Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Support the right to strike

There has been two bills that attacks workers rights drawn out of the ballot. Roger Douglas's bill on youth rates and Tau Henare's bill on secret ballot's in case of a strike. Now I could go 15 rounds with any readers who support youth rates right now. Fighting against youth rates is really important.

But that's not actually what I want to write about. I've been really disappointed to the muted response to Tau Henare's bill on the left. The best that The Standard and Frogblog can do is that there is no problem because unions already hold secret ballots. While No Right Turn appears to actively support it.

I believe such a nonchalant response to workers right to strike is at best short sighted.

Lets be clear from the start -I don't think union officials roll around the country trying to push their members into strikes.* We don't have many strikes, and I'm sure any of them that didn't face a secret ballot would have succeeded in one. So the important questions to ask are philosophical and practical.

I have a philosophical objection to it - I believe self-determination means that union members get to decide how they make their decisions. If people take a philosophical position that it is the government's place to legislate how people make their decisions in non-governmental organisations, then that should be consistent (a positio I do not take, for the reasons I've mentioned about self-determination). Why limit it just to unions?

Even more revealing of the ideology involved, why are strike ballots so special? Workers take many other important decisions in their time - the decision to accept an agreement without a pay increase, for example, is every bit as important as a strike ballot.** As are elections and other votes unions take.

As well as these philosophical objections, I think the bill could end up being really restrictive to union's ability to take action. I haven't seen a copy of the bill yet, but I'm operating under the assumption that it will deem strikes without a secret ballot illegal, in the same way that solidarity strikes are at the moment.***

Depending on the exact wording, this may take away a lot of workers flexibility when it comes to industrial. If you're not in an essential industry workers can go on strike at any time, they can go out for an hour or they can go out for a day, and they don't have to tell employers beforehand which. When I've had strike ballots (and none of the strike ballots I've had have developed into strikes) we talked about the sort of action that might be involved, then took a vote on the principle of further action. This left workers with the power to finely tune the exact time and length to depend on the work cycle of the employer.

Secondly how is the ballot going to be taken? In some circumstances the only way union members can leave their workplace for an hour to have a paid union meeting is to take strike action for that hour. It's a complete catch-22.

But most importantly it could weaken the bargaining power of workers who are on strike. At the moment how the union decies to take strike action is none of the employers business. But this would mean if there was a question about the decision to take strike action the employers could use that over the union. Particularly if a secret ballot is not defined in law workers and unions will be in a weak position. If some workers talk to each other and look at each others papers while the vote is taken is that a secret ballot? What are the restrictions on the wording on the paper? Union's may accept weaker settlements, because they don't want to fight the matter in court.

In addition there are real practical questions about how this will work in the case of health and safety strikes. The right to strike over health and safety is an incredibly important safe-guard for workers.**** If there is a requirement for a secret ballot before a health and safetry strike is taken, then workers will not be able to undertake a health and safety strike immediately, in response to an unsafe environment, unless they had the materials for a secret ballot at hand.

Which comes back to my philosophical point. It is up to workers how they want to make their decisions. This legislation will put more, not less, power in the hands of union organisers, and tie workers who want to take industrial action in reams of red tape.

That's the intention, it's not about democracy, it's about limiting unions' power.

* Which isn't supposed to be a criticism. I disagree with a lot of radicals who criticise union officials for not advocate for more radical action. I believe that it is a union official's only responsibility to carry out the directions of their members. Whether those decisions are to settle quietly or hold out for $50 an hour.

** As far as I know most unions do have rules requiring secret ballots to accept or reject an agreement. However, when these rules are not followed it is almost always to accept an agreement, rather than reject it - contrary to what Tau Henare is implying.

*** We have such limited rights to strike at the moment. We should be pushing from more, rather than refusing to defend what we've got.

**** As far as I know it is not used very much at the moment. I've never heard of a health and safety strike in New Zealand. But we shouldn't abandon the decision just because it is underused.


  1. Go on then, explain why i should pay a 16 yr old school student that i want to do some filing in the holidays the same as a 25yr old? i may as well hire the 25yr old as then at least i get some maturity. thanks to your lot, there is no good reason to hire kids anymore.

    and on the strike issue, i;ve spoken to enough people who are not interest in union affairs who feel that they have to go along and pretend they are when their work wants to strike, becuase it will cost them career prospects.

    a secret ballot would at least protect them from the pressuring they get now.

  2. Anonymous10:07 am

    "i may as well hire the 25yr old as then at least i get some maturity. thanks to your lot, there is no good reason to hire kids anymore."

    Except for the fact is that most of these jobs need to get done and a 16 year old is more than capable of doing filing and is more likely to be casually available than a 25 year old.

    "...becuase it will cost them career prospects."

    *cough cough* bullshit *cough*.

    Members can always call for secret ballots within their union. The point is that this bill takes away what workers themselves think is the best tool to use at the time.

    - John A.

  3. Commie Mutant Traitor11:59 am

    And why would hiring a 25 year old be worse than hiring a 16 year old anyway? On average, the 25 year old probably needs the money more.