New Zealand: Matt McCarten on Unite and the prospects for a new left party

Matt McCarten (right) campaigning for better pay.

December 7, 2010 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Matt McCarten is secretary of the New Zealand's fastest growing union, Unite. The union organises fast-food workers, cleaners, hotel and casino workers, security and part-time staff. It has a financial membership of 8000 members. The transient nature of the industries the union organises means it has an annual membership turnover of 66 per cent and recruits about 600 new members every month. The union operates on an income of just over 1 million dollars per annum.

McCarten is a veteran of many left campaigns, including playing a key role in the foundation of the New Labour Party following the split from the New Zealand Labour Party in 1989. It was his leadership in the historic 1985 occupation of the Sheraton Hotel with the Hotel and Hospital Workers Union that put McCarten in the national spotlight. He writes a weekly column for the Herald on Sunday.

Most recently McCarten contested the November 20, 2010, by-election in the parliamentary seat of Mana, north of Wellington. His campaign promoted three core policies – a minimum wage of $15 an hour, jobs for all unemployed and a fairer tax system without the regressive indirect goods and services tax (GST).

Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s Jody Betzien spoke to McCarten at the conclusion of Unite’s 2010 conference, held in Auckland, November 25-26.

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Unite took a decision to organise workers in some sectors of the workforce, such as fast-food and service-sector workers, that had largely been left unorganised by the trade union movement.

It came more out of trial and error. Initially it was more like case work and people wanting help on individual sites. But that was going to run us broke and we certainly didn’t want to turn into a paralegal centre where workers with problems came; that’s not organising that’s servicing.

Then other unions would give us sites because they were choosing not to organise them. One time was at a clothing factory, with a lot of older workers, we couldn’t understand why our crew couldn’t get any traction there. So I went there and I sat down and listened to the workers; and then I realised what the problem was; they all had memories of unions where they had been disappointed. Stories like people who had been in a union for 12 years and they had never seen an organiser. It only takes one bad experience and it’s all over.

I realised that you are trying to deal with a de-unionised workforce and a lot of the older ones have got bad experiences.

I realised then that the future for the union movement and for the left is in the youth. Go to the youth and organise the youth. We started in the cinemas and now we have 50% of all the cinema workers in New Zealand in our union. We decided to target the bigger corporations because they are the ones setting the market rates.

So we went to the youth. The amazing thing was everyone I spoke to in the union movement said, “Organising among youth is a waste of time. You can’t do it, we’ve tried”.

But the concept of unionism among youth, despite youth being bought up in an individualistic society, was no problem. We were getting three out of four to join because they understood that we all need to get together in a union and help each other and protect each other, and we have more power. They built their own experience of unionism and now more and more are turning up in other unions having had a good experience with unite. So it’s more than about building Unite, it’s about creating the next generation of leaders.

Unite now has 8000 members and has staked out its place in the New Zealand union movement. The 2010 conference was held in November. What do you think the conference reflected about the development of the union?

We started off very very small. When I first got involved in the union it had about 70 members and most of those were in Wellington – it wasn’t a union in the way we would understand one.

This conference was a watershed for Unite. Previously we have held regional AGMs and attendance was low. More of our members would turn out for strikes than meetings – they had got their priorities right. The level of experience of members was quite low and most of our delegates had never been in a union before.

At this conference most of our delegates were young and “people of colour” as they say and that reflects our membership. That was the most rewarding thing for me after a hard grind in a project where political leadership has been an important thing in this project. It hasn’t been a membership-driven thing, which you would expect when you start something.

What we saw at this conference in a real way is that the rank and file leaders are real and they are stepping up with their own plans about how they are organising across their industries – they are starting to see beyond their own worksites. This conference was the first time I have I got a sense of members taking ownership.

The second thing was that the delegates wanted to be part of the national leadership. There were 24 nominees for 10 roles, and there was a contested vice-presidency election. People were enthusiastic about taking on these roles and I don’t think there are many unions in New Zealand with this situation. I feel like we are now in a position where the union will start to be run by its rank and file leaders in a real way, not just in a formal way.

The conference set out some major campaign plans for 2011. Could you outline the plans?

We have coordinated all our major agreements that are up for negotiation to expire at the same time so that the workers will feel part of each others’ struggle. That is going to be important because in the end you’ve got to get the workers, as a class, to see their interests lie in more than just their own workplace.

We have some concrete demands for a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Almost all our members are part-time and/or casual workers, probably 95% – that is the new workforce of the working poor. We want full-time jobs. We want that, as they build their hours they keep them, and that’s a big demand. We have had a lot of successful campaigns in the past but this one is a particularly meaningful one because it is going to change the power relationship; because a lot of members get their hours reduced when they join the union or stand up for their rights.

We want to get the community involved in the campaign. We have coordinated the campaign around the Rugby World Cup, which is in New Zealand for about three months from June 2011. This event is considered a very important event for the country.

The workers are going to be doing all the work around the World Cup, mostly our members in the entertainment venues, hotel rooms, cinemas and cleaning. All these big companies that are going to make millions out of the World Cup are internationally owned. So there’s going to be an element of resentment that all of these profits are going to be shipped offshore.

The hotels are putting their prices up four to ten times the standard rate. They are going to be seen as grabbing as much as they can while the whole World Cup is being funded by the taxpayers, which means by the workers, of course. So the workers are funding this at the same time as the corporations are making huge profits, and the workers clean hotels on the minimum wage.

There will be a lot of public support for our campaign, I think. This is a political fight in the end, but it is with the employer in the first instance. If people get really strong and motivated about this campaign it can transform the working poor in the country. If we win this, that will change the way workers see themselves and I am looking forward to that.

The conservative National Party government led by John Key has introduced a series of changes to the industrial laws that make union organising more difficult, including increased restrictions on unions’ right of entry to workplaces and the ability of workers to take strike action. The laws also enable bosses to sack workers without a reason in the first 90 days of their employment. The laws present challenges to Unite, in particular due to their greater impact on organising in casualised and non-unionised sectors. How does Unite intend to deal with this.

In Australia, you have had these laws for a while. It's a new thing in New Zealand. We always had a probation period here, but the employer had to give a reason and follow a process. The new law says you can sack a worker without reason. So you think you’re doing well and then you get a text or an email that tells you not to come in tomorrow. Workers will be frightened about this and that is the government’s intent.

Our union has acted, and will continue to act, when workers are sacked under the 90-days rule. We have to ignore it, say we are not having a bar of it. Forget the law, forget the legal angle. I have never been a fan of that anyway.

With one large employer we already got rid of the 90-days clause from its agreement. And we will do the same with all our employers. I think that we have to mobilise the community around specific uses of this law and I think we can get people to realise these laws are bad.

Where we have been successful already on the non-unionised sites we have picketed the employer with the community and other unions. So far we have had a 100% success rate in resolving the issue.

At one franchisee of a fast-food chain the owners sacked a young woman on the 89th day because the previous day she had asked for her break because she hadn’t had one. She thought she was doing well; no one said she wasn’t up to it. Her mother phoned other unions and no one would would take up the case, and eventually it came to Unite. We then mobilised a picket.

We have formed something called the UTU Squad. UTU in Maori means putting things right or revenge. It also stands for Unite the Union. We have these placards that we use like shields and we have hard hats we put on. And we run these very aggressive pickets. We don’t let anyone through. We put them across the doors and no one gets through.

In this case we settled it. The young woman didn’t want to go back but she got compensation. But what was more important is we have rewritten the company’s agreement so the 90-days rule has gone and there is a procedure for new staff. They get evaluated every month and if there is a problem they have access to a process. That applies to 700 employees across 50 franchises. And I will be attending all their management training as part of the deal to tell the employers “if you do this to workers, we will screw you”. That is a first.

You contested the November 20, 2010, Mana by-election as in independent. What motivated you to run?

There are a number of threads. The main one is in terms of our union and our campaigns. We're running a $15 per hour minimum wage campaign; we ran a petition about this and we got 200,000 signatures supporting the campaign

In the by-election, the candidates were not talking about policy at all. None. That was annoying to me personally because it’s insulting to people.

So we ran to promote the union and its campaigns for the $15 per hour minimum wage, for 3000 full-time jobs in Mana because that is how many are unemployed in the electorate and get rid of the GST, which is a regressive tax and replace it with a progressive tax.

We also wanted to send a message to the Labour Party that it is timid, weak and gutless. That Labour has to learn to put up some policies that earn the respect of working-class people, when they claim to be workers’ party or at least a party that wants workers to support it. To some extent we wanted to embarrass them. It’s a safe Labour seat it takes for granted.

It was just assumed Labour would win at a sleep walk. When we came in it suddenly set the campaign alight.

And we did change the debate. We were doing very well, and in the last week the Labour Party machine came in and said a vote for Matt is a vote for letting the conservatives win. And it retrospect, if our vote had held up at about 10% of the vote, Labour would have lost. If Labour had lost the seat I would have told them them to go and look in the mirror. It’s now a marginal seat, Labour won it with just over a thousand votes. It was ninth safest seat in the country.

So hopefully they learn the lesson, you cannot take the working class for granted.

By the end of the campaign all the candidates were saying they supported our policy, because its got resonance in the electorate; there is no question of that. We had 50% of the homes we doorknocked sign the petition, and they knew it was the Matt McCarten and Unite petition. That was a big deal and shocked the other candidates, so they started to come out with weasel words about how they supported it, but not quite.

There has been discussion in the New Zealand left about whether or not there is space to found a new left party. What is your view of the political landscape and prospects for such a project.

Well, if the Labour Party is as far left as you go, naturally there is going to be a huge vacuum; working-class people are not represented in the electoral system. So of course there is a need for a left party. It's more about how you do that and the support for it.

I was president on the Alliance party for many years. Itwasn’t socialist, though there were socialists in it. It was a left party. When we were [in parliament] Labour moved to the left. Now that we’re not, Labour has moved back to the right. In addition to electoral success, a party is about putting pressure on other parties to articulate working-class policies and concerns.

I think the left thinks too small; it’s very internal. And I think a lot of the left’s discussion inevitably goes into what I think are the smaller issues rather than the bigger picture. With the economic crisis moving around the world, and it will get here and to Australia too, if the left doesn’t get it’s act together and take responsibly in putting forward a serious left alternative then there will be a vacuum of leadership and there is a real possibility, like has occurred in the United States; that we get a “tea-bagger” type approach where working-class people go to parties on the right with more simplistic solutions. I think it is not a question of if the left should do it; it is just how.

There has been discussion through the Mana by-election about a plan for a new party. We didn’t raise it in a formal sense at our conference because I thought it was inappropriate; because it’s not a formal proposal at this stage. My sense was in Mana that working-class people responded very well around the issues that concern them. And certainly some of the delegates, some of the younger ones elected onto our executive, are very excited about the idea of a real workers’ party. Certainly our leadership collectively is open to it; there is no question about that. It’s about inspiring others to step up. A former NZ Green Party MP, Sue Bradford, has given her support to the idea.

It may be that the time has come [for a new left party], but we have to take it very seriously, because it is not just a matter of announcing it and “capturing yourself”; we’ve all had experiences of that. So it has to be real, and real in that it has to be down with workers’ struggle, not about them, and not “we are going to represent you”. It’s got to be of the working class, and its activist base has got to be working-class people too.

What I do know is that in Mana, working-class people loved our policies. They were warm to us.

What also surprised us was that the white working class were also positive. I have not seen that before, none of the left groups or the Alliance ever won that constituency. And of course we got a lot of warm support from Maori [New Zealand’s Indigenous people], perhaps that is not a surprise, myself being Maori and have having done a lot of Maori work. from Maori.

For me, I went through a period when I didn’t do any political work, in my early 20s. I thought we could just do it without politics. Then, we did it through the New Labour Party and then the Alliance party, which I was president of. And that just turned into electoralism. When that project ended, for me, after all those years of experience, I had a very firm view that first of all you have got to build support in our constituency, the working poor. You have got to put the time in, you have to do the work. It’s their struggle, it’s my struggle. And earn the right. Not as some NGO group that comes and helps the workers. We are organising workers; they must lead themselves. Unless you do that prior to doing the political work then who are you representing? I think with the Unite project we have earned the right. It is seen as being staunch, principled and fighting for workers.

One of the teachers who was here at our conference said that when the teachers were asking students at her school what a union was, there were two things the students said, “Unite and $15 per hour.” That’s got to be a good sign.

By organising workers and doing the work, you earn the right to take the next steps. It is going to be challenging but probably the best years of our lives. Sue Bradford and I had a discussion about this and agreed “wouldn’t it be marvellous to be part of a working-class movement where you didn’t have to watch what you said”.

That was the great thing about the Mana campaign, I could just say what I believed in. And for working-class people that it is a breath of fresh air to them. They want to talk about the issues I want to talk about: the state creating employment when there is unemployment, everyone getting the dignity of work. We have to legislate incomes up because the market won’t do it. The GST is a rip-off. People were getting it. If we can do more of that I think the left and people who care about social justice will have a very good period.

[A shorter version of this interview appeared in Green Left Weekly.]