This is part 1 of an extensive interview AWSM recently conducted with Alex Pirie, a grassroots activist and social justice campaigner in New Zealand/Aotearoa. It has been slightly edited for clarity. Future installments will follow a similar principle.
AWSM: So can you start by introducing yourself?
Alex: My name is Alex Pirie. I’m currently an English Language Teacher and I’ve got a history of social justice campaigning.
AWSM: What was the first major campaign you remember being involved in?
Alex: Well it was about the end of 2005 beginning 2006. I had become a union member of my workplace at the time. I was becoming more and more involved and I became associated with very active, activists. At the time Unite was a very active union, punching above its weight. They were very keen to get involved in social issues, not only those on worksites. That started to intrigue me. Not coming from a union background or left-wing background but realising now, I had deeply left-wing values.
AWSM: And was there a particular incident or thing happening for you personally at work that caused you to become involved in the union?
Alex: In a nutshell…exploitation. There were ridiculous things going on at the time. Like I heard from a colleague that in her case if you asked what the hourly rate was you got $27 if you didn’t ask and just signed the contract or signed an employment agreement you got $26 so stuff like that was…why?! I was basically just a bit confused about that. And the other thing that happened of course was wage exploitation which is common. But as an English teacher at the time…
AWSM: You mean this was private sector English teaching?
Alex:…yeah, not the state sector, I know they had issues as well. What I came to realise was, even though we were expected to be professional teachers…the title always gives some level of respect in society…we were treated as casualised workers, so getting a permanent contract was pretty hard and at the school I was working in at the time it was very casual.
AWSM: So in terms of the particular school you were working in, was there any actual union representation at all?
Alex: No, not when I started. So after working there for 6 months and hearing lots of disgruntled comments from my colleagues, and…I’m the sort of person that won’t just step up immediately but if I see something wrong and no one’s doing it I’ll take a deep breath and do it…that’s not something that comes naturally to me, because I’m a non-confrontational person by nature but injustice I think just gets under my skin and if enough people are complaining about something I feel the need to do something about it..
AWSM: Like a slow burn?
Alex: Yeah, rather than I’m hacked off about something effecting me, I’m going to complain about but if its effecting me but its effecting lots of other people as well, I find it much easier to jump in, in those situations. So eventually we got the union on board, which was Unite because my experience at the time was that there was a tertiary teachers union and they weren’t really interested in language school teachers and they had quite hefty union fees. I’m not sure what had happened, maybe Unite had been in the news for something but anyway, I got wind of them…had a meeting with my colleagues, we agreed to meet with Unite to see if they would have us. We ended up meeting Mike Treen from Unite union (http://www.unite.org.nz/about) off campus in a café and as it turned out he was a former English Language Teacher so he understood where we were coming from and they actually had a handful of contracts with other private language schools. So it was a good fit for us and we talked about it afterwards and we decided to join up as a group. Which of course gave us collective strength and confidence.
AWSM: So how many people are we talking about there?
Alex: At the time I think it was about 8 or 9 of us.
AWSM: And what proportion would they have been amongst the staff as a whole?
Alex: Of the actual long term teaching staff, probably about 80%. We were probably a medium sized school at the time.
AWSM: So how did management react initially to learning that the staff had suddenly joined this union?
Alex: Well of course I think they were quite shocked because they didn’t see it coming, we hadn’t made it public obviously, because we were new to it, none of us were activists at the time, we were just sick of not having a pay scale. Everyone was on the same rate, which on one side sounds quite good, you’re not penalising or promoting someone but there was no movement, no recognition of people’s skills, qualifications and they kept piling workload and things on us. You’re working in a tiny area, where our desks were partly taken up with desktop computers, so we were working around desktop computers in a tiny staffroom. So it was actually working conditions as well that got us into that situation.
AWSM: So it wasn’t particularly difficult to bring people on board? They could instantly relate to the conditions?
Alex: Yes and that’s what inspired me, when everyone agreed to join the union it gave me personally a lot of confidence. So I agreed to be the first workplace delegate and the workplace was really really shocked. Because funnily enough when we were having this meeting, I think it was in December 2005 they were busy with their lawyer drawing up a generic contract which was basically sealing all those things which we were not happy about…they’d printed off a template. Basically a shity contract. So we had our first meeting, John Minto came on, because he had been seconded onto Unite union and Mike Treen asked him to be our union rep. I’d been out of the country growing up so I didn’t have much idea who John was, but then a couple of colleagues of mine told me and it was “Oh my gosh, were going to be screwed” because of course he has this reputation of being a firebrand because of his days against apartheid. So I looked him up and “Wow, this is awesome” so that actually intrigued and excited me (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Minto) We were being represented by somebody who is well known in activist circles and I thought “this is the real deal” but we basically went in as a bargaining team. We introduced who we were, I think it was a couple of us on the teaching staff and John said “Well actually we have this contract to give you here” and we had our demands here. So basically if we’d waited another week it might have been a different story.
AWSM: So timing is everything!
AWSM: So what was the outcome of that?
Alex: The outcome was we got our first contract. It wasn’t a particularly long and drawn out proceeding. I think we got a 27% pay rise and over the years I was at that workplace, they increased it by the Consumer Price Index and a bit more. So by the time I left I was earning something over $40 6 or 7 years later. So definite progress.
AWSM: Since the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 you’ve got an entire generation who have grown up not knowing unionism, so you’ve got to overcome the inherent conservatism of the general environment. You’ve got people asking questions like “What’s in it for me? “What does a union do?”
Alex: Yeah and people thinking that they’ve joined something that costs money and they don’t have much money anyway. So yes, there’s all those kinds of questions. I guess luckily for us we had some people who were a little bit older and had a bit more knowledge about unions. There were also some people from other countries like the UK where there were famous union movements even in the 80’s so there was some general knowledge. We had a German lady and even now the unions there are strong compared to New Zealand anyway. So it was easier for us to bring others who weren’t so experienced. But from what I know now of the fast food industry, which is one of the more exploited industries and where Unite made its name, none of the other established unions would touch it because of the turnover and the attitude of some young people that it was too hard, but Unite has made their name from it. What I like about Unite is they put their money where their mouth is and survive on the sniff of an oily rag, certainly when I was involved. They might have a bit more financial backing now. They achieved a lot so I’m very happy with my time with them.
AWSM: So you’ve mentioned the financial gains. What about conditions? Was there a noticeable improvement there?
Alex: Yes. The first thing was apart from the workspace doubling in size, which I think we got in our first contract, they basically knocked out a wall of a classroom and so there was much more space. Which was just as well because as the school grew, they needed it. By the time I left even that was cramped.
AWSM: That’s quite a tangible thing. That must’ve given people confidence that they’d made the right decision to join the union?
AWSM: And what about the management’s attitude? Did it improve? Did you gain more respect? Were they somewhat weary about pushing their luck sometimes after that?
Alex: I have a mixed view on that. They would say it’s a global company and on that level they hated us for what we were doing. How much personal enmity there was with local management, well they were pushing the agenda of the global business. In later years our manager had come over from another country to assist in negotiations. So I think it did have a little bit of a flow on effect. Without going into too much detail, things were blown up against those who were seen as too actively involved. Work performance became a tool. Whereas you’d been a teacher with good performance and reviews, then suddenly you’re seen as under-performing.
AWSM: So it was subtle?
Alex: It was subtle for a number of years. There wasn’t much proof but the underlying feeling among union members was that there was a bit of pushback.
AWSM: The New Zealand economy is structured so that about 90% of workplaces have 20 workers or less. Your boss is somebody you see and have to interact with every day. So that makes things difficult.
Alex: Yes, it was quite intimidating. You were negotiating with a person who was your manager. The chain of command in that structure was very small. There were 2 levels of management, maybe 3 and you see them every day. But for me if I’m intimidated, it has the opposite effect to what it does for some people.
AWSM: Where does that come from?
Alex: I’m not really sure. I have an inherent dislike, a hatred for injustice. From a very young age that has resonated with me. It doesn’t come from my family background. I come from a family of conservative voters. Also maybe having a disability because you know, at school kids are kids. You have to fight tooth and nail and if you have a disability it makes you stand out. The system will force you to stand out so I might as well get something from that. Basically it’s about fairness and standing up for people. When people are getting squished you have to find the courage to say “no” which is something I find difficult in my personal life but when I see it with my peers or other people, I find that little bit of distance means I can act.
AWSM: So those experiences you had at work at that time were ultimately positive?
AWSM: And it bolstered your sense of going in the right direction and that you were doing the right thing?
Alex: Definitely. It helped with awareness as well, as a by-product of being around people with an activist background.