CWG members were at the Methodist City Mission Hall, for the Auckland launch of the Clean Start - Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign, which is being waged in New Zealand by the Service and Food Workers Union and in Australia by the SFWU's sister union, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union.
About one hundred and twenty people - union organisers, delegates, rank and file members, journalists, and the usual unctuous politicians - listened to New Zealand Idol winner Rosita Vai give a rousing start to proceedings by filling the hall with her twenty-four track voice.
Vai's would be a hard voice for anyone to follow, and the nasal whine of SFWU National Secretary John Ryall never stood a chance. Vocal performance aside, Ryall did make some sound points about the necessity and justice of the cleaners' campaign, citing research which shows that cleaners in New Zealand work three times as much floor space in a shift as their Texan counterparts. Given that Texas is not a part of the world renowned for strong trade unions, Ryall's data spoke volumes about the situation of cleaners in New Zealand. Sue, an SFWU delegate from Auckland Airport, made the same point using personal experience rather than statistics, noting that she'd been working at the airport for seven years, for a 'really really really mean' boss who had recently offered her a thirty-five cent pay increase. 'That's a box of matches', Sue observed. In her seven years at the airport, she had helped increase union membership from 35 to 140, as more and more workers saw the necessity of uniting to demand more than a box of matches.
The SFWU is demanding a minimum pay rate of $12 an hour for all cleaners, the establishment of a proper health and safety regime in the buildings cleaners service, and the end of the sub-contracting of cleaning services to fly-by-night outfits who make impossible demands on workers. It is not clear, though, how these aims are to be achieved. John Ryall spoke of 'waking the companies that own the buildings in Auckland as well as Australian cities' up to their 'social responsibilities', and getting them 'to sit down at the table with the union'. The task, it seemed, was the conversion of bosses from a profit-driven immorality to a community-minded generosity. MP Mark Gosche mounted the podium to make a similarly evangelical appeal to 'all those big businessmen who want to shake hands with Polynesian superstars like Rosita and Tana Umaga to also respect the parents of these people, the low-paid workers'. But big business and its advertising agents use celebrities like Umaga and Vai as cynically as they uses cleaners: both are exploited, it's simply that - until they retire or record an album that flops - the celebrities are more valuable commodities than the cleaners.
Gosche's fellow Labour MP Darien Fenton followed him to the podium, and delivered a breathtakingly banal speech. Fenton recalled her many years in leadership positions in the SFWU, and the effort and financial expense that went into the Labour election campaign that dragged her into parliament last year. 'I haven't forgotten you and where I came from, I always keep my desk clean, and I always talk to the parliament cleaners' Fenton announced proudly. Whether such shining examples of working class militancy represent an adequate return for the tens of thousands the union spent getting Fenton to parliament is open to question.
Green MP Keith Locke made a speech which managed the not-difficult task of upstaging both Gosche and Fenton. Locke noted that the Green Party demands an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour, and called on the SFWU to support Green MP Sue Bradford's bill to abolish youth rates. Neither Gosche nor Fenton had managed to mention either the minimum wage or youth rates, preferring to bask in the feeble glow of Labour's 1999 Employment Relations Act, and stoke up fears of National MP Wayne Mapp's doomed 90 Day Probation Bill. The failure of these two members of Labour's 'left' faction to so much as mention a progressive piece of legislation like Bradford's Bill should be a warning to all SFWU members. If it is to be successful, the Clean Start campaign will have to rely on rank and file action, not the ex-leaders the union has packed off to Wellington.
The internationalism of linking up the NZ and Australian unions is an important move, since the cleaners would be working for many of the same firms (such as Spotless) now that NZ is virtually a branch of Australian capitalism. According to one of the SFWU organisers, the US service worker union, the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) is also involved. This is one of the biggest unions in the states with 35,000 cleaners (janitors) as members.
This was the union that made a big splash in the early 1990s unionising mainly Latino women workers in the big cities in the US - the Justice for Janitors campaign. Ken Loach made a good film on the Los Angeles campaign, "Bread and Roses". The film was notable for depicting an almost unrecognisable LA from the usual glitzy Hollywood image. Some of the tactics used by the workers such as invading the private parties of super-rich lawyers whose offices they cleaned (inspiring viewing) could be used to advantage here. Imagine occupying the Koru and Kangaroo Lounges.
We hope the SFWU is planning a big rank and file contingent for May Day. It would be most fitting for NZ service workers, many of them migrant workers, to join in solidarity with the many US (around 12 million 'illegals') migrants who will be on the streets for a nationwide stopwork May 1 to tell Bush where he can stick his plan to make’ illegals’ criminals.
The mass movement of migrant workers in the US is the biggest thing to hit the US working class for years. I hope that some of the inspiration rubs off on kiwi and Aussie workers! It could be just what is needed to kick start a much needed rank and file control of the unions in these countries.
From Class Struggle 66 April/May 2006