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One of the many inviting spaces in our nation’s workplaces. (Image: Tina Tiller)
One of the many inviting spaces in our nation’s workplaces. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 1, 2024

Cum chairs, stolen pay and shitting bans: Workers share their horror stories with us

One of the many inviting spaces in our nation’s workplaces. (Image: Tina Tiller)
One of the many inviting spaces in our nation’s workplaces. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Happy May Day. Join a union.

Q: What’s worse than a staff break room where the only place to sit and have a cup of tea is on a teetering stack of old pornography magazines?

A: Your boss replacing the magazine stacks with chairs that are “heartily encrusted with cum.” 

Today is May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a tradition that began in the 19th century to celebrate the achievements of the labour movement. This afternoon, unions around the country are holding events and stop-work meetings, to resist government austerity and what Dennis Maga, FIRST Union general secretary, described as “the new government’s immediate attack on workers’ rights.”

Unions are permitted to hold up to two stop-work meetings a year, during which members are paid their normal wages, to discuss union and employment matters. For those wanting a good primer on what a union is and does, here’s a great explanation published on the Spinoff last October. 

To “celebrate” May Day, I spoke to local workers about some of their personal experiences of bad managers, workplace clusterfucks and shady labour practices – in other words, their horror stories – as well as chatting to union organisers about the benefits of collectivity. 

Paul, whose name has been changed to protect privacy, was a junior employee at a pornographic magazine and DVD wholesaler. In addition to the company’s booming mail-order business, his boss also owned several stores, with “customer viewing rooms.” When Paul suggested that employee morale might be improved by replacing the stacks of porn magazines in the break room with actual chairs, his boss went straight out and bought new chairs from Warehouse Stationary. Only, the new chairs didn’t go to the break room. They went to the wanking booths. Guess where the chairs from the wanking booths went? 

Another worker, let’s say John, was working for a non-profit organisation on a modest salary. “The treasurer refused to set up an automatic payment for my pay,” John said, “saying she wanted to ‘keep control of it.’ She would frequently forget to pay me. This meant my rent wouldn’t go through and I’d receive eviction threats. It filled me with so much anxiety, and in the end, despite loving the job, I handed in my notice. The treasurer refused to pay me the holiday pay I was owed. I was told she did exactly the same thing to my successor.”

It turns out almost everyone has an employment-related horror story. The boutique supermarket in Auckland that threatened to dock a department manager’s just-over-minimum-wage paycheck for any expired or unsold cheese in the deli section. A cinema boss who fired a worker without telling them, only to proposition them several weeks later on Instagram. The evangelical church pastor who took an employee’s husband out for coffee and asked him to discipline his wife. The prominent businessman who refused to let his employees shit in the bathroom, tearing off toilet seats, hiding the toilet paper, and put up signs all over the bathroom that read, “NO SHITTING, NO SITTING, HAPPY PISSING,” a phrase which will haunt me for the rest of my life. 

“There is no doubt that it’s a bad time to be a worker in Aotearoa, but a great time to be a boss, lobbyist, consultant or any of the other vultures of austerity,” said Dennis Maga of FIRST Union, responding to some of the new legislative changes introduced by the NACT government, resulting in budget cuts to Worksafe, the public sector, and the reintroduction of 90 day “trial periods,” which allow employers to dismiss workers within 90 days of starting work, without providing a reason. The NACT government also oversaw the repeal of Fair Pay Agreement negotiations for bus drivers, cleaners, supermarket workers, security guards and more. 

“We’re obviously seeing a lot of negative changes for workers on the horizon, which will embolden the worst bosses because it’s really the worst bosses the new government is catering to,” said Anita Rosentreter, strategic project coordinator at FIRST Union.

Rosentreter has seen a lot in her role as union organiser, including an employer at a factory in West Auckland who, after a miscommunication about a meeting time which resulted in an organiser arriving on site earlier than expected, spent $30,000 on an elaborate security gate with an intercom and CCTV system. 

She also described a colleague’s experience with an employer repeatedly calling the police on union organisers as an intimidation tactic. She says it’s a common experience to have employers printing out union resignation letters and forcing all staff members to sign then fax them in en-masse, which, it barely needs to be said, is majorly illegal.

Taking the first step towards joining a union can seem intimidating. “But it’s scary to see the difference such a small change can make,” said an anonymous Wellington-based PSA delegate, describing his experience of supporting a coworker who was having difficulty with flexible work arrangements after their partner was diagnosed with cancer. “As soon as they had a union rep in the meetings, the manager relented and started to follow the rules,” he said, adding that “it’s really hard to think about how many people fight these quiet battles alone.”

Another example of a union victory was former Dunedin mayor, Aaron Hawkins, who said he was once fired from his high school fast-food job, and in a staggering and inspirational act of pettiness, “got my union rep to get me my job back so I could quit lol.”

For those concerned an employer might discriminate against union members, John Crocker said, “if that’s what you’re worried about, then it’s a good reason to join the union, because what else are they going to treat you worse over? Some other characteristic like gender or race?” He says one common misconception about unions is that they pit employers and employees against one another. “That’s absolutely not true. We see delegates get promoted all the time. It can sometimes be a hassle,” he jokes. 

“At the end of the day, it’s a fundamental right,” Rosentreter said about joining a union. “We have freedom of association laws in New Zealand, and so people shouldn’t be afraid to join unions. Under some really hostile circumstances, unions might offer confidential membership as well for a time.” 

What about those of us who are happy with our employment? 

“You might go into a workplace and think everything looks fine. Why do I need to join a union? Well maybe it’s fine because of the union,” Crocker said. “We might go in and talk to a worker at McDonalds or something, and say, ‘You know how you get fifteen minute breaks? Before this place was unionised people didn’t get any breaks at all.’ The younger workers struggle to conceive of how bad things might have been before.”

“It’s very easy not to have a problem with your current employer, but what happens when that manager changes, and someone has a brilliant idea for a terrible restructure?” Crocker added. “Things can always seem fine now, but that doesn’t mean workers shouldn’t be collective.” 

Ultimately, Rosentreter said, unions serve a bigger purpose than individuals protecting themselves in the workplace. “It’s actually about striving for better and working together to look after people, which is really powerful because I think the modern workplace is quite effective at dividing people,” she said. “It’s really transformational to be involved in a union that can turn things around, and help people to feel powerful for the first time in their careers.”

Well, exactly. In the famous words of Billy Bragg, “There is power in a union.” Or if you prefer the classic: “Solidarity forever.” 

Keep going!