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Unions call for secret ballots for lockouts

Written By: - Date published: 10:40 am, February 26th, 2010 - 46 comments
Categories: Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , , ,

The Council of Trade Unions has pointed out a glaring hypocrisy in Tau Henare’s pointless bill requiring unions to hold secret ballots before strike action (I say ‘pointless’ because unions already hold secret ballots).

From the media release:

Peter Conway, CTU Secretary, said that at a national union meeting yesterday, there was a brief discussion on secret ballots for strikes. Unions decided to support the Bill as it largely reflects current practice.

‘However’, said Conway, ‘unions are critical of the lack of balance in the bill and believe it must be changed to also require employers to follow democratic procedures including a secret ballot of shareholders prior to a lockout’.

A very good point. If National wants to legislate democratic procedures for unions taking industrial action, aren’t they bound by consistency to do the same for employers?

Now that would be a bill worth supporting. Perhaps Labour or the Greens can take it up at select committee.

46 comments on “Unions call for secret ballots for lockouts ”

  1. Scott 1

    Henare’s bill may be pointless, but the CTU suggestion makes no sense.

    Shareholders of a company don’t generally vote on a lockout – it’s a board decision. Whereas it is my understanding that in most unions industrial action has to be voted on by members.

    So the CTU suggestion goes well beyond simply requiring a secret ballot of shareholders. It would require a meeting to be held where none was previously required.

    • Eddie 1.1

      Shareholders of a company don’t generally vote on a lockout it’s a board decision.

      That’s because companies are undemocratic institutions. So why not legislate to require certain democratic procedures in their operations? After all, that’s what Henare’s bill is all about.

      If that means companies need to call a shareholder meeting to hold a lockout then so be it, though I’m sure they could simply use electronic or postal voting to the same effect. That’s what unions have to do, it’s called democracy.

      • lukas 1.1.1

        “That’s because companies are undemocratic institutions”

        Not true.

        Shareholders get to vote on the board of directors.

        • Pascal's bookie

          “Shareholders get to vote on the board of directors.”

          Yeah. Wot a larf though eh?

          Who decides which way a vote goes? (‘Institutional’ shareholders.)

          Who decides how they vote? (the top bureaucrats from those ‘institutions’)

          Who owns the shares? (not them)

          Ever wonder why AGMs can’t control top bureaucrat pay packages?

          • Scott

            Companies aren’t quite democracies in the traditional sense – rather than one person one vote it is one share one vote.

            • Pascal's bookie

              yeah sure, but that’s not my point.

              100,000 people put 10$ a week into XYZ unit trust. Trust buys 30% of widget corp.

              Those 100,000 people are the ones whose money bought the shares. But they don’t control them.

              I know that xyz is a legal person and all that. I’m just sayin that the finance sector is not immune to “Provider Capture”.

          • Rob

            Pascal , what do you mean who owns the shares, they are shareholders, they own the shares.

        • Eddie

          For workers there’s no democracy in the workplace, it’s a dictatorship for which they’re compensated with a wage. By dictatorship I’m not trying to compare all employers to Hitler, I’m just pointing out that there are no genuine democratic processes by which workers can have a say in the decisions that affect their working lives.

          For shareholders there are certain democratic processes, such as voting in the board meetings (according to their ownership), but to be honest it’s sweet fcuk all. By any measure companies are incredibly undemocratic compared to unions.

          • lukas

            Whilst that may be true for larger companies (Telecom etc) I suspect that your average business (such as the two I am involved in) are largely influenced by shareholders democratically.

            • IrishBill

              Most Kiwi workers are employed by large companies.

              • Scott

                I don’t have figures to hand, but I don’t think that’s true. I think most people are employed by relatively small enterprises. I’m sure I’ve seen the stats somewhere, but I’m not sure where…

              • lukas

                Likewise Scott, I am just having a quick look at the Stats NZ website. Happy to be corrected though.

              • lukas

                Sorry, you are correct IB… it is in the LEED data… 1,369,323 people employed in a firm of twenty or more people

              • IrishBill

                No it’s true. Think about it. A small employer is someone with 20 staff or less. You’d need a minimum of 600 small employers (all employing a full 20 staff) to match Air NZ’s 12,000 staff.

                You’d need more than 900 to match Progressive Enterprises’ 18,000+ staff.

                And so on.

                As I recall small businesses make up about 80% of employers, but only employ about 20% of workers.

                edit: Beat me to it and with actual stats. We should have you as a guest poster.

              • Eddie

                Bill’s correct. Most businesses employ fewer than 20 workers, but most workers are employed by large businesses. It makes sense when you think about it.

              • Scott

                I was clearly wrong when I said I thought most people are employed by small businesses. What I meant to say was that most are not employed by large ones. When I think of a large business I usually think of a listed company, or someone with at least a few hundred employees.

                I suspect the most common type of employer is the medium-sized enterprise. Probably owned by 3-4 shareholders and might have 30 or 40 employees. I have no data to back this up though and could be hopelessly wrong…

  2. Shouldn’t this be a secret ballot of employers (or perhaps the board)?

    The labour equivalent of shareholders would be something like workers’ families. Or the whole union, not just the workers at a particular site.

    • Eddie 2.1

      The shareholders are the owners of the company. The board and the managament are ultimately acting on delegated authority from the shareholders, just as union officials are acting on the delegated authority of union members.

      If you just balloted the board or the management it would be no different to just balloting paid union officials, which is hardly democratic.

      • If you just balloted the board or the management it would be no different to just balloting paid union officials, which is hardly democratic.

        A near perfect argument. There are far too few of these on the Internet =)

        • IrishBill

          Not quite perfect. The management are directly analogous to the paid officials. However, balloting the board could be considered equivalent to balloting the National Executive who, in a union, are members (usually delegates) who work on the shop-floor and are elected by other members rather than being paid officials. Still not particularly democratic though.

          Alternatively you could consider the on-site delegate team to be analogous to the board as they are the group of workers elected by their workmates to negotiate the deal and entrusted with strategic decision making in much the same way shareholders entrust the board (although clearly negotiating delegates are more accountable to their workmates than boards are to their shareholders).

          Of course all of this is stretching the analogy primarily because unions are inherently democratic at every level while companies are not.

          Come to think of it a bill to increase corporate democracy is well overdue.

          • Scott

            “Come to think of it a bill to increase corporate democracy is well overdue”

            What specific measures are you proposing?

            • IrishBill

              That major decisions such as lock-outs are decided by secret ballot of the shareholders for a start. That 50% of the board was comprised of workers elected by their workmates would be another good step.

              Democratically elected consultation groups for resolving staff issues and for productivity initiatives would also be good for staff and businesses (and many unionised sites already have these).

  3. Tiger Mountain 3

    I can see where Peter Conway is coming from in one respect, why should workers taking action be under detailed scrutiny while bosses are free to lock out unaccountably.

    Strikes and lockouts are quite different tactics. Strikes by union members associated with bargaining are usually an attempt at resolution with recalcitrant companies after much negotiation has occured. Lockouts however are always intimidatory measures. Bosses that use them inevitably have at least scoped out if not engaged scabs, and often use a lockout as a means of derailing union led bargaining and or organising drives such as at Open Country Cheese in Sept/Oct last year.

    I realise the “relativists’ around here will claim lockout and strike are opposite sides of the same coin. They are not when you take the class and power relationships into account, fer instance try calling the cops because the boss has ignored your collective agreement yeah right! now put an effective picket outside the workplace and the cops will be there in 10 minutes.

    Does Tau know something unionists don’t because strikes are only legal in definite circumstances and have been generally trending down in numbers for years.

  4. BLiP 4

    A very good point. If National wants to legislate democratic procedures for unions taking industrial action, aren’t they bound by consistency to do the same for employers?

    I agree and would go further. I assert that there is an urgent need for employers to be licensed.

    Employers are responsible for the at-work lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders yet most of them have no training. In fact, most employers apparently can’t even understand the employment legislation and are seeking exemptions from having to comply with the law at all. With ACC being shredded, there’s now a growing need for employees to know that they are in safe hands. There is obviously a real need for employers to be educated and for a national standard to apply across the country so that workers can be assured their bosses know what they are talking about. I would suggest a graduated licence system be put in place depending on the number of employees and the nature of the work being carried out. The licences would be subject to, say, annual renewal and five-yearly re-testing.

    Any thoughts . . . ?

    • Bill 4.1

      Here’s one. Democracy. It is its absence that fuels class war…the bosses and the rest of the risen scum lose everything in a democratic environment, therefore…..

      Here’s another. Licencing. Lawyers wont like it….not the one’s who thrive on giving out employment advice like pasted below

      “# The Independent Contractor Agreement this is not really an employment agreement at all. This is what every employer would want to use if they could, since independent contractors don’t have the rights employees are given by employment legislation.
      # The Fixed Term Employment Agreement this is a very attractive alternative to the independent contractor agreement for most employees because at face value it allows the employer an early exit clause in case things go wrong. However, the law restricts the circumstances when you can use them. In a nutshell, you can’t use them to get round employment legislation. Bummer!”


      • Lew 4.1.1

        Bill, since you don’t much like democracy as a political system at the country level, what makes it so much better at the business level?

        Honest question.


        • Bill

          I think we’ve been here before Lew.

          But to answer your question, let me put it this way. In the old Soviet Union many an apparatchik lauded the governance structures that had been brought into being by the Bolsheviks. They decried any dissident who advocated for systemic changes to encourage communism. They could not allow themselves to understand that what The Party had put in place in the name of communism was in fact a dictatorial form of governance….ie, not communism.

          Likewise, our governing institutions are, so it is claimed, democratic. But just because they are commonly called democratic does not mean that they are very democratic.

          Anyway, am I right in remembering that you argued against the idea of us developing substantive democratic structures to underpin our institutions? Am I correct in remembering that it was you who claimed that anarchy and democracy were mutually exclusive rather than synonymous?

          I’m a democrat Lew.

          And it’s fair to say that I’m far more of an advocate for democracy than the vast majority of people I meet or come across and have substantive democratic inclinations and ambitions far beyond the bleak flickering shadow that our institutions and their commissars fob us off with and that so many of us seem to have settled for.

          • Lew

            I apologise, Bill, I had misremembered your objections to democracy in our previous discussions as being about democracy in general rather than about democracy as we have it now. So I withdraw and apologise for the first bit of my question.

            By the same token, though, you’ve misrepresented my position. I don’t so much object to the establishment of broader demographic institutions in society, so much as the radical overthrow of the democracy that we already have (which I think is pretty good — Churchill’s dictum and all that — which is what I often hear in the sort of criticism you make against democracy. I do, to a very large extent, also believe that anarchy and democracy are mutually exclusive, and that when they are synonymous it is more a matter of coincidence than design or good management.

            Anyway, this is a topic for another discussion. Returning to the matter at hand, of democratic institutions within union/business movements, it seems like your ideal would require new forms of democracy to what we have now — whereas what is being proposed is fairly bog-standard governance by (internal) referendum, crude majoritarianism vulnerable to elite flight (and so on), and also vulnerable to the same sort of politicking which we see in democratic polities (which I don’t mind, but you despise). Nothing even remotely like an anarchist system. So in a way my question stands: if you don’t like these sorts of democratic institutions in society, why will they work in a business context? Is it because the systems and functions and so on get to be designed from scratch, rather than inherited piecemeal from previous, failed, systems of government? Or what?


            • Bill

              I don’t know that I’m understanding you here Lew…where did I say that injecting democratic checks or measures into pre-lockout scenarios would work? I don’t. I think it’s a farcical proposition and would like to have thought it was proposed more as a piss take than as some proposition to be taken seriously. Just look at the somersaults being performed by some of the commentators on this thread as they try to tie down something as fundamental as who would be the ones to be balloted in the case of a proposed lock out.

              The reality is that in a truly democratic work environment, the participants in the business enterprises would be the ones to be balloted. Which means that workers would be balloted on whether to lock themselves out! (And yes, the same applies to strikes.)

              Neither strikes nor lock outs have any meaning in a democratic situation. It is only the lack of democracy and the fact that industrial relations are based on power differentials and ordered around hierarchies that allows mickey mouse democratic propositions to gain any traction…that and the fact that people settle for the label in lieu of the reality; are satisfied with the menu on the restaurant window as a substitute for a meal.

              • Lew

                Well, that’s a lot more consistent, then. Sorry I misunderstood.

                I disagree all the more strongly, but that’s ok.


      • Scott 4.1.2

        “Lawyers won’t like it”

        Sounds like a lawyer’s dream, actually.

    • Scott 4.2

      Licensing. You’ve just solved the unemployment problem. Your scheme will require thousands of staff to run.

      It will also cost a fortune. If those costs are to be funded by employers, that will probably put pressure on them to cut costs elsewhere, meaning… oh crap, there goes the unemployment solution.

      • BLiP 4.2.1

        Your logic doesn’t hold. We seem to manage okay with the requirement that drivers be licensed, in fact, that requirement results in additional employment. Licensing employers needn’t cost much and the benefits will spill over into happier and, thus, more productive workplaces resulting in bigger profits and the opportunity to employ more staff as the business grows. The benefits would far outweigh the costs.

        Perhaps you’re just objecting to bosses having to be subject to national standards?

        • Scott

          “Perhaps you’re just objecting to bosses having to be subject to national standards?”

          Perhaps I’m objecting to your terminology. e.g. “bosses” – I’m not participating in your class war.

          I don’t see how this proposed licensing scheme can be anything other than enormous and complex. How are you going to test employers properly unless you audit their health and safety procedures, test their awareness of workers’ rights, make sure their employment practices are up to the required standard? etc etc…

          And you want annual reviews and five-yearly retesting. Sounds a bit more complex than getting a drivers licence if you ask me.

          • BLiP

            Consider it like the WoF or CoF – a quick inspection of the site followed by a, say, a multi-choice questionnaire which must be passed otherwise another licensed “employer” takes over until such time as the existing employer makes the grade. Just think of the long term savings!

        • lukas

          You can’t seriously compare driving a car with being an employer.

          • BLiP

            We’re required to show competence when it comes to the use of vehicles, why not also be required to show competence when it comes to the use of fellow human beings? Dogs have licences, why shouldn’t employers?

            • Bill


              because a licence is a ‘permission’ and in this case it would be permission to, in your words, use other people. ie exploit them.

              fuck that!

              For some of us out here that is never acceptable. Yes, it happens, it’s a reality of capitalism, but why would you seek to somehow make it ‘okay’ by issuing permits or certificates?

              • BLiP

                I appreciate and support your position and look forward to the day we meet on the barricades – I’ll be the one in a Cameron tartan kilt handing out the Kalashnikovs.

                Until such time as there are enough angry comrades, I suggest we are descending into semantics. In the common-usage of the term, yes it permits the on-going exploitation but it also requires that a minimum enforceable standard be implemented.

              • Bill

                “…but it also requires that a minimum enforceable standard be implemented.”

                Isn’t that what Employment Law is for?

              • BLiP

                Absolutely. But the fuckers are trying to get out of even that now. Its apparently “too complicated” for the poor darlings to understand and, thus, they are lobbying for an exemption from following the letter of the law. National Ltdâ„¢ will eventually release a story about some wildly outrageous incident and present it as suitable justification for acquiescence.

                Also, as I said above, with ACC being shredded there is even more need for employers to protect staff. Until the other day, workers injured at work could expect “prevention” and “rehabilitation’ but – at the last possible minute – National Ltdâ„¢ changed the legislation so as to remove those very words.

                Because its you, Bill, I will admit now that my suggestion employers be licensed was my Friday troll wind up. I’m half serious but I know the chances of such a thing being put in place ranges between slim and fuck all. I accept that by having fewer and fewer protections more and more workers will be injured which will, eventually, result in a more militant work force developing. This is a good thing in terms of the long-game but over the short term I just cringe at a deeply personal level when I see widows weeping at graves and workers ending up in wheel chairs.

                How long will it be before get angry and, when we do, will it be too late?

              • Bill

                Here’s anther take BliP…one that will prevent a great number of deaths both now and in the coming years and that does not requir licenses or employment laws.

                You’ll recognise this from other comments I have made and I fully accept that repeating this line is going to see me written off as a nutter by a goodly number of people who haven’t already done so. But so what.

                Production, or industrialised society floats and builds itself up on a vast sea of oil. And it’s due to come crashing down any time soon when it runs up against the rocky shore of peak oil.

                Production inputs and outputs, due to their reliance on oil, are the primary cause of sky rocketing CO2 levels.

                The consequences of runaway CO2 levels will put paid to almost all aspects of industrialised society…the bits that might survive peak oil.

                These two things ( peak oil and climate change) are mostly a direct result of our day to day job activities which feed, build and promote the oil based leviathan of industrialised society. So to avoid, not just deadly accidents at work today, but a decimation of humanity and the loss of almost everything we have built up in the future, we have a duty to not turn up to work in the same old way on Monday.

                Unless we are happy to execute our role in what will surely constitute the greatest of all crimes against humanity,we have a duty to wrench the decisions over what should be produced, how it should be produced and how it should be distributed, away from detached elites and their lackeys; away from market mechanisms and the attendant inadequate abstractions in order that we contribute to utterly necessary decisions and actions that will promote frugality in our use of oil thereby ( perhaps) ensuring some degree of industrialisation going forward as well as offering some chance of not experiencing the shit chaos that will be riding hard on the back of climate breakdown.

                None of this requires violence….just intelligent action and the will to say ‘No!’ and mean it.

                But if ‘everybody knows’ but ‘everybody’ continues sitting around waiting for the next person to make a move lest they themselves lose face or status or whatever, then we will have demonstrated to the future that intelligence was just a comfortable myth constructed to mask fathomless stupidity.

  5. jen 5

    BLiP, I completely agree re lisencing employers !!! Was just thinking exactly the same thing myself yesterday( thought I was the only one) and jumped out of my seat when I saw your suggestion. Crikey!! ( ps Bill I am a lawyer)

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