Sunday, April 30, 2006

Matt McCarten: Paying homage to our working heroes

New Zealand workers have never been big participants in May Day celebrations of international worker solidarity like other countries.

May 1 is the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere but always seems to be wet and cold here. So it was probably a smart move to change our workers' day to October 25, when we're more likely to get a bit of sun.

But there's always a couple of hundred old stalwarts with a few hangers-on who turn out every May Day in the rain to wander up Queen St, make a few speeches acknowledging past workers' struggles and then nip down to the Maritime Club for a few beers.

The first time I saw a real May Day rally was in New York. The day started with an official breakfast attended by hundreds of union bosses and politicians and then we stood on Fifth Ave to watch the parade pass us by.

The most controversial dispute of the day was whether the police union or firefighters union would lead the procession. The cops won the right and more than 1000 led the way with their precinct banners.

The only time we see members of the police union on a march here is to keep on eye on us.

The New York mayoral campaign was on at the time and Rudy Giuliani somehow muscled his way in and got pride of place, despite being a Republican. My host noted my raised eyebrow and said New York was a union town and every politician knew they couldn't get elected without the worker's vote. After fours hours, the procession was still going, with every occupation imaginable represented.

Our union, Unite, has sent three of our leading organisers to wealthier parts of the world to raise money from other trade unions for our upcoming campaign to win a union employment agreement for McDonald's workers. One will go to Venezuela on the way to the United States as a guest of the organisers of a march in their capital city. They're expecting more than a million workers to march in their parade.

But New Zealand workers' leaders needn't hang their heads in shame this year. Sue Bradford's bill to end youth rates has mobilised youth and more than 1000 are marching with the unions after school tomorrow. In some ways, it's symbolic that the students are marching down from Aotea Square to meet up with the official trade union rally and then back up the street with them. It's a symbolic act of the torch being passed from one generation to the other.

The current generation of workers, particularly in the private sector, are slowly realising that they have to get their act together and organise themselves if they hope to get meaningful change in their circumstances. Apart from Unite's campaign for fast food workers, the Service and Food Workers' Union has three significant campaigns under way: Aged Care, Healthy Hospitals, for auxiliary staff in hospitals, and its international campaign, Clean Start, for office cleaners.

The National Distribution Union led by Laila Harre is soon to launch a supermarkets campaign. And our biggest union, the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturing Union, is embarking once again on its 5 per cent wage increase campaign. It's also heading up the campaign against Wayne Mapp's bill that would give bosses the right to sack new workers in their first three months on the job.

All this means that there is a deliberate and conscious decision by the trade union movement to promote a series of concerted mass campaigns to help the most vulnerable workers.

We haven't seen this sort of confidence in years. Workers are joining unions in bigger numbers than we've seen in a long time.

The emerging confidence and stroppiness of young people is adding momentum to these new mobilisations. It won't happen overnight but it's finally dawning on workers that unless they get off their butts, then they will stay at the bottom of the food chain.

Tomorrow's May Day march is a modest new start. But give it another year and workers will fill Queen St and pay proper homage to our working class ancestors.

* Matt McCarten is the national president of Unite.


Post a Comment

<< Home