Westfield bans union organiser from mall

Auckland Unite Union organiser and Workers Party member Jared Phillips talks to The Spark.

What’s the background to this trespass?

Unite union has begun a campaign to get a new set of union agreements in the cinema chains, and to continue re-unionising that industry. The offer from Skycity Cinemas, which is a large chain, was appalling. If we agreed with the company offer, the supervisors, projectionists and gold class staff would dramatically lose their wage relativity against the minimum wage. Of equal importance, the cinema attendants, who are the majority of staff, would get no service pay and no improvements to their security of work.

A trespass order was issued against me during the St. Lukes strike, which was the second strike in the campaign. The trespass was issued by Westfield St. Lukes, which is the firm that operates that mall and many malls in which Skycity Cinemas operates complexes.

Why did Westfield issue the trespass?

Westfield claims that I’ve been trespassed for the use of a megaphone in the mall. It’s true that I used a megaphone for about two minutes as the striking workers and a couple of union officials and I left the workplace through the mall. At first I ignored the requests made by Westfield security for me to desist. Then the security officer warned me that if I continued on the megaphone in the mall I’d be trespassed. At this time we were seconds from the door, so, to be honest, I did desist, because I calculated that holding back two more blows in the speaker was a small cost measured against the risk of a trespass order, which I know is a very real and repressive tool used against unions and other justice activists.

Westfield is saying that I did continue after being warned of the possibility of trespass, and this is untrue.

What is the union doing about the trespass?

I didn’t walk back on the premises after receiving the trespass. There’d been police presence during the strike, as they’d been called out on some moral-panicking claim that the picket line was a danger to motorists. Actually, the majority of motorists were using their car horns to support us. Those police accompanied security during the issue of the trespass.

If I’d gone back on the premises I think I probably would have been dragged off in front of the strikers, who were striking for the first time. So I explained to the strikers that I’d be happy to take an arrest if that’s the best way of challenging the trespass, but I’d do it later, in a prepared way, with media involvement and the involvement of other workers in the mall. If we democratically decide that I should take an arrest on the site, we have to do it in such a way that Westfield gets some backlash.

However, we’ve acquired legal assistance, and we’re using this to give Westfield the chance to remove the two-year order before the differences between Westfield and Unite deepen. This trespass wasn’t ordered by the police, but they were complicit and assisted Westfield. After issuing the trespass, the police and Westfield management got shouted down with “Shame! Shame!” chants.

What’s the legal situation?

A trespass is a trespass - it’s enforceable until they lift it or are forced legally or otherwise to lift it. However, we correctly contend that this is an illegal trespass. The Trespass Act is applicable unless overridden by other legislation. The other legislation here is of course the Employment Relations Act, which guarantees site access for union organisers when they are doing union work.

How is this impacting on organising at the mall?

I am responsible to 74 employees in four workplaces in the mall. The trespass has a strong effect on the ability to organise those workplaces. In KFC and Starbucks we often need to respond to requests from new employees to see an organiser quickly so they can sign up early and get reimbursed union fees from their employer. In McDonalds, there’s been a recent recruitment drive in that store and members might begin to think they’ve been abandoned by the union.

Westfield need to be forced to take account of how they are further disadvantaging so many employees who line their pockets. In the cinema itself, some anti-union rumours have been started by someone. One rumour, which is a total and complete falsification, is that I’ve assaulted a duty manager. Another is that I have been sacked from the union because of the strike. Again this is falsification. I have the confidence of Unite senior leaders. My comrade co-worker Tom Buckley has done some work to alleviate this situation but I feel we are relieving members rather than working with them to continue building confidence on site.

Is there a freedom of speech issue here?

Yes, there is. I’ve seen every other noisy thing in malls, such as fights, so-called fashion shows, and musical performances. However, as soon as there’s some form of difference with the - shall we say - mall apparatus, it’s all about the mall being a nice, quiet family place.

The trespass on the basis of using a megaphone raises an interesting sociological question about what’s allowed to take place in malls, which are contradictory spaces in the sense that they are privately-owned yet function as pseudo-public spaces.

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