What is a union?
A union is an association of employees that exists to protect and improve its members’ conditions of work and to generally represent their interests.
The role of a union includes:
- representing its members on any issues that involve the members’ collective employment interests
- negotiating collective employment agreements
- representing members in relation to their individual rights as an employee, if the member has authorised the union to do this
- giving advice and assistance on the rights and obligations of employers and employees
- representing its members if they have a personal grievance or dispute (see the chapter “Resolving employment problems”).
Joining a union
As an employee you have the right to:
- join a union
- decide which particular union you should join (out of those unions that cover the type of work you do)
- not join a union, or resign from a union.
Your boss can’t pressure you into not joining a union, or treat you unfairly (“discriminate” against you) because you’re a union member.
You can take a legal claim (a personal grievance) against your boss if:
- they tell you that you can’t belong to a union if you want to keep your job, or
- they use threats or incentives to make you quit the union or to stop you representing other workers in that workplace.
What the union can do
Unions are entitled to represent their members on any issues that involve their collective interests as workers.
Your union delegate is entitled to a reasonable amount of paid time to do the things necessary to represent the union members. A “delegate” is a union member in your workplace who’s been chosen by the union members there to represent them (another older word for this is “shop steward”).
Union “organisers” work for the union and spend time at different workplaces representing the union members there. Organisers and other union representatives are entitled to come into the workplace on union business.
The organiser doesn’t need to ask the employer’s permission first if there’s a collective agreement in force between the employer and the union for that workplace, or if either the union or the employer has initiated bargaining for a collective agreement. In other cases the union has to ask the employer’s permission, but the employer can’t unreasonably refuse.
The different reasons for which the union can come into the workplace include, for example:
- to bargain for a collective agreement
- to deal with health and safety issues (including for non-union members who ask the union to represent them)
- to check that the employer is following a collective agreement
- to check that the employer is doing what they’re supposed to under the law (the Holidays Act for example)
- to deal with issues under a union member’s individual employment agreement
- to recruit workers to the union, including giving them information about the union, or
- to deal with union business.
Union members are allowed to attend at least two union meetings each year, for up to two hours for each meeting, on full pay.