Two decades of privatisation and deregulation have seen the undermining of the traditional blue-collar base in manufacturing along with the great impoverishment of the vast majority of people in society, while at the same time the rising incomes of a small elite have led to a tremendous expansion in service industries such as hospitality and retail.
However, the sudden explosion in the numbers of exclusive restaurants and bars opening up in places like Ponsonby Road in Auckland, Courtney Place in Wellington and ‘The Strip’ in Christchurch is symptomatic not only of the widening gap between rich and poor and changing patterns of employment, but also of a profound transformation in the nature of work itself.
Most of the new jobs in the service industries are semi-skilled or unskilled – and, because the workforce is widely scattered and fairly transient – likely to be casual and/or low paid. Meanwhile the unions covering workers in the service industries – such as the National Distribution and the Service and Food Workers Unions, tend to concentrate their limited resources on large job-sites such as supermarkets, hotels and casinos. Not surprisingly, this has meant that while total union membership has recovered somewhat after four years of a Labour-led government, the level of unionisation in the private sector has actually continued to decline. It was in the context of this organisational crisis that in March 2003 UNITE was (re)born.
Origins of UNITE
Originally launched in October 1998 in response to the introduction of the work-for-the-dole scheme by the then right-wing National Government of Jenny Shipley, UNITE had considerable input from community groups involved in advocacy work among beneficiaries and in particular from the Wellington Peoples? Resource Centre. However the real driving force behind the setting up of the new initiative was the left-wing breakaway from the NZ Council of Trade Unions, the Trade Union Federation (TUF) -including especially Robert Reid, leader of the (now defunct) Footwear Workers’ Union who became the founding president of UNITE.
Due to its small size and limited resources UNITE has throughout its short history operated in what is known as a ‘stabling’ arrangement with other small left-wing unions including the Manufacturing and Construction Workers? and Postal Workers? Unions as well as the Clothing Laundry and Allied Workers? Union which is led by former TUF president Maxine Gay (the TUF dissolved in August 2000 after its main affiliates – which included the militant Seafarers? Union – voted to rejoin the NZCTU).
In March 2003 UNITE was re-launched as a national organisation organising not only among the unemployed but also casual and low paid workers especially in the tourism and entertainment industries. Expanding beyond its Wellington base, in the last 6 months it has more than tripled its existing membership, with most of the gains coming in Auckland where Matt McCarten -the new secretary of UNITE and also Alliance Party President – is based.
Unlike traditional trade unions, the approach of UNITE has been to organise on a geographical basis going from one suburb to the next – so for instance in Auckland the first target has been to unionise workers in the cafes and bars along the famous Ponsonby Road. However almost by default UNITE has also become involved in representing workers employed by the sex industry (a role which could yet expand further with the recent passage into law of the Prostitution Act Reform Bill).
This grassroots organisation is also reflected in the sorts of tactics employed by UNITE – ?naming and shaming? dodgy employers and businesses by holding pickets and handing out leaflets to local members of the public.
Because many of its members will frequently move from one job to another, UNITE works best organising at the street level. This also means for instance that instead of having union fees deducted by employers from workers? wages, members of UNITE will arrange to have a weekly fee of $1 debited directly from their bank account.
While this ‘community-based model’ has obvious limitations when it comes to taking on the big employers – who can utilise police on the picket lines and libel laws to quash opposition (and against whom strike action is often the only effective course of action) – it is ideally suited to the smaller businesses that make up a significant chunk of the service sector.
Hopefully by working in collaboration with other organisations on the left-wing of the trade union movement such as the National Distribution and Maritime Unions as well as rank-and-file elements in the Service and Food Workers’ and Rail Transport Unions, UNITE can help to create a fighting democratic alternative to the disastrous strategy of the current NZCTU leadership, who put partnership with the bosses ahead of trying to win better wages and conditions for their own members.
By Tim Bowron