How to: Union rights

Introduction

The EMPLOYMENT RELATIONS ACT 2000 came into force on 1 October 2000, making substantial changes to the legal status and functions of unions. The Act promotes collective bargaining by unions as a means to offset the inherent inequality in power between employers and employees.

Under the Act only a union can negotiate a collective agreement with an employer, and only union members can be covered by a collective agreement (although a collective agreement can provide for non-members to get the terms and conditions in the agreement if they pay the union a "bargaining fee"). Unions must, however, be registered with the Department of Labour to have the benefit of these new advantages.

For more information on negotiating employment agreements (including bargaining fees), see How to enter into an employment agreement as an employee.

Registration of unions

In order to enjoy the monopoly of collective bargaining under the new Act, unions must be registered with the Registrar of Unions in the Department of Labour. If they are not registered they have no status under the Act.

A union is entitled to be registered if:

  • the union's object (or one of them) is to promote its members' collective employment interests; and
  • the union is incorporated under the Incorporated Societies Act 1908; and
  • its rules are democratic, not unreasonable, not unfairly discriminatory or prejudicial, and not contrary to law; and
  • the union is independent of and operates at arm's length from any employer

Is union membership voluntary?

Yes, employees cannot be required to join a union. No contract or arrangement may require an employee to be or not be a union member, and no person can put undue influence, directly or indirectly, on another person to be or not be a union member.

However, only union members will be covered by a collective agreement in force in their workplace. Non-members must negotiate their own individual agreements with their employer (although in certain cases they can pay the union a "bargaining fee" and get the benefit of the terms and conditions in the collective agreement: see How to enter into an employment agreement as an employee).

Discrimination on the basis of union membership

If an employer discriminates against employees on the basis of their union activities or subjects them to duress because of their union membership, the employees can take a personal grievance to the Employment Relations Authority: see How to bring a personal grievance against your employer.

Although employers can't give preferential treatment or conditions based on being or not being a union member, this doesn't prevent collective agreements including a term intended to recognise the benefits of collective agreements (such as an additional payment or other additional benefits).

What rights of access do unions have to the workplace?

Under the Act, unions have wider access to workplaces than previously. Under the previous Act unions could enter only for the purposes of contract negotiations; but now unions can enter for any purpose relating to their members' employment or relating to union business. This includes:

  • participating in bargaining for a collective agreement
  • dealing with health and safety matters
  • monitoring whether a collective agreement is being complied with and, if it is not, seeking compliance with it
  • monitoring whether the Act and other employment-related Acts are being complied with in relation to union members and, if they are not, seeking compliance
  • dealing with individual employment agreements or an individual's terms and conditions
  • discussing union business with members
  • recruiting new union members
  • providing information on the union to employees

Union representatives can enter the premises only at reasonable times, and must do so in a reasonable way, having regard to normal business operations in the workplace. They must also comply with any reasonable existing procedures relating to health and safety or security.

Discussions with employees must take no longer than is reasonable.

Employers can be penalised for denying or obstructing union access to the workplace. They cannot dock employees' wages for time spent in discussions with union representatives.

Union meetings

Employers must allow employees who are union members to attend two union meetings each year on ordinary pay. Each meeting may be up to two hours long. The union must tell the employer which union members attended and how long the meeting lasted.

This right to hold union meetings is quite separate from the right of union officials to enter the workplace as necessary to discuss union business with employees (see above).

Do employers have to collect union fees?

Whether or not there's a collective agreement in the workplace, employers are required to collect union fees from each union member (if he or she consents) and then pass them on to the union, as arranged with the union.

However, this requirement can be cancelled or modified by a collective agreement or, if there's no collective agreement, by the employee's individual agreement.

Cautionary notes
  • For more detailed information on the changes made to union rights and other areas by the EMPLOYMENT RELATIONS ACT 2000, you may wish to consult a lawyer. Information and assistance is also available from the Department of Labour's Employment Relations Service, which can be contacted on 0800 800 863.


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