Wednesday, 24 February 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.


Anonymous said...

Bang on! I have been disappointed by the weak response to this further attack on workers rights from the left as well. You make some very pertinent points.

Julie said...

Thank you so much for writing about this Maia, you have hit my feelings on the matter bang on.

In the union I work for I'm not aware that we ever have secret ballots. In the five years I've been there we've only had one strike vote, and that wasn't a secret ballot. And, as you've outlined, it was actually an "in principle" strike vote, along the lines of delegating the National Executive of the union to call a strike if there was not satisfactory progress in the next round of negotiations. So I'm not sure how that would be dealt with if this legislation passes.

(To be clear: I am commenting in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the union I work for. I haven't even had an informal discussion in the staffroom about the matter.)

If the Govt was to try to interfere in the decision-making processes of corporate boards or Rotary or Plunket then that would be outrageous to many. Yet because it is the Evil Unions being targeted it's somehow different and ok.

To me there are some weird parallels with the undermining of women's rights around choosing to control their fertility and their bodies. It's assumed that somehow workers are frequently manipulated by these evil things called unions. Nevermind that unions are those workers, and democratically controlled at that. They don't choose to go on strike lightly - at the very least they weigh up very carefully whether they can afford to strike, seeing as how no one gets paid while on strike.

This whole debate is yet another example of how putting instruments before issues advantages the bosses. Instead of talking about workers' issues and why they would take the difficult step of going on strike, we are talking about the instrument of how they decide to strike.

LudditeJourno said...

Yep, I agree too, and had a very queasy reaction to No Right Turn's post on this.
We are in for yet another round of union bashing - witness the failure to cap spending by third parties in elections being described in every media source I saw as allowing unions to spend up....first and foremost....rather than other third parties who might be kinda interested in who governs.

Idiot/Savant said...

While No Right Turn appears to actively support it.

As does the CTU. And why wouldn't they? It reflects their existing practice, reinforces their claim to be democratic institutions, and robs the right of the sort of propaganda Henare is attempting to engage in.

As for your philosophical objection, government regulates the internal decision making of all sorts of private bodies. The most obvious example is political parties, who must use "democratic procedures" in candidate selection. Companies must conduct a ballot of their shareholders to make certain decisions. And incorporated societies also have to follow certain rules. This is no different.

Anonymous said...

While I understand your sentiments on this I am going to call *bullshit* on secret ballots being a bad thing. The very reason unions introduced them was to help coerce others into following strike action.

We all know the venom of the union movement so if somebody was able to vote secretly - they would be safe from the taunts of "scab" and abuse that follows. No wonder the union movement took a big hit when it became voluntary.