“Workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, they’re brave”: Organisation of migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa

we feed you nuw

By Ani White.

It’s an open secret that the conditions faced by migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand are dire.

In Aotearoa, a study conducted by Sue Bradford for FIRST Union and the Union Network of Migrant Workers (UNEMIG), released on UNEMIG’s fifth anniversary in August 2017, found evidence of dire exploitation of Filipino migrants in the dairy farm industry. The study interviewed 27 Filipino workers, three local workers, and one dairy farm manager. Health and safety precautions were practically nonexistent:

One farm worker said he wasn’t given a helmet to ride around on a motorbike and another said that for two years, he was made to ride a bike that didn’t have lights or brakes.

Another respondent said he was not provided proper training or wet weather gear, and had to pay $700 from his own pocket to buy one.[1]

This abuse is not limited to Filipino dairy workers. More than half of the Bay of Plenty’s kiwifruit employers audited in 2017 did not meet basic employment standards, as highlighted by FIRST Union when it launched its new Kiwifruit Workers Alliance.[2] Ni-Vanuatu workers in Marlborough’s vineyard sector approached Stuff anonymously with reports of underpayment.[3] Migrant worker abuse in Aotearoa extends throughout many industries, as found in a 2016 study interviewing more than 100 migrant workers, the first independent evidence-based study of its kind.[4]

In Australia, a Four Corners study into migrant farm work uncovered similar shocking conditions. Workers were paid as little as $3.95 an hour, worked shifts as long as 22 hours, and reported performing sexual favours to extend their visas, among numerous other abuses.5 Moreover, law-abiding farmers were priced out of the market. This shows that the brutality of the industry is not simply a matter of individual bad farmers, but compulsions of capital that must be resisted collectively.

Fortunately, FIRST Union in Aotearoa and the National Union Workers (NUW) in Australia have both taken up the organisation of migrant farm workers.

Mandeep Singh Bela, an organiser for FIRST Union and the coordinator of UNEMIG, says that working in isolated environments and having a lack of access to information about their rights is a major factor in migrant workers’ abuse. “Being a migrant myself in this country since 2009, I worked in the kiwifruit industry, and I’ve been in a similar boat, where I was paid below minimum wage entitlements, I was exploited, didn’t know where to go for help.” Bela moved on to work at Pak N Save, where FIRST is active, and became active in the union. To address the isolation and lack of information for migrant workers, FIRST and UNEMIG have now released a Migrant Workers’ Rights Passport(MWRP), which contains information on employment rights for migrants, collective agreements, and legal and mental health support services. The booklet will act as a work guide and vital connection point for migrants so they can safely work in Aotearoa.

Tim Nelthorpe, a national organiser with Australia’s NUW farm organising team, explains that the NUW has been organising in the horticulture sector for three years (Nelthorpe adds that while FIRST has been organising in the sector for even less time, the NUW has been impressed with their work rapidly winning over “hearts and minds”). One major cue was when members of the NUW, previously employed by poultry suppliers, moved into horticulture and reported shocking conditions, asking the union to take this issue up.

“We’re a supply chain union so we’re the union for the warehouse,” Nelthorpe explains. “The missing part of the supply chain should be in our union, and our members want those workers to be paid properly.” Aotearoa’s FIRST Union is similarly a supply-chain union with many members in supermarkets and warehouses.

Organisation at multiple points in the supply chain allows the NUW to place pressure at one point, for results at another point. Members who were worker-shareholders at Coles and Woolworths were able to place shareholder pressure in support of farm workers. “When they mess with our farm workers they mess with our supermarket workers as well,” Nelthorpe adds.

Horticulture workers have also taken industrial action on a range of issues, often independently of the union. Nelthorpe explains how a recently recruited delegate was able to build a culture of strike actions around a health & safety issue: “Whenever those chemicals came in to be sprayed he walked into the middle of the packed shed and say ‘right: OUT!’ And the whole workforce would walk out. In a highly organised CFMEU [Australian construction worker’s union] site that’s probably not unusual, but in a new industry, it just shows you that it’s inherent in people, they just need a supportive structure and they can do the rest.”

Nelthorpe explains that the lawlessness of the industry can go both ways. “Think of it like the jungle. In the jungle where there’s no laws, people take industrial action, and employers take industrial action too, so employers will sack all workers and cash contractors in a day, the employers will call Immigration on their own workforce, but at the same time, workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, the undocumented workers, they’re brave, they’ll walk off a job, they’ll do a go slow, they’ll rock up to their contractor’s house demanding money, because they have to.”

Through militant action, NUW members have won a number of victories. Firstly, the NUW managed to smash cash contracting in South-East Melbourne and Northern Adelaide. Workers on some sites have made an impressive leap from $12 an hour to $22 an hour. Delegate structures are consolidating. Nelthorpe says the NUW is on the cusp of winning casual over-time in the industry and is also focused on challenging piece rates.

Nelthorpe says there are three major factors that enable abuse in the horticulture industry. Firstly, the award system; while Australia has a system of industry awards setting minimum wages and conditions, horticulture has the worst award of any industry, for example not requiring overtime pay. Secondly and thirdly, the interlinked issues of cash contracting and insecure working visas. “Cash contractors in the most seasonal industries, say grapes, strawberries, asparagus, stone fruit citrus, they control the point of entry into the industry to the point that if you want to work in a lot of the sites you have to stay in the contractor’s house, you have to use the contractor’s transport, you have to use the contractor’s preferred unlicensed migration agent to get your visa made,” Nelthorpe explains. “That means that it’s very hard for people who feel bonded to break away from that without really taking serious risks.” In Aotearoa, the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme similarly keeps migrant workers insecure, along with other bonded working visas.

Nelthorpe is sharply critical of unionists who push a ‘local jobs for local workers’ line. Excluding migrants from the union movement is self-defeating, because “there’s 1.8 million temporary migrant workers in Australia, which is 10 percent of the workforce, and union density has gone through the floor.”

“Workers should be able to go where ever they want to go. Capital can flow so workers should be able to flow as well. And unions should be able to adapt to that and support any worker that wants to join a union.”

Crucially, standing for migrant worker rights allows unions to set minimum standards, rather than letting the abuse of a vulnerable workforce drive down conditions for all. “So there’s the self-interest element, but also these are the workers that are picking and packing the food that we eat. And every person has a responsibility to make sure people are treated with respect.”

Despite wages and conditions in the industry being dire by Australian standards, wages are still often better than in migrant workers’ origin countries. For that reason among others, wages matter, but aren’t the main issue driving organisation in the industry. “Respect is the deeper issue, and being able to have a voice at work.” explains Nelthorpe.

Organising in an industry with an international workforce also has distinct aspects. Organising must be multilingual, with materials in the first language of members, and a multilingual organising team. Members also bring the political concerns of their communities to the union.

Nelthorpe recalls a 2017 NUW mobilisation against genocide in Myanmar. “Our Rohingyan membership in Melbourne were looking to do something in solidarity with their community, and so they turned to the union cause they’ve got no-one else really, and we helped them organise a rally in Collins Street in the city, and to be honest it was the most powerful inspiring rally I’ve ever been to.”
“About 200 members of the community mobilised, you had NUW flags, the night before the rally we worked with the group at the Trades Hall studio, they made all their own banners, made their own blood-splattered or red paint splattered clothing, and it was just an outpouring of grief for the community. When you think about what a union can be, sometimes we get caught in this narrow wages and conditions prison, and we get caught in the workplace level, but a union’s much more than that, and for these workers, the union was the vehicle through which they could express their grief and anger at what’s happening to their people. That community will always love the union because of that experience, and when they’ve got nowhere else to turn, they turn to the union. So since that rally we’ve had a number of refugee rallies, at which members and organisers of the union have spoken, and they connect the struggle of the union with the struggle against Mandatory Detention, the struggle against a backward racist immigration system, there’s massive opportunities there to break the racial stereotypes, the racial language that’s used to denigrate refugees in this country.”

In Aotearoa, FIRST Union members and organisers also take action on international political issues. In 2007, current FIRST Union president Dennis Maga faced potential arrest in his home country of the Philippines for protesting against the president’s visit, a threat that was averted.[6] FIRST’s mobilisation against repression in the Philippines continues to this day,[7] alongside the more recent organisation of migrant farm workers. FIRST in Aotearoa and NUW in Australia show that migrants’ issues are workers’ issues.

1http://www2.nzherald.co.nz/the-country/news/article.cfm?c_id=16&objectid=11907236
2https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/business/357040/exploitation-of-kiwifruit-workers-is-rife-union
3https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/90410800/nivanuatu-rse-workers-and-marlborough-vineyard-contractor-embroiled-in-contract-dispute
4https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11766210
5https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/four-corners-investigation-reveals-exploitation-and-slave-like-conditions-on-farms-supplying-aussie-supermarkets/news-story/e3264dc44240a65308c226c80e67bb7a
6http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0705/S00563.htm
7https://filipinosolidarity.wordpress.com/2017/12/31/auckland-philippines-solidarity-in-2017-a-retrospect/

Is Marxism just about factory workers?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In short: no. Or, it shouldn’t be.

A Marxist analysis of capitalism highlights who owns the means of production: farms, factories and so on. Most people in capitalist society do not own factories. That includes the unemployed, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, public-sector workers, students, caregivers, most self-employed people,1 and peasants – although there aren’t many peasants around these days. Workers are those compelled to sell their labour to live, whether they currently do so or not.

Although most people share a common dispossession, we also have diverse experiences, and distinct social positions. Caregivers may do essential work, but it’s distinct in purpose and experience from factory work. Tithi Bhattarachaya outlines this relationship:

If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker? Put another way: What kinds of processes enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society? What role did breakfast play in her work-readiness? What about a good night’s sleep?2

These basic needs are often met or assisted by unpaid, or underpaid caregivers. Marxist feminists have focused on this work, often performed by women, terming it social reproduction. Caregiving work reproduces not just the person, but the whole social system (you can’t have capitalism without workers, workers without food, food without a cook – often cooking free of charge). While recent socio-economic shifts may have undermined the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, Time Use Surveys show that women still perform most unpaid work.

Various forms of wage labour, other than factory work, are also clearly necessary to capitalism. Sales, banking, translation, and various other jobs lubricate a complex social system. Capitalists would not pay workers if they were unnecessary. Public-sector workers maintain the state and social services, stabilising the social system (for better or worse).

Unemployed people are the most dispossessed, of course. Despite regular propaganda to the contrary, unemployment is a structural failing rather than a personal one. As a socialist friend of mine put it, did everyone just suddenly get lazier in the 1980s, when unemployment rose? In Alister Barry’s documentary In a Land of Plenty, Susan Snivelly, a member of the Reserve Bank Board of Directors during the crucial reform period of 1985-1992 states:

It was a manageable thing for the Reserve Bank to use unemployment as the way to get wages down. It was far easier than any other means of getting inflation down. So they used it.

Even though insiders admit that unemployment is a structural rather than personal matter, unemployed people face routine abuse and humiliation, from national television to WINZ offices. Auckland Action Against Poverty has blazed a trail in challenging this bullshit, supported financially by FIRST Union: the union movement as a whole must do more to connect the struggles of employed and unemployed workers.

Marx focuses on industrial workers not because they are somehow better than others, more heroic, or more oppressed. Rather, he focuses on industrial workers because they directly produce commodities, the fundamental basis of the profit system. Industrial workers are not the only people oppressed by capitalism, but they pump the heart of the machine. You couldn’t have finance without ore, sheepskin or steel; you could have these things without finance.

Direct disruption of industry interrupts capitalism in a way that other tactics do not – such as voting, or rallies at parliament. This is not to deny we should use other tactics, but to recognise their limitations. Collective, direct action can be powerful and liberating in a way that more symbolic, or isolated actions are not. If workers keep the heart of capitalism pumping, they can also stop the blood-flow. Classical Marxists therefore focus on the strike, the withdrawal of labour at the point of production.

Restructuring of the global economic system has also restructured these points of resistance. Now 10s of 1,000s of factory workers strike in China, whereas factories have largely retreated in relatively prosperous nations such as Australia and Aotearoa.

Yet global restructuring has also opened up new sites of struggle in the ‘deindustrialised’ nations. Although strikes are rare nowadays, and only around 10% of the private sector are unionised, workplace organisation is growing in unexpected areas. As the service sector has grown, it has also become increasingly militant, with fast food workers carrying out strike actions from Aotearoa to the USA. For decades union leaders saw fast food workers as impossible to organise.

In Aotearoa, most union members are now women,3 in contrast to the stereotype of the male breadwinner. The recent nurses’ struggle in Aotearoa, or the teachers’ strikes in the USA, both powerful struggles showing deep community roots, demonstrate a shift in the union movement towards feminised industries: care, service and public-sector work.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘logistics revolution’ – a move towards automated, rapid global circulation of goods – has opened up ‘chokepoints’ where circulation can be disrupted: “the containerization of bulk goods now allows a single dockworker to do what it took an army to accomplish in the past.”4 In automated ports, a small amount of people enable a large amount of goods to circulate. Ports remain strongly unionised, so blockades remain very disruptive.

Blockades may be led by workers, or by the wider community – but they are strengthened if community groups form links with unions. In the USA, blockades led by Occupy Oakland and the BDS movement have shut down ports, with the support of striking port workers. In Aotearoa, strikes against nuclear shipping played a role in winning the nuclear free policy. As these cases demonstrate, strikes need not be limited to the fight for better wages: they are also a tool in the wider transformation of society.

We cannot and should not return to the age of the Western male breadwinner. However, union and workplace organisation remains a key to broader liberation struggles. If you’re working, join your union! In the likely event your worksite is not unionised, you can find your union online:

  • Aotearoa: union.org.nz/find-your-union/

  • Australia: australianunions.org.au/affiliates

union

1Depending on the size and nature of their business – particularly whether they have employees.

2Tithi Bhattarachaya, Social Reproduction Theory

3Sue Ryall & Stephen Blumenfeld, Unions and Union Membership in New Zealand…, Victoria University of Wellington website https://www.victoria.ac.nz/som/clew/publications/new-zealand-union-membership-survey-report.pdf

4Charmaine Chua, Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints, The Disorder of Things

https://thedisorderofthings.com/2014/09/09/logistics-capitalist-circulation-chokepoints/

Migrants are welcome – Leftist xenophobia is not

refugees-migrants-welcome-here

By Daphne Lawless

When I was a young Alliance activist in Wellington in the 1990s, I knew Frank Macskasy well as a staunch colleague in the fight against the neoliberal assault on workers. It’s very sad to see him now promoting the xenophobic agenda of Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, known as the “Breitbart of the NZ Left”.

TDB is part of the current which I’ve called the “conservative left” – those activists who have taken a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude to the rise of Right-wing populism worldwide, including the Brexit movement in Britain and the Trump movement in the US. I’ve argued that many activists, having spent so long fighting neoliberal globalization, have ended up in a position where they think that anything neoliberals want must be bad. Most unfortunately – in the NZ context – this has turned into a belief that since neoliberals want more immigration, the Left should want less.

Frank’s TDB post harps on the idea that the National government is encouraging immigration as an easy way to “artificially stimulate the economy” (an argument heard recently out of the mouth of New Zealand’s master of xenophobic politics, Winston Peters). The first obvious question should be: if it were that simple to grow the economy, what would be wrong with it? What is wrong in principle to allow anyone willing to come here, work hard and be part of our community to do so? In particular, no Pākehā New Zealander should have the bald-faced cheek to suggest that migration to this country should be treated with suspicion.

Frank skates over the contradiction between the idea that immigration “stimulates the economy” and the idea that it’s problematic “at a time when unemployment was still high.” A stimulated economy means more work available… right? Leaving aside this little problem, Frank goes on:

“The downside to high immigration has been to put strain on critical services such as roading and housing, and reduce demand for locally trained workers to fill vacancies. There is a downward pressure on wages, as cheaper immigrant-labour is brought into the workforce.”

Both Frank’s links go to NZ Herald articles. The first is a column concerning the last Budget, which contains the comment:

“The rise in net migration, on top of natural increases, is putting pressure on the health system, schools, housing and transport.”

I’ve underlined the bit that Frank seems to have missed out. The issue is that population growth is putting pressure on our infrastructure. In Auckland in particular – despite the scare stories from the xenophobic Left and Right – “natural increase” (that is, people having babies and not dying) is a significantly greater contribution to population growth than migration. So where is Frank’s worry about that section of population growth? Why is he not calling for a Chinese-style one-child policy, if the issue is really just about “more people” – rather than the murkier issue of “more people not born here”?

Frank’s second link goes to a report on advice given by Treasury – not generally considered a reliable source of good economic advice by Leftists (except when it confirms their prejudices?) There is of course a real problem with cheap migrant labour. But it’s nothing to do with “New Zealanders being priced out of low-waged jobs”. Firstly, just like it’s always been in this country, migrants tend to do the low-status jobs that New Zealanders don’t want to do – fast food workers or security guards, who might be qualified professionals in their own country, can tell you about that. Secondly, the reason migrant labour is cheap is because of employers cheating the system. We’re talking about migrants having their passports confiscated, and forced either into virtual slave labour, or work of a kind they never wanted to do (such as sex work).

These are real problems. But they are not problems caused by migration. It is caused by migrant workers not getting a fair shake on the basis as all other workers in this country. Get rid of the incentive for human trafficking provided by the current immigration scheme – by giving all those who want to work here the legal right to do so, cracking down on unfair labour practices, and encouraging migrant workers to join unions and fight alongside all other workers for their rights.

Frank and his colleagues at TDB are irresponsibly stoking the forces of racism and xenophobia in this country. Some may be doing so out of nostalgia for a simpler, less culturally diverse New Zealand of the pre-neoliberal era. Some may be doing so out of cynical calculation that migrant-bashing is a way to defeat the hated National government. But it’s a slowly growing sickness on the Left in New Zealand. The Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign has been set up by socialists, unionists and migrant communities who want to stand up and say unashamedly that we are pro-immigration, and pro-worker, and we can’t allow the conservative left to speak for the rest of us.

ANZ workers strike

secure hours ANZ courtenay place

ANZ workers across Aotearoa/NZ (members of FIRST Union) went on strike today, for secure hours and better wages.

ANZ rat frank kitts
ANZ indebts customers and undermines staff, while CEO David Hisco makes over $2000/hr.

ANZ Hisco rat

With more attacks on unions, workers and beneficiaries on the way, collective action like this is exactly what we need. Kia kaha!

See also

MANA and Industrial Relations: “Between equal rights, force decides”

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

MANA at a 2013 McStrike against zero-hour contracts and poverty wages.

Fightback participates in the MANA Movement, whose stated mission is to bring “rangatiratanga to the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed.” Capitalism was imposed in Aotearoa through colonisation, and the fight for indigenous self-determination is intimately connected with the fight for an egalitarian society.

Leading up to the election, we will be examining the major policies that have been developed within MANA over the last three years. As members of MANA we have been a part of the critical (and some times heated) discussions at branch, rohe and national levels, discussing what these policy areas mean as well as what is needed to bring about these radical changes.

This article by Joel Cosgrove (Fightback) examines MANA’s Industrial Relations policy in relation to wider struggles.

Industrial relations are an essential area of struggle. The workplace – the “point of production”  (the space where decisions about what is produced are made) is a primary site of struggle between workers and bosses. The right to strike, the right to organize and the right to associate have been resisted by bosses and their organisations and fought for by workers.

Youth rates, (low) minimum wages and the gender pay gap, are all structural tools that drag down wages as a whole.

Anyone who has worked in the jobs that generally pay youth rates (supermarkets, fast food, retail etc) knows that the work done, whether by a 17 year old or a 19 year old, is no different. Historically it used to be argued that women couldn’t work as hard as men, or do jobs that involved complicated thinking. The point of these claims is an attempt to undermine our pay rates.

Even when the working class is successful in winning gains, the bosses will constantly try to claw them back. Currently in Australia, weekend work is paid out at time and a half (150% of normal pay) and the Abbot government are trying to undermine that by drawing it down to time and a quarter (125%) Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO John Hart has been quoted as saying:

“The industry will most likely save about $112 million each year – with this decision ensuring the industry continues to push for further penalty rate reforms under the Fair Work Commission four- yearly review of Modern Awards.”

Of course, NZ workers have already lost penalty rates for working weekends or after hours.

The battle between workers and bosses is a battle for the profit created through the work of workers and it is at this point, over the pay and conditions that bosses are forced to pay, that the struggle is fiercest.

This is why MANA’s policies around ending the 90 day trial period, youth rates and extending paid parental leave to one year are important elements in a fightback. Supporting gender pay and employment equity is another important aspect of this policy, with the case of Kristine Bartlett’s claim that caregivers (made up of 92% women) being paid at just above the minimum wage demonstrates a gender bias against women currently going through the Court of Appeal.

Aotearoa is a nation framed by overwork or underwork. On average according to the OECD, New Zealanders work 1,762 hours a year compared to places like Germany and Netherlands who work 1,397 and 1,381 hours per year respectively. When you compare the average wages of the respective countries you find that Germans earn $US30,721; the Dutch $US25,697; and New Zealanders $US21,773. Yet polling company Roy Morgan reportthe unemployment rate as being 8.5% (compared to an official rate of 6%), with a further 11.3% under-employed. Collectively, 19.8% of the workforce ( or around 519,000 people) were are either unemployed or under-employed.

British think tank New Economics Foundation has outlined a plan where the average working week is 21 hours a week, almost halving hours worked, while maintaining wages through increased taxation and a number of other measures. The question remaining is how this political change would actually be brought about. As Eco-socialist Ian Angus says, change will not happen just because it is the right thing to do.

Mana’s policies around this area include initially strengthening a return to a 40 hour week and restoring penal rates for those working for over 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day;  increasing sick days from five to ten; and bringing in a minimum redundancy payment of six weeks’ pay for the first year of employment and two weeks’ pay for each subsequent year of employment. The initial aim of these reforms is to make it more expensive for employers to make workers bear the brunt of any changes they make. Employers in Aotearoa have a history of exacting cuts in pay and conditions of employees to increase their rate of profit. Unite Union head Mike Treen has pointed to workers’ productivity increasing by 83% while real wages (inflation adjusted) fell by 25%. This is the result of weak defences of workers’ conditions around hours and penal rates.

Competition between companies over the past few decades has centred on who can cut workers’ pay and conditions the most. In the past industry conditions (or awards) set out minimum conditions and pay that in part functioned to undermine the ability to cut them – the minimum wage is an example of this in action. This is another area covered in MANA’s policy, setting out industry awards/minimum conditions as well as making sure that workers performing any outsourced government services are not employed in worse conditions than those in government, something which is currently endemic with cleaners’ contracts.

As good as these various policies are, they rely on the workers to uphold and push them forward, and to punish employers who break them. The right to strike is central to this. Workers en masse downing tools and stopping production cuts to the chase and forces the issue. The right to strike has been progressively cut back over the years, until in almost all situations it is illegal to strike. MANA policy puts forward “the right to strike for workers to enforce their contact and on any significant political, economic, cultural and environmental issues.”  MANA policy extends the right to strike to these issues but also gives an example of “workers for Fisher and Paykel in New Zealand taking action in support of Fisher and Paykel employees in Thailand”, an important aspect of internationalism demonstrated by the worldwide protests around the world recently in May against McDonalds’ global anti-worker policies.

Yet it was Karl Marx who said “between two equal rights, force is the arbiter”, namely the right of employers to legally undermine workers conditions and workers fight for improved conditions.  For example, from 1990 to 1999 the minimum wage moved from $6.13 to $7.00 and from 2000-2009 the minimum wage increased from $7.00 to $12.50. That the National party (who increased it in the 90’s by 87 cents) have increased the minimum wage since 2008 by $1.75 is something worth investigating further. The difference is the mass struggle that was waged in the 00’s, particularly by Unite Union, which forced the political situation to change – to the point where the National party felt they had to increase the minimum wage each year (in the face of opposition from their own supporters).

What we can see from all this is that these rights are not given, they’re fought for.  MANA might have an excellent industrial policy, but actually bringing this about will be a massive struggle. There are already examples that show how struggle can be waged to win these conditions. We need to learn from them and develop new and creative ways to push forward the fight for a fairer and egalitarian society that benefits the many and not the few.

Socialists and trade unions

bunny st mcdonalds strike unfuck the world

By Ben Petersen (Fightback – Wellington)

Socialists have a long relationship with trade unions. There are exciting chapters of history where socialists have led important working class battles, such as the fight for the eight-hour working day. Today, socialists will often meet in union offices and often will seek to involve unions in our campaigns.

This is not just a coincidence. The socialist movement has important contributions to make to the trade union movement, and needs to consider these organisations to achieve radical change.

Common ground

The socialist movement is a project for revolutionary change. Socialists want to overthrow today’s society based on exploitation, and build a new world where ordinary people have control over their lives and communities. The agent for this change is the working people themselves.

Trade unions are organisations for working people. Trade unions seek to organise workers in a particular industry (such as teachers, construction workers, or dairy workers). A trade union should then represent workers and their interests. Unions fight on the job for better pay and conditions, or for better legislation from government to protect workers or strengthen their bargaining position.

The overlap is obvious. Socialists seek to empower working people to change the world and trade unions are organisations for working people to defend their interests. Socialists participate in trade unions because they provide an important space to build an alternative.

Unionism is a living question

Often socialists talk about trade unions as a question of the past. Historical events are remembered and eulogised, but can be presented in a way that is divided from the present. It is important to remember the important events in union history, such as the great strikes in 1913 or the lockout of the waterside workers in 1951, but this is not to rote learn a historical narrative. Socialists study the radical past to learn lessons to build from today.

Radical unionism is not an identity. Radical unionism is not confined to particular historical periods or militant industries. Unionism is not confined to white men in overalls. The first strike in New Zealand was by Maori forestry workers who demanded to be paid in money or gunpowder, instead of in rations.

Some industries have long traditions of unionism, such as waterside workers and the West Coast miners. But today’s economy is much broader than these industries. There are thousands of workers in education and health care, or in service industries.

For socialist unionists, it is important to be part of building the unions in these areas. Capitalism is a system that serves to exploit. This exploitation changes and develops over time. Capitalism in Aotearoa today has important education industries, and a vast civil service that administers capitalism as a whole. To challenge capitalist exploitation, it is important for trade unions to be in all sectors of the economy.

When workers are organised they can exercise their collective power. A unionised workforce can therefore dictate the terms of their exploitation by going on strike or refusing to work for shit pay, work long hours, or in unsafe conditions. This process is a challenge to the authority of the capitalist system.

Reforms for revolution

Of course, socialists have a vision that looks much further than limiting the forms of exploitation that working people submit to. Any radical that is true to their ideals dreams of overthrowing capitalism and building a new world based on co-operation and social ownership. So for some, this can seem contradictory – if unions are fighting to reform and limit exploitation, is it really a place for revolutionaries?

Fighting for socialism will be a long and complicated process. Achieving a revolution will not be by simply convincing a majority of people that change is necessary, but by building a movement that makes change possible.

One of the challenges in fighting for revolutionary change will be a question of confidence. If working people do not have the confidence in their ability to fight and win a pay rise, do we think that working people can have the confidence to fight for fundamental social change? Winning these small gains can help to show oppressed people their collective strength, and only this strength can open the road to more fundamental change.

Even to be aware of this collective strength is not enough. The power of working people has to be organised and developed. To enable a world where working people run their own communities will need organisation. A socialist future will be built on participatory democracy. To make this democracy possible, working people will need the experience of participating in and organising their workplaces and communities. If working people don’t yet have the organisation to win a pay rise, it won’t be possible to have the organisation to run an alternative society and an economy to support it.

If socialists are serious about working class power, we need to understand that this will not just fall into place. It will need to be built.

Problems of unions

Part of the challenge is that this is not a simple task. The existence of unions is not enough. Many unions today are run by bureaucrats that are more interested in a cushy job than in working class power. Proportionally, wages have decreased for decades, but unions have failed to resist the slide. Failing to protect working people, the union movement has struggled to make itself relevant for working people today. Union membership has decreased to the point were as few as 7% of workers in the private sector are union members.

In many unions, the leaders are divorced from the workers that they are supposed to represent. Union officials often haven’t worked in the industries they nominally represent, and are on wages that are well above that of the industry they organise. Spaces for union members to democratically engage in their union are weak or non-existent. Unions have become ‘professionalised’, where the services of union officials replaces the activity of activists in workplaces.

Socialists support trade unions as organisation for workers to fight for their interests. Therefore, socialists do not support practices that undermine unions, and seek to challenge them.

The militant minority

Socialists support unions because we believe in the power of ordinary people. The role of a socialist in a union can be varied. Socialists will always try to be good unionists at their work, but this can take different paths, depending on a range of factors.

Being a union radical can mean assisting with initiatives in the union and building organisation for the next fight with the boss. It could mean opposing a rotten leadership and building rank and file networks to challenge entrenched bureaucrats. Sometimes socialists may work for unions to contribute to building the organisation as an official.

But always, radical unionists seek to build the capacity for the working class to fight against their oppression.

See also

300 hotel workers strike in Fiji

 

300 workers strike in FijiOn December 31 close to three hundred workers at Sheraton Fiji, Sheraton Villas, and Westin Denarau Island Resort took industrial action. Workers held a spontaneous protest against the unilateral removal of their staff benefits. The strike was initiated by the land owning committee (LOC) after maternity leave and overtime pay entitlements were taken away.

“In fourtee n days we will go back to work… sort things out. All those temporary staff who were supposed to be permanent, they have to be made permanent and those who are owed maternity  leave and sick leave etcetera – they have to be paid,” LOC spokesperson Simione Masicola told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.  [Read more…]

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.

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.