Recently when interviewed by the Waikato Times, Forest Owners representative Sheldon Drummond suggested the union movement campaign around forestry safety was motivated by the “large un-unionised workforce” in forestry. In Sheldon’s mind this is clearly code for “bad motive”.
Also in the article is a number of interviews with workers telling the story of their working lives. Fearing that if the article identifies them in any way there will be consequences – they are adamant that reprisal is a real risk. The workers all talk about the long hours they are working and how safety issues are relegated when they are on the hill. Sheldon on the other hand says he doesn’t know anyone in the industry working longer than 8 hour days as the forest owners simply wouldn’t allow it. And there in lies the rub. Sheldon wasn’t scared to speak out, named and proud, and able to trot out the same old denials of the problems in the industry that are now becoming familiar. The workers, individualised, without collective voice, certain of repercussions, take a risk even to speak to the media undercover and then their claims are denied.
And this really illustrates what these employers don’t want, when they assign bad motive to the campaigns of the union movement. They don’t want their workers to be offered the choice to join a union. They don’t want these workers talking to each other, seeking advice or having a voice – this is what unionisation means and this is the fundamental idea of Freedom of Association.
Lets imagine if the Forestry workers were able to talk to each other about work rights through an organisation that bought them together. They might have trained health and safety representatives. They may have gained recognition from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to participate in the recent development of new safety standards for the industry. The standards may not have been laden only with worker obligations and instead might have had the employers obligations included as well. Issues like fatigue may have been addressed.
If these workers could work together safely, they may have some form of agreements in the industry that restrict hours of work and security of employment. These workers may be able to organise to put pressure on the Forest Owners to drive out bad contractors or to even move to direct employment, giving them security at work. They may have a mechanism to discuss being paid for the long drives into the forests and to have regular breaks and days off. They might get paid when the weather is bad and they can’t work – avoiding the temptation to work regardless. They may be able to stop the outright competition over the price of labour and make their whole workplace safer.
If these workers were unionised, their union delegate may have talked to the Waikato Times, photo and all, about the issues in the industry.
With workers talking to each other and having a voice, the profits of the industry might have to be more evenly shared between those that work in it – giving their sweat, skill and energy – and those that invest in it (benefitting from the labour). All of this, these employers do not want.
Rather than acknowledge that this is the problem employers have with a union in the industry, Sheldon Drummond thinks the “reds under the bed” rhetoric might be his industries best defence for not addressing the criticisms the CTU is making of forestry safety. His real concern is that if workers are offered easy and safe access to union membership they might actually take it and exercise their rights to join a union and to associate together on issues relating to their work.
This “unionisation by the backdoor” accusation is also accepted by the Ministry as a legitimate reason to restrict union engagement in the health and safety issues in this industry and in other high risk industries such as construction and agriculture where unions are not able to be on the industry councils overseeing health and safety action plans in these industries.
This was most obvious recently when we asked to be able to attend the Government funded Safe Start Breakfasts in forestry – or (when this was rejected) to hand out union information – both these request were denied by Sheldon and his friends– and even the handing out its Ministry produced work rights leaflets was not facilitated. Neither organisation wanted these workers to understand they have rights.
There is no backdoor to union membership – it is a free choice for workers (not employers) to make. In forestry the employers have bolted closed the front door and with the reassurance and co-operation of the regulator. It is wrong that policy decisions on health and safety are being driven by an agenda to stop workers having the genuine choice about union membership.
Now lets think how this forestry campaign will go if these workers remain unable to work together on their issues at work (a real possibility given the employment structure in the industry). The CTU will keep going with the campaign and use all the community leavers we can. We are getting some brave souls willing to speak out – but mainly those that have already lost everything – those with dead children, husbands, uncles, fathers. We are using some economic levers – contacting investors, looking at the certification processes for sustainable foresting, calling on the Government to step in and back us. We will make some progress I am sure.
But the workers in this industry will still not have a real voice – they will still have to sneak about to have any input. They will have to hope we can sustain it and keep the pressure strong. Our lack of direct representation of them will then be used to dismiss the campaign – the CTU has no members in forests, we do not represent them in the true sense of the word. We in a sense are damned if we do – and the workers are damned if we don’t.
Our campaign is already offering forest workers a semi-safe way to raise their concerns – it is happening now – workers are making contact every day and are also being dragged out to make contact by the people that love them and fear for them each day they go to work. We won’t at this stage offer traditional membership.
We have provided a low level way for workers to associate with the campaign. One where workers and their families can feed in their experiences and views, and keep us on task and get updates etc about what is going on. There isn’t a union fee involved – until there is sufficient interest and safety for these workers to “come out of the trees” as a big group and say themselves what sort of organisation will work for them, we are working in the undergrowth . Such is the realty of the rights they don’t enjoy. We will keep developing new ways for this to continue.
We have had an overwhelming response from the sector about us raising our voices in support of these workers precisely because they can’t do it themselves. As we know with all Human Rights – when they are a risk to access – others have to do the fighting for those who they seek to protect.
One other point about the Waikato Times article – within it tells the story of the death of young James Goodfellow. Sheldon is reported to say that the deaths in the forest are not happening within the corporate forest companies. But James died in a forest owned by Juken NZ. The very same company that employs Sheldon. So in the meantime we will be the voice for workers like James – Sheldon seems to have forgotten him already.
lprent: Helen is travelling with limited connectivity at present, so is less likely to be involved in the discussion than usual. And the views expressed in the featured image are all mine.