In May unionised fast food workers in New Zealand celebrated a comprehensive win over the major fast food companies. McDonalds, Burger King and Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks) have all been forced to end ‘zero-hour contracts’ for their workers.
The campaign, organised by Unite Union, was fought by some of New Zealand’s youngest, lowest-paid workers in an industry written off by more traditional unions as impossible to organise in. The campaign was waged on picket lines, in the streets and on social, local and national media. It has resulted in a victory for workers that all socialists and unions should be paying attention to.
Contracts that provide few guaranteed hours are common across industries such as retail, construction, hospitality, cleaning, security, homecare and fast food. ‘Zero-hour contracts’ provide no guaranteed hours at all, but still require a worker to be available to work for much of the week. This arrangement gives huge power to bosses, who reward some workers with the hours they need, and punish others by not giving them any hours at all.
Alongside wages, contracted hours are a key issue for working people. Increasing your wages becomes less important if you only get paid for a few hours each week. Workers had made it clear to Unite Union that the most significant improvement to their working conditions would be to get more hours guaranteed in their contracts.
The work that went into preparing the ‘End Zero-Hours’ campaign should not be underestimated. The union already had strong alliances with activists and community groups, but went further in building solidarity with workers overseas (such as hosting a national tour of union activists from McDonalds USA), getting support from other unions, developing a strong media strategy and calling in support from opposition members of parliament.
The campaign attacked all the major fast-food chains at once, with the union pushing the consequences of each employer being the ‘last cab off the rank’.
Almost immediately companies that use ‘zero-hours contracts’ were attacked by the public and media from across the political spectrum. And when the strikes started happening outside their stores, with workers from other unions and activists joining them on the pickets, employers fell into line and went public to declare they would no longer be offering their staff ‘zero-hour contracts’.
Alastair, a delegate at McDonald’s in Dunedin described how the campaign and industrial action changed the atmosphere at his store; “It gave us a chance to talk about these (union) things without them just being rhetoric”. He said it got people who had never been interested in the union before talking about union issues. “It wasn’t really an issue in our store, our boss isn’t the worst, but solidarity just grew and grew.” Alastair spoke about the confidence that industrial action and wins like this give to workers “At our store we didn’t get a chance to strike, McDonalds’ gave in before we were going to out. So everyone said “We need to find a new reason to strike!””.
Unite Union has a solid history of campaigning and winning in the industries it covers despite only being around for about 15 years. It has established collective agreements across the fast-food industry and in workplaces where casual work is the norm. It faces huge challenges in maintaining its membership in workplaces where turnover of staff is high and needs to constantly recruit to stay alive. For a small union, taking on huge multi-national corporations was always going to be a big challenge. They deserve credit for crafting a campaign that really tapped into the mood of workers across the across the country and for being prepared to take on the bosses and win.
By Joe Kelly