The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Union Myths #6 - Unions just go on strike all the time

We've all heard it, at some point in our lives, possibly from our parents or at our workplaces; all those bloody unions do is go on strike all the time, bunch of useless troublemakers.

Well I beg to differ. (Don't act all surprised now.)

Unions, and union members, do a lot more than strike. There are many unionised workplaces who probably haven't been on strike in the last decade. In fact, the gossip reports that work stoppages (i.e. industrial action, including strikes but also other tactics) fell by nearly a third from the previous year. Not only were there less stoppages in 2006 than in 2005, there were less work days lost, despite the 25 day lock-out of union members at Progressive Enterprises.

Here are a few other things unions do:

All of these aspects of unionism, and strikes too, are membership activities. A union is its members, and although some are bureaucratic and daunting to the newcomer all give their members a voice - within the union as well as to the outside world.

Yes unions strike, when they need to. It's a tactic of last resort in most cases, although sometimes you have a pretty good inkling before bargaining starts that you'll probably have to look at industrial action. There are strict legal rules around striking, or taking other forms of industrial action, and actually the legal windows when you can strike are quite limited. Long gone are the days of being able to down tools because you don't like the tea, if they ever existed in the first place.

Workers don't get paid when they are on strike, and while it can be a very exciting and invigorating time it's also a hard slog for everyone involved. In my experience union members don't vote to strike lightly. Most of the time workers aren't on strike, they're just doing their jobs, and being union in other ways entirely.

Previous posts in the Union Myths series:

(Pic Via.)


Anonymous said...

"Long gone are the days of being able to down tools because you don't like the tea, if they ever existed in the first place."

Perhaps they didn't exist in legislation but they existed beyond legislation because workers and unions were strong - i think we are slowly building towards this again.

Great post span - there are too many negative thoughts out there towards striking workers. As you say this is not a light decision - not something done on a wim for an cruisy day off. It is huge decision for a low paid worker (or any worker) for that matter.
I am a staunch supporter of unions - however find it hard to accept the recent $650 payout to PSA members at CYFS. This payment was made outside of bargaining - which i do not believe is a good look. What are other people's thoughts?

Heine said...

Things have changed a lot since the days whern unions would go on strike during school holidays and other days or importance, but this might change if the unions in NZ get as powerful as they want to be.

What will happen when Labour lose Clark? It will be interesting to see the union push to who will be the new leader.

Heine said...

The London tube unions strike at the drop of a hat over the most trivial of things - a tea room in Earls Court wasn't up to standard!

But seriously, I am not anti union despite what you think. I just don't like the idea that they are so powerful in NZ politics and agree with anon about the payments not being very kosher. If the payments were made to not join a union it would be equally unfair - not to mention a waste of taxpayer money.

Cactus Kate said...


Can you please do a post on what a union organiser actually does. I have posed the question this morning on my blog.

Heine said...

I remember bumping into an ex OUSA exec member in Wellington a couple years after graduating and asked him what he did for a living. When he announced proudly that he was a union organiser the laughter in the bar was too loud for me to hear what he exactly did.

Span said...

Yeah sure CK, might be a little while, but I'm happy to enlighten you. The list of bullet points above gives something of an idea of the work that unions do, and union organisers would have a role in most of those things too, but I'll write something more specific soonish.

Span said...

Heine, I'm not at all surprised that someone who has had a past involvement in social justice stuff, as a student, would then go on to work in the area. It's sometimes called "walking the talk".

Heine said...

Naa, he was a shit stirrer who had very few friends :) An ex Young Nat who then decided overnight he was left wing but nobody believed him.

Look forward to your post though!

Anonymous said...

A union organiser's job is not easy. Most are very dedicated and work hard (although, like any job, some are not so good at it). Many are former delegates or come from the shop floor.

They do such things as:

1. Represent members in disciplinary enquiries, redundancy consultations, mediation and so on
2. Bargain collective agreements for members
3. Recruit members to the union
4. Organise campaigns/pickets etc.
5. Visit members at home or at work to talk about workplace issues
6. Train members and delegates (elected workers' representatives) on their rights and their role in the workplace
7. Build activists in the workplace and develop delegates
8. Map workplaces and come up with organising plans for industries etc.

All of this is done at all hours of the day and night (if you organise night shift workers obviously you need to do so at night). It is a stressful job given that you are dealing with people in crisis, especially in unions representing low paid workers. You are usually better paid than your members (except in teachers' or nurses' unions for example) but it is still not huge pay for the type of work you do.

Can I also point out that the majority of union organisers don't care about the Labour Party or the politics of unions, they just believe in what they are doing and in helping the underdog.

Now can we ask what an HR Manager actually does?

Span said...

Thanks Anon at 1.24pm, that's a mighty dandy list and comment there. I'll probably plagiarise some of it when I get around to writing my post ;-)