Super Size My Pay - Fast food workers in New Zealand organise for better pay and conditions, 2005-6

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.

Submitted by Steven. on March 8, 2007

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.

Precarious Labour
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 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.

Lightning Strikes

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.

Building Solidarity
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.

Make way for the bureaucrats

By late 2005 and early 2006, the campaign was gaining lots of popularity, and young workers were increasing their confidence. Jennifer Carmichael, Starbucks strike leader and Unite volunteer organizer, said: I attended almost all of the big strikes and some smaller ones. They were exciting, courageous, up lifting Afterwards people held their head high because they gained power, hope, and unity I recommend strikes because they are a powerful thing The bosses realize that they can't go on treating people like they do.

By early 2006, hundreds of young students and workers have been joining together, organizing themselves and taking direct action without too much help from the union. The campaign is beginning to get out of control of union bureaucrats. So Matt McCarten, Unite s Auckland boss, negotiates deals with management for their not to be strikes at certain times. But some union organizers and workers ignore this, and a few wildcat strikes are held. At the Restaurant Brands call centre in Auckland, the national call centre for KFC and Pizza Hut, McCarten tried and failed to stop the call centre workers striking the night before negotiations for their contract begin. The workers had already voted for a strike, and McCarten orders them not to. They strike anyway. Workers rather than union organizers, such as the call centre workers, are beginning to initiate some of the strikes.

As a result, it suits both the union hierarchy and the bosses to enter negotiations for a contract. And they do just that. But to be fair, this isn t something that came out of the blue; in the end the main aim of the campaign was to secure a contract for fast food workers. McCarten signs the deal without consulting the union rank and file; they aren t even given the chance to vote on the offer presented by Restaurant Brands. He only consulted a few organizers in Auckland by text message, even though it was a national campaign.

A deal is signed for all 7,000 workers who work for Restaurant Brands. Many gains are made. Pay rises are granted. Significantly, the company agrees to phase out youth rates and casualisation. As a first step to end youth rates, they move the pay scale for those under 18 to 90% of the adult rate. Some young workers get a pay rise of 34%. More secure hours are also to be phased in. The union wins over twenty other improvements in conditions. For example, break times are increased from ten to fifteen minutes, and overtime rates are re-introduced. McCarten calls the deal historic. Some believe the contract wasn t too hot, especially the smallish pay rises for some workers. Jennifer Carmichael of Starbucks said, We could have gotten more, but it is a step in the right direction.

As a result of the deal, the momentum generated by the campaign suddenly comes to a crash and runs out of steam. Even though McDonald s hasn t agreed to the deal, the actions dwindle, until the campaign is declared dead (it was re-launched mid year in 2006 to focus on McDonald s; but since then, it hasn t been anywhere near as successful or as high profile).

A big drawback of the Super-Size My Pay campaign, and other campaigns like it, was that grassroots struggle was only used for a short period in order to put the heat on management to give the unions a contract. In other words, Super-Size My Pay was a conventional union drive (that used unconventional tactics) to work towards a contract.

This approach means that struggle and campaigning only occurs when a contract has ended and the union needs some muscle for the negotiating table in order to win a few concessions. So activity is sporadic and stop-start, and it s difficult to build up militancy over time. A big problem in New Zealand is that the law outlaws and imposes hefty fines on unions and workers for striking during contracts. Hence unions like Unite are very reluctant to struggle during contracts; indeed, part of the job of a union is to enforce contracts on the workers they supposedly represent.

A rank and file union?
Some have claimed that Unite is a syndicalist union in the tradition of the IWW. Dean Parker, a leftist writer, has asserted in its crusading zeal to organise casualised labour and the lowest paid, in its flamboyancy and militancy, the IWW was similar to today s Unite Workers Union. Joe Carolan, an Auckland organiser for Unite, claimed, New Zealand's own Red Feds, the American Wobblies, the Irish TGWU of Larkin and Connolly all reminded me of Unite.

Certainly, Unite has a few syndicalist aspects. Like syndicalist unions, it aims to organize the unorganized. Like syndicalist unions, it s open to any worker, including beneficiaries. So Unite doesn t aim to divide up workers by their occupation.

There are many non-syndicalist aspects to Unite. As noted above, unlike the IWW, Unite aims to negotiate contracts with capitalists. The IWW has traditionally not signed contracts as they see them as putting a legiron on workers by making it illegal for workers to strike during the contract. They argue that similar legal restrictions on workers didn t stop the IWW from organizing strikes; nor did it stop wildcat strikers in the 1970s. Overall Unite isn t run by the rank-and-file; it s run from the top-down by a few paid officials like McCarten. However, during the Super-Size My Pay campaign, organizers and rank and file workers had some autonomy and initiative. A good example of the way Unite is run was when the Restaurant Brands contract wasn t even debated, let alone ratified, by the rank and file.

McCarten, its Auckland president, who used to be in the Labour Party and the Alliance, is well-known for his autocratic ways. Like all unions bureaucrats, he has attempted to suppress the self-activity of workers. At the Wellington picket of Porirua Burger King, striking workers and supporters blocked a drive thru, turning away a number of cars. McCarten tried to stop this. When one customer became irate and rammed some workers, his windscreen was smashed. The cops were called and McCarten got very angry with the workers. He proceeded to mediate with the cops (the person who broke the screen was taken away by the cops, but he was eventually released), and afterwards he did his best to keep the drive-thru clear.

McCarten also crossed a picket-line a few years ago organized by the Waitemata branch of Unite, a picket line which was being held against a commemoration of the 1913 general strike. Waitemata Unite were protesting against the involvement of senior cops in the commemoration, especially as armed specials from the countryside helped to suppress the 1913 revolt.

Unite allows locals to be formed, and they are supposed to be relatively autonomous. But in practice they lack genuine autonomy. For example, the Waitemata (in West Auckland) branch of Unite has been issued with an ultimatum from the national executive of Unite that it must stop its criticisms of McCarten or risk expulsion. There have been many other rumblings in locals about the tight centralized control exercised by Unite bosses. The Christchurch local wasn t even given its local membership list by the Unite hierarchy!

Dissent within Unite has so far led to one split from the union. McCarten fired a number of Unite organisers recently who promptly set up a new union, the Solidarity Union, which is run by Socialist Worker Trots (Trostkyists Ed). The success of this has been very limited. Further, unlike revolutionary syndicalist unions, Unite doesn t have radical aims. Its constitution doesn t mention class struggle or workers control. It s not an anti-capitalist union. It just aims for a better deal for low paid workers.

Unlike syndicalist unions who prize themselves on their independence from political parties, much of the Unite leadership has been closely linked with social democratic parties. Most are ex-members of the Alliance, a social democratic party.

Unite bureaucrats such as McCarten and Mike Treen are involved in Workers Charter, a group that claims to be the embryo of a new left wing political party, modelled on the British Respect coalition and the Australian Socialist Alliance. As such, there are some suspicions that Unite is an attempt to build a working class base for the political ambitions of Unite s leadership. Indeed, one Leninist group has claimed Super-Size My Pay should be renamed Super-Size My Party. But it seems that as Workers Charter has become more dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Organisation, McCarten and Treen have taken less interest in it as a potential bureaucratic parliamentary vehicle for themselves. So, overall, claims that Unite is a radical or syndicalist union are dubious. Because unions in New Zealand have been crap for so long, when a new union comes along with a few new ideas and a bit more energy they appear to be very radical in comparison.

New forms of struggle require new organizational forms. Unite isn t a new type of union. Well, it s partially a new organizational form; it s a pioneering attempt to update old-school bureaucratic unionism for today s fragmented workplace. Entrepreneurial union bosses used Super-Size My Pay to co-opt the energetic campaigning tactics of the anti-capitalist movement for their own ends. And Super-Size My Pay has helped Unite to grow into a sizeable union -- only about 10 unions in New Zealand are now larger than it.

Nevertheless, Super-Size My Pay was an innovative campaign that came to grips with the nature of casualised labour today. Super Size My Pay s real importance lay in the fact that it proved that fast food workers could challenge the seemingly invincible fast food industry. Much can be learnt from the campaign: the use of solidarity from the outside, even from striking secondary school students; the quickfire short, sharp strikes; the mobile hooning pickets and flying pickets; and the use of rebranding and other tactics borrowed from the anti-capitalist movement. And finally, above all else, many fast food workers have learnt the time-honoured lesson that they should never trust union bosses and officials.

Toby, NZ



14 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by janet on September 17, 2009

I like this article. Unite leadership are now planning to change the union's constitution to remove its original purpose of organising the unemployed and beneficiaries. They intend to abolish locals, prevent general membership from voting at AGM's, have no requirement for regular AGM's at all, and provide for some delegates to be appointed rather than elected. Unemployed can be members but it seems will not be represented, organised, or recruited. This would legitimise the current status quo. The only group which has continued to organise and recruit unemployed up till now has been the Waitemata branch.


12 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by Skraeling on August 24, 2011

This was "an earlier, shorter and badly written version of this article." A revised and in my opinion much better version can be found here


11 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by happychaos on November 30, 2012

A view on by a socialist organiser involved in the dispute: