Ninety-two percent of employed New Zealanders between 15-24 were not part of a union by the end of last year, according to the Stats NZ Household Labour Force Survey.

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions secretary Melissa Ansell-Bridges says she doesn’t think young New Zealanders today are well educated about unions at schools. 

Ansell-Bridges has worked with unions for eight years so Re: News asked her to break down the basics of unions. 

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions secretary Melissa Ansell-Bridges. Image: supplied.

What are unions?

At its heart, a union is a group of working people that have joined together to improve their rights and conditions at work. 

A registered trade union has to be an incorporated society and part of its constitution has to involve representing members in employment matters. 

New Zealand has a wide range of unions — some of them have less than 1000 members and our largest ones have tens of thousands of members. 

Since different jobs have different needs, unions look different depending on the industry they represent. 

What do unions do?

Unions are most well known for collective bargaining, which is where a group of workers who are on the same contract bargain with their employer to improve their contract. 

Once they are offered a deal, union members can decide to take the deal or go back to the negotiation table. 

If a union has been bargaining for a long time and isn't making progress, its members might strike. 

If you have been treated unfairly at work, your union can help advocate for your rights. 

That can include receiving support from your union delegate, who is a colleague of yours that has been trained by your union to help its members. 

Unions also get involved in campaigning for improvement in particular industries, like when teachers were campaigning for smaller classroom sizes. And they care about their members having job security, safety, dignity and a voice in the workplace.  

How can I join a union? 

You can usually fill out an online form or, if your union is well established in your industry, you can contact your workplace’s union delegate. 

When you get a new job, you might be automatically covered by your union’s collective agreement for your first month at work. 

You can join your union at any point in your employment, whether that’s during the first month or much later on. 

How do you know which union to join? 

It depends on which industry you work in. 

For example, if you’re an employee who works in aviation, manufacturing, communications or engineering, E tū might be your union. 

You can talk to your colleagues and find out if there is a union at your workplace. 

You can also visit the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions’s website and use the ‘Find Your Union’ function, or use Google. 

Most employees are only covered under one union. If you happen to be covered by multiple unions, you could ring them up to have a chat and figure out which union you like best. 

Are there people who can’t join unions? 

Anyone can join a union if it covers your type of work but contractors do not legally have the right to collectively bargain. 

People who work in jobs like cleaning, courier driving, freelancing and construction are often contractors. 

Some types of working professionals, like accountants, have a professional body to represent them but not a union. Unions also cannot be set up by employers and there are regulations around maintaining separation between employers and their workers’ union. 

Can my boss tell me not to join one? 

No, they cannot. 

How do union fees work and why do I need to pay them to join? 

When you join a union, you can choose to pay union fees through a payroll dedication (where the money comes directly out of your paycheck) or some will let you pay through a debit card payment. 

Union fees help pay for lawyers and specialists that help the union collectively bargain, as well as education resources and training for members. 

Do you think there any downsides to joining a union?

Personally, no.

Some people can have concerns about needing to pay fees. 

Why do you think many young New Zealanders do not know much about unions?

I don't think there’s great education today about unions or your general rights as a worker. 

It goes back to the Employment Contracts Act (1991) which was designed to decimate the union movement and made it really hard for unions to organise in some industries. 

Before 1991, we used to have high union coverage in New Zealand. 

A lot of young people who came into the workforce after 1991 have missed out on experiencing that collective power and are less familiar with unions. 

But globally we’ve seen quite a resurgence in the popularity of unions, with new people discovering what they are and how to make use of them. 

Famous recent instances of that are Starbucks workers unionising and Amazon warehouse workers unionising

And places like the Young Workers Resource Centre are great because they go into schools and explain to students what their rights are as workers. 

Why do you think unions are important? 

As a young person first entering the workforce, you don't necessarily know what to expect at work or what your rights are.

There’s a lot we take for granted today that unions of the past fought for us to have, like minimum wage, parental leave, equal pay, health and safety protections and having weekends and public holidays off. Unions have improved your experience of work even if you’ve never personally interacted with them. 

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