By Joe Carolan, Unite Quick Service Restaurant Organiser
“What’s disgusting? Union Busting!’ was the cry outside Burger King on Sunday August 19th, as a union teach in turned into an occupation in Queen St, Auckland.
Unite National Director Mike Treen talks to staff and customers about BK’s anti-union campaign
The teach in had been organised by the BK workers union, Unite, to educate the public about the systematic anti-union campaign within the company that was driven by senior corporate leaders. Area managers gave store managers a list of members names and targets to reduce union membership, in violation of New Zealand’s Employment Relations Act. Unite Union has taken Burger King to the Employment Authority to fight for compensation for those workers bullied out of their union.
At the teach in, Unite had originally planned to have delegates and members speak to the public, and tell their own personal cases of exploitation, bullying and in one case, assault by a manager. However, two days before, we received a letter from the company warning us that these workers had “a duty of fidelity” to their employer. The Burger King relied on a feudal interpretation of labour law to assert ownership over the opinions of its workers in an attempt to muzzle the truth. It has done this before- it unsuccessfully conspired to dismiss union delegate Julie Tyler from her job for writing “REAL JOBS DON’T UNDERPAY AND OVERWORK PEOPLE LIKE BK DOES” on her facebook status.
Unite union made the decision to go ahead with the teach in, but have union officials Mike Treen and Joe Carolan testify on behalf of those workers who would otherwise be under real danger of being summarily dismissed. Large case folders of supporting evidence, including dozens of workers statements, company emails, management texts, screen grabs and photographs of incriminating documents were provided to the media. The story was carried on that nights One News, and 3 News, on major radio stations Bfm, Radio NZ and Radiolive, and in the print media too. The union has subsequently received dozens more emails from Burger King throughout the country pouring out more examples of bad treatment, bullying and exploitation from Whangarei to Dunedin.
The BK workers were joined by the new leadership of the Auckland University Students Association, whose Vice President Cate Bell and Environmental Affairs Officer Paloma Ozier led the occupation of the Queen Street stores. AUSA are angered by the exploitation of many of their migrant members by the student visa system. Labour MP Jacinda Ardern attended in solidarity, and Labour’s industrial relations spokesperson Darien Fenton joined and spoke out at the teach in. Leaders of Auckland’s Indian community also attended, Barry Kaloti – from the Bhagat Singh society spoke out against the bonded labour of the migrant visa system. Labour MPs Rajen Prasad praised the courage of the BK workers at the launch of the First union’s Migrant Network conference, and pledged his support to the ongoing campaign. Gandhi’s slogan has been taken up by Indian delegates- “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you Win!”
The Queen Street store was guarded by private security and the police, as senior members of Burger King’s management sat on seats, looking through the windows at workers in a clear display of intimidation. The union avoided face to face confrontation with them by taking the teach in to the larger Migrant Workers Network, speaking out there, and returning to the store later at 3pm when our corporate friends had resumed their golf.
The occupations of the Civic, Queen Street and Swanson Street stores were electric, and brought big smiles to the faces of the workers rostered on to work that day. “When Indian workers are under attack – Stand up Fight Back!” was also repeated for Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Tamil, Punjab, Sikh, Chinese, Korean, Pacific, Maori and Kiwi workers too. The teach in was a massive success in that it got the facts out not just to those who attended, but via media, hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Solidarity messages with the Burger King workers are coming in to Unite HQ from all over the world.
It remains to be seen what legal action the company will now take once their bluff has been called. Will they opt for the McLibel option, and seek to muzzle union officials from speaking out as well?
In this David and Goliath battle, the small but effective resources that BK union members of Unite have pooled are up against the might of Burger King and its owner, the $38 billion private equity firm, Blackstone.
We will see, as further teach ins are held all around New Zealand this Saturday coming – in Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. If you’d like to be part of this movement, txt Joe at 029 44 55 702.