Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Beat the Brands!
After months of recruitment and planning, Unite
union’s drive to organise low paid workers in the
fastfood industry announced itself with the World’s
first Starbucks strike on the 23rd of November 2005.
Less than four months later, the union succeeded in
signing a historic deal with Restaurant Brands,
winning more pay and better conditions for workers in
Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC. During these months of
struggle, a new approach to trade union organising was
tried and tested, one that may prove useful to union
activists in other industries and nations. As Unite
gears up for a massive fight with McDonalds
management, Joe looks over the first six
months of SupersizeMyPay.Com, and how a tiny New
Zealand union beat the brands.
I first heard about the Unite fast food recruitment
drive reading Indymedia NZ on the web one evening down
in Hamilton. 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. These massive
movements often followed major international events,
ebbing and flowing like the tide coming in and out,
but had given a lot of confidence to a new left.
However, the real difficulty of turning this new found
energy, this “Spirit of Seattle”, to build something
solid in the community or the trade union movement had
long eluded activists, leading many to become
disillusioned or cynical again. Here, on the other
side of the world, Unite’s bolshie recruitment looked
to me like the answer.
The article on Indymedia told how the young Unite
organisers had signed up over three thousand fast food
workers to their union, and how they were going to
launch a campaign for better pay and workplace rights.
I congratulated the author, telling them how they
were doing the work of James Connolly and Jim Larkin,
organising the “unorganised”. Within a month, they
had convinced me to stay in New Zealand and help as an
organiser with the SupersizeMyPay.Com campaign.
I had always been a member of a union 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 with bosses
and the government, or were adjuncts of the “afraid to
be a pale shade of pink” neoliberal Labour Party. A
socialist would probably never be offered an
organising position by these kinds of leaderships in
the first place.
But there was another tradition of organising unions-
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. The first few
months was all about learning how to organise and help
workers, and as I found myself around a new city, I
learned how to organise from comrades such as Mike
Treen, Matt McCarten, Piripi Thomson and Simon
Most rank and file workers know our own workplace and
union branch, but moving beyond this to organise a
whole city sector was a new experience for me. Simon
took me round visiting the Starbucks stores- I had
never been inside one in my life. 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 and camaraderie he struck up with
Starbucks workers- it was a revelation to me.
I went out on the bike with Piripi to the KFCs and
McDonalds. Piripi was a great organiser, a young
Maori working class fighter who had had his share of
injustice and hard knocks, but channelled his anger at
the state of the world into building up an
organisation for the working poor. Piripi was
dedicated, devoted and non stop, out on the road
recruiting from six in the morning till 3.30 am.
Workers all over Auckland still remember his passion
as a champion for their rights- he was always standing
up to unjust managers and bosses, fighting for union
members. He helped build up the workplace army that
he unfortunately never would see in battle. He died
only two weeks before the first strikes in Auckland,
out on the road, about to take his first break in
months. The workers movement was robbed of a great
natural leader, and his Tangi at Unite was massive.
Looking back, Piripi’s death was kind of a moment of
truth for Unite. It brought people in the union
together very strongly, and strengthened our resolve
that the work he had begun would be finished as
honourably as we could. Delegates from all the
stronger stores prepared to take action- we would
start with Starbucks, and then move onto KFC and Pizza
The first wave
The K Road Starbucks strike was brilliant, especially
when started by the wildcats in St Lukes, Newmarket
and the City Centre. Picking them up on the Workers
Charter Freedom Bus was exhilarating. The media work
done by Matt, Kirsty and Simon was superb, and we won
the initial shots of the propaganda war. But the feel
on the picket line was something else- colourful
placards, loud music, free fair trade coffee,
solidarity spread through a sexy website, flashmob
texts and emails- the techniques of the Global Justice
movement at last harnessed by its trade union cousin.
We knew after that first picket that
SupersizeMyPay.Com was onto a winner.
Every strike after that had its own character and
lesson. The first KFC strike at the flagship Balmoral
store was electric, with even more workers and
supporters turning up in solidarity with a strike led
by possibly the world’s youngest strike committee.
Balmoral provided a model and a process for how a
staunch store goes from high membership to action.
The strike vote meeting and the strike committee were
huge confident boosters for those preparing to strike,
and the solidarity on the day from other union members
and our allies made workers feel the community was
behind them. Strike leader Laurent recounts the
"When Unite came to KFC Balmoral we were itching for
action. Instantly most of the store was signed up. We
now just had to wait six months until negotiations had
The whole store was really in to the union with talk
about it constantly happening on shifts. This
familiarised new staff with the union and gave them
the ability to make a decision about it before we
asked them to join. Most did join. The two delegates
Briar and I attended the world’s first Starbucks
strike. It was fricken choice! We talked with the
union, had a stop-work strike committee meeting and on
December 2nd KFC Balmoral led the KFC's in to strike mode.
The KFC Balmoral strike lasted two hours and we were
joined by heaps of brilliant supporters and some staff
from the Die Hard Lincoln Rd store. During the strike
we all had great fun. The initial guts in your mouth
passed really quickly once we got in to it. After the
strike a number of staff made comments that they now
felt empowered or had a voice."
In many stores there was a subtle (and not so subtle)
division used by management between different ethnic
groups that our union needed to take head on. A lot
of stores have problems with the multicultural divide
and rule games that bosses and managers play- e.g.
most brown workers in the union, most Chinese workers
loyal to the Chinese shift managers. Oftentimes we
needed to win unity between workers of different
backgrounds on the store floor first before moving on
to fight the boss. So on December 17th, placards in
German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Maori,
Samoan and Tongan were held up by workers from Asian,
Indian, Pasifika and European backgrounds, graphically
demonstrating the wide range of nationalities and
races that the campaign united. Eight days before
Christmas in the pouring rain, the workers of the
world united on strike outside Pizza Hut in Royal Oak.
"You'd better be clever..."
As Christmas approached and the economic pressures of
the period piled on, there was increasing pressure
coming on us to hit the companies with a spectacular.
Many stores were up for action and strikes on
Christmas Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day that
would have hit the company really hard, both
financially and brand wise. The Irish resistance to
the British Empire had a saying- “If you’re not
strong, you had better be clever”. As a union
representing low paid workers, we knew that many could
not afford to be on strike for days or even weeks at a
time. But when a company pays a worker minimum wage,
it actually supplies her with a weapon. A strike for
a few hours on one of those days might only lose the
worker ten or twenty dollars, but cost the company
thousands. Our weapon was unpredictability, a form of
industrial guerrilla warfare- the no warning,
“If multinationals won’t give us secure hours, then
they shouldn’t get them, either!”
The first Lightning Strike hit the Lincoln Road KFC
branch on the 21st of December. The Lincoln Road
Unite crew were hardcore- they struck in solidarity
with every single strike throughout the Supersize
campaign with Restaurant Brands. A staunch Maori
leadership headed up by the courageous Susan Tainui,
Lincoln Road had a multicultural membership that was
standing up to intimidation and bullying all the time.
A certain ham fisted and clumsily provocative manager
was to act as the villain of the piece- a fast food
version of the Pinkerton Union Busters of old, but a
bully whose own petty mindedness and vindictive
cruelty made him our greatest recruitment officer.
"Our store becoming a strong store led some in
Restaurant Brands to try to stamp out the union. A new
area manager and store manager were brought in and
both tried their hardest to obstruct the union
movement. This made it really hard to recruit new
staff but also made the core of our stores union far
more united." (Laurent, KFC)
Excellent media work from Kirsty and Simon got the
story over on all major TV Channels and print media,
arguing that 2008 was “Far too late!” for a $12 an
hour minimum wage. KFC had been trying to brand
themselves “Kiwi For Chicken” up until then, but after
that day they were forcefully rebranded as hiring
“Kiwis For Cheap”. By this stage, the company was
beginning to cotton on to the fact that we were aiming
for their Brand identity by high profile, media savvy
actions, and to their credit, began to realise that it
would be in their long term interest to minimise the
damage. If anyone with any intelligence in McDonalds
management reads this piece, they should realise that,
from an early stage, the Restaurant Brands management
realised full well why we had named the campaign
SupersizeMyPay.Com. Morgan Spurlock’s documentary
“Supersize Me” had cost the fast food company millions
by rebranding the food on offer as unhealthy and
dangerous. In the popular mind, we were rebranding fast
food management practices as anti worker, supporting a
regime of poverty wages and super exploitation. After
all, it was the truth.
Restaurant Brands management offered a fresh round of
negotiations just before Christmas, begging us to call
off the high profile Lightning Strikes lined up for
Christmas and New Years. Many workers had doubts
about the Yuletime ceasefire, especially with the
momentum we had built up in the weeks previously. But
we were committed to bargain in good faith with RB,
and so we suspended the actions. We went back to the
tables and back consulting our delegates and strike
committees, building up our numbers and support for
the second phase of the fight.
"I attended almost all of the big strikes and some
smaller ones. They were exciting, courageous, up
lifting in the sense that people were working together
for what they knew was right and just. Afterwards
people held their head high because they gained power,
hope, and unity. Friendships were built, minds were
changed, and learning was in place so they know their
rights for the future.
I think that after strikes workers need to know their
rights, too many times managers have tried to give
warnings to the workers. This is unjust. Workers
shouldn't be afraid to stand up for their right to
I recommend strikes because they are a powerful
thing. When bosses don't expect the people they take
advantage of, to go on strike, then the bosses realise
that they can't go on treating people like they do"
-Jennifer Carmichael, Starbucks Strike leader and
Unite volunteer organiser.
The suspension of action over the Christmas period
allowed us to do two main things.
First was to properly build support with groups
outside of the union for off site actions, in
particular working out a political as well as an
industrial strategy to achieve our campaign goals.
Green MP Sue Bradford’s bill to abolish youth rates
was picked out of the parliamentary hat at the time,
so this provided the impetus to get a united front
assembled around Supersize’s core demands. The
Teacher’s union, the PPTA, was first to step up.
Second was building up our rank and file democracy,
strengthening our strike committees and delegates.
There was huge preparation for our union’s Quarterly
Meeting, held in the Auckland Town Hall. MPs from the
Greens and the Maori Party spoke in support, as did
other union leaders from the CTU, SFWU and the NDU.
Banners from all major unions and campaigns draped the
balconies, with the distinctive Workers Charter banner
pride of place. The NZ Pop Idol, Rosita Vai, herself
a former KFC worker, joined Pasifika hip hop group
Olmecha Suprema and a ska band fronted by Starbucks
strikers, Geneva, live on stage. Left wing comedians
ridiculed the greed of the corporations we were
fighting. Most impressive of all at the Town Hall was
a session led by the young fast food strikers
themselves- workplace activists such as Briar, Nick,
Laurent, Claire, Hayley and Susan got up in front of a
packed town hall to speak out against low wages and
bullying in the workplace. It was exhilarating. From
this we developed a campaign leadership that fused a
strike committee of delegates and organisers operating
parallel with a campaign forum where a mixture of
members, supporters, allies and organisers would be
Restaurant Brands delegates held a separate strategy
meeting where the companies Christmas offer was
rejected. McDonalds workers were rostered off so they
would be unable to use paid stopwork time to attend
the Town Hall meeting. Staunch delegates in Queens
Street McDs defied company threats that they would be
sued for conducting an illegal strike if they took
action. On Feb 10th 2006, Potu, Ini and Rachel led
New Zealand’s first McStrike. Two days later, up on
the Town Hall stage, in front of hundreds of workers
and supporters, delegate after delegate spelled it out
loud and clear- it was time to spread the strikes far
We moved fast. Valentines Day saw a strike in Botany
Downs KFC, under the slogan “Make Love not Profits”.
Customer support for the young strikers was massive-
51 out of 58 cars refused to pass the drive through
picket. On Feb 17th, pickets went up outside KFC in
far north Whangarei. The day after, Starbucks was
rocked to its core in Auckland city centre, with most
stores taking action and both Queen St and K Road
branches completely shut down for two hours.
A youth rates day of action on Feb 22nd saw a rolling
strike disrupt business at KFCs Manukau, Massey,
Lincoln Rd and Balmoral, with the Workers Charter
Freedom bus jammed full of young flying pickets.
Again most customers refused to cross picket lines of
young minimum wage workers on strike, much to the
consternation of KFC managers. One threatened us with
the police and courts.
"As an anticorporate activist for about 10 years I've
seen my share of pickets outside fast food
multinationals like McDonalds and KFC. However
joining the KFC workers on the picket line was a
novel, inspiring and educational experience. It was
incredible to see these young people, many of them
high school students, so fired up about fighting for a
better deal and so confident that their actions could
make a difference.
The Unite strategy of organising a 'solidarity bus'
to carry the willing workers from each picket line to
support the next striking workplace meant that
numbers, excitement and energy levels built up
noticeably through the day. The day of action ended on
an amazing high as the sun went down and I felt truly
honoured to have been part of the day’s strikes and
the SupersizeMyPay.com campaign."
-Danny Strype, Anti Capitalist activist
Before they could draw breath, the companies were hit
again with a whole series of firsts- the first Burger
King strike at Lincoln Rd, the first strike in
Wellington at KFC Porirua, and the first of many
strikes at Restaurant Brands’ Achilles Heel, the Pizza
Hut/KFC call centre. The Westies led the first
Regional strike in West Auckland and in the process
invented the Hooning Pickets- drive throughs picketed
by mobile carloads of strikers, honking and cheering.
"At the start of our Porirua KFC strike all the workers
came out onto the footpath. Somebody mentioned that
there was one worker left inside who wasn't allowed
to come out. So me and Grant Brookes decided to go in
and confront the 10 or so managers. (The lower North
Island were having a managers dinner and they had been
tipped off about the strike so they all decided to
We approached the area manager and said "there is one
left and we're leaving nobody behind". The area
manager quickly approached the counter yelling
"Natasha, Natasha you have to go outside".
The worker came out and all was well."
-Kathryn Tucker, Unite’s Wellington Organiser
It was palpable that management was losing control of
its workforce, and that the mood for strikes was
spreading like the Spanish flu. McDonald’s continued
to harass and intimidate union members and delegates
throughout, and in many ways were more viciously anti
union than Restaurant Brands, despite the latter
getting the full two barrels of the union shotgun
during this period. However, there was no real
attempt to bargain by McDonalds- delay and dragging
out the negotiations was their strategy, as they have
done for decades before in other countries. But when
they coupled this with genuine full frontal assaults
on members, paying non union members 75 cents more per
hour, we knew that we had to open the second front.
The 3rd of March was McD Day. “What’s disgusting?
Union Busting!” echoed throughout Auckland, as Golden
Arches in Point Chev, Royal Oak, Manakau, Wairau, Glen
Innes and Glenfield went out on strike, joined by
solidarity action in Starbucks Parnell, 220 Queen St
and the Restaurant Brands call centre. All strikes
converged at McDonalds flagship Queen Street store,
where striking workers are greeted by over a 150
fellow pickets and supporters. Organisers now begin
to realise that the anger is so strong that it could
be time to call people onto the streets to demonstrate
politically. The issue is now one that the community and trade
union movement itself had to get behind.
"Supersizemypay.com campaign was great to be a part
of; there was an incredible atmosphere that if people
worked hard enough, then anything could happen.
Strikes, pickets and marches all made people feel like
something was actually happening, that people were
learning how to take action and create change. I
remember one night when McDonalds went out on strike
and a about 100 of us cruised up and down
Queen Street chanting slogans and singing songs, and
this English backpacker came up to me and was like,
"Fuck, Yeah this is wicked." And then he picked up a
placard and got really involved in it. I think
rebuilding a youth union movement in Aotearoa in the
way supersizemypay has is one of the top priorities
for social justice activists. I hope that
Supersizemypay was just the beginning."
-Omar Hamed, Radical Youth
To the Streets
Our side always has the best songs, and the 18th of
March saw over a thousand workers and supporters mix
politics with music and join together for the Big Pay
Out. McDonalds had rostered off as many union members
as it could, knowing the union meant business from all
the posters and stickers that had covered every
lamppost, wall and notice board in Auckland. So we
went recruiting in stores early that morning, and four
workers who had been in the union for less than an
hour led the strike at McDonalds Downtown, sparking
off a huge march (and charges!) down Queen Street.
There are direct action sit downs and blockades in
front of all major restaurants, with hundreds chanting
“3, 5, 7, 9- Never cross a picket line!” The Union
threw a huge concert in Myers Park, with reggae, hip
hop and hardcore acts like 8 Foot Sativa playing.
The Big Pay Out itself organises hundreds of young
students within the Radical Youth network, ably led by
a new generation of outstanding activists such as
Meto, Nesta, Joe, Sam, Jack and Ming Tsu. They ask
Unite to help provide busses for a massive action they
are planning on March the 21st. On the day, the
Radical Youth Schools strikes pull out another
thousand people on Queen Street, this time mostly
young workers under 18 who leave their colleges. Heavy
handed policing results in two arrests, but the
majority of public opinion swings behind the young
students following statements of support from Unite
Union, the Green Party and the New Zealand Congress of
Trade Unions. The issue is now headline national
news on both NZ TV networks and the major papers.
Commentators make the links between the protests in
Queen Street and the youth uprising that is
simultaneously shaking France.
What began with one Starbucks striker walking off the
job had now become a generational movement, one that
has given hundreds of young people a positive
experience of a union as an organisation that fights
for them. I have no doubt that these will be the
union leaders of tomorrow.
On the back of the Big Pay Out and the School Strikes,
hundreds more activists are brought into the campaign,
and plans to escalate action nationally were advanced.
It is at this time that we are contacted by
Restaurant Brands, and a serious deal is put on the
table. A deal that the vast majority of delegates and
campaign leaders think is a major breakthrough.
All adult workers at KFC and Pizza Hut get a raise of
just under 8%, with Starbucks workers getting a 75
cents an hour increase across all scales, with another
similar raise locked in for 2007. The call centre
workers get between 11.5% and 14.9%. Shift
supervisors also win an increase on top of this.
The company accepts that paying young workers less can
no longer be justified, and commits itself to
abolishing youth rates. As a first step, they move
the pay scale for those under 18 to 90% of the adult
rate. Some young workers get a pay rise of 34%.
Supervisors under 18 get the full adult rate- a 17
year old supervisor can now earn $14.68, an increase
of $3 an hour.
There is a clear commitment to end casualisation, as
the company agrees to give its workers more secure
hours. When additional hours become available in
stores, existing workers will be offered these hours
before new staff are employed. Break times move from
ten to fifteen minutes, and overtime rates are re
introduced for those who work over eight hours per day
or forty hours per week. The union extends these wins
not only to its membership, but to all 7000 workers
employed by Restaurant Brands. In recognition of this
decision Restaurant Brands has agreed to pay every
union member a lump sum equal to 1% of their quarterly
earnings every three months. Effectively it pays the
union fees for Unite members. Union rights to notice
boards, stop work meetings and delegate development
are enshrined. On top of the pay rise, Unite wins
over 20 improvements in conditions for workers. For a
second time in a week, Unite makes front page news in
the New Zealand Herald. Media commentators and
pundits call the deal “historic”.
"The important fact is that workers, who have never
done anything like this before, worked together with
one goal in mind, getting a better deal. My advice to
those who want to follow is to get yourself and your
work mates excited about their futures, to get excited
about how they are going to change their futures for
the better, that they should believe in themselves,
that they have that kind of power. I really think
that we could have saved (campaign) costs by having a
large scale strike. Closing some larger stores down
for a couple of hours would be awesome. Getting on the
news would be great. Any way, I believe that the new
RBL contract is very significant to now, we could have
gotten more, but it is a step in the right direction.
I congratulate all workers who worked towards this
goal. It is a fantastic effort."
-Jennifer Carmichael, Starbucks Strike leader and
Unite volunteer organiser.
"One thing I can add from my own perspective in Lower
Hutt is the change in workers' attitudes towards the
union after the breakthrough deal. Apart from one
fairly solid KFC store, Lower Hutt was not a really
militant region. There are 6 Rest Brands outlets in
Hutt City, plus 2 McDs. During the strikes, some
workers were inspired to join but others just didn't
want to know you as aunion organiser.
They wouldn’t talk to you. After the deal was settled,
most of these people suddenly became
more positive and open. The shift was quite dramatic.
One guy stands out. A KFC cook, he was a union
delegate in the mid-90s in a fish processing plant.
When we signed the breakthrough deal, he joined up and
talked with me for the first time. He said he got a
hammering as union delegate before, and was forced out
of his job. He never abandoned his support for trade
unionism. But only now, I think, does he feel it's
safe to express it again.
In his late twenties, that cook is a bit older than
the typical KFC worker. I had a long battle to get
trusted by workers at the Hutt Central store, where
the manager is extremely hostile to Unite. But the
next visit after the deal was signed, three workers
joined. They also started talking about problems on
the job with the manager, which was a first in my
experience. So in my region, I think winning the deal
has been a boost to confidence and a launch-pad for
workers to unionise and start tackling problems
they've been unhappy about for a while."
-Grant Brookes, Unite volunteer organiser, Wellington
"Maybe one day these young workers and other like them
will run the restaurants themselves and the
anti-corporate campaigns I've been part of will be
replaced with consultation with the workers
collectives to change socially and environmentally
problematic practices directly. Till then all power
to the fast food workers in their struggle for a
better deal, much respect to the organisers at Unite
and to all those campaigning for a world free of abusive corporations
and the social system that creates and supports them."
-Danny Strype, Anti Capitalist activist
Ready to fight "forever".
Now the battle moves onto McDonalds in earnest. That
multinationals refusal to bargain now looks miserly
and mean in the eyes of their workers who can see the
improvements the union won in KFC and Pizza Hut. The
attempts at intimidation and union busting have
strengthened the resolve of workplace delegates and
organisers. Unite has promised that it will fight
McDonalds “forever” until a decent collective contract
is agreed, and now looks to the wider community to
support these minimum wage workers. Last words to a
brave delegate from McDonalds who served legal papers
on McDs management, scuppering their discriminatory
union busting payments-
"As far as I stand I think that the out come with the
Restaurant Brands Limited was a good one. We achieved
great things, and that the workers should be proud for
what they have achieved. As for strikes, I think that
these young workers including myself, should have the
right to strike. They are only fighting for what is
rightfully theirs. I support it in every way.
These so called Office Executives (white collar
Pricks) can't be putting a figure on the amount that
these workers do, when they have never done the jobs
given to us.
Most of these workers are young, first jobs ever. But
they wear their hearts on their sleeves; put all their
sweat into it. They receive nothing for it, no
gratitude or recognition. But all I can say really
is, because my fight has yet to start with
McDonalds, it's really up to us, to do something. I
do not blame workers for making a stand for what they
truly believe in and what is theirs. WE HAVE EVERY
RIGHT! I’LL TRY MY BEST!"
-Heni Moeke, Unite Delegate at Point Chevalier
Workers like Heni need all the support they can get-
she has had her hours slashed and was told that if she
didn’t like it, she could get a job somewhere else.
Whatever happens, there will be an almighty fight for
the rest of 2006, and the eyes of the world will be
on Aotearoa. Solidarity from unions across the
globe, from Europe, Venezuela, Australia and the USA
will be there, as organisations that represent
hundreds of thousands of workers internationally get
behind the workers of the Unite Union. Be one of them
today, and do what you can to support the
The workers united, will never de defeated.