The right to strike outside collective negotiations

The Port of Tauranga has been threatening to call the police if its staff picket to prevent Chinese-made trains coming into New Zealand through Tauranga.

[Port company chief executive] Mr Cairns said picketing to prevent the wagons being unloaded could be illegal under the Employment Relations Act because it did not appear to be an action being taken to support contract negotiations.

The union arguing that the picket is legal, and I suspect, from what little I know of employment law, that they might be right.

But, if they are not, we face a real life example of one of the troubling areas of the Employment Relations Act – the inability of union members to take industrial action over any issue that is not part of their employment agreement negotiations.

Union members are prevented by the Employment Relations Act from taking a stand on a issue, say a broader social, economic or environmental concern, outside of the scope of their particular employment agreement negotiations.

On one hand, it is easy to understand the reason for this – employers can’t have employees taking industrial action willy-nilly over every wrong in the world that needs righting. They would be out of business in a matter of days.

Or would they? How often are union members going to be that committed to an issue that they are willing to put their pay on the line, not to mention the financial well-being of the company which employs them?

I’m a softy, pink liberal with more causes in my portfolio than is strictly necessary. But I’m not about to strike for any of them.

Furthermore, we need to be careful not to view this relationship between employers and employees as only working in one direction. How many employees are made by their employer to do stuff for broader causes than the economic well-being of the company they work for? I’m willing to beat that a fair portion of New Zealand’s working population will be expected by their bosses to wear black, or other rugby paraphernalia, at some point in the next three months to show our nation’s patriotism.

Other employees are asked to collect for charities, donate volunteer hours to causes, organise work social events and many other tasks that are not related to their core work. It’s all part of a workplace being part of a broader community.

Unions are one important way that workers have their democratic say in both their workplace and their broader community. They are a logical place to make decisions about what the broad community issues are that matter to workers and what workers want to do about them. It doesn’t seem fair to me that employers can pick and choose which issues trump the daily need to turn a dollar (e.g. supporting the All Blacks) while it is illegal for workers to take a stand on issues that matter to them (e.g.saving the livelihoods of fellow union members in Dunedin).

I think it is time to reconsider the law around the circumstances in which unions can democratically choose to take strike action. I think we can find some middle ground that doesn’t put all the decision-making power on one side of the scales.

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One thought on “The right to strike outside collective negotiations

  1. Just quietly – where were the Matangi unit trains for Wellington’s urban rail network sourced, and why weren’t they able to be built here either?

    I expect the answer has something to do with our lack of expertise with electric commuter units; our electrified main trunk line starts at Palmerston North & stops at Hamilton, specifically because of the differing voltages in the urban rail network lines. The engines running on those electrified lines were made here, I think, since we’ve had them running for a very long time; and Hillside Works in Dunedin definitely needs all the support it can get to continue to be available for building and servicing our rolling stock.

    I agree with your point about how unions have been severely constrained by the ECA. I was a union rep in the 80’s before that came in, I don’t know what the PSA still has left in the way of teeth these days but with the loss of over 2000 jobs in Wellington’s public service offices alone in the past 3 years, they must also be feeling the pinch of reduced union membership. Haven’t seen a public service strike since 1986, when I marched with union members from my workplace to a rally outside the Council chambers (where civic square is now, the Library having had a street in front of it then!). It’s been a long 25 years for unionists since then.

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