Union Organising in New Zealand: Making the Most of the New Environment?

By May, Robyn; Walsh, Pat | International Journal of Employment Studies, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Union Organising in New Zealand: Making the Most of the New Environment?


May, Robyn, Walsh, Pat, International Journal of Employment Studies


During the 1990s New Zealand unionism was devastated and its membership declined precipitously. Between 1999 and 2001, however, membership increased by 9 per cent. This paper analyses the factors underlying this putative revival. In particular, it addresses the impact of the new political and legal environment created by the election of a Labour Party government in 1999 and the subsequent passage of the Employment Relations Act in 2000, and the influence of the adoption of organising strategies by unions. It argues that the confluence of these factors largely explain this recent renewal but cautions that existing legislation will not return unionism to its pre-1990s eminence.

INTRODUCTION

At first glance New Zealand unions look to be in a pretty poor state. With density levels of around 22 per cent and a fairly subdued public profile, there are many who would question their right to any influence at all. However looking a little more deeply suggests that the New Zealand trade union movement is at a critical turning point in its history, possibly on the verge of renewal to a more sustainable and enduring movement. Union membership has risen in both 2000 and 2001, and density has edged upward, turning the corner on a decade of devastating decline. The increase in membership over the two years since 1999 is 9 per cent, which is twice that of growth in the overall labour force. Unions are highly optimistic about their futures and their ability to attract new members and are beginning to engage in active strategies to do this. The political and legal environment is broadly favourable (certainly more so than the last decade), with the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA) representing a degree of re-regulation in industrial relations and a re-legitimisation for unions. The Labour Party was re-elected in July 2002, as a minority government.

In this paper we look at the strategies New Zealand unions are undertaking for organising and growth, and try to make some assessment of the success or otherwise of those strategies. We ask are unions making the most of the environment that exists in New Zealand at the moment or are there far wider barriers to genuine union renewal? There are a number of sources of our data. Since 1991 Victoria University of Wellington's Industrial Relations Centre has conducted an annual survey of union membership and with the 2000 and 2001 surveys we included a questionnaire on union strategy. We have conducted interviews with secretaries of seven of the ten largest unions and with the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) leadership. The Industrial Relations Centre also has a significant database of collective contracts/agreements that provides the most comprehensive picture of the scope and breadth of collective bargaining in New Zealand (see Thickett, Harbridge and Walsh, 2002).

NEW ZEALAND UNIONS AND THE LEGISLATIVE FRAMEWORK

There is no doubt that up until relatively recent times the label 'creatures of the state' was an apt description of the New Zealand union movement. The institutional structure of New Zealand's industrial relations system, dating back to the turn of the century, led to the development of a trade union movement with a predominant pattern of many large well resourced, effective unions and numerous small poorly resourced ineffective unions. There were also some large unions whose relative abundance of resources did not lead to organisational effectiveness, and also some small unions who, despite a lack of resources, were highly effective, in many cases because they could exploit strategic location in the economy. Many of the small, less effective unions survived only because the system guaranteed their existence. Unions enjoyed a comfortable life, where membership solidarity and organisational capacity were not vital to continued existence.

Given this background, the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA) was to have a profound and immediate effect. …

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