelly mentioned the 120 staff employed in Elderslea Rest Home in Upper Hutt, who were told in July that management wanted to remove permanent rosters and roster them all casually, according to occupancy.

National’s latest changes to the Employment Relations Act will accelerate these trends and bring the problem of insecure work to more and more workplaces.

But in a keynote address, newly-elected Labour Party leader David Cunliffe spelled out his commitments for working people (https://www.labour.org.nz/media/speech-ctu-conference).

“Labour will immediately raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We will support the campaign for a Living Wage for all New Zealanders. A Labour Government I lead will scrap National’s unfair employment law changes – in the first hundred days.

“There will be no more fire at will without even an explanation. There will be no more attacks on collective bargaining, giving employers the right to opt out of good faith process. There will be no more attacks on vulnerable workers. There will be no more taking away smokos and lunch breaks.

“We will restore the protections for our most vulnerable workers currently contained in Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act.

“We will scrap youth rates because they violate the principle of equal pay for equal work. We will work to ensure pay equity. Labour will extend paid parental leave to a minimum of 26 weeks, as set out in Sue Moroney’s Member’s Bill.

“The Labour Government I lead will turn back the tide of anti-worker legislation that has been flowing from the Key Government for the last five years.”

Both Cunliffe and Metiria Turei signaled support for an overhaul of employment laws, tying into CTU efforts to move beyond the Employment Relations Act and further strengthen unions, collective bargaining and security at work.

“Labour will implement a new employment relations framework based on industry standard agreements”, said Cunliffe, “whereby working New Zealanders have a real choice to get together and negotiate better pay and conditions with their employers.”

But it also appeared that Cunliffe is straddling a contradiction. “These changes are not a one-off”, he said. “They need to be an enduring part of a New Zealand that finds common ground between productive workers and good employers.”

What happens when there is no “common ground”?

Cunliffe plugged his appointment of unionists Andrew Little, Darien Fenton and Carol Beaumont to industrial relations positions. But at the same time, he has appointed neo-liberal hardliner David Parker to the finance portfolio.

“New Zealand needs a strategic shift in economic management”, he said, “from a cost-based strategy that treats workers as commodities whose cost is to be minimised, to one that sees workers as an integral part of a system that creates high value products and services”.

Does this verbal sleight-of-hand conceal two economic management strategies which are essentially the same?

The contradiction was also clear in Cunliffe’s response to a question from the Conference floor about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He expressed support for PHARMAC, but also reiterated his party’s conditional support for the free trade deal threatening our state drug-buying agency.

How Cunliffe’s contradiction would play out in practice in a Labour-led government will depend on how unions respond.

Metiria Turei credited our movement with opening up the possibility of a different future, a path that is “good for people, good for the planet”.

“Workers and their unions are among those at the heart of the gathering momentum”, she said. “Thousands have joined rallies and stood up against National’s attacks”.

Helen Kelly called on us to “continue the local activism to get workers on the roll and out in the election campaign – not just to vote – connecting all the campaigns to make wages and work a key election issue” (http://union.org.nz/news/2013/speech-nzctu-president-helen-kelly-nzctu-biennial-conference-2013).

The next step, she said, is the referendum on the sale of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, to be held between 22 November and 13 December.

NZNO supports the Save Our Assets campaign because warm homes, power prices and ultimately electricity privatisation are a health issue.

“We need to use events like the asset sale referendum to maximum advantage”, said Helen Kelly.  “Delegates in workplaces can facilitate the voting in the asset sale referendum – get people who do not get a paper to get on the roll, and check that those with a paper cast their vote.

“We then need to keep the momentum going into next year.  We can make the difference.”

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.

Leaflet: Stop the scab bills

Clearly we must oppose National’s attacks.

As Greg Lloyd, EPMU General Counsel pointed out in his article “Looking at the Big Picture,” the apparently minor and technical changes in the ERA Amendment Bill amount to an attempt to undermine collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, Jami-Lee Ross’ private members’ bill allows employers to bring in temporary staff (scabs) while workers are on strike.

We can only improve our wages and conditions if we oppose these attacks, and defend the right to collectively bargain at a minimum.

Not just about voting
The National government needs to be defeated.

However, during 9 years of a Labour Party government, real wages continued to decline while the rich list shot up. Labour’s Employment Relations Act also contains significant restrictions on the right to strike, which is necessary to workers’ power.

It was only a mass campaign under the slogan Supersizemypay, including both political campaigning and industrial action, that finally saw the rise to a $12 minimum wage in 2008.

Regardless of who is in parliament, we must organise in our communities to challenge these attacks from the ground up.

We need fighting unions
Labour leaders including Darien Fenton have argued that the scab bill is unnecessary, because strike rates are so low. However, the lack of strike action is part of the problem.

Unions currently cover less than 10% of the private sector, while real wages have declined 25% over the past 30 years.

In Europe and elsewhere, generalised strike action has confronted the march of austerity and offered a vision of peoples’ power. We need to rebuild a union movement willing to take action, in workplaces and communities, to challenge the attacks of successive Labour and National governments.

[‘Stop the Scab bills’ leaflet pdf]
[Day of Action details]

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.

A New Vision Needed By Labour Movement

unite bunny st picket

Reprinted from The Daily Blog (Aotearoa/NZ). By Mike Treen, Unite Union National Secretary.

One of the disappointing aspects of some labour movement leaders comments on the private members bill to legalise scabbing was that it wasn’t needed because strikes were so low in this country.

But that is part of the problem. It is true that industrial action has reached record lows in this country. The employers as a consequence just seem hungry for more.

New Zealand workers have some of the fewest legal protections in the world. Even the USA has time and a half after 40 hours in their law! In many states unions can impose union recognition and compulsory unionism by a majority vote of the affected staff. In New Zealand that isn’t even on the agenda as a possible discussion point.

The one minor legislative entitlement won under the last labour government (making meal and rest breaks a legal entitlement) is being taken away by the government. The previous Labour Government also gave unions the right to access workplaces to sign up new members but membership as a percentage of the private sector workforce continued to decline overall and now stands at less than 10%.

This was a product of a long retreat of the union movement following the passing of the Employment Contracts Act into law in 1991. Union membership halved in numbers and went from 40% to 20% of the workforce and stayed at that level despite the economic growth and new legal rights under the 1999-2008 Labour Government.

Alongside the deunionisation went a radical restructuring of the workforce. Full time male employment fell for a period then recovered at a lesser rate than the working age population. Part time and casual work expanded. Cheaper female employment rose for both full-time and part time.

Real wages were driven down 25% in real terms in the 1990s and have never recovered since. Whole industries were largely deunionised. One sector my union represents in the international Hotel chains went from a standard employment agreement of full-time work with penal rates for overtime and on the weekends, to being effectively on the minimum wage, having no guaranteed hours and no penal rates or other allowances. Their real wage decline was probably in the order of 40 to 50%. [Read more…]

State gives McDonald’s $270,000 in subsidies

McDonalds-strike--1may2013--Sophie-Lowery

Article and Official Information Act request by Byron Clark, Fightback.

In 2009 the Ministry of Social Development began paying wage subsidies to McDonalds when the company hired beneficiaries though the Flexi-wage and Skill Investment Subsidy programmes, the latter of which has now ceased. This allowed McDonalds to receive public money for employing a former beneficiary, longer term beneficiaries would attract a larger subsidy, though there has never been any evidence that McDonalds is employing more people than they would otherwise.

McDonalds is not a charity providing jobs, nor are they a volunteer based NGO that hires paid staff based on the availability of funding. As a for profit corporation, McDonalds has a duty to return a profit to shareholders and will hire the amount of workers required to produce and sell their product. Even with subsidies it is not in their interests to hire more workers than required, as this would be an unnecessary expense.

So just how much public money has been paid to McDonalds? Figures obtained under the Official Information Act reveal that $272,574 was paid between July 1 2009, when the subsidies began, and June 30 this year.  This was for hiring 110 beneficiaries. Some McDonald’s restaurants are listed with Work and Income under their individual franchise, and are not included in that figure, so the total is likely to be higher. A further 700 beneficiaries were hired without McDonalds receiving wage subsidies.

While receiving tax payer money, McDonalds in New Zealand has also been accused of using accounting tricks to avoid paying tax. A large amount of revenue is excluded from taxable profit because it used to pay for use of the McDonalds trademark, $50 million more was spent on trademark fees than tax in the past three years.

McDonalds has an income of about $200 million a year in New Zealand, so the wage subsidies are just a drop in the bucket, this doesn’t mean they are insignificant however, rather it raises the question of why public money should be spent adding to an overflowing bucket.

For the past several months workers at McDonalds have been taking industrial action in an attempt to improve wages or conditions. The company is known for paying lower wages and offering fewer benefits than others in the fast food industry, where Unite has made significant gains for workers. The company is known for paying lower wages and offering fewer benefits than others in the fast food industry, where Unite has made significant gains for workers. Unlocking the wealth generated by McDonald’s workers, and by the majority of workers who pay tax, could lay the basis for a system based on social need rather than private profit.

Interview: The 15 year old fighting back against McDonald’s

Hassan and Marienne start the strike at Wairau Park, Auckland

Hassan and Marienne start the strike at Wairau Park, Auckland

An interview with Hassan Al-Fadhi (2/7/13) originally published on Unite News.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hassan. I’m 15 years old, I’m a student at Glenfield College and I work part time at McDonald’s.

What happened tonight?

Tonight I was working in the kitchen at McDonald’s in Wairau Park [Auckland]. My union organiser, Shane, came in and said that it was a perfect time to go on strike because it was so busy. Nearly all of the people working were members of the union but they were really scared. I thought ‘screw this’, clocked out and told the restaurant manager I was going on strike. I took off my gloves and apron and walked out.

Did anyone come with you?

My friend Marienne came on strike with me too, even though she was scared before. Then we went to Constellation Drive McDonald’s and three more workers came on strike with us. I’m happy that I stood up for myself and I’m stoked that Marienne and the other workers came too. Now that everyone has seen that we went on strike and nothing bad happened I think they will come next time.

Why should McDonald’s workers go on strike?

McDonald’s workers should all go on strike because we work really hard but we need more hours and we need more pay. When we don’t strike no one listens to us. If they don’t listen the first time we need to keep striking until they do.

Are you proud of yourself?

Yep, and Marienne too.

Millenial generation: Casualisation and resistance

millenials boomers

Ian Anderson, Fightback.

Middle-brow sections of the capitalist press have criticised ‘millenials’ in recent months, and millenials in turn have responded through blogs and other media. Also termed Generation Y, the ‘millenial’ generation broadly covers people born between 1980 and 2000 – “teenagers and twenty-somethings.”

In May, Time Magazine ran a cover story describing millenials as the “Me Me Me generation.”  Author Joel Stein was quick to distinguish himself from previous generations of crotchety, anti-youth reactionaries through an appeal to science; “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.”

Stein cited statistics that ‘millenials’ have a higher rate of narcissism than previous generations. These statistics are disputed. However, some generational trends are harder to dispute; millenials are less likely to own property, more likely to live with their parents, more likely to be politically cynical than previous generations.

In liberal US paper The Nation, student Emily Crockett noted the most “glaring omission” from Stein’s Time magazine rant; the declining economic conditions faced by millenials compared with their parents.  In fact, Crockett noted that the closest Stein came to acknowledging “low-income youth” consisted of a mocking jab about “ghetto-fabulous lifestyles.”

More recently in Australian women’s publication Daily Life, columnist Daniel Stacey argued that the casualisation of work in recent decades has forced millenials to adapt their behaviour; “The fundamental error here is to mistake the adaptive behaviours of a new generation for the cause behind labour market changes.” Stacey argued that much of this adaptive behaviour, particularly disloyalty to companies, is a form of individual resistance. [Read more…]