SupersizeMyPay part one
After months of recruitment and planning, the drive by Unite Workers Union to organise low-paid fastfood workers announced itself with the world’s first Starbucks strike on 23 November 2005. Four months later, the union signed a breakthrough deal with Restaurant Brands, winning more pay, conditions and rights for workers in Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC. During these months of struggle, a new approach to union organising was tested out, one that may prove useful to union activists in other industries and countries. JOE CAROLAN, Unite organiser and Socialist Worker member, recalls the first six months of SupersizeMyPay.Com when a small New Zealand union showed how to beat the brands.
I first read about the Unite fastfood drive on Indymedia one evening in Hamilton. Back in my homeland of Ireland I had been a unionist and socialist for over a decade, but in recent years had been more active outside the worksite in the anti-war and global justice movements. These massive movements often followed major international events, ebbing and flowing like the tide coming in and out, but had given a lot of confidence to a new left. However, the real difficulty of turning this new found energy, this “Spirit of Seattle”, to build something solid in the union movement had long eluded activists, leading many to become disillusioned or cynical. Now, in New Zealand, Unite’s bolshie campaigning looked to me like the answer.
Indymedia told how young Unite organisers had signed up 3,000 fastfood workers, and how a campaign for better pay and workplace rights was going to be launched. I sent my congratulations, saying they were organising the unorganised just like old-time Irish socialists James Connolly and Jim Larkin. Within a month, they had convinced me to stay in New Zealand and help as an organiser with the SupersizeMyPay.Com campaign.
Back home, most socialists had until recently refused to take up paid positions with unions, as most were either controlled by right-wing bureaucrats who wedded workers to “partnership” with bosses and their governments, or were adjuncts of the “afraid to be a pale shade of pink” neo-liberal Labour Party. A socialist would probably never be offered an official position by these kinds of leaderships in the first place.
But there was another tradition of organising unions – the tradition of the New Zealand’s Red Feds, the American Wobblies, the Irish Transport & General Workers Union of Larkin and Connolly. These unions gave no privileges to their officials, who were on the average wage (or less) and stood for a fight by workers to change the world. They all reminded me of Unite.
My first few months with Unite was about learning how to organise and assist workers at the same time as finding my way around a new city, Auckland. I learned heaps from comrades like Matt McCarten, Mike Treen, Piripi Thomson, Rima Taraia, Simon Oosterman and many others.
Simon took me round visiting Starbucks stores. Until then I’d never been inside one in my life. Inside a zone that anti-capitalists had encouraged people to boycott, he showed me how we could bring the spirit of the global justice fight to workers in the stores. Expecting a degree of hostility, I was impressed with the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie he struck up with Starbucks workers. It was a revelation.
I went out with Piripi on his motorbike to KFC and McDonalds stores. Piripi was a great organiser, a young Maori working class fighter who’d experienced more than his share of hard knocks, but channelled his anger at the state of the world into building up an organisation of the working poor. He was devoted and non-stop, out on the road recruiting from six in the morning till late afternoon. Piripi helped build up the workplace army that tragically he would never see in battle. He died in a bike accident just a fortnight before the first strikes in Auckland, about to take his first holiday in months. The workers’ movement was robbed of a great natural leader, and his tangi at Unite was massive. Workers all over Auckland still remember his passion as a champion for their rights. He was always standing up to unjust managers and bosses.
Looking back, Piripi’s death was like a moment of truth for Unite. It brought people in the union together very strongly, and strengthened our resolve that his work would be finished as honourably as we could. Delegates from all the stronger stores prepared to take action. We would start with Starbucks, then move onto KFC and Pizza Hut.
The opening battles
The K’Road Starbucks strike was brilliant, especially when started by wildcats in St Lukes, Newmarket and City Centre stores. Picking up these Starbucks lightning strikers on the Workers Charter Freedom Bus was exhilarating. The media work done by Matt, Kirsty and Simon was superb, and we won the first shots of the propaganda war. But the feel on the picket line was something else – colourful placards, loud music, free fair trade coffee, solidarity spread through a sexy website, flashmob texts and emails. These techniques of the global justice movement were at last being harnessed by its trade union cousin. After that first picket, we knew SupersizeMyPay.Com was onto a winner.
Every following strike had its own character. The first strike at KFC’s flagship Balmoral store was electric, with even more fastfood workers and supporters turning up to a strike led by possibly the world’s youngest strike committee, many in their mid-teens. Balmoral provided a model for how a staunch store goes from high membership to effective action. The strike vote meeting and their energetic strike committee were huge confidence boosters for the store’s other workers, and solidarity on the day from other unionists and our allies made them feel the community was behind them. Laurent, a strike leader, recounts the experience:
When Unite came to KFC Balmoral we were itching for action. Instantly most of the store was signed up. We now just had to wait six months until negotiations were finished.
The whole store was really into the union, with talk about it constantly happening on shifts. This familiarised new staff with the union and gave them the ability to make a decision about it before we asked them to join. Most did join. The two delegates. Briar and me, attended the world’s first Starbucks strike. It was fricken choice! We talked with the union, had a strike committee meeting and, on 2 December, KFC Balmoral led all the other KFC’s into strike mode.
The KFC Balmoral strike lasted two hours, and we were joined by heaps of brilliant supporters and some staff from the Die Hard Lincoln Rd store. During the strike we all had great fun. The initial guts in your mouth passed really quickly once we got into it. After the strike, a number of staff made comments that they now felt empowered or had a voice.
In many stores, management used a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) division between ethnic groups which our union needed to take head on. A lot of stores have problems with the multicultural divide and mind games that bosses play – for instance, most brown workers in the union, most Chinese workers loyal to Chinese shift managers. Often we had to win unity between workers of different backgrounds on the store floor first before moving on to fight the boss.
So, outside Royal Oak Pizza Hut on 17 December 2005, placards in German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Maori, Samoan, Tongan and English were held up by workers from Asian, Indian, Pasifika, Maori, European and other backgrounds, graphically demonstrating the wide range of nationalities and races that the campaign brought together. In the pouring rain eight days before Christmas, the workers of the world united in this suburb of Auckland.
‘You’d better be clever’
With the approach of Christmas, Unite was under pressure to blitz the company with a spectacular. Many stores were up for action, and strikes on Christmas Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day would have hit the company really hard, both financially and brand-wise.
As a union representing low-paid workers, however, we knew that most couldn’t afford to strike for days, not to mention weeks. The Irish resistance to the British Empire had a saying: “If you’re not strong, you’d better be clever.”
Our weapon was unpredictability, a tactic of industrial guerrilla warfare – the no-warning lightning strike. As one fastfood worker commented: “If multinationals won’t give us secure hours, then they shouldn’t get them, either!”
The first lightning strike hit Lincoln Road KFC on 21 December. The Lincoln Road Unite crew were hardcore – they walked out in solidarity with every strike throughout the struggle with Restaurant Brands. With a staunch Maori leadership headed up by Susan Tainui, Lincoln Road had a multicultural membership who were standing up to bullying by a manager whose petty vindictiveness made him our greatest recruitment officer.
Jennifer Carmichael, a Starbucks strike leader and Unite volunteer organiser, explains how the strikes empowered the workers:
I attended almost all of the big strikes and some smaller ones. They were exciting, courageous and uplifting in the sense that people were working together for what they knew was right and just. Afterwards people held their head high because they gained power, hope and unity. Friendships were built, minds were changed and learning was in place so they know their rights for the future.
Workers need to know their rights. Too many times managers have tried to give warnings to strikers. This is unjust. Workers shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for their right to strike.
I recommend strikes because they are a powerful thing. When bosses don’t expect people they take advantage of to go on strike, then they realise they can’t go on treating people like they do.
Excellent media work by Kirsty and Simon got Unite’s story on all TV channels as well as in the print media. Countering Labour’s weak promises, we were arguing that 2008 was “Far too late!” for $12 an hour minimum wage. KFC were trying to brand themselves “Kiwi For Chicken”, but were being rebranded by our well-publicised pickets as hiring “Kiwis For Cheap”.
Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Supersize Me” had cost McDonalds megabucks by rebranding their food as unhealthy, indeed dangerous. In the popular mind, Unite’s SupersizeMyPay campaign was rebranding fastfood management practices as anti-worker, supporting a regime of poverty wages and super-exploitation. It was, after all, the truth.
By this stage, Restaurant Brands were starting to see that we were aiming at their brand identity by high-profile, media-savvy actions. They began to realise it would be in their longterm interest to minimise the damage. Just before Christmas they offered a fresh round of negotiations, begging us to call off the lightning strikes lined up for the Yuletide period.
Many Unite activists had doubts about any Yuletide ceasefire, worried it would interrupt the momentum built up in the weeks before. But our union was legally obliged to negotiate in good faith with Restaurant Brands. We suspended the lightening strikes and went back to the bargaining table.
Ceasefire of a sort
The Yuletide ceasefire at Restaurant Brands gave Unite the space to do two things. The first was bolstering Unite’s store delegates and strike committees, since rank-and-file democracy is the lifeblood of a fighting union.
The second initiative was to build support with groups outside the union for off-site political campaigning as well as industrial activism. Green MP Sue Bradford’s bill to abolish youth rates had been picked out of the parliamentary hat, giving impetus to a united front around SupersizeMyPay’s core demands. The Post-Primary Teachers Association stepped up, followed by other unions.
Potu, Ini and Rachel, Unite activists at Queen Street McDonalds, defied considerable pressure to lead New Zealand’s first McStrike on 10 February 2006.
Two days later came Unite’s 800-strong meeting in the Auckland Town Hall. MPs from the Green and Maori parties spoke in support, along with leaders from the Council of Trade Unions, National Distribution Union and Service & Food Workers Union. Pennants from unions and campaigns draped the balconies, with the Workers Charter banner holding pride of place.
NZ Pop Idol Rosita Vai, a former KFC worker, joined Pasifika hip hop group Olmecha Suprema and a ska band fronted by Starbucks strikers, Geneva. Left-wing comedians ridiculed the greed of the corporations we were fighting.
The most impressive Town Hall session featured fastfood strikers such as Briar, Nick, Laurent, Claire, Hayley and Susan. They spoke out against low wages and management bullying, signalling their wish to spread the strikes far and wide. It was exhilarating.
All this energy fed into the reconstruction of a campaign leadership composed of delegates and organisers, operating parallel with a campaign forum open to a mix of members, supporters and organisers.
Westies invent Hooning Picket
At a separate strategy meeting of delegates from Restaurant Brands, the company’s Christmas offer was rejected. We then moved fast. Valentines Day saw a strike at Botany Downs KFC under the slogan “Make Love, Not Profits”. Customer support for the young strikers was massive. 51 out of 58 cars refused to pass the drive through picket. On 17 February, pickets went up outside KFC Whangarei. The day after, Starbucks was rocked when most Central Auckland stores took action, including total shutdowns at Queen St and K’Road for two hours.
A youth rates day of action on 22 February saw a rolling strike disrupt business at four KFC stores – Manukau, Massey, Lincoln Rd and Balmoral. The Workers Charter Freedom Bus was jammed full of young flying picketers. Again, most customers refused to cross picket lines of young minimum wage workers, upsetting KFC managers. One manager threatened us with the police and courts.
Here’s an eyewitness report from Unite supporter Danny Strype:
As an anti-corporate activist for ten years I’ve seen my share of pickets outside fastfood multinationals like McDonalds and KFC. However, joining the KFC workers on the picket line was a novel, inspiring and educational experience. It was incredible to see these young people, many of them high school students, so fired up about fighting for a better deal and so confident that their actions could make a difference.
The Unite strategy of organising a Solidarity Bus to carry the willing workers from one picket line to support the next striking workplace meant that numbers, excitement and energy levels built up noticeably through the day. The day of action ended on an amazing high as the sun went down, and I felt truly honoured to have been part of the strikes and the SupersizeMyPay.Com campaign.
Before the fastfood corporations could draw breath, they were hit again with a whole series of firsts:
n The first of many strikes at the Restaurant Brands call centre for KFC and Pizza Hut, which is their Archilles Heel.
n The first regional strike in West Auckland where Unite Westies invented the Hooning Picket – drive throughs picketed by mobile carloads of strikers, honking and cheering.
n The first Burger King strike at Lincoln Road.
n The first Wellington strike at KFC Porirua.
Kathryn Tucker, Unite’s Wellington organiser, recalls a telling incident from the Porirua picket:
At the start of our Porirua KFC strike all the workers came out onto the footpath. Somebody mentioned that there was one worker left inside who wasn’t allowed to come out. So me and Grant Brookes decided to go in and confront the ten or so managers in there. The lower North Island were having a managers’ dinner and had been tipped off about the strike, so they all decided to turn up.
We approached the area manager and said, “there’s one left and we’re leaving nobody behind”. The area manager quickly approached the counter yelling, “Natasha, Natasha, you have to go outside”. The worker came out and all was well.
Opening the second front
It was clear to all that management was losing control, with the mood for strikes spreading like Spanish flu. There was a corporate reaction. McDonalds had long harassed union members while frustrating negotiations by delay after delay. But when McDonalds began a frontal attack on Unite members by paying non-union workers 75 cents more an hour, we knew it was time to open the second front.
In addition to a successful court challenge against the company’s union-busting pay discrimination, 3 March was designated McD Day. “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” echoed throughout Auckland as Golden Arches in Pt Chev, Royal Oak, Manakau, Wairau, Glen Innes and Glenfield went out on strike, joined by solidarity action in Starbucks Parnell and 220 Queen St and the Restaurant Brands call centre. All strikers converged at McDonalds flagship Queen Street store, where they were greeted by another 150 picketers.
Unite organisers began to realise the anger had reached such a peak that political demonstrations by unionists and community supporters could become the next step forward.
Here’s how Omar Hamed of Radical Youth saw things:
SupersizeMyPay.Com was great to be a part of. There was an incredible atmosphere that, if people worked hard enough, then anything could happen. Strikes, pickets and marches all made people feel like something was actually happening, that people were learning how to take action and create change. I remember one night when McDonalds went out on strike and a about a hundred of us cruised up and down Queen Street chanting slogans and singing songs, and this English backpacker came up to me and was like, “fuck, yeah, this is wicked”. And then he picked up a placard and got really involved in it. I think rebuilding a youth union movement in Aotearoa in the way SupersizeMyPay has is one of the top priorities for social justice activists. I hope that SupersizeMyPay was just the beginning.
Politics of the streets
Our side always has the best songs, and 18 March saw over 1,000 Unite supporters mix politics with music in the Big Pay Out. McDonalds had rostered off as many Unite members as it could, knowing the union meant business from all the stickers and posters covering poles and walls across Auckland.
So we went recruiting in McDonalds stores early that morning. Four workers who’d been in Unite for less than an hour led the strike at McDonalds Downtown, sparking off a huge march (and charges!) along the main street. There were sitdowns in front of major restaurants, with hundreds chanting, “3, 5, 7, 9, never cross a picket line!” Afterwards, Unite threw a free concert in Myers Park, with reggae, hip hop and hardcore acts like 8 Foot Sativa.
The Big Pay Out helped organised hundreds of young students within the Radical Youth network, led by a new generation of activists like Meto, Omar, Nesta, Joe, Sam, Jack and Mengzhu. They asked Unite to provide buses for a school strike on 21 March.
One thousand students left their colleges and took over Queen St, chanting slogans against youth rates. Heavy-handed policing saw several arrests, but public opinion swung behind the students following statements of support by Unite, the Greens and the Council of Trade Unions.
The school strike made headline news on TV networks and in major papers. Commentators made the link with the youth uprising that was shaking France.
What began with one young Starbucks striker walking off the job had become a mass movement giving working class youth a positive experience of union organisation. I have no doubt that many will become the union leaders of tomorrow.
Winning the first war
On the back of the Big Pay Out and the school strike, hundreds more activists were brought into the campaign. Plans were made to escalate action nationwide. At this point, Restaurant Brands tabled an offer which was seen as a major breakthrough by most Unite activists.
All adult workers at KFC and Pizza Hut would get a rise of almost 8%, with Starbucks workers receiving 75 cents an hour more across all scales. There would be a similar rise in 2007. The call centre workers would get between 11.5% and 14.9% more. Shift supervisors would win increases on top.
The company accepted that youth rates could no longer be justified. As a first step, they would move the pay scale for those under 18 years to 90% of the adult rate. Some young workers would get a 34% rise. Supervisors under 18 would go onto the full adult rate, giving many an extra $3 an hour.
Restaurant Brands would give workers more secure hours. When additional work become available in stores, existing workers would be offered these hours equally before new staff were employed. Break times would increase from ten to fifteen minutes. Overtime rates would be introduced for those who work over eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
Unite extended these wins beyond its members to include all non-unionists among the 7,000 employed by Restaurant Brands. In compensation, Restaurant Brands would pay every Unite member a lump sum every three months equal to 1% of their quarterly earnings, which in effect paid their union fees.
Union rights to notice boards, stopwork meetings and delegate training would be enshrined. On top of the pay rises, Unite got over 20 gains in conditions. The deal was ratified after swift consultations with a raft of Unite activists.
For the second time in a week, Unite made front page news in the NZ Herald, along with major stories on TV news. Media analysts called the Restaurant Brands deal “historic”.
Ripples from this historic breakthrough were noted by Grant Brookes, a Unite volunteer organiser in Lower Hutt:
One thing I can add from my own perspective in Lower Hutt is the change in workers’ attitudes towards the union after the breakthrough deal. Apart from one fairly solid KFC store, Lower Hutt was not a really militant region. There are six Restaurant Brands outlets in Hutt City, plus two McDonalds. During the strikes, some workers were inspired to join but others just didn’t want to know you as a union organiser. They wouldn’t talk to you. After the Restaurant Brands settlement, most of these people suddenly became more positive and open. The shift was quite dramatic.
One guy stands out. A KFC cook, he was a union delegate in a fish processing plant during the mid-1990s. When we signed the breakthrough deal, he joined up and talked with me for the first time. He said he got a hammering as union delegate before, and was forced out of his job. He never abandoned his support for trade unionism. But only now, I think, does he feel it’s safe to express it again.
I had a long battle to get trusted by workers at the Hutt Central store, where the manager is extremely hostile to Unite. But the next visit after the deal was signed, three workers joined. They also started talking about problems on the job with the manager, which was a first in my experience. So in my region, winning the deal has been a boost to confidence and a launch pad for workers to unionise and start tackling problems they’ve been unhappy about for a while.
The next McBattle
Now the battle moves on to McDonalds, the world’s biggest and meanest fastfood multinational. Unite has promised that it will fight McDonalds “forever” until the company agrees to a decent collective agreement with its staff.
Heni Moeke, Unite delegate at Pt Chev McDonalds, had served the legal papers on management to scupper her company’s union-busting pay discrimination. She shares her thoughts:
The outcome with Restaurant Brands was a good one. We achieved great things, and the workers should be proud of what they achieved.
Our so-called executives (white collar pricks) shouldn’t put a figure on what workers do since they’ve never done the jobs given to us. Most of the workers are young, first jobs ever. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and put all their sweat into it. But they receive no gratitude or recognition.
My fight has yet to start with McDonalds. All I can say is that it’s really up to us to do something. I don’t blame workers for making a stand for what they truly believe in and what is theirs. We have every right! I will try my best!
Workers like Heni need all the support they can get. She had her hours slashed and was told that, if she didn’t like it, she could get a job elsewhere. Yet Heni is standing strong against McDonalds. Activists like her are central to Unite’s next McBattle.
Whatever happens, there will be an almighty fight, and the eyes of the world will be on New Zealand. Practical solidarity from unions in Europe, Australia, the United States and Latin America will help to defeat the global giant that is McDonalds.
As that truest of slogans puts it: “The workers, united, will never be defeated.”