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A History of Unite Union (Part 2 of 4)

11 Jun

(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

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

2005 fast food recruitment drive

Beginning in May 2005, we launched a recruitment drive at all the main fast food restaurants in preparation for the launch of the public campaign. This included Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks), McDonald’s (including all franchisees), BK, Wendy’s and Red Rooster (since closed). We negotiated “access protocols” with each company. We had a legal right to access to talk to staff. The companies were determined to keep us from going back of house to talk to staff during work hours, so we accepted the “compromise” that a manager would send each staff member out for a one-on-one chat for a few minutes. We already knew that this “compromise” would enable us to recruit in the hundreds.

We had the assistance of a very smart young volunteer, Simon Oosterman, who brought in a youthful tech-savvy that combined well with Matt McCarten’s political party campaign experience and my own social movement organising. Two other central organisers of the campaign still with Unite today were Joseph Carolan and Tom Buckley. At the beginning of 2006, John Minto – an iconic figure of the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand – gave up his teaching job and joined the Unite project. As well as his organising and negotiating skills, Minto was a household name and also had a weekly column in the Christchurch daily paper. Minto left Unite in 2012 to concentrate on building the Mana Movement.


Oosterman designed the website and publicity materials that became In doing so, we maxed out our personal credit cards and homes were refinanced. A bus was bought with a kick-arse sound system able to be attached to the roof.

We had identified the 3 key issues for which we would negotiate in each and every collective agreement and which we considered essential:

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A history of Unite Union (Part 1 of 4)

4 Jun

(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

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Restaurant Brands delegates join Maritime Union picket, Auckland Wharf


By Mike Treen, Unite National Director

April 29, 2014

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, workers in New Zealand suffered a massive setback in their levels of union and social organisation and their living standards. A neo-liberal, Labour Government elected in 1984 began the assault and it was continued and deepened by a National Party government elected in 1990.

The “free trade”policies adopted by both Labour and the National Party led to massive factory closures. The entire car industry was eliminated and textile industries were closed. Other industries with traditionally strong union organisation such as the meat industry were restructured and thousands lost their jobs. Official unemployment reached 11.2% in the early 1990s. It was higher in real terms. Official unemployment for Maoris (who make up 14% of the population) was 30%, again higher in real terms. Working class communities were devastated.

The National Party government presided over a deep and long recession from 1990-1995 that was in part induced by its savage cuts to welfare spending and benefits. They also introduced a vicious anti-union law. When the Employment Contracts Act was made law on May Day 1990, every single worker covered by a collective agreement was put onto an individual employment agreement identical to the terms of their previous collective. In order for the union to continue to negotiate on your behalf, you had to sign an individual authorisation. It was very difficult for some unions to manage that. Many were eliminated overnight. Voluntary unionism was introduced and closed shops were outlawed. All of the legal wage protections which stipulated breaks, overtime rates, Sunday rates and so on, went. Minimum legal conditions were now very limited – three weeks holiday and five days sick leave was about the lot. Everything else had to be negotiated again. It was a stunning assault on working people. Union bargaining, where it continued, was mostly concessionary bargaining for the next decade.

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Working Class Heroes of the 1913 Great Strike

28 Nov

Historian and playwright Dean Parker on the men, women and children behind a revolutionary moment in New Zealand’s history, exactly 100 years after the events.

Wobblies and Cossacks: The 1913 Great Strike

23 Sep

By Ciaran Doolin, Fightback Christchurch

The industrial actions in New Zealand during 1913 marked one of the high points of the militant labour movement. The 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, which was violently repressed by the police and “free” unionists, was of the primary the catalysts for the events of 1913. The driving organisational force behind the strike was the Federation of Labour, often referred to as the “Red Feds”, who were greatly influenced by the US-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies”. The strike was decisively defeated in the end, and the majority within the labour movement turned their focus away from radical unionism and towards the ballot box. Despite the subsequent ascendance of political labour, there was a small but vigorous core of unionists who rejected this move and continued to employ the weapon of direct action. It was to this sector of the labour movement that the 1913 Great Strike offered inspiration and hope.

Rumblings and antecedents

The 1890 maritime strike was the first major industrial confrontation in New Zealand. While the workers were defeated, they emerged with a new understanding of the power they could wield by united action. It was on the crest of this wave of class consciousness that the first Liberal government took office in 1891. In 1894 the government introduced a raft of new laws to protect and improve workers’ wages and living and working conditions. Among these was the historic Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 (IC&AA) which established an independent court to arbitrate industrial disputes. Unions were encouraged to register under the Act, which meant giving up the right to negotiate directly with employers or engage in direct action. With unions flocking to register under the IC&AA, a period of relative industrial peace was achieved between 1894 and 1905. Although the policies of the Liberals did deliver substantial improvements for the working class, as the new century dawned some unions were starting to complain that Arbitration Court decisions were failing to keep wages in line with rising living costs, as well as doing little to improve working conditions like hours and safety. In 1906 the court stated finally that it did not settle wages on a profit-sharing basis. “The onus of proving the necessity for any increase in the standard rates was thrown upon the union,” wrote economist J. B. Condliffe. “It was recognised that the cost of living must be allowed for, but the Court gradually drifted into the position of calculating nominal wages at the standard of the years about 1900 in terms of cost of living.” Therefore real wages were not rising, in fact between 1901 and 1906 they declined. By contrast, during the first years of the Court wages had increased enough that they outdistanced the cost of living. An American industrial relations expert who visited the country in 1909 expressed surprise that wages had not risen, considering the worldwide increasing wage trend during this period. The stagnation of wages was occurring against a back drop of economic boom from which employers were making record profits. Conflict was inevitable. The utopian picture of harmony between capital and labour – the “workingman’s paradise” – was punctured in 1905 by the brief but successful Auckland tramwaymen’s strike.

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OUR HISTORY: 1937 – When workers took control

19 Jun

By Dean Parker

In the back files of the NZ Herald, Jan 14, 1937, there’s a photo of a crowd standing and seated round a young Maori bloke.

The young bloke is strumming a guitar, grinning and singing away.

Some of the crowd gathered round are draped in blankets. Some wear hats.

The photo was taken inside the Westfield freezing works, just off the Great South Road at Southdown.

The occasion was New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, our first workers’ occupation.

A Labour government had introduced a 40-hour working week, but freezing workers found they were still doing a 44-hour week without any compensation in pay.

When their grievance was rejected by the freezing companies, the men began a go-slow on the job.

The response from the companies was to threaten to dismiss the work-force.

The response to this, from the men, was unprecedented in New Zealand industrial history.

After attending a morning stop-work meeting, the men returned to work at one in the afternoon.

In the evening, a large number of them went home.

But others stayed on in the canteens.

By nine o’clock that night practically every man had returned to the works, bringing food and blankets.

And then they took over the works.

At Westfield, Southdown, Horotiu and the cool stores on King’s Wharf, they simply locked themselves in, setting themselves up as occupiers.

It made absolute sense. If you strike and walk out, your job can be taken by scab labour. Take over the works lock, stock and barrel and the problem simply doesn’t arise.

The men put up hammocks in the fellmongery, played cards by candlelight in the canteen and were visited by wives and girlfriends—who conversed with them through locked gates.

“Some of the men listened to the gramophone,” reported the Herald from the King’s Wharf cool stores, “others played cards or smoked, and many tried to sleep on tables or the floor, using coats or blankets to soften their hard beds.

“All were cheerful and seemed unworried by the prospect of spending the night in the works.”

The freezing companies demanded the police evict the industrial squatters.

But the Labour government, brand-new to office and rooted solidly in the union movement, declined to march in the police.

With the occupation heading into its third day, Tim Armstrong, the Minister of Labour, was sent up to Auckland to negotiate a deal.

Armstrong was a former miner and union militant.

He’d left school at 11 and taken a job cutting flax.

He’d worked at Waihi where he’d been sacked for organising the mine workers.

In Auckland, he promised the striking freezing workers they would get justice.

The freezing companies, however, were adamant. They would not budge on the matter of the extra hours being worked. They refused to concede either shorter hours or better pay.

So Armstrong simply imposed a settlement. He directed the companies to pay the men overtime for every extra hour worked.

The companies could do nothing but obey. The press was furious.

At the General Election the following year, the Labour Party was returned with an increased majority.

Why does Labour now kow-tow so to business leaders?

Put them in office and the first thing they do is run off to reassure business leaders nothing untoward was going to happen.

It’s time to put up the hammocks in the fellmongery and tell business leaders to get stuffed. They’ve had their snouts in the trough long enough.

(Dean Parker is a New Zealand playwright and labour historian)

The Union Report with Dr Alistair Shaw from NZUSA and PPTA’s Lynley Hunter & other union news (7/8/12)

7 Aug

The Union Report with Dr Alistair Shaw from NZUSA and PPTA’s Lynley Hunter. Issue 1: Why would parents send their children to school with unqualified teachers? Do the latest Charter School revelations suggest the Government is not listening to the sectors concerns? Issue 2: Are ACC tensions and uncontested private contracts at Mfat symptoms of a Public Service under stress? and Issue 3: Should Unions be exempt from Holly Walker’s Lobbying Disclosure Bill?


100 Years On: The Waihi Miners’ Strike: Waihi’s story is history in the present tense…

Greens want public to have say on minimum wage

Low Income Families Continue To Pay For Economic Recovery

Pay expectations gap no surprise

New Zealand: International students exploited by kiwifruit industry

NZ’s worst mining accidents

Growing pay gap between CEOs, staff

Income gap between the races gets wider

Statement from Craig Tuck Trustee Slave Free Seas

NCCSS Vulnerability Report

NZ must address the systemic causes of child poverty

‘One-third’ of Maori children in poverty

The Rich List at a Glance (Wealth order)

Maori children suffer health treatment inequalities: study

Shivers: Minimum insulation standards a must

Tapu Misa: Worshipping the wrong kind of god

Remember Waihi – 1912 commemoration

7 Aug

1912 Waihi goldminers’ strike centenary seminar and public commemoration of the death of Fred Evans. Waihi, 9-11 November, 2012

Remember_Waihi (1).pdf

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