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Unionists Under the Bed

Written By: - Date published: 10:27 am, March 13th, 2013 - 17 comments
Categories: Economy, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

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.


17 comments on “Unionists Under the Bed”

  1. DH 1

    Thanks again Helen, very informative.

    You’re absolutely on the right track. Fatigue is a killer, I know that from hard learnt experience. When you get physically tired you get mentally tired and your thinking is clouded. You make mistakes, poor judgement calls, and sometimes a mistake will kill or injure you.

    If these guys are working the long hours you say where the hell are OSH?

    • freedom 1.1

      to report to OSH the worker would have to be identified, you recall the silence referred to in the article ? Avoiding retaliation, wanting to keep a job, the whole control through fear dogma that seems to be king today is probably contributing to the silence

    • ghostwhowalksnz 1.2

      Note the answer was “dont know any one” working more than 8hours ( per day). Not a denial long hours are the norm.

      Its a weasel answer, as being the employers spokesperson, wouldnt have met anybody on the cutting crews ( or asked them how long they work).

      Its the sort of answer- weasel words- Key and English use to deny the most basic facts whenever they like – with impunity

  2. Colonial Viper 2

    Sheldon himself however is completely fine speaking on behalf of a collective, co-ordinated association of capitalist business owners.

  3. Te Reo Putake 3

    I’m told that a large group of employers have been advised in recent days to take the following steps if their company is involved in a injury incident and OSH gets involved:

    • Engage a lawyer immediately so that they can use ‘legal privilege’ in incident reports so as to avoid incriminating the company
    • Tell employees and witnesses that they don’t need to answer inspectors questions if they don’t want to.
    • Arrange for company representatives to sit in on meetings with employees
    • Not to hand over documents that are requested by the inspectors as they could incriminate the business
    • Choose to answer inspector questions in writing rather than in person, even if the inspector insists that answering in person is preferred.
    • Arrange someone to shadow inspectors. Get them to listen to what they are saying, take photos of what they take photos of.
    • Emphasise any ‘good news’ in the incident reports and negotiate to minimise outcomes/penalties.

    Cynical? Naaaaah, just prudent business practice.

  4. George D 4

    the CTU has no members in forests

    Why not?

    Helen, I appreciate what you’re doing. My dad worked in forestry in the early 1990s. I remember him and mum talking at night about the danger, and that he eventually quit because he thought he’d lose a limb or a his life. He lost a lot of his hearing.

    Fifteen years later, and I was working in the rope-access industry on buildings at height. The safety issues were appalling, and similar. I tried to ask one of the unions if they could help, but they basically told me to organise a unionised site and then come back to them. I later learned that someone had been killed on the job just a year before, and nobody was keen to talk about it. In rope access you can only work when the conditions are right. If you’re in Wellington…

    You – I mean you directly – have to work with the next government to ensure a regime in which every worker in this country, no matter their workplace or profession, has simple, easy, and cheap access to a union (when you’re struggling to earn enough to pay the rent because you can only work on days it doesn’t rain, high dues are a kick in the face). It’s not good enough that there have been unions in NZ for over 100 years and that so much of NZ still has absolutely no access to a union. It’s not good enough, and it needs to change.

    • Draco T Bastard 4.1

      Why not?

      You may find that it’s because most of the “employees” are contractors and contractors aren’t allowed to join a union.

      • George D 4.1.1

        because most of the “employees” are contractors and contractors aren’t allowed to join a union.

        Yes, and?

        Why do we have industrial relations system in which certain classes of workers are not allowed to join or form unions, and a great percentage of the rest of workers are in workplaces that are alien to any form of union contact? Because we have created such a system.

        It is important that the work Helen is doing now is done. It will improve conditions and it will probably save lives.

        But let’s not shy away from asking how we create a system where we don’t have to have these fights, because such things are automatic and in the law.

        • xtasy

          This debate about “contractors” versus “employees”, about contradictions in terms and about factual circumstances and conditions is not new, and it has even led to court cases in the US and Europe.


          Now this contracting out has been going on for a long time, and it is very popular with certain employers. What we have though are many supposedly “independent contractors”, who are working only, or almost only, for one business, delivering services to one quasi employer, year upon year, and basically permanently.

          I am thinking of courier drivers, tradespersons, merchandisers, transport operators and so forth, naturally also forestry workers.

          While I have now not bothered to check the NZ legislation, there must be legal provision, that where a “contractor” is working for more than a year for one contracting party only, delivering the same kind of “service” day in and day out, basically like an “employee”, should be deemed to be a defacto employee, and be given all benefits of an employee.

          I think that NZ law does not provide for this. I know that in some European countries the law is tighter, limiting to what a real “independent contractor” is. It is time to change the law in NZ to stop this abuse of contractors. There again the parties are asked to act, and for voters to make informed, intelligent and sensible voting decisions. Now is that possible though??? In NZ these days??? I am daring to doubt it. Same sex marriage is top of the list, but why not this kind of stuff???

          • Draco T Bastard

            While I have now not bothered to check the NZ legislation, there must be legal provision, that where a “contractor” is working for more than a year for one contracting party only, delivering the same kind of “service” day in and day out, basically like an “employee”, should be deemed to be a defacto employee, and be given all benefits of an employee.

            Yep, there is but I don’t believe that they get the benefits of being an employee. Benefits like being able to join a union. It would probably require another court case which this government would quickly legislate against as they did with the Hobbit movies – yes, one of the law changes was to prevent contractors in the film industry being seen as employees even when they were “dependent contractors” ie, employees in all but name.

            • xtasy

              Thanks Draco – I see a need to look into the Employment Relations Act and so forth again at some stage. Over recent times I was really heavily involved with welfare law and applied practices through MSD and WINZ.

              Heaps to read and update and learn, I think.

          • Te Reo Putake

            In law, there have been ‘tests’ to detemine the difference between contactor and worker. eg, who pays the tax, who organises the work and the working day, the degree of independence. The Bryson case proved that the worker concerned was an employee, not a contractor, despite what the contract claimed. That’s what pissed Peter ‘master storyteller’ Jackson off; he wanted the control that comes with having an employee, without the burdensome rights that being an employee bestows on the worker. He wanted the best of both worlds, and that’s what Key gave him. Well, that and a large cheque.

  5. Rogue Trooper 5

    Comprehensive article Helen 🙂
    “if a worker falls in a forest, and nobody hears them, do they make a sound?”

    • Patricia 5.1

      Maybe they don’t make a sound, but they leave a terribly wounded family, upset workmates, and a lot of unanswered questions

  6. xtasy 6

    Employer = GOD or KING
    Worker = servant or slave
    Union = Satan incarnate

    That is about the basic set of concepts from the “bible” lecture by employers in most industries.

    And as long as there are workers too scared to speak and take a stand, are prepared to be taken aside, to be whispered into their ears, to better tow the line and work as the “GOD” or “KING” expects, there will be little progress.

    I know that unions and their members face a tough challenge in the present world of employment. They are up against the divide and rule approach. Workers must be informed, encouraged, supported and organised. Unite we stand and divided we fall. The lessons from the “reforms” since 1991 must be learned, for sure.

    This campaign is a step in the right direction. More is needed. Good on you, Helen, keep up the good work.

  7. millsy 7

    Ms Kelly fails to mention that it was the mass privatisation of our forests in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the decoupling of forestry ownership from management (via the concept of ‘cutting rights’) that flowed on from that, that got us in this mess.

    Helen Kelly should be calling for Crown Forestry to be split off into a new SOE, with its management activites taken back in-house, and a re-expansion of the crown forest estate. Perhaps encompassing council owned forests.

    By the way, here is a list of forests still in public ownership

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