The real heroes of the end to zero hours

The real heroes of the end to zero hours

By Mike Treen, National Director, Unite Union

On Thursday, March 10, the New Zealand parliament unanimously passed a law that will eliminate zero hour contracts for New Zealand workers.

Nearly every party represented in parliament is claiming victory. National claimed they are the ones to have introduced this law. Labour says it is their amendments that make it a reality. The Maori Party and United Future say that their withdrawal of support for the National draft forced this change. All of that is true.

But the true authors of this law are the thousands of members of Unite Union in the fast food industry who have been fighting insecure hours for a decade and who named and shamed fast food employers as users of zero-hour contracts.

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In fact, Unite Union introduced the term “zero-hour contracts” into the public discourse in this country.

We had been trying to get what we called “secure hours” in the fast food industry since we launched the “SupersizeMyPay.Com” campaign in 2003 and secured the first collective agreements in the industry in decades over the next few years. We had three demands: A substantial lift in the minimum wage; an end to youth rates and secure hours.

We were successful on the first two counts but every attempt to get secure hours was thwarted by the companies. We got promises to offer hours to existing staff before new staff were hired written into our agreements but they were virtually unenforceable in such high turnover industries.

At the end of the collective agreement negotiation round in 2013, we told all the employers that we would come back in 2015 determined to achieve guaranteed hours for all staff. We kept reminding them at each meeting until negotiations started early in 2015.

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We also prepared to launch a public campaign to support our demands. We knew we lacked strong economic power. It is a challenge to shut the stores for very long when we take industrial action. In most companies we remain a minority union. Members have to be very brave to take action when they know that companies can simply retaliate by cutting their hours. 

But we do have a strong moral advantage over these companies that can be turned into a political strength if we can attack their brands as cheats and exploiters of often young and vulnerable workers. Because people instinctively know we are actually telling the truth, their brand power can be turned into a weakness.

The issue of “zero-hour contracts” had become an issue for public debate in the United Kingdom over the last few years and we thought that was a term that accurately portrayed the reality of work for our members.

We decided to adopt the slogan “End Zero Hour Contracts”. We printed banners, placards, badges, stickers in preparation. We made the campaign the theme of our December 1, 2014 national conference. We organised a national fast food delegates conference to discuss and plan the campaign in February 2015. Negotiations with all the fast food companies began that same month.

A very fine series of reports by Radio New Zealand's Economics Correspondence Patrick Omeara kicked off the public discussion. He took the time to look at the contracts, talk to the companies and most importantly talk to the workers who actually struggle under these contracts.

This was followed up by the story becoming almost the swan song of the Campbell Live show with amulti-part series that investigated the issue in depth and followed our negotiations with blow by blow accounts over several months. In one fun show, John Campbell even interviewed McDonald'scustomers.

By that stage, even right-wing journalists were claiming opposition to zero-hours.

International working class solidarity was demonstrated with pickets in support of the Unite Union campaign in a number of countries.

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Malaysian protest in solidarity with Unite Union campaign

The impact of a public campaign led by workers, combined with the strong media and public interest and support, eventually forced the companies to capitulate one-by-one. On the eve of May Day, the final hold-out - McDonald's of course - signalled their surrender.

(For a more detailed account see “How Unite took on fast food companies over zero hour contracts.”)

Today, even the very pro-big business New Zealand Herald editorialised celebrating the end of zero hour contracts as a "victory for all.". 

At first, the government made a commitment to get rid of “the worst aspects of zero-hour contracts” rather than banning them.

The first draft of the law actually made zero-hour contracts lawful with some indeterminate compensation. But the government had been trapped by its promises to do something. When the support parties for the National Government in parliament withdraw their support for the draft law they had no choice but to seek a compromise with the opposition parties. Labour and the Greens appear to have used that opportunity effectively in the changes they insisted on for their support. The end result being a law that will end zero hour contracts in my view.

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Tickertape message above May Day rally in QEII Square Auckland, 2015

In essence under the new law:

1) Employment agreements need have some agreed and guaranteed hours stipulated.

2) Unless there is an “availability provision” in the agreement any additional hours can be refused and an employee may not be treated adversely for doing so.

3) The hours of work that have been stipulated in the employment agreement needs to be recorded and to reference the days of work and the start and finish times.

4) employment agreement can stipulate an availability clause for other hours to be available for work but this needs to be for good reasons and "reasonable" compensation paid for having such a clause.

5) A shift cancellation clause needs to be part of the agreement. If it is not in an agreement then full compensation must be paid for a cancelled shift. If it is included it must have: "reasonable" notice and "reasonable" compensation.

This struggle was an example of how politics often actually works. Change comes from struggle in the streets. It is there that the fight for the hearts and minds of the people takes place. Politicians and parties usually arrive later. Unite Union was part of the massive campaign to end youth rates and lift the minimum wage in real terms. Parliament followed.

Unite also took the lead to end zero hour contracts. Without our campaign nothing would have changed. The success has been enormous. We know we could not have succeeded without the support and sympathy of other unionists, sympathetic journalists, and friendly political parties. We are also aware that in the end we need political parties represented in parliament to change laws and we are thankful to those parties who helped make that happen. But let no one claim this victory as exclusively theirs.