The tories are all puffed up about finally getting their secret ballot law passed. It’s about freedom they say, they’re on the side of the working man.
Thing is it’s not. And they most certainly aren’t. Most unions run secret ballots for strike action already simply because they know they have to be above board and be seen to be above board by their membership or face losing them (that’s the thing with voluntary unionism, it’s subject to market pressure which makes it even weirder these market-y types want to regulate unions so much).
What this is really about is offering employers a way to delay and defer strike action by getting the lawyers involved. Right now the process is simple – the members take a vote on industrial action and, if they decide to take action, their union rep informs the employer. Except in the case of essential industries. In an essential industry the employer must be given notice (usually two weeks) of industrial action. When it’s a strike, such as the action taken at POAL in response to the lock-out, it’s clear-cut.
But when it’s partial industrial action such as refusing to do paperwork, putting just one section of a factory on strike, or something as simple as wearing a union sticker in place of a name-badge, then things get complicated.
That’s because these actions often require strike notices to define coverage, or name members taking part in the action, or provide very specific definitions of the industrial action. In essential industries this almost inevitably means the employer will respond with a legal challenge to the strike notice. And that means temporary injunctions, Employment Relations Authority hearings and potentially appeals. All of which decrease the leverage the industrial action provides workers by draining union resources and dragging a dispute out which can undermine members’ resolve and giving the employer time to prepare to minimise the industrial action’s effects.
Big unions on well established sites can usually deal with this kind of thing. They keep their own lawyers and know how to deal with it. Smaller unions may find themselves so drained they settle on the employer’s terms. Fortunately the use of partial industrial action in an essential industry is very rare.
However the secret ballot rule will effectively put the same constraints on all industrial action. Any employer served notice of industrial action will be able to challenge the ballot, the coverage, and the terms of the notice (which I understand will also be required). Which means you’ll see employers using their superior resources to drag unions and their members through court (individual members are often added to legal actions by employers as an intimidatory tactic).
Under this law McDonalds could have tied Unite union up in the courts for months during the supersize campaign and I doubt any member would have seen a pay rise. Similarly the resthome workers who are taking action would probably still be in court.
That’s why this law change is so insidious. It’s not about personal freedom but about curtailing the freedom of workers to stand up for their rights.
What’s concerning is it’s just the first of a whole series of backhanded loopholes this government is planning to introduce into employment law. All of which are aimed at reducing Kiwi workers’ bargaining power and keeping their wages down.