Secret ballots? Workers should decide

Back in April The Spark carried an article sounding the alarm at National MP Tau Henare’s Private Member’s bill to require unions to run secret ballots for strike action. While the Council of Trade Unions gave its “support in principle” to the bill at the time, we warned that workers could become ensnared in pedantic legal challenges by employers trying to undermine strikes. No Right Turn blog had also given its backing to bill as “a bit of a no-brainer.”

Predictably, the moderate-sounding wording of the original has been amended by the select committee, so now employers could challenge strike ballots with injunctions. Now the CTU and their mates in the Labour Party are crying foul over the bill. Didn’t the 90 day “sack at will” law brought in by Henare’s party give them a clue about what were the government’s intentions with regard to employment laws? Are they really surprised that a bill proposing further restrictions on unions wouldn’t also include the right of employers to challenge the process?

The Labour select committee members complained that “there is no balance in the bill where there is a corresponding accountability for employers to hold secret ballots of their shareholders before a decision to lock out union members is made.” This shows how pathetic their concept of “Fairness at Work” really is: that somehow a lock out imposed by an employer could have the same legitimacy as the collective decision of workers to withdraw their labour, if only the shareholders were balloted first!

The idea of the right to strike (limited as it is) being balanced by an employer’s right to lock out is enshrined in the current Employment Relations Act, brought in by Labour. This “balance” ignores the huge discrepancy of power between employers – with all the control they exercise in the workplace – and workers, whose only real strength lies in their potential to organise. In addition, employers can generally rely on the support of the state – in the form of the courts, police, etc. – if things get really tough.

Also, it is by no means a “no-brainer” that strikes should require secret ballots. Workers ought to be free to determine what form of democratic decision making they adopt, without meddling from the state. Unite Union made a submission to the select committee stating that secret ballots are not always practical in dispersed casualised workplaces with a high turnover of personnel (like fast-food chains).

We cannot tolerate a situation like that in the UK where employers routinely slap injunctions on strikes on the most spurious of technicalities. One of the amendments to Henare’s bill states that the union must notify the result of the ballot to the members of the union who were entitled to vote. Sounds reasonable? Well, it was exactly this provision in the British anti-union laws that allowed BA to challenge an overwhelming vote for strike action in May.

If this bill becomes law, unions should pledge to defy any employer who uses the courts to try and trample on the collective decisions of union members.

As we were saying… April 2010 article:


  1. If the bill becomes law then it should warrent a nation wide strike like in France.

    There should have been a nationwide strike when the 90 day bill was launched.

  2. It would be near impossible to call a nation wide strike. Unions have so little coverage and I think the law would prevent it. Another major problem is motivation, a large number of workers have big mortgages or need their total income to live on top of this is the disconnect of many people from politics.

    In the 70’s a large proportion of the population were involved in political parties but now less than 5% are involved. The population has either become disenchanted or disenfranchised and that politics belong to others. Just look at student politics, we are involved in a war but no complaints. Students are concentrating on getting a degree and earning money, this is the same for the working population.

    There has been a definite change in peoples attitudes with more individual centered thinking with less concern for others. This has either been promoted by the political right or it’s a result of the 60’s or 70’s culture change, either way this coupled with consumerism has lead to people being easy to isolate by employers as a threat of job loss is sufficient to sway the worker.

    Times have changed and it may take drastic changes to work place law before workers rebel but by then we may really be slaves with no ability to act.

    • dean scott says:

      I agree with Kiki, peoples world views have changed to what is in it for me? As the govt has pushed private education private health, private retirement savings people have believed that there is no way the state can afford all these things, these are austere times and people have to look to themselves. People are also very cynical, they dont trust politicians, left or right, espec since the ‘labour’ govt sold them out and unions proved ineffectual at preventing the demise of the social contract following the introductions of the employment contracts act.I cant count how many times in my work as a union organiser have i heard non unionised staff say that the unions sold them out so why should they trust them. Now with people being uninterested in strike action our bargaining position is weak and canny employers make sure that non union staff are as well ( or poorly) looked after as the union ones. Everytime we turn on th enews it is more bad news about international economies and people struggle to believe that there can be a successful socialist response to current problems. I believe there is some hope in the strong sustainability message of the green left, that all the parties of the left should look into.

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