In the early 2000’s, activist Joe Carolan cut an unmistakable figure at demonstrations in our dirty old town. For the last decade however he’s been working in New Zealand with the Unite union which, on May 1st of all days, won a victory in the struggle for McDonald’s workers’ rights. Rashers Tierney picked his brains on how they did it.
How did an Irish “red” with a fondness for Johnny Cash end up a senior organiser in a union in New Zealand?
I first heard about the Unite fast food recruitment drive reading an Indymedia article one evening in 2005 when I moved to Aotearoa. I had been a trade unionist and a socialist for over a decade, but in recent years had been more active outside the worksite in the anti-war and Global Justice movements.
The article told how Unite organisers had signed up 3,000 fast food workers to their union and launched a campaign for better pay and workplace rights. I congratulated the author, telling them how they were doing the work of Connolly and Larkin, organising the “unorganised”. Within a month, they’d convinced me to stay in New Zealand and help as an organiser with the SupersizeMyPay.Com campaign.
I’d been a union member all my working life, and as a rank and file delegate had organised community workers and language teachers in Ireland. Back home, most socialists had until recently refused to take up full time positions with unions, as many were either controlled by right wing bureaucrats who wedded workers to partnership programmes or were adjuncts of the “afraid to be a pale shade of pink” neoliberal Labour Party.
But here there was the tradition of New Zealand’s own Red Feds, the American Wobblies, the Irish TGWU of Larkin and Connolly that all reminded me of Unite. Unions whose organisers had no privileges, who were on the average industrial wage (or less) and who stood for a fight and for change led from below, by workers themselves. I learned how to organise from comrades such as Mike Treen, Matt McCarten, Piripi Thomson and Simon Oostermann.
Simon took me around the Starbucks stores. In a zone that anti capitalists and socialists had encouraged people to boycott, he showed me how we could bring the spirit of the Global Justice fight inside to workers in the stores. Expecting hostility, I was impressed with the spirit of solidarity he struck up with Starbucks workers- it was a revelation to me.
Does the precarity of these sort of jobs call for unions to break out of traditional models of organising?
Because of the massive turnover in these industries, we must recruit hundreds of workers every month just to stand still. I think that traditional unions who say that these industries are unorganisable are lazy. We have proved that not only are these workers organisable, but that precarity can be defeated by organisation.
Explain the “Socialisation of losses” amongst employees.
A cinema worker has bills to pay, food to buy, rent. They might get five shifts a week while The Avengers is on, it’s a popular movie. But when 50 Shades of Grey is showing, the boss cuts their hours. But the worker still needs to eat.
The boss has socialised the losses, in other words they’ve put the risk onto the worker rather than the company. The workers are the ones who take the hit if a film is unpopular and the company takes the profits when times are good.
How does the atmosphere created by zero hour contracts affect union organising?
Zero Hours contracts are primarily about power. If you don’t suck up to the manager, they’ll cut your hours. If you don’t take that late night Saturday shift at three hours notice, they’ll cut your hours. Join the union, make a complaint? Wait three months, then cut your hours. During the hard fought MCStrike campaign two years ago, we were hassled by the cops on the picket lines, the delegates all got bullshit disciplinaries, then their hours were cut.
Workers were telling organisers – look, a pay rise and better conditions are great, but the fundamental problem is the power they have over us- they use the roster as a disciplinary weapon. Break that weakest link, and you fundamentally change power in the workplace. Hence a highly focused, single issue campaign this time. Pay, conditions and density will follow after this victory.
Was it difficult to carry out this campaign with just 15% of the McDonald’s staff organised?
A highly motivated, networked and organised minority can beat a company even if the majority are passive. Taylorism and Just in Time are a fine art, McDs are probably at the cutting edge of this. So when we throw a spanner in the works, lightning strikes, occupations, or just start pulling out three or four workers on strike from a store- the whole House of Cards can fall. What would have happened if the Mayday strikes and McOccupys had gone ahead? But they signed the deal at one minute past midnight on Mayday morning.
Why did McDonald’s hold out so long against the unions compared to other companies?
It’s not just because they’re the biggest employer, it’s because they’re the most ideological.In nearly all the other companies, we’ve got a union benefits scheme. We’ve got schemes that provide life insurance, we’ve assisted with funerals and benefits like movie tickets. But McDonald’s has never conceded these things, because they know union density would shoot up… to where we’re at with KFC, where we now have closed shops all over Auckland and 60% density around the country.
After our “McStrike” campaign two years ago, we signed a peace treaty with them, which included promises of fairer rosters. They tore that up within weeks and started cutting the hours of delegates to drive them out.
Also, they’re fighting us because they’ve got their eyes on the $15 minimum wage movement in the United States. On April 15, there were strikes in the US. We’ve made links with these workers.
McDonald’s opposition comes in the face of overwhelming public opinion. There’s been loads of so-called right-wingers who have been won to the left because of this. They’ve said: “Oh my god, have things got so bad, has the pendulum of neoliberalism swung so far to the right that now a worker doesn’t have any guaranteed hours?”
The media goes out to interview business people to get some “balance” but these people say: “No, no, no, the union’s right, I wouldn’t have anyone on a zero hours contract.”
Are you keeping up with the whole Irish Water movement here from New Zealand?
The Irish Water movement is hugely inspirational- the mass marches, the direct action, the political conclusions people are drawing from it. It’s obviously the straw that broke the camel’s back- everybody is sick of austerity.
Crucially some unions have moved into a political role to fight for community issues rather than just their own industrial focus. The rotten role of the Irish Labour Party, the Media and the Gardai has been exposed. I hope that 100 years after the 1916 Rising, there will be revolutionary change in Ireland, and am sorely tempted to return home and do my bit for it. If any of the lessons we have learned here in Aotearoa can be of service to low paid workers in Ireland, and people were keen, I’d love to give it a stab back home. Who’s keen?
Photo by Paul Reynolds