Celebrating Unite’s struggle against Zero Hour Contracts

In a campaign reminiscent of Unite Union’s SuperSizeMyPay.com getting workers on to collective contracts from a decade ago, once again Unite has burst onto the industrial scene to take on the fast food giants and against all odds, win. The campaign brought out courageous stories of workers speaking out against their exploitation and zero-hours contracts, heartwarming acts of solidarity – globally and domestically, and reinforced the old union slogan of “If you don’t fight, you lose”.

It also brought to light just how low companies are willing to go to intimidate and harass its workers. McDonalds, in particular, were unwilling to come to the table to offer an end to zero hours contracts. They resorted to grubby tactics like offering pay rises to their non-unionised staff during negotiations as a way to undermine Unite.

What’s wrong with zero-hours contracts?

At a time when industrial action is at an all-time low, Unite managed to organise in a notoriously difficult industry and spell an end to zero-hours contracts. According to Unite Union National Director Mike Treen, these exploitative contracts have been in existence since the 1990s. These contracts are different from casual contracts because they require workers to be available to work but companies are not obliged to offer hours. What’s worse, workers are penalised if they are unavailable to work their rostered hours – rosters which are only available one week in advance – by seeing a reduction in their hours the next week. Workers may also have their shifts cancelled at short notice without any compensation and some even have restrictions on being able to look for work elsewhere.

Unite knew what they were up against as Treen explains in their union newsletter: “Deciding to take on the major companies in a campaign to end a practice they have been happily using for several decades was not made lightly.”

But as Unite’s survey on zero hours revealed, arranging childcare, organising any aspect of your life, and paying for the basic necessities like rent, power and food were impossible. “79% reported problems with paying basic living costs like rent, power, phone, food and transport as a direct result of hours changing week to week. 42% said these problems happen on a regular basis.”

Unite’s campaign and the media

Unite formally launched their campaign in December 2014. They were quite conscious of the public ‘branding’ that they would need to do to make the public aware of what ‘zero-hours contracts’ meant. A term that was used in the UK and is now, thanks to Unite’s campaign, widely understood here. Treen, in the union newsletter, explains that the term ‘zero-hours’ was “accurate and able to shock.”

Little were even Unite to know how effective this would be. Soon after their campaign launch, the media were quick to publicise and cover horror stories of young workers being exploited by these fast food giants, and other industries. Notable was the now-axed Campbell Live who went into bat for fast-food workers by giving them primetime coverage. The issue of zero-hours contract obviously struck a nerve.

In the face of a strong union campaign, and growing public outrage, Unite’s bargaining team knew that “we were going into bargaining with the backing not just our members but with significant media support and the overwhelming support of people throughout New Zealand.”

Restaurants Brand and Burger King were the first to fold in the mounting pressure. Just four months after the launch, Restaurant Brand was the first to offer an end to zero hours contract. They promised to guarantee 80% of hours worked over the previous three months. Finally, a promise of relative stability and an agreement to trial permanent shift patterns. This victory was reported widely and also helped to boost members’ morale and put pressure on other fast food giants.

The pressure was certainly felt by Burger King who were next to throw in the towel on the eve of the first strike action of April 15 – a day chosen because it had been designated as a global day of action by the international fast food workers campaign of solidarity. Treen notes that, “BK’s offer was even more comprehensive than Restaurant Brands. They proposed to move straight to fixed shifts rostering within six months. Moreover, when a worker left the company, their shifts could be given to existing staff who wanted them and be incorporated in their guaranteed minimum.” This was to be another fantastic win for our side.

April 15 was an inspiring show of solidarity around New Zealand and around the globe. It was the first time in history that fast food workers took action globally to demand justice and an end to low pay. Fast food workers around the world including Japan, the UK, and the US protested. Here in New Zealand, workers and supporters from Auckland to Dunedin protested outside McDonalds to demand an end to zero hours. The action here of course was bolstered by the recent win against Restaurant Brands and BK.

Even for the bosses, zero hours contracts had become toxic. Kim Campbell of the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association (a mouthpiece for the bosses) told Radio New Zealand that Restaurant Brands’ agreement to end zero hours contracts as “a good sign.”

Companies like Burger Fuel and Hell’s Pizza began making public announcements that they were ditching zero hours. And this didn’t even require union bargaining!

The last and most reticent of the fast food companies was McDonalds. They attempted to play all the dirty tricks in the book. During negotiations they offered pay raises to their non-unionised employees in an attempt to demoralise the unions and encourage workers to quit the union.

After using delaying tactics, McDonalds finally made an “offer” in April, which could only been seen “as a joke” Treen explains in the Newsletter. “They [McDonalds] wanted the “right” to take secure hours away again even for this group of workers if they did two “no-shows”, that is the situation when staff don’t turn up for a rostered shift and have failed to notify the company beforehand or have given what the company considers an inadequate reason for the absence”.

At one stage, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public, McDonalds released an offer that they would offer 80% of “rostered” hours. Again, Treen demolishes this offer as “simply nonsense”. In the same newsletter he goes onto explain, “Any company can guarantee 100% of rostered hours because they control the roster. Rosters go up and down. They are at the discretion of the company. The union can’t see them or enforce anything to do with them. On average workers work 20% more than their rostered hours because over employing and under rostering is the essence of the zero hours regime. It keeps workers willing to jump at offers of more hours.”

In the middle of these negotiations, Unite Union’s offices were burgled and trashed. This was a clear tactic of intimidation against Unite and the working class movement as a whole. The message was that anyone who dares to stand up for workers’ rights would be targeted and harassed. There was an outpouring of solidarity as individuals, unions, and other organisations, including the International Socialists, rallied to support and contribute to the funds to replace damaged and stolen goods.

Pressure was mounting against McDonalds. Even the likes of rightwing TV personality Paul Henry criticised zero hour contracts and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse indicated that zero hour contracts would be changed as soon as July. Woodhouse has subsequently backtracked on this issue, and so it is too soon to call this an all-out victory – we need to keep the pressure on.

On the eve of another action called by Unite to “adopt a Maccas” for May Day, McDonalds finally offered what can only be called a comprehensive victory for Unite against zero hours contacts. McDonalds offered a guarantee of 80% of hours worked, and this would be recalculated every three months.

In the media statement, Treen announced, “The major fast food chains have committed to ending zero hours. This is the culmination of a decade long campaign for secure hours by Unite Union. It will be welcomed by tens of thousands of workers in the fast food industry and hundreds of thousands more who will ultimately benefit in other industries. It represents a fundamental shift in the employment relationship of the most vulnerable workers in the country”.

This was a win for our side and Unite and its members should take full credit for this. But it also matters that this battle was one where the ruling class was not united. People like Paul Henry turned against zero hours contracts not out of a sense of fairness or because he’d grown a social conscious but because thinkers in the ruling class realised the flack from these contracts would be bad for the smooth running of New Zealand capitalism. As early as January this year, before Unite’s campaign had gathered steam, PR company owner Paul Blackham predicted Unite’s impeding victory in National Business Review – the mouthpiece of the ruling class. He wrote,

“We will lose because these techniques will be seen by too many New Zealanders as unfair. They place too much of the risks and costs of employment, and running a business, on the shoulders of workers. The public mood will give left-wing politicians the opportunity to swing the labour relations pendulum back to the bad old days.”

The bad old days Blackham refers to are the open class conflicts of 1951 and 1913. Blackman argues against zero hour contracts because he does not want to see a return to a time where unions were stronger and able to set the agenda. He argues that bosses have done well in the past three decades where “where workers and management didn’t battle, but got on with production.” It’s true, bosses have done incredibly well over the past thirty years and this has been on the back of savage attacks on our side.

The inspiring struggle waged by Unite and its members show what unions have the strength to do. To take on a global giant like McDonalds and beat it into submission. A 20-year long industry-wide practice of zero hour contracts was ended in less than 6 months thanks to the campaigning prowess of Unite. Their members overcame intimidation by the bosses to once again shine a light for the working class movement in New Zealand to illustrate the ability, capacity and vibrancy of workers to fight back and win.