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


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…]

Pakeha Party founder tells striking McDonalds workers to “get another job”

The ongoing attack on workers’ rights

Unionised Rockgas workers target Jami-Lee Ross' office.

Unionised Rockgas workers target Jami-Lee Ross’ office.

Joel Cosgrove, Fightback member.

It’s ironic that the Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Bill is being put forward by National backbench MP Jami-Lee Ross. The bill which allows employers to bring in temporary staff (scabs) to work when workers are on strike is  being put forward by an MP who has no history of actual work, having first been elected to the Manukau City Council at 18 in 2004 and then to the parliamentary seat of Botany at 25 in 2011. [Read more…]

Unite’s long fight for improvements at McDonald’s

bunny st thumbs up

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). [Read more…]

Strike report: Bunny Street McDonalds, Wellington

Heleyni on megaphone outside of Bunny St

Bunny St McDonalds had its second McStrike today with seven members of staff dropping tools and coming out to join the picket line, in fact they’d already come outside before the picket line had even been set up.

The picket began as supporters came around the corner and saw the workers already set up outside, with the first chant of the day starting “old McDonalds had a strike, e I e I o, and on that strike there was Unite, e I e I o. With a strike, strike here and a strike, strike there. Here a strike, there a strike, everywhere a strike strike. Old McDonalds had a strike…”

There was a huge well of support for the strike, with a large, visible majority of people clearly choosing not to come inside (the difference in walk in traffic is obvious as soon as the picket line ends, people flood in).

The store owner was clearly rattled and angry, demanding that we stay well clear of the main door and that we don’t try to dissuade people from coming inside, claiming that he was concerned about ‘health and safety’. When challenged that real health and safety issues were understaffing his store, paying the minimum wage, and in effect stealing pay by not letting staff go on their legal breaks, he stalked inside glaring outside every so often.

A number of people decided to show solidarity by going elsewhere, when confronted with the workers and the picket line.

A small minority of people decided to push their way through in their desperate desire to get their burgers. The people who pushed through were arguing a number of points, that it was their right, that we would get more support if we just let people in, or that they just wanted to get in and we weren’t going to stop them.

What’s interesting about this situation with these people who pushed so hard for their right to consume their burger, is the primacy of the relationship between the consumer and the burger, if they were confronted by the workers, they quickly pushed past and went inside, desperately trying to ignore them. The relationship is between the consumer and the burger, not the consumer and the worker.

Already rumours are going around of wildcat strikes all around the city that haven’t happened, and yet the workers at various stores swear they have. Management are trying desperately to shut down any discussion about what is happening and yet this is only giving off the impression that there is something to hide, which fuels the interest and reputation of the union.

On Monday the first public War Council meeting will be held [6pm at Peoples’ Cinema] for Unite members and supporters to plan and organize future actions and stunts. Members have been really excited at the idea of coming together and pushing this campaign forwards and fighting to win.

Unite takes on McDonald’s in high stakes fight for low-paid workers


Originally printed by Green Left Weekly (Australia). By Joel Cosgrove, Fightback member.

After a relatively quiet couple of years, the Unite union, which organises fast food and other previously unorganised sectors, has burst into action with a vigorous industrial campaign against McDonald’s.

The key demands are focused around winning a NZ$15 starting wage, an end to casualised hours, a fair and transparent roster system and a number of union-only benefits, most of which have already been won by KFC Unite members.

Unite gained national attention when it began its campaign in 2005. The campaign focused on developing union membership in the fast food industry, as well as campaigning for a $12 minimum wage and an end to youth pay rates.

The campaign achieved collective contracts in most of the major fast food chains ・ McDonalds’, Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) and Restaurant Brands (KFC, Carls Jr, Starbucks, Pizza Hutt) for the first time since the end of compulsory unionism in the 1980s.

This was not an easy or smooth process. There were lightning strikes, wildcat strikes and walkouts. There was more initial success at Restaurant Brands (especially KFC), where union density was higher and management resistance towards the union was less deep- set than at McDonald’s.

McDonald’s have an international structure centred on McDonald’s HQ at Oak Brook, Illinois and “Hamburger University” — a 12,000 square metre complex.

McDonald’s claims its “university” to be “the company’s global center of excellence for McDonald’s operations training and leadership development”, churning out 5000 graduates a year and claiming to have graduated more than 80,000 “students”.

The role of the university is to centralise the company’s indoctrination process, building a consciously crafted global corporate culture. In New Zealand, this has been reflected in a culture of bullying, intimidation and anti-unionism that is spread through local operations.

McDonald’s has never been willing to give an inch. Every win has been heavily fought for.

The current dispute revolves around an offer of a $0.25 increase in all rates over a two year period. For those on starting rates, that is actually just the government mandated rise to the minimum wage.

An even more extreme perspective is held by most franchisee owners, who have expressed a desire to not even have collective contracts.

Unite has been building members numbers for several years now. The claims being put forward are being compared to the conditions already won by KFC workers. This example has been very useful to date in putting forward their example as a way forward for McDonald’s workers to begin the struggle for improved conditions.

In light of the miserly offer from the company and hostility from franchisee owners, 85% of members voted in support of industrial action in a recent nationwide ballot.

The process of starting this campaign has unearthed a raft of complaints and issues at McDonald’s nationwide. Most prominent was the revelation that union member Sean Bailey was told by a manager that “if you act gay on my shift, I will discipline you” and “if you turn anyone else in the store gay, I will punish you and make you lose your job”.

Similar issues of bullying and harassment have come to light, including not being able to take breaks and not being paid for overtime.

At a demonstration in Auckland with about 30 members and supporters, a large contingent of police arrived and roughly pushed away protesters who had been blocking access to an inner-city McDonald’s store. Police claimed the protesters were negatively affecting custom to the store, something the union stated was its right.

In the furore over the issue, Unite members in McDonald’s and other fast food stores brought up the issue of police getting free or heavily discounted food.

Although initially denied, a police spokesperson then scoffed at the idea that police could be “brought off” with burgers. McDonald’s said individual franchisee owners made the decision to give discounts to “emergency services workers”.

This was shown to be an insultingly mockery of the truth when a union member supplied to media a photo showing a button titled “police promo” on their electronic tills.

In the aftermath of these revelations, police officers provided anonymous statements about being disgusted at other officers’ taking these perks. Fast food workers came forward with similar stories and the police and police minister had to retract their statements from two days earlier.

Union pickets in the South Island have been driven into by customers seemingly desperate for their cheeseburger fix. Overall though, members of the public have been supportive of the campaign. Therer have been very few attempts to break picket lines in Wellington recently and fewer still managing to get through.

Pickets and protests have been marked by strong support from both pedestrians and passing vehicles.

A Unite “war council” has been formed in Wellington to coordinate the protests and strikes. Auckland are holding a “McStrike Training Day” to build the skills, contacts and networking that is required to win.

See also: McDonald’s hit by first ever strike in Wellington