Organising fast food workers

Submitted by AWL on 27 September, 2007 - 2:45

Mike Kyriazopolous interviews Jared Phillips, a Unite Fast Food Organiser and Workers Party activist in New Zealand.

MK: How did Unite plan its organising in fast food?

JP: The background is that Unite went from being an unemployed or community union to being a low paid workers’ union. Inroads started in the hotels, Sky City Casino, etc. There were plans to unionise the café industry but the real companies dominant in the service sector are the large brands or chains in the fast food and café industry. The first real campaign here was the Burger King campaign in Auckland which kicked off around 2003/4. However, BK was the last company of the big five that we managed to get a deal with.

Unite organises in BK, McDonalds, Wendy’s and Red Rooster as well as the cinemas. But with Starbucks what we’re talking about is KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks which comprises Restaurant Brands Ltd NZ.

The general approach when going for the big chains had to be a mass one – you need quite a large campaign team routinely visiting sites and building a mass membership, rather than trying to get militants in the store who are “secret”. I think Unite found that militancy came from the mass, not the other way around, as some suggest is the right way to organise in conditions of victimization.

With Starbucks specifically, how much headway have you made?

The structure of the company is you have an area manager with a cluster of five or six Starbucks. Within each store you have a manager, a few assistant managers or shift supervisors. So this is the same as the fast-food structure.

As with the other fast food stores, we negotiated an access protocol. With Restaurants Brands we can basically visit at any time except 12 - 2pm and 5.30 - 8am and 5 - 8pm . We talk to employees one-by-one.

With Starbucks, with some employees, there has been a problem of low wage affluence. Some of the employees see themselves as being above fast food workers because they make coffee. But their wages were actually very low. Now, because of the activity of the union, they are actually getting something nearer to a living wage, if not a living wage. Also another trend in the last couple of years is that all the gas stations are now serving proper coffee, so the higher skill attitude of some of the barristas might start to go.

How did the SupersizeMyPay campaign fit in?

Supersize was a political campaign and an industrial campaign. The main demands were for a $12/ hour minimum wage, abolish youth rates, and security of hours. We made inroads on all of those things. The organisers took those demands out everywhere. It did play a real unifying role in having an industry-wide campaign.

What was the proportion of paid to unpaid organisers involved in getting the campaign off the ground?

Most people in Auckland were getting some sort of pay. But it’s only this year that we’ve been able to employ full time organisers in Wellington and Christchurch . At the start there was a lot of volunteer blood and sweat in setting up Unite. They started with nothing. They ran out of cash at one stage, and then a housekeeper who had left another union gave her redundancy to Unite. But there were a lot of semi-paid volunteers and volunteers in the early period.

Who were the volunteers?

Firstly rank and file militants who had been burnt by other unions, then socialists or communists and anarchists and also, quite importantly, some Maori Sovereignty activists. Also, quite importantly, the unite leadership was formerly involved in the social democratic Alliance Party.

How long was it before you were able to establish delegate structures?

We’re still doing that! It’s been a huge struggle, and we’re still debating how best to do it. This is really a question of organising in the new growth industries as well. You can’t expect to see your delegate when you go on site to do your site visits, ’cos you turn up and there’s like a one in 14 possibility that it’s a shift that your delegate’s on.

I personally advocate the setting up of committees of two-three-four people in each store. In principle they should be elected, but at this early stage, natural leaders just emerge. If We’re trying to build for a really big Restaurant Workers Conference; we want about 175 people from the industry.

How has the Employment Relations Act helped or hindered your organising?

Strikes are illegal outside of the negotiating period. This is a very real shackle which forces us into grievance proceedings to deal with problems, and we are not strong enough to challenge the anti-strike legislation in a front-on way. There was a right to strike campaign a few years ago, but there wasn’t the groundswell of struggle required to bring it through in any meaningful way.

Sometimes I get sick to fuck with people just parroting about the right to strike without addressing what are the problems caused by the inhibiting of strikes in the industry. We are always dealing with casework. Every day, workers have hours stolen, time records adjusted, bullying is rife, incorrect pay, etc, all of this is just ongoing. My impression is that there is a much higher ratio of casework in this industry than the more traditional and secure industries. We get caught up in mediation with so-called “good faith” and so on.

Aside from the negotiating periods, in which there have been many lightening strikes (two to three hour strikes), there has been some other industrial action, for example, a wildcat strike we only found out about after the event. It was at a Starbucks store in fact. Four workers shut the store down for about five hours because of bullying. They just put a sign on the door saying “Closed because of strike action”! It was really awesome, cos these people were all really young – aged about 20 or younger – and they didn’t have enough understanding of the Employment Relations Act, and the fact that the activity, being post-negotiation, was illegal. This really brought the issues to the fore much quicker than a personal grievance. We couldn’t formally endorse that strike, but we did go out and handle their disciplinaries and gave them a whole bunch of t-shirts and badges and all the rest of it!

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