Workers of the world unite: Know your rights and why joining a union makes a difference
This week we have a guest Q&A with Erin Polazcuk, National Secretary at The New Zealand Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi (the PSA), the largest trade union in New Zealand with over 63,000 members.
What is PSA all about?
PSA represents everyone from physiotherapists to DOC rangers; scientists to parliamentary cleaners; librarians to border control agents. They are a democratic organisation representing members in the public service, the wider state sector (district health boards, crown research institutes and other Crown entities), state-owned enterprises, local government, tertiary education institutions and non-governmental organisations working in the health, social services and community sectors.
They champion their members’ interests, giving them a strong and effective voice, both in individual workplaces and organisations as well as by lobbying government and other decision-makers to stand for working people in policy and practice.
Ultimately, they are fighting for fair pay and good jobs that are enriching, fulfilling and focused on the future and the changing nature of work. They have several strategic goals that underpin this work (which can be read here), and the advancement of Te Tiriti o Waitangi is central to and woven through all of their work.
What are employers basic rights at work?
The minimum rights of employees are set out in legislation and cover such things as:
- Minimum pay
- Break entitlements
- Sick leave
- Public holidays
- Paid parental leave
- Union membership
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has a handy website – employment.govt.nz – that outlines the details of these entitlements. These rights guarantee the minimum conditions that employees are entitled to and responsible for on different kinds of employment agreement, across all industries.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a casual worker or work part-time; whether you work from home or are under the age of eighteen; or whether you work in the public or private sector – there are minimum employment rights you can expect. They even apply if you haven’t been given a copy of your employment agreement at work (which you are entitled to, legally!) and don’t have the specific conditions of your employment set out in writing.
Knowing your minimum rights and responsibilities of employment are crucial, but it isn’t the whole story. If we relied solely on government to legislate our working conditions, many workplaces would remain behind the curve.
Tell us a bit more about Unions and the role they have planned in improving workers rights
Unions are behind the bulk of the major improvements to workers’ rights and conditions of the last 130 years. Like the 8-hour working day, tea breaks, better wages, ending zero-hours contracts, and most recently, equal pay for women. Bargaining collectively through a union amplifies and unifies workers’ voices in negotiation with employers.
You mentioned collective bargaining, what is this all about?
When you start a new job, you will be asked to sign either an Individual Employment Agreement (IEA) or a Collective Employment Agreement (CEA) if there is one available. The employment agreement will set out the full terms and conditions of your employment, including hours of work, rates of pay, leave entitlements, etc.
Collective Employment Agreements (CEAs) are available in all unionised workplaces, and all union members are covered by the terms of the collective. CEAs are negotiated, signed and ratified by unionised members of a workplace and the employer: they represent the interests of the many rather than being negotiated individual by individual.
Sometimes the concept of ‘freedom’ can make an individual kind of agreement sound more appealing – after all, we are all individuals with different needs and desires – but in fact, collective bargaining means a much stronger voice for workers and a better opportunity to get conditions from employers that benefit diverse workforces.
As an example, an individual worker with very tough negotiating skills may sometimes be able to bargain for a higher personal wage compared to colleagues doing the same job. But that individual has a much weaker ability to engender structural changes in the workplace that benefit all employees with lasting effect – say, for example, increasing personal leave allowances beyond the minimum required by law so that all employees are entitled to five working weeks rather than four. In that situation, the collective has a much-improved chance of effecting change that endures beyond an individual’s agreement.
An easy way of thinking about this is the idea of strength in numbers – while a fairly crude maxim, it is fitting given the working environments we are a part of, in which employers are typically unlikely to pass on benefits to workers without pressure and negotiation from the majority of its employees. Unions act as linchpins in this situation; bringing together individuals under a united banner to create change that matters for all and endures beyond a single individual’s time with an employer. We stand together for better rights and conditions for workers, and we are very good at getting them – we’ve been doing this for over 100 years.
Why would you suggest someone join a union if they have the chance?
Lots of employers are reasonable, good people who look after their workers. However, some aren’t.
When problems do arise, unions exist for workers to support each other through difficulties with employers. While there’s strength in numbers, there is also safety – it is much easier to confront problems at work with others standing alongside you, and you have a much better chance of influencing employers.
Unions operate democratically, electing representatives from workplaces as delegates who make decisions on how the union functions within the workplace and what the priorities will be when negotiating with the employer. It’s a useful paradigm for the wider social changes we all want to see in the world, with power returned to people and collectives working to create good jobs that are rewarding and secure for the people doing them.
Any last thoughts you want to share?
Remember, you have minimum entitlements and responsibilities no matter your role, industry or kind of employment agreement, and you can check them out at employment.govt.nz.
Joining a union, if possible, is one of the best ways to ensure a progressive, fair and democratic workplace!