Organizing insecure workers


At one point a few years ago I had two friends working at the same cinema in Wellington, who would get rostered or not rostered depending entirely on the whim of this one manager.

If one of them was out of favour with the manager, for whatever reason could be conjured, he wouldn’t be rostered to work and we wouldn’t be enjoying our weekly laksa through lack of funds. And if the other were offered a last minute shift the laksa date was also out of the question.

That manager really messed with my weekly laksa! And more concerningly my friends’ ability to pay rent.
The release of the Council of Trade Unions report on insecure work — which asserts that at least 30% of Kiwi workers are in some form of insecure employment — led to me to assess the current predicaments of my various friends and family members very much in this category themselves.

I’m always blabbing on at them as I should (being a union organiser and all) that they need to join their union. But how are unions organising insecure workers? Could we be doing more to respond to this workforce that is so drastically different from the one many of our traditional organising models were based on?
While insecure work can take on many forms it generally refers to situations where workers’ hours are erratic and occasionally nonexistent. Those employed as labour hire, classified as contractors, on fixed-term agreements, new immigrants or casuals, like my friends, who are just called in when the supervisor decides.

While the CTU report gives a lot of critical recommendations, like negotiating provisions in collectives and lobbying for better laws, my concern is more with what happens when we get to the shop floor level.
I worked on a campaign earlier this year in a workplace where new immigrants were rostered on a weekly basis and found themselves unrostered when they joined the union or spoke up on issues. With laudable guts and savvy those workers took enormous risks to expose the company; months on we have transparency with the roster system.

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I also could delve into innumerable unsuccessful attempts at organising insecure workers. There sure is a lot to lose. And I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers.

Members are with us for decades, the company shifts their operations to China. Those workers are now unemployed and we totally lose touch with them despite them being in the vulnerable position of being unemployed. Many members particularly in the private sector are in and out of employment all the time on fixed term and casual contracts. How do we keep workers involved when they’re not working? The answer may partly lie in supporting organising the unemployed.

Resourcing beneficiary advocacy capabilities within the movement and involving unemployed workers in wider campaigns for job security and decent employment are ways we can keep our members involved. This in turn could increase the likelihood of members being in an empowered position when they do return to work.
While these are some initial suggestions if we are to take seriously the results of the CTU report on insecure work in New Zealand then as a movement we need to investigate further the options for organising insecure workers through discussions and strategising at the grassroots level.

I’m making a call for dialogue between organisers from all unions. There are plenty of organisers out there with a ton of experience in what works and doesn’t work. Somehow we’re not sharing these learnings amongst ourselves. If we don’t address this we risk being deemed irrelevant in the eyes of the increasing number of insecure workers.


  1. Well, this makes a lot of sense, and indeed some unions appear to have already worked on this, or been thinking of this, to also at least try and involve beneficiaries (unemployed for various reasons) in union membership and activities.

    This is where I find the major unions, if not all, do fall down badly, and really need to wake up, do a rethink and reorganise themselves. Given there is so much insecure, casual, part time and temp work going on, it is foolish to not try and recruit those that lose their jobs, and perhaps keep them as perhaps “subsidised” members, who may be able to be members, for slightly reduced membership fees.

    There has indeed for some time been a branch of the Unite Union, whose members have made it their point of principle, that beneficiaries should be unionised and welcome to unions, such as theirs. They also have a website and Facebook page by the way.

    Including some beneficiary advocacy combined with union membership, that could attract many thousands of new members, I am sure. It should be adopted and tried at least.

    • Who can afford union dues when they are unemployed? Hell, I can’t even afford content insurance on my flat. And what about those in & out of jobs who have never been connected to a Union? I;m not knocking the idea, but these are the concrete realities, barriers

  2. Tali, I love it that you’re thinking on this. Thanks.

    If you could answer the basic question – what’s in it for casuals and unemployed to belong to a union? What’s the bigger picture, and how does recruitment of marginalised people help to realize the larger picture you might be holding?

    The argument on the Other Side is that casuals are more trouble than they’re worth for an employer and there should be waterfalls of gratitude that some little dosh and kindness is being offered.

    You’ve already spoken about how people have been economically punished for joining and using a union. How can you protect those people in the first place?

    What you’re talking about is definitely needed, otherwise it won’t be too long before we have hire-for-a-day queues in strategic places so managers and gang-bosses can drive by and take their pick. (Of course it can happen here! It is already – just not openly.)

    I wonder if Sue Bradford would be a good ally on this…

  3. There’s no silver bullet just hard work and as you put it “guts”. That’s it. The sooner union organisers realise that the better.

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