Are unions in New Zealand (NZ) still useful is a debated issue. Logic suggests that they provide the necessary balance in power between employers and employees so will always be regarded as helpful. Conversely, changes over time mean they are not as valued as NZ’s representational avenues have changed to cope with new characteristics appearing in the workforce. This essay will explain the ideology behind this theory, illustrate evidence that supports it, but also state arguments against it by showing unions changing roles, unionisation levels, and reasons affecting decisions to join or not. It will show that although time has altered aspects of unions that unions in NZ today remain useful to employees in hearing and representing their voice.
NZ’s industrial relations developed by protection of the employment relationship through acts passed by government, particularly the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (IC&A). This is fundamental to NZ’s employment relations and set the right for trade unions to arrange and negotiate collectively with employers, as well as producing awards, wage rates and handling disputes (Bryson, 2011c).
Unions traditionally were “a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the condition of their employment” (Webb & Webb, 1894, as cited in Bryson, 2011b, slide 7). Their function was to campaign for compassionate management procedures, equivalent bargaining power between employers and employees, and for fairness and democracy to be initiated into the workplace (Bryson, 2011a). Union activity at this time tended to focus on nationwide bargaining for industrial groups (Geare, 1983, as cited in Haynes, 2005), with their role seen as wage bargainers and individual grievance representation (Haynes & Fryer, 2001 as cited in Haynes, 2005).
Whereas, unions today provide a voice not only for workers but their families (New Zealand Council of Trade Unions [NZCTU], 2010), and they represent their member’s employment interests both collectively and individually (Bryson, 2011b). Their function to provide support can be found in other members when problems need addressing or to negotiate improvements concerning work conditions. They make sure employees opinions are heard and acknowledged and their rights maintained (NZCTU, 2010). For employees to get the greatest benefit from unions and what they can offer, NZ unions work together through the NZCTU to improve the overall position of workers (NZCTU, 2010). Haynes (2005) indicates today’s unions have modified their approach as support networks catering for the differing problems faced by workers, due to the expanding workforce and career opportunities.
The Employment Contracts Act (ECA) 1991 changed NZ’s industrial relations, shifting NZ from highly regulated to deregulated (Haynes, 2005) by outlawing required unionism. Due to this lack of state support, union membership in both the private and public sectors fell...