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Secret ballots for strikes

Written By: - Date published: 8:47 am, September 25th, 2009 - 60 comments
Categories: activism, labour, national, Unions - Tags:

Tau Henare has put a private members’ bill in the ballot that would require ballots by union members on strike action to be held in secret. Henare draws on his memories from the 1980s as a union organiser and reckons that open ballots are used to intimidate workers into toeing the line.

Well, maybe it was like that in the dinosaur unions 30 years ago but these days there’s no compulsory union membership, unions are democratic and members are more committed. Organisers neither have the power nor the need to railroad them or use the open ballot process to intimidate. Most unions, even if it’s not in their rules, typically hold secret ballots as good practice.

I’m sure the Nats see legislating for secret ballots as a way to bugger the unions. They must be under the delusion usually held by bosses that a majority of members of a union who go on strike don’t actually support the action. Otherwise, the law is pretty much pointless from a political point of view.

The EPMU’s Andrew Little doesn’t seem too worried though. The provisions of this bill are already in his union’s rules and, unlike National, he actually understands unions and their members.

If this Bill is drawn from the ballot, there’s no reason for Labour and the Greens not to support it.

60 comments on “Secret ballots for strikes ”

  1. Tim Ellis 1

    Interesting point Eddie. If members are supportive of union strike action and aren’t intimidated, how would holding secret ballots bugger the unions?

    • kaplan 1.1

      I think you just made the point extremely well.
      It won’t.

    • Zetetic 1.2

      That’s what the post says Tim

    • The Voice of Reason 1.3

      I’m thinking of writing a drinking game for The Standard. Rule one will be chug every time Tim Ellis starts a post with the word ‘interesting’. Come to think of it, there probably won’t need to be any other rules, it happens so often.

      But to the post at hand. As Eddie points out, most unions have secret ballots for strikes anyway. Not just to ensure fairness in the ballot itself, but to accurately guage the strength of support for the action. For example, a vote of 51% in favour might endorse the strike, but would also send a strong message to the organiser that the strength of conviction is not there and any action should be scaled down to reflect that.

      Why Tau should care is beyond me. He has had more idealogical homes than Bill English has real ones. He wasn’t that flash as a union official, as I recall, though his union did and does have a proud history of converting organisers into MP’s. Most of them never forgot where they came from. Tau seems a little bit different.

      • ghostwhowalksnz 1.3.1

        Wasnt Tau an organiser with the clerical workers union.

        A hot bed of militancy if there ever was one.

        Perhaps , “in his experience with employers” he might have a ideas for new laws that apply to them. Of course that wouldnt get past EMA who would have the signoff of any new bills that are proposed by nationals caucus.

        Does any one else see Tau as the straw man for this

    • lprent 1.4

      Umm did you read the post? Especially the last paragraph. Sounds to me like you’re as unaware of how unions operate as whoever the moron is that put this bill up. All of the significant union votes I’m aware of (via my management based family) are done by secret ballots already.

      Talk about idiots living in the past…

  2. IrishBill 2

    Tim, this has nothing to do with changing the way things are done and everything to do with attaching terms like “intimidation” to the union movement. Basically it’s a framing exercise aimed at reducing the considerable political capital unions have accrued over the last ten years.

    I suspect that’s because the right know that if they attack workers’ rights without discrediting unions first they’ll take a significant political hit.

    • Tim Ellis 2.1

      That might well be the motivation IB but at present there is no law stopping unions from intimidating their members, is there? A lot of employment law has been crafted on the assumption that some employers may initimidate or bully their employees, even though if it does happen it is in the minority. Can you say with much certainty that there isn’t even a minority of unions or union representatives that might behave thuggishly?

      IrishBill: unionism is completely voluntary. If union officials were stupid enough to intimidate members (a conceit that has little validity outside of the feverish imaginations of idiot right-wingers) they would lose those members. I would have thought you’d understand a basic market solution like that, Tim.

      • ghostwhowalksnz 2.1.1

        Can I ask you Tim, what laws stop an employer intimidating their employees.

        For we see reported in the paper a very large employer, the government,intimidating the entire prison workers union, that they sign up to double bunking or else
        What measures would need to be made to prevent this large scale thuggery.

        Can you tell us that they wouldnt resort to a ‘lockout’ to get their way.

        And no its not the money, as over $200 mill was allocated in the budget for operational costs for double bunking , if its allowed to go ahead

        • Tim Ellis

          That’s a bit off topic ghost, but I don’t think unions should get to veto government operational and policy decisions. In my job if my employer gave me a reasonable instruction and I didn’t follow it, I would be fired. I wouldn’t be able to call in finsec and say: “Hey, my boss wants me to do this as well, I don’t want to!”.

          • Daveo

            Fuck you’re dishonest Tim.

            The union’s legal challenge is over whether the policy is a breach of the employment agreement. It’s got nothing to do with any “union veto” and you know that.

            Stop lying Tim.

            • Maynard J

              It is also a workplace safety thing (there are many good reasons why double-bunking is bad, and even the cost one is not a good idea because in the long run it will cost more than it saves), but along the lines of Tim’s “unions should [not] get to veto government operational and policy decisions” workplace safety is often discredited as union meddling.

          • Killinginthenameof

            What if your boss wants you to do something unreasonable?

          • ghostwhowalksnz

            How about ‘hot desking’ To save money they will run shifts and another person will come in at 3pm to take over your desk and take up where you left off, BTW you are expected to start at 6am , no change in your pay either
            Hows that for a ‘policy decision’ .
            Go on Tim announce to the world that you have absolutely no problem with this. Think of the money that your employer will save using the same floorspace, the same computer. That will restores the Banks profits back to their stratospheric heights

      • Daveo 2.1.2

        Let’s hold up a second. What’s the mechanism by which unions would intimidate their members? Just asking.

        With employers it’s simple, they can intimidate workers through the economic control they hold over their lives. Unions are voluntary and democratic, people can simply leave. The union as an institution holds no power over its members. I think what you’re describing is the fear that workers might feel peer pressure from their workmates to take action.

        I’ve never seen an example of this, but I think it explains why every union I’m aware of already has secret ballots written into their rules or their organising guidelines as a precaution.

        There is really no problem here that needs regulating. The private sector has already found a voluntary solution. I guess National doesn’t hate regulation after all, it only hates regulation when it applies to their business mates.

        • Tim Ellis

          Obviously Daveo if there are secret ballots then there can’t be intimidation about how people vote. But if there aren’t secret ballots then you lose transparency and open up to the prospect of intimidation.

          As a parallel when Mr Shearer was selected in Mt Albert there were reports that his selection was unanimous. There were subsequent reports that Mr Shearer lost the floor vote. Never confirmed or denied by the labour party or Mr Little but clearly in direct contrast to Mr Goff’s assertion that the vote for Mr Shearer was unanimous.

          I think a transparent process around a decision to strike and remove any potential for intimidation and stand over tactics doesn’t do any harm. I’m personally not fussed about it though because I’m not currently a member of a union, but when I last was a member of finsec they didn’t have a strike in my workplace anyway and seemed to run things in a pretty reasonable way. As others have said there’s no compulsion to join a union (although to be fair there is an element of encouragement if not coercion in some workplaces), and if people don’t like the way the union is being run they can always vote with their feet.

          • Daveo

            The New Zealand Labour Party is not a trade union.

            But yeah, my major concern is that:

            a) National is making law based on misunderstanding of how unions work.

            b) The bill appears to be founded in outdated anti-union rhetoric.

            c) There’s a disconnect between National/ACT’s unwillingness to legislate or regulate business other than as a last resort, and their willingness to legislate here when there isn’t even an identifiable problem.

            • burt

              Correct, it’s the political arm of a trade union.

            • Tim Ellis

              Same people though daveo, and if they can’t provide transparency in a vote on a candidate how do people have confidence in them to provide transparency in a vote to strike?

            • Daveo

              No, they’re not the same people. You’ve also failed to show any corruption or intimidation. All you’ve argued is that in some other organisation, which isn’t a trade union, there was once a ballot where the leader said it was a unanimous vote but someone (whose name you can’t give me) claimed it wasn’t.

              I’m sorry, but that’s not an argument.

            • Pascal's bookie

              “no brash, no cash.”

              I’d like to see some transparency around that little voting exercise.

            • Bright Red

              Burt: “Correct, [Labour is] the political arm of a trade union.”

              No, it’s, or at least is was founded as and is meant to be, the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement. Clue’s in the name.

              Nothing to be ashamed of, being the Parliamentary wing of the largest democratic movement in the country.

  3. Daveo 3

    Well put Ed. Really shows a staggering lack of understanding about how unions work, don’t you think?

    Every union I’ve been involved with already has secret ballots, in fact it’s often more than a majority required to – often 60% plus needed via secret ballot to take strike action.

    I think this is more about smearing the unions as thugs and bully-boys than anything else.

  4. StephenR 4

    Basically it’s a framing exercise aimed at reducing the considerable political capital unions have accrued over the last ten years.


    I think this is more about smearing the unions as thugs and bully-boys than anything else.

    And that MIGHT work if unions (or even *a* union) are dumb enough to oppose this Bill.

    edit: perhaps add to that ‘Labour and the Greens’?

    • ghostwhowalksnz 4.1

      Dumb enough to oppose ?

      Its private members bill so it goes in a ballot- and it missed out !

    • Daveo 4.2

      I doubt any union would oppose the content of this bill. I think they will oppose the anti-union rhetoric it relies on though.

      If I put forward a private members’ bill stopping business lobby groups from having sex with goats I imagine their reaction would be the same.

      I think Labour and the Greens would be wise to vote for the bill’s content, while pointing out how pointless and how grounded in anti-union rhetoric it is.

  5. Waldo 5

    Intimidation certainly remains in the playbook of some Unions. On my first day on the job in a distribution center the Union organiser advised me (in front of the center manager) that “guys that aren’t in the Union tend to have a much higher rate of accidents here”.

    I was on a casual contract with 18 guaranteed hours, the manager told me that, as the guys responsible for calling in casual staff for extra hours were both Union men, I would need to join to get any extra hours.

    Unsurprisingly I joined. I think membership at the center was over 90%.

    I don’t think this measure will have any impact on threatening behavior, but I think it’s wrong to assert that all Unions have shaken off their thuggish heritage.

    • Daveo 5.1

      “guys that aren’t in the Union tend to have a much higher rate of accidents here’.

      Assuming your story is true, that’s just a statement of fact. Union members tend to have better health and safety than those who aren’t.

      “the manager told me that, as the guys responsible for calling in casual staff for extra hours were both Union men, I would need to join to get any extra hours.”

      So your manager advised you to join the union. Doesn’t sound like union intimidation to me. Sounds like you’re the kind of person who takes the boss at his word and does what he’s told.

      • Lanthanide 5.1.1

        Um, Daveo, sorry, but you said above:

        “With employers it’s simple, they can intimidate workers through the economic control they hold over their lives. Unions are voluntary and democratic, people can simply leave. The union as an institution holds no power over its members.”

        How can being advised to join the union, because the person is charge of the roster is also in the union and will therefore choose union people over non-union people, not a blatant example of what you just said employers do that justifies “economic control they hold over their lives”?

        As I read all of the above posts, I was thinking “yes, in principal you’re right, but I can easily imagine a situation where a union is very intimidating to its members”, and there goes Waldo with a perfect example of just such a union.

      • Waldo 5.1.2

        ‘Union members tend to have better health and safety than those who aren’t.’

        That may well be the case but when people are doing the same job in the same plant it shouldn’t have an impact. In any case it was quite clear to me that the statement wasn’t intended to mean ‘join the NDU and I will give you tips on health and safety’ so much as ‘join the NDU or I will hit you with my forklift.’ An empty and petty kind of threat no doubt, but, none the less, very intimidating for someone starting a new job.

        As for the managers advice, it was indeed the case that lower management reponsible for calling in staff were both Union men. I do not see any reason why a senior manager would lie about something like that to encourage me to join the Union. I would think it in his interest to discourage Union memebrship rather than encourage it.

        In fairness, I should say that the local Union organiser was a very nice man in all the dealings I had with him. It was the shop steward and the culture within the plant that was intimidating and thugish.

      • Daveo 5.1.3

        What you’re talking about is an unproven allegation that you thought a couple of workers who were members of the union would be mean to you if you weren’t a member.

        If you genuinely felt intimidated by your workmates then you could have taken it up with their union or, more appropriately, you could have asked your manager to discipline them.

        There are also existing legal protections against being discriminated against on the basis of union membership. Managers in particular are not allowed to encourage or discourage workers in their decision to join a union.

        You’ve said you had no problem with the union as an insitution, and that your organiser was “a very nice man”.

        Your situation had nothing to do with union policies, or with any of the content of Tau Henare’s bill. I’m really not sure what your point is or how this advances the argument.

        • Waldo

          My point is that it i naive to suggest that all Unions have left behind their dinosaur days. At least some of those still in positions of influence within Unions are adept at using intimidation in order to ensure compliance.

          You are quite right to suggest that I could have pursued other avenues of complaint, however as it was clear that management had no interest in standing up to the Union on my behalf, I had very little confidence that they would do anything to remedy that kind of culture. Couple that with the fact that Union members were in a position where they had a degree of ‘economic control over my life’ and you can see why I simply chose to sign up and keep my head down. Not the most courageous decision I’ll admit, but it meant I was able to pay the rent.

          I repeat, my point (in relation to the broad theme of this post) is that Unions still have means available to them to intimidate and bully those who do not support them and some still use those means.

  6. felix 6

    Let’s not get too distracted by this. It may well be in the interest of the Nats, the EMA and “Tim Ellis” to have us waste our time on hypotheticals and anecdotes but there are real strikes and real unions of real workers who need our support right now.

    The bill itself is nothing but an attempt to frame discussion so as to give them an opportunity to spread dirt and misinformation and paint unions of striking or locked-out workers in a negative light.

    Why facilitate that PR excersise? Let’s just agree that secret ballots are preferable in any democratic institution and get on with it.

  7. Tim Ellis 7

    Sorry IB I didn’t see your edit comment on my 9:40am comment.

    I agree that unionism is largely voluntary which is why I’m generally not fussed by it. If there are cases as Waldo has highlighted of people being intimidated or pressured to join a union I would think that would be a much bigger issue that should be dealt with rather than whether voluntary members of unions are coerced to vote to strike.

    • IrishBill 7.1

      It’s not “largely” voluntary. It’s totally voluntary. If you don’t want to be in the union there is no legal compulsion whatsoever to be in the union.

      • Tim Ellis 7.1.1

        IB there have been reports of intimidation by unionists for workers to join unions, as Mr Edgeler discusses below. I wasn’t referring to legal rights, it is whether those legal rights are respected and upheld in workplace behaviour.

  8. Great post.

    I’ve thought at times that the Standard is too ready to oppose anything done by National. It’s good to see that that isn’t the case.

    Someone asked above how unions intimidate – have they ever seen a militant picket line? Or know the meaning of the word “scab”? Of course unions can intimidate. Most obviously don’t, but I do recall some employment law cases where non-union members were suing employers for constructive dismissal for allowing union harassment to continue. Maybe the fire service? Disgusting things put in people’s lockers, etc.

    • lprent 8.1

      The bill doesn’t address those issues. The basic issue here is that the bill is useless because secret ballots are the norm for unions.

      Now if it was a bill to make board of directors votes secret ballots, it could be somewhat more interesting. The directors meetings I’ve been to tend to have significant amounts of intimidation – and few secret ballots

      • IrishBill 8.1.1

        Ah but Lynn, regulation is a bad thing when you’re talking about business. Just not, apparently for unions (even though both are private sector entities, go figure).

        • Tim Ellis

          But unions aren’t really private sector entities are they IB. They’re incorporated societies that aren’t permitted to generate a profit.

          I agree with LP that the issues Mr Edgeler highlights aren’t reflected in Mr Henare’s bill, but it seems to me they are much more dangerous issues in the workplace of actual intimidation and pressure about whether to join a union.

          If membership truly were voluntary and there were no discrimination in the workplace among people who didn’t want to join a union, then I couldn’t give a toss whether genuinely voluntary unions behaved autocratically.

          • Daveo

            Here’s Tim running the “union thugs” line again. I’m sure there is the odd example of a union member putting pressure on another worker to sign over to the union, but it’s a rare exception. You’d struggle to find any examples outside of right-wing sock puppets commenting on blogs.

            Far more common is the boss telling people not to join the union, with all their power of economic coercion behind them. This is what’s happening right now at Open Country Cheese with a six week lockout, false accusations of sabotage in the media and at least one documented instance of assault by a manager.

            Nothing in legislation will change this situation, because it’s already law and it still happens. It’s just a fact of life that industrial relations can be a messy game. At its most bitter it’s a war, pure and simple.

            It’s also got nothing to do with the content of Tau Henare’s bill.

          • Pascal's bookie

            “But unions aren’t really private sector entities are they IB.”

            Yes they are.

            ” They’re incorporated societies that aren’t permitted to generate a profit.”


        • Quoth the Raven

          Tim – Please explain why you think they are not private. I would like to see you try.

      • I’m aware it doesn’t. Two separate thoughts:

        1. Nice post.

        2. Someone above asked a question unrelated to the bill, here’s an answer.

      • Also: The basic issue here is that the bill is useless because secret ballots are the norm for unions.

        That doesn’t make it useless.

        Lunch-breaks are the norm for workplaces. Was Labour’s law requiring employers to allow workers lunch-breaks useless?

        As has been pointed out by authors at the Standard before, we don’t write prescriptive employment laws for the benefit of most employees, we write it for the benefit of those who have nasty employers. I don’t see why we can’t do the same with unions. Few employees noticed a change after Labour’s lunch-break law came into effect, just as few unions would notice a change after Tau Henare’s law was enacted. That doesn’t mean either law is useless.

    • Bright Red 8.2

      On picket lines and scabs:

      A scab is taking the bread out of the mouths of workers and their families. What do you expect them to do? Cheer them on?

      There’s no law against boisterously showing someone you don’t agree with their actions.

      Maybe Step Dad state will introduce one.

      • Tim Ellis 8.2.1

        Interesting perspective BR. How woudl you feel about a group of non-union members shouting abuse at a union representative?

        Nice hyperbole about what “scabs” do. What do you suppose a scab does with the bread they’ve earned? Do they just throw it away or use it to feed themselves and their families?

        • Daveo

          This is getting pretty weak Tim. Union members yell abuse at scabs, scabs yell abuse at union members. It’s the way of the world, and always has been. Nobody on either side gets too precious about it, I don’t know why you feel the need to.

        • Bright Red

          “What do you suppose a scab does with the bread they’ve earned? Do they just throw it away or use it to feed themselves and their families?”

          So what? they’re still undermining and impoverishing the unionised workers. You can’t have a problem with union members yelling at them.

          People are allowed to voice their opinions to try to advance their interests, Tim. It’s called free speech.

        • Hey Tim,

          How do you feel about my boss telling me I’d be fired if I join the union?

          • Tim Ellis

            kitno, I am fine with your boss telling you that. Just as I’m fine with you responding to your boss that you will do as you like and your union will ensure your boss is taken to the cleaners if your boss tries to fire you on this basis.

            • Daveo

              “I am fine with your boss telling you that”

              Really? Because it’s illegal for your employer to pressure you over your decision whether or not to join a union.

  9. John Ryall 9

    Can someone tell me whether Tau’s bill also has a requirement for companies, such as Open Country Cheese, to hold a secret ballot of all of their shareholders before they lock their workforce out?

  10. The Voice of Reason 10

    Tim, how do you feel about this abuse sent to a Dairy Workers Union official:

    Dear (official),

    If you had any plans of coming to the (town) plant to talk to the staff about joining up to the union, don’t waste your fucken time! Who the fuck do you think you are? Your union is awaste of time & will never be needed at our plants. You cunts are just shit-stirrers & are just out for yourselves. I’m speaking on behalf of all the staff at Open Country Dairy (town), “FUCK OFF” & don’t show up here ever, asshole!!!

    NZDWU is not welcome on this site, so don’t bother coming!

    From (worker).

    Tim, et al, if you have an example of a union official abusing a worker in a similar manner, I’d love to see it. I’ve left out the names of the official and the writer, but I understand OCC is planning to use this worker and his mates as strikebreakers if the use of outside scabs is knocked back in court today.

    It’s pretty clear to me that these guys and the other scabs are the thugs in this particular situation and again Tim , I ask you, if you believe in freedom of choice, why do you not support the right of DWU workers to join the union and bargain collectively?

    • Tim Ellis 10.1

      Worker, I do support the right of workers to bargain collectively, if it is their choice to do so.

      I don’t condone the thuggish email from the worker concerned to the union official. If you can demonstrate a link between the worker concerned and OCC management, and can establish that it shows OCC’s management is trying to direct workers about how they organise themselves then all power to you and I hope your union is able to ping OCC for their behaviour.

  11. BLiP 11

    all power to you and I hope your union is able to ping OCC for their behaviour.

    An inkling of awareness . . . half a spark on an acre of charred cotton . . . has Timmy’s king tide of ignorance reached its zenith . . . nah . . . don’t believe it. Just beaten down, once again, by simple, easy to understand facts . . . concepts of reality will take another millenium to be grasped.

  12. Swampy 12

    There is one union that claims 100% coverage, that is as good as you can get to the sort of situation that Henare wants addressed.

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  • Farewelling sports administrator and philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar
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