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.