Super Size My Pay
Fast food workers organise
In New Zealand, hundreds of fast food workers waged an innovative campaign called Super-Size My Pay during 2005-06. This is one worker’s overview and analysis of the campaign. This text is taken from the December 2006 issue of the Industrial Workers of the World Australia’s newsletter, Direct Action. The campaign, run by Unite union, was named after Morgan Spurlock s popular documentary Supersize Me, which had cost the McDonald s millions by re-branding their food as unhealthy and dangerous.
Super-Size My Pay aimed to re-brand fast food management practices as anti-worker, based upon super exploitation and poverty wages. One of the key tactics of the campaign was attacking the brand s identity. The campaign was also based upon short but sharp strikes, flying pickets and community support from outside the union.
Super Size My Pay
Fast food workers organise
In New Zealand, hundreds of fast food workers waged an innovative campaign called Super-Size My Pay during 2005-06. This is one worker’s overview and analysis of the campaign. This text is taken from the December 2006 issue of the Industrial Workers of the World Australia’s newsletter, Direct Action
. The campaign, run by Unite union, was named after Morgan Spurlock s popular documentary Supersize Me, which had cost the McDonald s millions by re-branding their food as unhealthy and dangerous.
Super-Size My Pay aimed to re-brand fast food management practices as anti-worker, based upon super exploitation and poverty wages. One of the key tactics of the campaign was attacking the brand s identity. The campaign was also based upon short but sharp strikes, flying pickets and community support from outside the union. These mobile tactics were effective largely because they were in synch with the nature of casual work today. In the end, the campaign was moderately successful. A notable concession was gained: casual hours for 7000 fast food workers in New Zealand will be phased out. As well, it won higher wages and better conditions. Unite s methods have been promoted overseas as a successful way to have a go against fast food giants and casualisation. Indeed, a copycat union, Unite, has been formed in Australia in the hope that it could replicate the success of the New Zealand brand.
But there were many drawbacks to the campaign. Ultimately, Super Size My Pay relied too much on a few organizers creating a media image. It was also based too heavily on a small number of union organizers organizing fast food workers, rather than the workers organizing themselves. When workers began to organize themselves, and sometimes took wildcat action, Unite bureaucrats attempted to subvert their actions. The Unite president then signed a deal with fast food management without consulting the union rank and file. Many have claimed Unite is a new union that is similar to the IWW. But such statements, in my view, are dodgy especially given the lack of democracy within Unite.
The fast food industry is a pioneer of the casualisation of the workforce. Up until the campaig, all fast food workers in New Zealand were casuals. They could have their hours increased or decreased at the whim of a manager. The enormous power that local managers welded over their staff made it difficult for workers to agitate. Anyone who fell out of favour, or was viewed as a troublemaker, could suddenly have her or his hours of work reduced. Fast food workers are not only casualised but also are low-paid, overworked, face poor or hazardous health and safety conditions, and are under constant monitoring from management. Most adult fast food workers get the minimum wage of $10.25NZ ($9AUS) per hour, and teenagers (under 18) even less. Fast food workers in New Zealand are disproportionately female, Maori, Pacific Island, disabled, and recent immigrants. So the workforce is multicultural, and management often divides and rules them by using one ethnic group against another.
The workforce is also primarily young. Many are teenagers employed on youth rates, which are significantly lower than the adult minimum wage. A significant minority are students who take temporary jobs in order to get through university or other schools. The workforce is widely scattered, transient, and experiences a high turnover, making it difficult to organise. Make Love, Not Profits! An Innovative Campaign The Super-Size My Pay campaign was launched in late 2005. It revolved around three main demands: (1) $12 minimum wage; (2) abolishment of youth rates; and (3) secure hours. So the campaigns aims were quite moderate, especially aiming to raise the minimum wage to only $12 an hour, an increase most bosses have indicated they are happy to pay. Most workers need far greater increases since their real incomes have been declining for the last 20 years. But its more radical demands were to end youth rates and especially casualisation.
The campaign was primarily based in Auckland, although strikes were also held in Whangarei and Wellington. It involved workers from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Starbucks, Pizza Hut, McDonald s and Burger King. I shall give a brief run down of the campaign, noting its relatively innovative tactics, so that people can see if they can use them in their backyard. Unite, the union behind the campaign, was founded in 1998 as a response to the government s introduction of work-for-the-dole scheme. Unite originally concentrated upon trying to organise the unemployed. When Unite was re-launched in 2003 by a few exleaders of the Alliance, a leftist political party that split from the Labour Party, it focused on organizing casualised and low paid workers. The Super-Size My Pay campaign was an essential part of that drive. Unite rapidly grew from about 200 members to at least 5,000 members. Their strategy was to use volunteers, rather than paid organizers, to go out into fast food stores and sign up as many workers as possible. The volunteer organizers were a mixed bunch: some of the organizers were anarchists, some were Leninists, some were social democrats, and many were non-aligned. Super-Size My Pay s campaign co-coordinator, and the person who came up for the idea of the campaign, is an anarchist. Many of the organizers were formerly part of the anticapitalist movement.
The World’s First Starbucks Strike
On Nov. 23 2005, the first industrial action of the campaign kicked off with the world s first Starbucks Strike in Karangahape Road (KRoad) in Auckland city centre. What began as a small protest by workers from one store became a city-wide strike when Starbucks workers heard that managers would be brought in to cover the shifts of the striking K-Road workers. More than 30 workers spontaneously walked out from 10 different Auckland Starbucks stores to join KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds employees, and around 150 other supporters outside the KRoad store.
Joe Carolan, an organizer for the campaign, captures some of the energy and colour of the strike: The K Road Starbucks strike was brilliant, especially when started by the wildcats in St Luke s, Newmarket and the City Centre. Picking them [the strikers] up on the Workers Charter Freedom Bus was exhilarating 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. Many other fast food workers attended the Starbucks strike. This encouraged them to hold strikes in their own workplaces, including Balmoral KFC. The strike at Balmoral was larger and had more support than the Starbucks one. Three out of the five strike leaders at KFC Balmoral were aged under 18, earning as little as $7.80NZ ($6.85AUS) an hour. Sam Van Der Kolk, 15, said ahead of the Balmoral walkout: I m looking forward to going on strike to let the community know we re getting paid crap. I m doing it for everyone.
After the KFC strikes, a series of small, short strikes were held in Pizza Hut, McDonald s and Burger King. The McDonald s strike was the first in New Zealand. As these stries were held, intimidation from management was common. Threats were often made that striking workers would lose their jobs. But this bullying often led to further unrest. Many strikes were in response to intimidation from management.
Most of the strikes were short lived, lasting only a few hours. This was because the union had few resources, and the workers could not afford to strike for weeks let alone days simply because they are poorly paid. As a result, they needed to make the short strikes have some punch. Carolan notes, 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 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, Lightening Strike. The first Lightening Strike hit the Lincoln Road KFC branch on the 21st of December. Capitalists were on the back foot; they negotiated a ceasefire so that Unite wouldn t strike over the key Christmas-New Year period.
Use of the media also gave the strikes some oomph. They attempted to use the media to give the fast food companies a bad image. For example, one picket at KFC was organized under the slogan that KFC hire Kiwis for Cheap. But the reliance on media image and short strikes was also a weakness of the campaign. The campaign lacked industrial strength. Campaign co-ordinator Simon Oosterman states, We had no money, we had few really active sites, short strikes, people with no union experience (including the organisers), no resources, lots of word support from other unions but nothing physical or much presence on the picket lines etc. In the company we got the two contracts - Restaurant Brands (which owns KFC, Starbucks and Pizza Hut in NZ) - we would have had no more than 1000 out of 7000 employees. Only about a few hundred workers actually went on strike during the campaign. Workers invented new tactics as they went along. Hooning pickets were invented by fast food workers from West Auckland (an area that is similar to West Sydney). Hooning Pickets involved carloads of strikers blockading the drive thrus of the fast food restaurants. The strikers honked and cheered as they occupied the drive thrus, presumably going round and round in a mobile blockade. As well, the campaign was multicultural, and used multilingual placards. The pickets were carnivalesque and electric in terms of energy, complete with loud music and placards with vibrant colours. On Valentines Day, a strike was held by Botany Downs KFC workers under the slogan Make Love not Profits.
Support from community members and leftists outside the union during the strikes and pickets were strengths of the campaign, as was the rapid solidarity action of other fast food workers who were bussed around on the Solidarity bus. Days of action were held in which these flying pickets were used in a series of short rolling strikes. The McDonalds day of action saw strikes at seven McDonalds. Further examples of building solidarity included the 1,000 people, workers and their supporters, who attended a stopwork meeting in Auckland Town Hall. On 18 March, a concert, called the Big Pay Out, was held in support of the campaign. A large march of about a thousand people was held which went down the main street of Auckland, with regular sit down blockades outside the entrances to major restaurants.
On March 21, secondary school students walked out of school in support of abolishing youth rates. A student solidarity strike! About one thousand people converged on the main street of Auckland, most of them young high school students. Radical Youth, an anticapitalist youth group, organized the strike, about the same thing there was a youth-led uprising in France. The student walkout, called a youth riot by the NZ Herald, involved a number of street sit-ins. Radical Youth had been campaigning for an end to youth rates before Unite got in on it properly. Radical Youth s cooperation with Unite was important and was a good example of the community support from outside the union that occurred during the campaign. They consistently attended strikes and protests of Super Size My Pay. They also organised a number of talks, and did a lot of the donkey work for Unite with regards to postering, for instance.