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Redundant

Written By: - Date published: 2:26 pm, November 24th, 2008 - 33 comments
Categories: workers' rights - Tags:

I was talking to a friend the other night. Her job is disappearing. Fortunately, she is getting a decent-sized redundancy payment. I asked if she is a member of the union. ‘No, why would I be?’ Well, you only get that redundancy payment because the union won it in negotiations. ‘But I’m on an individual contract, that’s got nothing to do with the union’. Ah, but it does. You have no statutory right to redundancy payments if your job disappears. You only get it if you and/or your fellow workers won that right as a union. Labour was going to introduce a minimum redundancy right and prevent the use of pass-on as a union-breaking tactic, but 55,000 people thought it was time for a change. Employers often pass-on some of the gains won by unions to non-union members. On one hand that’s good because all workers at a workplace win from the successes of unionised workers. But, in the long run, it’s bad because it discourages union membership and encourage free-riding leading to lower unionisation in the workplace and, from that weaker bargaining position, smaller wins for the workers.

Something else my friend said caught my attention. When the redundancies were announced, a meeting was arranged with the workers and a union rep. Only one of the workers facing the possibility of redundancy was in the union. ‘The union rep said they couldn’t help us we an existing situation, so there was no point in me joining the union, they couldn’t help me’. Of course, I would have thought the lesson was not ‘unions are useless’ but ‘I should have joined the union when times were good, not expect help when things went bad’. However, the viewpoint my friend experienced is something the unions need to pay attention to.

It seems to me a lot of workers now see joining a union as purchasing a service, not being part of a group. Whereas the ‘traditional’ view of unions is that the workers are the union and, in the larger unions, they employ some professionals to represent their interests and help them organise, the increasingly common conception of the union among workers is that it is the small group of professionals that are the union, the members are just individuals hiring their services.

That’s a result of our increasingly individualised society and the top-down way in which some unions have been run. It has important ramifications for how unions need to approach workers. Non-unionised workers I speak to often report finding unions’ attempts to increase unionisation intimidatory. ‘They need to market themselves better’ To many in the unions that is anathema, it takes the soul and solidarity out of unionism and makes it just another product. However, if workers are changing, if they do perceive union membership as just buying a service, unions need to be responsive to that.

If they don’t, this disconnect between what workers want from unions and how union activists view themselves will continue to be a barrier to increasing unionisation. That will impede work right gains for all workers, unionised and non-unionised alike.

33 comments on “Redundant ”

  1. Mr Magoo 1

    As an ex-union committee member for the large organisation where I worked, I have seen this mentality many times. Once I had a non-union staff member come to me specifically to argue this point specifically. They even managed to imply that non-union workers benefitting from our negotiations meant that we thought they were “scabs”.
    The core of their argument was exactly the above: Why should I bother joining if I get the benefits for free? Where is incentive.

    The argument seems obvious to me, but it is the good ol’ “fate of commons” part of the human psyche at work again. I am winning now, so this is what I will do.
    Everyone knows if the unions dried up the workers would be in trouble. But UNTIL they do, they can piggy back and reap the rewards.

    Unfortunately once they are gone or legislation is passed to make them irrelevant (National/ACT coalition – just watch what happens) it is a bit late.

    Of course trying to tell people this en mass is all but pointless. We just don’t seem to care anymore unless it is in our face and immediate – like lines of credit and “a change we need”.
    Having said this, perhaps this recession will be a good time for the unions to recruit members?? In your face will be about right mid 2009.

  2. Tane 2

    SP, I agree modern unions need to present themselves well etc, but savvy marketing ain’t the panacea. It helps, but if you rely on it too much you risk entrenching the very problem you’re trying to counter.

    As with most problems, the answer is democracy. Unions need to be transparent, communicate with their members and devolve as much decision-making power to the membership as possible. When you’re open and democratic people get a real sense of their collective power and unionism suddenly becomes a lot more relevant.

    This should come as no surprise. After all, that’s what unionism is about – empowering workers.

    Of course, that’s happening in the movement already and has been for a while (more in some unions, less in others, of course). But, like anything, it’s a process that takes time.

  3. bobo 3

    People assume most employers will act in good faith who have never experienced a recession before. They will learn why Unions came into existance in an oldskool wish I had read my contract fine print kind of way..

  4. Ianmac 4

    Steve: You make a good point: “‘I should have joined the union when times were good, not expect help when things went bad’
    A bit like deciding whether to insure your house or car, before the fire!

  5. Phil 5

    Labour was going to… …prevent the use of pass-on as a union-breaking tactic,

    I don’t see how this would be workable in practice.

    Lets say you’re a manufacturing firm employing 100 people, 50 in the union and 50 individual contracts, and the production process requires all 100 ‘on the floor’ at the same time to manufacture a particular item.

    The union negotiates an increase in lunch break from 30 minutes to 1 hour.

    Now, unless you pass on the benefit to the non-union staff, your whole production process is f*cked and you end up with bottle-necks and shortages through the chain. I doubt anyone would suggest that pass-on would be a union breaking tactic, but where do you draw the line?

    [well, in that highly specific situation I would suggest that the company find something to offer in place of the longer break, but anti-pass-on provisions would, of course, carry exemptions for circumstances where consistency of conditions is vital for production. SP]

  6. Tane 6

    Phil, the idea behind the current no-pass-on law is that employers have to have genuine individual negotiations with workers on individual employment agreements rather than simply passing on the gains of the collective.

    To use your scenario, you could say everyone gets a one hour lunch break, but you’d have to negotiate that individually with the non-union workers concerned, and in theory that should mean a smaller pay increase or reduction in other benefits for them.

    But that’s an unusual scenario. To put it simply, the law against pass-on is there to stop employers from simply saying “The union got 4% and an extra week’s leave – everyone who’s not in the union gets that too.”

    The problem is that’s still going on, so the current law clearly isn’t working. You could strengthen it any number of ways, one idea is to say employers can’t hold individual negotiations within a certain period after a collective agreement is settled. Another is to require individual agreements for the year to be settled in advance of the collective negotiations. Or you could simply up the enforcement, and the fines, for breaking the current law.

    All of this and plenty more would have been investigated if Labour and its allies had been elected. But they weren’t, and National is actively pro-pass-on, so it’s really academic now.

  7. Ianmac 7

    Once when we were all on strike over salaries on a Collective structure, one of our workmates would not join in for Religious reasons. He stayed on at work. OK. But I was a bit miffed when the pay rise was granted, he sat down in the staffroom and loudly and enthusiastically calculated his pay rise.

  8. Jon 8

    Good discussion – another one I would like to see the Standard lead is how unions move from organising in the workplace or industry to organising politically – and what does this mean in practice, other than bulking up their effort in around the election or doing the occasional lobbying? Some might say Unite has organised politically to increase the Minimum Wage. Yes, that can work if and only if you have pro worker parties in government willing to progress this. (Actually Labour and its allies were already sympathetic to this – and had agreed it in the cooperation agreements). The Servos have done well with their low pay hospitals and cleaners campaigns and used their links with Labour union MPs to progress this in government. But the real challenge is making progress with unsympathetic governments….. Unions organised around the minimum wage, youth wages, and a whole lot of other things in the 1990’s with a National government and made zilch progress. There’s two things about political organising – one is to defend worker rights against a right wing government and the other is to make progress with worker friendly governments – in a way that genuinely involves and activates working people.

  9. George Darroch 9

    As with most problems, the answer is democracy. Unions need to be transparent, communicate with their members and devolve as much decision-making power to the membership as possible. When you’re open and democratic people get a real sense of their collective power and unionism suddenly becomes a lot more relevant.

    Absolutely. And the best way to empower people is to organise with them, from the shop-floor upwards. They/we need the power, the controls and to set the direction. If the union is a ‘union of workers’ rather than a negotiating service that you pay delegates for, you’re much less likely to see it in purely utilitarian terms. Of course, there isn’t a clear line between these two models and most unions in NZ have elements of both.

    Most people I know have absolutely zero face to face contact with the union. Zero. I can’t say that I’ve ever had even a leaflet, let alone a person come over and talk to me. Maybe there are structural barriers, put in place by National and not removed by Labour – I can’t say I know enough to argue whether this is true or not. If so, Labour should have been the focus of a campaign to remove these, rather than uncompromising support. But as far as I can tell, unions have fairly good access to workplaces, at least for the moment.

    As Tane said, the answer isn’t marketing. It isn’t slick brochures and television ads. It’s making sure people are organising themselves and have a personal stake in fighting for their rights at work, and know what their employer is really offering them.

    All of this and plenty more would have been investigated if Labour and its allies had been elected. But they weren’t, and National is actively pro-pass-on, so it’s really academic now.

    It could have a better chance of being investigated, had Labour been willing to work with the left, rather than right-wing Peter Dunne for the last 6 years. That’s why it’s academic. Yet the unions on the whole fought for Labour rather than the Alliance, and then the Greens, who both had stronger pro-worker policies. Go figure.

  10. Tane 10

    George, good to see some agreement. Just a couple of things.

    Most people I know have absolutely zero face to face contact with the union. Zero. I can’t say that I’ve ever had even a leaflet, let alone a person come over and talk to me.

    What industry and workplace do you work in? The answer to that questions is the difference between whether you’ve got a slack (or under-resourced) union or whether it’s something structural.

    If so, Labour should have been the focus of a campaign to remove these, rather than uncompromising support.

    I wouldn’t say union support for Labour has been uncompromising. Only a few unions are actually affiliated to Labour, and others are at times openly hostile. Thing is, Labour’s policies were all moving in the right direction (helped along by affiliate unions getting remits through at party conferences), the problem was just that they weren’t moving fast enough. As it turns out, Labour’s IR policy for this election (while falling short of overthrowing capitalism) was actually bloody good, nine years late though it was.

    It could have a better chance of being investigated, had Labour been willing to work with the left, rather than right-wing Peter Dunne for the last 6 years.

    I didn’t like their choice to go with Dunne either, but the fact is pass-on laws were looked at, and strengthened, by Labour in cooperation with the Greens and NZ First. If they’d won this election the law would have been strengthened further. Their support agreements with Peter Dunne had no impact on this issue.

    Yet the unions on the whole fought for Labour rather than the Alliance, and then the Greens, who both had stronger pro-worker policies. Go figure.

    Unions are democratic organisations and their donations are decided by elected national councils. They can’t go around donating to parties like the Alliance (or RAM, or the Workers’ Party) that have no real membership support and don’t even register in the opinion polls.

    The unions that donated to Labour did so because Labour has a strong base of support among union members and it is the major party supporting workers’ rights. There is a relationship there going back nearly 100 years. Some unions also donated to the Greens and the Maori Party and helped distribute materials on the strength of their work rights policies.

  11. LeftRightOut 11

    There are a great many problems today to which the answer is ‘more democracy’. Unfortunately most people these days are too apathetic to contribute to the debate, let alone anything more. It would cut into their TV and internet porn surfing time too much.

  12. LRO whats with using my handle?

  13. Political parties are in much the same boat. People will support “you” or “them”, but don’t see it as supporting themselves. It’s like a form of atrophy…..ideas unused or unfamiliar begin to fade.

  14. Jasper 14

    I would join the union – If only I knew which one to join.

    My issue is that with all these different names bearing down on me, it’s incredibly hard to figure out which.

    Google helps somewhat, but when the main search results are the Maritime, Ctu and Unite unions – for an office worker like myself who is the sole employee in a PPP, who do I approach?

    The CTU website is vague, I’ve read enough about Unite to know that’s more of a student and low waged worker union, Maritime – well, I aint a Seaman.

    It’s not about the marketing – it’s about making yourself visible. Marketing and Visibility are two inherently different structures. A union can market itself through the media, and a mouthpiece in the HoS (McCarten) but making itself visible is certainly a different question.

  15. I was at a union meeting once to discuss the pay offer in our latest round of collective barginning. The company had come back with about 4% when we were after about 7%.

    After much umm-ing and ah-ing a veteran of the Union butted into the conversations with “Look, how bad do you really want it? Because if you really want it you’re going to have to strike!”. The room went quiet and a stunned silence fell over the members. Eventually they conceeded it was better to have 4% than to fight for 7%.

    It seemed that while everyone was benefitting from what the union had acquired no one seemed ready to fight for it.

  16. Rex Widerstrom 16

    What is the basis of the “we can’t help you now you’re in trouble, you should have joined before” rule? Legislation or union policy?

    If the latter, it’s the height of stupidity. Help someone when they’re in a jam and you’re likely to win a loyal supporter for life – and quite possibly one who’ll sing your praises to others.

    The health insurance providers used to have the same attitude – join while you’re healthy or we’ll screw you out of assistance – now they’re advertising “join today, claim today on most extras”. Because they’ve woken up to the fact that if you pull the thorn from the lion’s paw it’ll become your best defender… and be highly likely to keep paying it’s premiums.

    Instead, I’ve helped many a non-union member negotiate the Employment Tribunal / Court and the attitude of the union in not helping them out has had the exact opposite affect.

    [I think most people in such a situation would think it reasonable if a union said “well okay, but we want a year’s membership from you first”, or something else to cover their base costs].

    And Tane, excellent points… some I tried clumsily to make several days ago highlighting the story of the Australian union official spending $80k on travel, hotels and prostitutes. Several unions I’ve seen up close (including a couple I’ve worked for) have been absolutely riddled with low level corruption, with poor services being excused by falling membership whilst the Secretary renews his car every year.

    They’ve also been amongst the worst employers I’ve seen, treating their own staff in ways which they would vocally protest if the same treatment were handed out to their members.

    Until all unions, like political all parties, can demonstrate they’re run democratically, openly, collectively and in the best interests of all their members, they can run all the marketing campaigns they want and they’ll still be viewed with suspicion and distrust by many. The saddest part being, many don’t deserve to be.

  17. Tane 17

    Jasper – email and tell me where you work, and I’ll tell you who your union is. Alternatively you can ring the CTU and ask them. If you’re in a small workplace that’s probably why you’ve never been asked – the current employment law is unfavourable to multi-employer bargaining so workers at small sites often miss out.

    As for advertising etc, unions can’t really afford it, so kind of out of the question.

  18. Bill 18

    Our democratic tradition of late is predicated on empowerment and dis-empowerment.

    Empowerment for representatives. Dis-empowerment for the rest.

    No easy, quick way around this.

    Some representatives play the role of ‘gate-keeper’; actively discouraging wider participation and nurturing an exclusive arena of power.

    A belief among those being represented that this (non-inclusive) way is ‘the way it has always been done’ presents another barrier.

    I’ve said it here before , but just as ‘really existing communism’ had nothing very much to do with communism beyond the label, so ‘really existing democracy’ has nothing very much to do with democracy beyond the label.

    Any tradition of inclusive democracy has been sidelined and largely forgotten under ‘really existing democracy’ just as any nascent communism was under ‘really existing communism’.

    The only way around this, in my mind, is to start again with new organisations, as opposed to attempts at democratising existing organisations whose structures pre-empt and discourage meaningful broad participation.

  19. Tane 19

    Rex, fair enough, I think I understand what you were getting at the other day. However I would be interested to find out when you last worked with the union movement. Things have changed quite a lot even in the last few years. And, I should add, you seem to have a habit of leaving former workplaces on bad terms…

  20. Rex Widerstrom 20

    LOL I do have that habit Tane, yes 😛

    Though in my own defence I should point out that it’s always on a point of principle, and usually because I find what the employer is doing to others unpalatable – which generally means behaving in a deceitful manner. And there’s also usually no doubt I’d have been much better off if I kept my big mouth shut (just ask my mother, it’s one of her favourite sermons). I just don’t like promoting liars… the flip side of that is that I have and will work for anyone who’s open about their agenda, be they union, right wing politician or anyone else.

    Since you asked… the last time I worked for a union ended approximately five years ago, in Australia. I’d devised and created a campaign and a political strategy which backed the government into a corner and won them a significantly better offer than they would have had otherwise. While I wasn’t the only factor by any means, it was agreed the campaign was everything they wanted and more, and executed well under budget.

    Then about 3 weeks before Christmas the Secretary’s secretary scurried in to my office, chucked a letter at me and fled. It terminated my contract. The Secretary’s office, I might add, was directly across the hall from mine.

    To their immense credit the union’s organisers protested. They lost. The President- a decent bloke who had no political nous and had been elected on the same “ticket” as the Secretary – squirmed and apologised but did nothing.

    I heard that later, they also lost their union-provided cars and were made to use their own. My sacking, and the impositions placed on them, were put down to “budget cuts”. That Christmas, however, the Secretary still traded in his six cylinder union car for a brand new 4WD because he wanted to explore the bush near his holiday home.

  21. Why the heck should I belong to a union, If I can negotiate a better deal myself?

    Why should I have less in my pay packet?

    If people want to belong to a union then so be it, but I find it downright repugnant that anyone would suggest that it should be compulsory.

  22. Oli 22

    I was briefly a union member, even a committee member and never had to put up with such a tiresome ineffective bunch of incompetents. Now I’m not a union member, get all the benefits and don’t have to piss my money against a wall for the big lunches the committee had after their meeting.

  23. Tane 23

    Rex, interesting. I haven’t experience anything similar over here, though I’m sure it’s happened before. I’d be careful of drawing a comparison between the NZ and Aussie movements – they tend to be a rougher bunch over there.

    Brett, if you can negotiate a better deal then by all means do so. The union provides a floor of minimum conditions, not a ceiling. But the basic power dynamic is that the collective has more bargaining power than the individual, it’s up to you whether or not you choose to empower yourself. And btw, no one’s suggesting we make union membership compulsory. Though it makes me question your comprehension skills and, from there, your ability to out-bargain the combined strength of your workmates.

  24. You can question what you like, perhaps its not my bargaining skills that gets me a good deal, but the fact that I have had good employers in my life, well except when I was a young man and worked for a certain fast food chain, now theres a place the union needs to go!

  25. Sarah 25

    Union’s have become over-paid snotty suits. I miss the unions of the good ol’ days.

  26. George Darroch 26

    @Rex, I share a house with a union delegate (for my workplace), but I just can’t bring myself to join while they fly their executive round Australia on business class. I joined the IWW in protest 🙂 I’m not suggesting that NZ unions are of that nature however.

    @Tane – I’ve worked a lot of jobs in in hospitality, sales, and in a call centre. So SFWU and FinSec mainly. To be fair, these jobs have tended to be around university studies, so have often been part-time or casual.

    My other comment about Labour wasn’t to suggest that the union movement is entirely uncritical. I could have used a better phrase than ‘on the whole’ to convey that sentiment. I do have to take issue with the statement that Their support agreements with Peter Dunne had no impact on this issue.. While Labour did pass a fair amount of pro-worker legislation with Green and NZF support, it is entirely possible that a more formal coalition or support arrangement would have seen more done, or these changes arrived at earlier (allowing for such things as a $15 minimum wage by now). Likewise, in 2001-2002 Labour acted in a way that they knew was highly harmful to the Alliance, and many NZ unions chose to support Labour over the Alliance despite that. That is their right to do so as democratic organisations, but I dispute strongly that it was in the interest of strong pro-worker policy.

    I’ll see what my situation is when I get back to NZ, and if I’m covered by a union that organises from the workplace-floor and is not affiliated to Labour, I’ll join. I’m not hopeful though.

  27. Camryn 27

    Tane: “The union provides a floor of minimum conditions, not a ceiling.”

    Isn’t no-pass-on exactly that? In this thread, you’ve specifically promoted legislation that would enforce a ceiling, since any non-union worker that managed to negotiate a deal at, close to, or better than the union would surely be accused of benefiting from pass-on. Being unionists, you don’t believe that it’s particularly likely that an individual could get that result without free riding off the collective.

    In reality there’d be no way to tell whether any individual did or did not ride off the collective agreement if the result ended up similar, so the only way to have a workable “pass-on” law is to actually have a ceiling law.

  28. Camryn. No -anti-pass-on doesn’t put a ceiling on non-union members’ conditions, it just means the employer can’t automatically pass-on union gains to non-members. Automatically is the key word. There is nothing to stop individuals bargaining for whatever termws they want.

    catpcha: Daniel employes… he also spells poorly

  29. Tane 29

    George, I think the fundamental problem is you’re seeing unions as service providers, like companies, that you either choose to endorse or not endorse by joining.

    The reality is unions are democratic organisations of workers, and like any organisation they have imperfections and contradictions. The traditional union view is that you join the union on site and if you don’t like how it’s run you work to change it rather than running away. Granted, that’s no help if you’re concerned primarily with ideological purity, but I can tell you when you’re face to face with the sharp end of capital having power and solidarity is a lot more use than purity.

    Anyway, it’s a free country, and I’m not one to advise anyone against joining the IWW 🙂

  30. “It seems to me a lot of workers now see joining a union as purchasing a service, not being part of a group. Whereas the ‘traditional’ view of unions is that the workers are the union … the increasingly common conception of the union among workers is that it is the small group of professionals that are the union, the members are just individuals hiring their services.

    [Such a big topic, and no time to do it justice — or even look at the previous comments. Sorry.]

    The instrumental approach to union belonging in NZ is not new, and it’s not unique to NZ. As one of the co-authors of the only study (copies available – just ask) that analyses NZ workers’ union belonging and is based on individual-level large-scale survey data, I can confirm that regression analysis shows NZers’ motivations for union belonging are largely instrumental (I’ve got/might have a problem, the union will be effective in fixing it), with small effects for left-wing ideology, tenure, gender, higher workplace union penetration, and being in the construction industry.

    These findings replicate results in the UK, US, Australia and Canada, amongst other places.

    Is this instrumental approach new or “increasing”? We can’t be sure in NZ, because nobody thought to ask a large sample until we did. But this has been the pattern overseas for some decades. I’d also have to challenge the idea that there has been a strong ideological basis to union belonging in NZ, outside of a few enclaves, at least over the last sixty years. You will recall that union membership here was compulsory for much of the workforce until 1991. Unions operated largely as bureaucratic organisations, often relying on state-mandated leverage in tribunals to achieve their ends. The idea that unions largely provide a “service” has deep historical roots downunder.

    That said, it is not the case that an instrumental approach excludes an understanding of the collective basis of unions. For example, 87% of union members or those who said that they would join if they could reported that an important reason for joining was that, “The more people that join a trade union the more effective it is in advancing pay and work conditions.” Som eof us call this “instrumental collectivism.”

    In recent years some in the trade union movement have pushed the idea of a more militant “organising” approach to union organising, centred on action by members and potential members in the workplace. As always, some have jumped on this idea as a panacea, the one and only “true” way for unions to revive. (“Best practice” for unions). In practice, union organising continues to be a mixture of the organising and servicing approaches, resource constraints limiting the uptake of the organising model.

  31. PK 31

    On Redundancy ….various musings …. I have mixed feelings – my father managed to pay off the mortgage as he kept getting jobs where there were ‘royal’ redundancy terms and guess what they closed the factory down. As he was a very capable man he always managed to find another job (this in Liverpool with about 20% unemployment at the time).

    Must be a family trait as I’ve been made redundant twice (best thing that happened to me as it got me out of jobs I should not have been doing) – the 1st time the company went under and I received 3 weeks pay from the UK government ages later (of no real use). The 2nd time I did not get on with the MD and the sales force and was, in effect, given the boot under the guise of redundancy. They had to take me back on contract rates and paid me about double what I was earning previously as the customers needed me. Really p****d the MD off and very enjoyable.

    I have also encountered several cases where the employer did not want to employ more people because their effective ‘cost’ jumped significantly after two or three years because of the redundancy terms and instead decided that overtime was much more cost effective and left a much smaller $ liability (as the accountants call it) on the books. This then meant that instead of more people in work we had less people doing more work.

    For smaller companies where it is effectively privately owned by a person or family many have that family pride and culture and try not to make people redundant. If it gets that bad for some of them then significant redundancy liabilities will probably put them under as they are often not the “rich pricks” people perceive and instead do it as much to be their own boss and have a sense of achievement as to have a chance of being financially better off.

    The fact that one can make someone redundant and actually get past any notice period is wrong (if there is no redundancy clause in the contract) and a loophole that someone is bound to use.

    I have also had to make people redundant (real redundancy not giving the boot under the guise of redundancy) and it’s a b***dy awful thing to have to do and one only does it when you know you really are saving other people’s jobs i.e. if the workforce isn’t cut then the company is not viable.

  32. PK 32

    On Unions

    Saw the worst excesses in Liverpool in the 70s and 80s where some unions were actually putting their members out of a job through doing what they were established to prevent – abuse of a weaker party in the employer/employee relationship – eg Merseyside dockside employees had terms that were ludicrous – they used to gloat about them in the pub – result – the freight moved elsewhere and the jobs disappeared. Many also disliked the active political element. If they wanted to make a contribution to the labour party they would do it directly themselves and had the common distrust of politicians of any hue.

    Too many unions at the time were frankly corrupt and visibly Marxist – not a politically acceptable point of view to many workers who also saw the union as much a power wielding authority as the employer. For instance, unions actively working against pay that had a performance factor and protecting incompetent or dishonest workers. I remember my father and his friends used to get annoyed with them. You try working around large assembling machinery that someone drunk has maintained or try and get a job finished when the other guy does not know his own job. Both real life examples. Both employees (the drunk and the incompetent) were reported by their co-workers and were told that as both were union reps they could not be touched.

    Admittedly, bad cases and not necessarily representative but they did leave an impression. Sadly, the unions at the docks did start out really well. Conditions used to be atrocious and dangerous, workers had no tenure of any sort, back handers were required to get work etc. They fixed all of that but just kept going and didn’t know where to stop. I don’t believe that the above circumstances still exist I hasten to add.

    I do have experience over here of an ineffective union where they had negotiated such a bad deal (and because of concerns by the management with regards to labour and union laws) the management wasn’t willing to reward specific non-union members who were real over achievers and very, very good more than the top union negotiated rate.

    The issue was that it was a large union but a relatively small employer in the public service sector and the union did not give the union members much time or expertise – they seemed to fall between various cracks.

    What this does highlight to me is that it’s only worth joining an effective and sensible union.

    One of the issues affecting unions in NZ does relate to one factor that I believe kiwis have in common with poms. They do not trust politicians and several friends and acquaintances have remarked how they are uncomfortable with the fact that unions are perceived as having a political element that is predominantly labour. I don’t go with the “they are democratic organisations” comment earlier. Yes, they are but typically there are a relatively small number of unions to choose in a particular workplace and if your available choices pay a stipend to labour it’s a question of lump it or leave it – so many people leave it. Also please don’t give me the agitate to change it approach – many people do not care about politics and want to have a union that focusses on their workplace and see politics as a distraction thank you very much. I think part of this is that any organisation takes on a life of its own, has its own inertia and tends to head off down its own path independently of the people it started out to represent.

    So, in order for unions to be more successful I feel they need to work hard on their image and part of that might be to represent themselves as less political and more about the worker (yes a bit Irish but I think I know what I mean)

  33. Tommy Douglas 33

    This is a really good debate.

    Unions in this country are still run by old people who can remember when union membership was mandatory. Those times are gone forever. So should the dinosaurs that still harken back to those times as if they can be recaptured. They can’t. It’s over.

    In general there are three types of worker: those who like unions, those who are indifferent and those who are opposed. The problem today is that a lot of people are indifferent, not just about unions but basically about anything that has to do with having an opinion. Most people just watch television in their spare time and don’t have a habit of thinking. They like to purchase things and like to watch advertisements on TV about the things they want to purchase.

    Union density is stagnant in the private sector.

    I prescribe the following:

    1. Unions need to take on an insurance paradigm — belonging to a union is now a grudge purchase so why not imbrace it? So many things are guaranteed by statute: minimum wage, health and safety, wages protection, etc. A lot of the solidarity in the union movement existed to get these things into agreements but they are now positively guaranteed by statute. Notice that no conservative government, no matter how anti-union, would repeal the Wages Protection Act or Health and Safety legislation.

    So lower why not your dues and just tell people that if they fuck up at work then someone will be there to keep the company honest. Everyone has fucked up at work. In my experience, those in unions do better.

    2. This is related to #1 — close down access to the personal grievance machinery for non-union employees. Don’t want to be a union? Fine. Fuck off and use the common law then. Have fun with it.

    This would give unions a really strong selling point. Join us and if you do get sent down the road you’ll be a lot safer. Don’t join and you’re on your own.

    3. Make MECAs easier to negotiate or bring back some type of award system.

    I’m as pro-union as they come but in my experience unions are about as responsive as banks or insurance companies. They still have an attitude taht demonstrates vestiges of the past — when membership was required. This has to end. A better customer service ethos is needed.

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