Will the Council of Trade Unions put workers first?

-Don Franks

For some weeks now, top union leaders have been muttering about a possible National government attack on unions’ access to worksites. The present law allows union representatives to enter workplaces to visit existing union members and recruit new members. Union officials must produce identification, tell the employer the purpose of their visit and not take up too much time, or enter at very busy times.

These rights were denied by National’s Employment Contracts Act and restored by the last Labour government. Restoration of right of entry was the one big concession Labour made to the union movement. Now, it is increasingly being rumoured, John Key’s lot will remove unions’ right of entry again.

The rumours came out in the open in Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly’s Dominion Post column of February 23rd. There, in an article headlined; Will Government put the country first? Kelly claimed:

“National still intends to reduce worker’s rights by making union access to a workplace dependant on employer approval.”

The CTU president went on to argue that the existing setup is :

“a proper balance between the rights of workers to belong to and be represented by unions without intimidation and the right of employers to permit only legitimate visits.”

She continued:

“Only eight instances can be found since the legislation was introduced in 2000 where the exercise of these provisions has been challenged- which suggests they work”.

That rosy picture of the existing law could only have been written by a union official who makes relatively few workplace visits. As any busy organiser on the road can confirm, effective right of access is fought out across the country every day and night. Although some employers give no trouble, many, probably a majority, throw up barriers of all kinds against the spirit of the legislation.  Silent half deserted places are said to be “too busy at the moment”. Union officials are then made to wait for ages in the hope that they will get fed up and leave. Or the boss will glare round at staff and say “Anyone want to see the union?!” in such a way that his opinion of unions and workers who want to see them is plain. Other bosses simply state that “I’ve asked them and noone here wants to see you”. The weakness of the existing law means gaining union access to workers is a constant struggle, and the only thing worse would be no right in law at all.

Helen Kelly writes that should a law change be imposed to remove or restrict right of entry:

“unions will be forced to hunker down and campaign in other ways to ensure workers are aware of their rights to collective bargaining”

Unions should be getting out right now and planning exactly what these “other ways” might consist of. If the CTU leaders have any good ideas about how to do this they are keeping them to themselves. Helen Kelly’s own public strategy is to argue that National should cooperate with unions for the benefit of the country. According to her, unions can “work with employers to understand the issues they face” and ” unions can help with transitions where saving jobs is not possible.”

She concludes ” Workers will be watching closely to see whether National is big enough to put the country first on this one.”

Offers to facilitate redundancy and nationalistic  piffle may do to fill Helen Kelly’s newspaper column, but they don’t help unionists prepare to force locked gates.

In reality, “the country” is not a single happy entity. The country is populated by two main classes comprising employers and workers. These two classes have competing interests. Most employers would rather have no union to bother about.  That way they have complete freedom to run their business. With union density in the private sector now down to 9% employers are well on the way to this state of affairs.

Most workers, when given a chance to see all the facts, would rather be organised on the job in a collective, because that delivers more money and better conditions.  Proper unionism does not blather on pointlessly about the “good of the country” but puts workers’ interests first, every time.

Restricted as it is, the existing right of entry is a relatively modern condition, as is unionism itself. When the first unions were formed, all their activities were illegal. Still, unions managed to battle on and win gains. Union activists today need to prepare to defend and extend the right of entry and to discuss ways to work if the right is removed.

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