A new union has started up to represent the most vulnerable workers in the legal profession with low pay rates and poor working conditions among its pressing objectives.
The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) was launched this week, and can already claim more than 200 members.
And as interim president Hayley Coles explains, the organisation has two major priorities to deal with.
“We will soon be launching a campaign around minimum wage breaches and we’re collecting information on how deep the problem is.
“We recognise that legal workers will, at times, be called on to work long hours, but they should be compensated for the work they do, especially when firms bill their clients for this time. They are working long hours on low salaries and without overtime pay. In some cases, they are effectively paid below minimum wage.”
Bullying and harassment
The ALWU is also promising to be at the forefront of the campaign against harassment and bullying, which engulfed the legal profession in 2018 following the revelations of sexual harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh and at other firms. That, says Ms Coles, is something they will be monitoring and raising where and when necessary.
“As a union we’re looking to address any issues with working conditions and that means tackling some of the bullying and harassment issues in the industry. We’re looking at a lot of recommendations from the [Dame Margaret] Bazley and [Dame Silvia] Cartwright reports, and we want to see all the recommendations introduced at all law firms,” she says.
“Bullying and harassment are effects of the problem rather than the problem itself; obviously they are unacceptable in the profession, but instead of dealing directly with bullying and harassment we’d like to see change come from a deeper level, So, part of the problem we see is that the power hierarchy doesn’t give junior lawyers, in particular, but also a lot of other legal workers, a voice or a say in anything.
“And when there’s such a power imbalance that’s when these issues start coming out. We want to address these issues in a more holistic way and that’s going to take a lot of work over a long time, and we’re hoping to work with law firms on that.”
And while Ms Coles says the sexual harassment revelations were the impetus for the creation of the union, the idea had been in planning for some time before then.
“We had been thinking about it for some time, but the stories last year about harassment at Russell McVeagh and other firms were definitely the catalyst for us to act. It was that ‘yeah, this is the time’ moment for us.”
Fear of reprisals
A barrier for the new union will be concerns among young lawyers and students that being involved with the organisation will result in them being passed over for promotion or treated in a different way from their colleagues.
Ms Coles, who is 26 and worked at an Auckland law firm before becoming a full-time official at the AWLU, says they have already come across those concerns but, membership will be anonymous and it will endeavour to protect its members.
“The only time that they (members) will have to tell their employers that they are a member is if we’re entering into collective bargaining, and to do that we would first ask our members, and even when we are having those discussions we will act for members as a whole.
“We’re hoping that, eventually, this union becomes the standard default for people to join, so we get enough numbers that it’s not actually a scary thing. People will say ‘oh yeah, there’s the union’, like joining the student societies at university. Not everyone does, but most people do.”
Initially, the union is working to attract young lawyers in Auckland and Wellington but it’s aim, within time, is to represent people in all areas of the profession and all parts of the country.
“It’s open to anyone in the legal profession who is an employee – so that’s lawyers, law clerks, legal executives, legal secretaries, personal assistants and so on. And also policy and advocacy roles because we recognise that a lot of lawyers go between policy roles and actual law/ legal counsel jobs so there is a wide scope of people who we could represent. But our focus for the immediate future will be young lawyers because that’s who the executive is made up of ;and that’s also where we anticipate the most need for representation,” says Hayley.
So far, the ALWU has talked to members of other unions to gain their perspective on how they operate, and have also gained assistance and support from the Council of Trade Unions.
Law Society welcomes valuable voice
The New Zealand Law Society President Tiana Epati says the ALWU will be a valuable voice, particularly for young, and newly admitted and employed lawyers throughout the law profession.
"I have received a letter from their President, Hayley Coles. I'm really pleased ALWU are keen to work with us to improve the culture and working conditions in the profession. The union acknowledged some of the work the Law Society has done to date and the desire to build on that hard work by bringing a collective voice for those who are employed within the law profession.
"I think the ALWU is a great initiative created by young lawyers for all employed lawyers. We welcome them to the table and we are ready to listen and work with them," Ms Epati says.
The union is hosting Q and A events in Auckland and Wellington next week for anyone interested in the union.