A quick report on the 'Clean Start' campaign launch
I was one of about one hundred and twenty people - union organisers, delegates, rank and file members, journalists, and the usual unctuous politicians - who 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 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 speant 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.