Open Letter to UNITE! on Unions Against Racism

Dear Class Struggle comrades,

I thought I’d bring you up to date with some of the events in my West Auckland local of Unite! Community Union. Unite! was founded as a union for beneficiaries and low-income earners. In recent times Unite! has been controlled by Matt McCarten, and has been divided into two sections, a Community union for beneficiaries and some low-income earners, and a ‘workers’ union for employees as diverse as English language teachers, chefs, and hotel staff.

Our local is opposed to the expansion of Unite! into these new areas, because it has involved poaching members from other unions, a practice which is always counter-productive, and which is giving Unite! a bad reputation in the union movement. We are also concerned at the recent attempts of Unite! organiser and McCarten ally Mike Treen to bring prison guards into the union. We see prison guards as no better than cops, and we don’t think they belong in the workers’ movement.

We are alarmed by the way that unemployed and other beneficiaries are now being marginalised through the whole of Unite! We insist that Unite! was formed in the first place to organise and unite low-paid workers, unemployed workers and beneficiaries – in fact, we would argue that Unite! has no other reason to exist.

Our local is standing candidates in the upcoming Unite! national executive elections - we hope to join with leftists from other parts of the union to highlight the errors of the union leadership and increase the weight of the opposition on the national executive.

Our branch suffers from chronic poverty, so that even getting members to meetings is difficult. We have no full-timers, our secretary is an honorary secretary only, none of our members has been a union delegate in the past, and until recently we have not been constituted as a local.

We find it difficult to get out propaganda and we have little or no capacity to ‘help’ people who are just going to pay a fee and not be active members – hence we don’t get fees, and we have the bare number needed to form a local. Our five leading members have been relying mainly on a benefit, and one has been ‘Jobs Jolted’ onto an AMES course far below his intellectual capacity and education. Another is a PhD student and thus on a limited income.

We were very pleased, then, when we were recently recognised as a local, and received our first refunds from union headquarters. We now need to elect a treasurer along with a president, vice-president and secretary.

Despite our money woes, we have been very active so far this year. We made a special point of attending this year’s May Day demonstration, because we believe that beneficiaries and low income earners have to be recognised as an important part of the workers’ movement. The weather on May the first was bad, and the official demonstration was called off without authorisation by union officials belonging to the May Day Committee. An alternative march to the nearby US consulate to oppose the war on Iraq was proposed by some of our members and despite the heavy rain part of the rally marched there and listened to speakers from a variety of workers’ organisations.

Several of us participated in the recent Global Peace and Justice Auckland demonstration against the war and the phoney handover of power in Iraq. One of our members spoke to the demonstration, noting that our local arose out of the anti-war movement, and emphasising our solidarity with the unemployed workers of Iraq. Some of our members have attempted to investigate a ‘Work Track’ centre in New Lynn, a major working class area of West Auckland. We are concerned about the way that under the ‘Jobs Jolt’ the organisations running various compulsory courses have the right to ask WINZ to cut the benefits of beneficiaries who break course rules.

After observing work track courses ‘from the inside’ we believe that the providers of the courses must be creaming it off – they provide so little in the way of services, despite the generous contracts WINZ gives them!

We issued a press statement condemning the Budget for doing nothing for beneficiaries. We are being vigilant about the possibility that the special benefit may be cut – at present many of those able to get the special benefit rely on it as a top-up, to get them a socially acceptable standard of living.

Our branch decided to participate as strongly as it could in Unite’s attempt to unionise Burger King – four members of our group attended the initial briefing and five members participated with varying success. We deemed the Burger King drive a useful exercise, and it was very educational to see how the union access clause of the Employment Relations Act operated.

An important event in the life of our group took place on May the 8th, when Warren Duffy represented us at the big anti-racism march called in Christchurch by Asians tired of harrassment and assaults. We raised the $300 for Warren Duffy to represent us at the demonstration, and he was able to repay us by making some personal links with left-wing Unite! members in other parts of the country. A new anti-racism march will take place in Wellington on October the 23rd, in response to the desecration of Jewish graves, immigration laws that humiliate Pacific Islanders, the Maori-bashing encouraged by politicians like Don Brash, and the activities of the neo-nazi National Front.

I am hoping that our local will be able to send members to this march, and that we will not be alone in representing the labour movement.

It is clear that racism is on the rise in Aotearoa because of the gaps in class consciousness created by the defeats of the union movement and atomisation of the working class in the 80s and 90s. The building of a strong union movement is the best long-term antidote to both the National Party and the National Front, but a strong union movement can only be built on an internationalist basis.

Sadly, our union movement is lacking in internationalism. Even some of our best unions cross the line - witness the Service and Food Workers Union's recent press release attacking the importing of foreign workers by an understaffed Sealords factory in Timaru, a press release issued in the same week as an appeal for international solidarity with a sacked union member!

Then we have Maritime Union of New Zealand, which mixes a good position on the war in Iraq with the economic nationalist campaign for cabotage. Don't get me started on the Amalgamated Workers Union, which helps the cops sniff out 'illegal' workers on Auckland's building sites. We can't oppose racism if our movement espouses racist policies. We should be uniting with workers of all races and nations, not with cops and prison screws!

I urge comrades in other unions to send representatives to Wellington on October the 23rd.

Best Wishes,

Unite! rank and filer

From Class Struggle 57 August-September 2004

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