The following article is an important look at the struggle of fast food workers around the world from the viewpoint of socialist theory. This involves understanding the growing importance of these types of jobs in capitalist economies and what role these workers may play on getting rid of capitalist exploitation. There are some significant theoretical issues that are raised by the authors but they are worth studying – including by workers in these industries. As a union leader at Unite Union in New Zealand which represents over 3000 fast food workers I know it will help me in understanding my enemy and defeating him.
It is reprinted from the blog A Critique of Crisis Theory. Anyone who is serious about understanding and overcoming capitalism today should follow this blog.
Mike Treen, National Director, Unite Union, NZ.
Low-Wage Workers of the World, Unite!
On May 15, 2014, a worldwide strike of McDonald’s workers involved workers in at least 33 countries, both imperialist and oppressed.
While participation in the strike varied, and most workers who participated were out for only an hour or so, this was a historic event all the same. It points the way forward to a far more internationalist future for the workers’ movement. To understand why this is so, we have to examine long-term underlying economic changes making the low-wage movement both possible and necessary.
By Mike Treen, National Director, Unite Union
Every week we come across bosses arguing that that “can’t afford” a pay rise for their workers. Right wing economists and commentators also argue against an increase in the minimum wage because it will only lead to a rise in prices and therefore cancel out any temporary gain.
Sometimes even workers or labour-friendly economists repeat the same tune when discussing whether it is a good idea to raise the minimum wage.
I want to use the experience of the fast food industry to explore the truth of these claims. Recently, I travelled to the US to be part of an international fast food workers meeting. We discovered that there was little relationship between wages and prices in the industry when comparing different countries.
The highest paid workers were from Denmark. They are paid the equivalent of $US21 per hour and have a guaranteed 40-hour week. In the US, most workers were on the legal minimum of $7.25, or just above. Yet the “Big Mac” in both countries costs about the same.
(The following history was prepared as part of the contribution by Unite Union to the international fast food workers meeting in New York in early May. Unions officials and workers were fascinated by the story we were able to tell which in many ways was a prequel to the international campaign today.)
All four parts of this series can be downloaded as a single PDF file from here
Some attacks on Unite
As mentioned earlier, there was some sectarianism towards Unite at the beginning by some Labour Party members and union officials. In a very few places, ourselves and the SFWU “compete” for the same membership – at one hotel, the Casino and two security companies. That inevitably involves some friction, but we do joint agreements at the hotel and the Casino without major problems.
Right wing bloggers have focused their attacks not on what we do but on the alleged tax problems we have.
Unite was formed with no financial resources. We spent before we received fees. We always had an ambitious growth strategy. We occasionally hired new staff optimistically in anticipation of growth. Matt McCarten formed a company to manage the relationship with Te Wananga o Aotearoa which made a profit and was able to subsidise some of our activities. Unfortunately, Matt fell very ill with two different cancers from which he was not expected to live. Some of the projects subsidising Unite fell by the wayside. Matt actually had a life insurance policy which had the union as a beneficiary, and needless to say, financial affairs could not be top priority for Matt at the time.
The CTU has today made a strong oral submission to the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee on the Health and Safety Reform Bill.
“It is possible to turn around the terrible record of health and safety in this country, but this will only be possible if all the pieces of the jigsaw are put together.” CTU President, Helen Kelly said.
“We know that workers have a critical role to play in making workplaces safe. Worker voices need to be heard and taken seriously through formal processes within the workplace. Worker representation in decisions about workplace health and safety adds insight and value which can save lives.” Kelly said.
Members at Hoyts, Hamilton
Unite Union tries to negotiate additional benefits for members that can’t be passed on to non-members. It is one of the very irritating things about the current employment law that it is relatively easy for bosses to undermine a union by simply giving everything that the union negotiates to non-members have haven’t lifted a finger to help.
One way around this is to have additional benefits that are not included as part of the collective employment agreement. We also aim to have those benefits be roughly equivalent the the fee that is paid by the member. To facilitate this we have negotiated a membership benefit package with employers covering nearly half our members. The companies companies covered are – MCK Hotels, Accor Hotels, Hoyts Cinemas, Event Cinemas, Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Carl’s Jr), and Carl’s Jr (Forsgren). These employers pay $4 a week to a special fund from which the Union buys benefits for members at those companies. The benefits include life insurance of $5,000, a discount booklet and access to a website for additional discounts, and cinema tickets or retail vouchers 3-4 times a year. Our goal is to get every employer paying into the fund.
Unite Union Call Centre Organiser Shanna Reeder took a call recently from a Unite Union member upset that she had been giving a bad performance review leading to her missing out on her annual bonus.
The bad performance review was based solely on her taking some unpaid sick leave to care for a terminally ill family member. The union member who wishes not to be identified at this stage, actually had asked for her roster to be modified so she could work part-time temporarily until her situation changed.
Her employer suggested she take some time off (unpaid) and while at first the member was concerned about not earning income for that time, she did eventually accept the offer. At no time was the member warned that taking this time off to be with her family would impact on her performance, and thus her annual bonus.
Unite Union is still coming across cases where workers are cheated out of hours they have actually worked – even at big companies.
During a routine visit earlier this year, Hotels Organiser Shanna Reeder discovered a Rotorua hotel from a major chain was paying employees incorrectly due to their clocking in and out times being altered.
It is not clear how this was occurring or who was making the alterations, however what was clear was that some of our members were being short-changed for as far back as the last 12 months. She had lost on average one hour a week.
The union analysed 12 months worth of time sheets for one member and discovered the pattern, enquiries were made with the Human Resources department of the hotel and it was acknowledged that this had occurred for other members also.
The hotel assured the union it was a practise isolated to one hotel, put a stop to the practise immediately, agreed to write to each of the members involved to let them know they were owed wages and to pay the outstanding amounts. The member who identified the issue was owed $700 herself.
Members at this hotel now report that they are being paid accurately for all hours worked.