By Bryan Sketchley
After years of union decline in New Zealand, at the hands of anti union labour governments and a concerted effort by the big business Round Table to take advantage of business friendly legislation, a recently formed union has made impressive headway in organising low paid and previously non unionised workers.
Unite has taken advantage of legislative changes and have refused to limit themselves to organising workers in a particular sector of the workforce, instead have signed up members regardless of occupation, full, part time or casual status.
To date Unite has had most success in areas that have been traditionally neglect because of perceptions that they were difficult to organise or had high staff turn over. Over a short period in mid 2005 Unite organisers signed up over 1000 workers in the fast food industry in Auckland. As a result a campaign was launched by Unite to increase minimum pay rates and address the issue of youth rates in the industry. There is currently no minimum rate for 15 year olds, $7.60 per hour for 16 — 17 year olds and $9.50 for 18 and over. Often people on youth rates will find themselves working next to others, doing the same work but being paid considerably less. Because there is no minimum wage set for 15 year olds rates are prone to vary at the wimp of the employer.
The Super Size My Pay campaign has seen lightening strikes called, organised and supported by fast food workers across Auckland, and elsewhere. In November 2005 a unanimous vote for a strike saw a walkout in a recently refurbished million-dollar store. In December another lightening strike was called for by a shift manager and supported by Unite. The campaign has also seen the first ever strike anywhere in the world at Starbucks. The Super Size My Pay campaign is demanding the minium wage be raised immediately to $12 an hour, and the scrapping of youth rates.
New Zealand workers have tasted the bitter fruits of neo-liberalism in a more pronounced manner than Australian workers have. Beyond the raft of anti union laws passed that saw the utter collapse of the union movement there, real wages in the private sector dropped by 6.5% between 1981 and 2001. For the same period in Australia real wages rose some 28%.
Unite uses mostly voluntary organisers to assist in recruiting and campaigns. Many of the volunteers appear to come from the left or are sympathetic organisers from other unions, former organisers and the like. With meagre resources at hand Unite has been able to do what a decade of ‘service’ unionism (arranging cheap home insurance, dental care plans, movie tickets, etc) hasn’t been able to do – grow a union, improve wages and conditions, and restore a sense of pride in calling oneself a unionist.
• Check out Unite at www.unite.org.nz/
or the campaign at www.supersizemypay.com/