New Zealand Law Society - High rewards for those representing the low-paid The work of in-house lawyers at New Zealand’s unions

High rewards for those representing the low-paid The work of in-house lawyers at New Zealand’s unions

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McDonalds workers protesting on a picket line
McDonalds workers protesting on a picket line

“There is power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hands of a worker, but it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand, there is power in a union” – Billy Bragg, There Is Power In A Union (1986)

Union lawyers are few and far between in New Zealand but this select group of in-house lawyers performs a largely unheralded role.

It’s not a role that is as financially rewarding as other in-house roles but every union lawyer has their own motivations. And as LawTalk found out when it talked to three of them, they also come from very different backgrounds: one was once a printer’s apprentice, one a union rep and the other a former paralegal.

Duncan Allan is an industrial officer with the Unite Union which represents some of the lowest paid and fluid workers in the country including those who earn their living in hotels, retail, fast food, call centres and restaurants.

He describes his role as more of a legal officer than a full-blown lawyer role and one he essentially stumbled into after being an organiser at both Unite and Finsec. “I very quickly found out that I enjoyed the legal side of advocating for members.”

After a spell at the Wellington People’s Centre, an organisation advocating for beneficiaries and the low-paid, he worked in restorative justice with the Community Law Centre. While there that he decided to study law at Victoria University of Wellington, being admitted in December 2017.

“Rather than coming straight out of school and knowing that I wanted to be a lawyer, it was more a case of finding through my work that that was what I wanted to do.

“I’m pretty new when it comes to be being a practising lawyer within the union movement, but I’ve a long involvement in the union movement.”

Oliver Christeller
Oliver Christeller, Senior Solicitor for First Union

Oliver Christeller is the Senior Solicitor for First Union, which represents workers in transport, logistics and manufacturing and also thousands in white collar jobs, such as finance and commerce.

He is a lawyer who became a union solicitor, graduated from Victoria University, was admitted in 2010 and then worked voluntarily with the People’s Centre.

Initially, he was carrying out paralegal work at Finsec, before becoming the legal rep for its successor, First Union. Much of his work centres around providing legal advice to union organisers – “they are the first line of representation for union members” – and he represents members individually and through the union in dealings with the Employment Relations Authority and the courts.

Anne-Marie McInally is General Counsel at E tū which represents workers at a diverse range of industries including engineering, manufacturing, food, communications and aviation.

She studied law in Auckland and was initially keen on family law. However, a vacancy came up at the then National Distribution Union to cover for maternity leave, which became three years. She then moved to the EPMU as an in-house lawyer and that union later joined two others to form E tū where she is now General Counsel.

It took an injury to coax her into studying law at the age of 26. “I was an apprentice printer until I injured my hand and had to retrain. And prior to taking on the apprenticeship I had worked as a judge’s associate. I was attracted to the law but wasn’t able to take the leap from paid employment to studying until I was forced to retrain.”

Justice otherwise denied

All three union lawyers say their role is offering an alternative to paying large amounts of money to lawyers that workers, who may be on the minimum or living wage, could clearly not be able to pay for. They represent people who are prone to unjust dismissal, financial struggles brought on by illness and injury and exploitation.

Duncan Allan is based at the rundown Trades Hall in Vivian Street in central Wellington.

Duncan Allan
Duncan Allan, industrial officer with the Unite Union

“A lot of workers in Unite, if they weren’t part of the union, they simply wouldn’t have any access to justice: they’re low paid, they can’t afford a lawyer and there’s not many options if they’re having issues at work,” he says.

“In these low-paid, largely casualised industries it’s like the wild west out there in the way they’ve been treated so there’s real issues with that access to justice and unions are a way in which people can get that.

“The work is quite varied, and this is the interesting thing about being a union lawyer is that you’re working in-house so you’re giving legal advice to the union on the things that they do and how they operate,” he says.

“But a lot of the work is individual representation of members, so things like personal grievance claims and Employment Relations Authority hearings. There’s a lot of individual representation but also dealing with contractual disputes between the union and an employer. I get to dabble in a lot of different areas.”

Mr Allan contributed to Unite’s submission on National’s Employment Standards Legislation Bill which passed its third reading in March 2016. “Unions are such an important voice in the submission process because there’s large organisations representing employers, and without unions providing submissions and a counter point, there’s no one else who can fill in those spaces.”

He says the work is rewarding and what he has always wanted to do.

“The type of work we’re doing certainly suits someone who possesses that passion for the work. It’s not what you do for the money, and it probably suits people who have that social justice background or have been involved in those type of campaigns in the past, not necessarily unions or employment rights but any kind of NGOs or have advocated for access for justice.”

The job is a privilege

At E tū Anne-Marie McInally works with organisers on collective agreements, disputes, litigation, represents individual members, and also educates new organisers.

“Most of the case work we do is personal grievances, usually over dismissal, and workplace injuries, including representing members who have issues with ACC.

Anne-Marie McInally
Anne-Marie McInally, General Counsel at E tū

“We also assist in submissions on bills before Parliament so there’s a lot of variety that you wouldn’t get in many in-house positions.

“It’s not unusual to have to engage with dozens to hundreds of workers at a meeting and explain what a legal situation entails and give them advice and recommendations and allow the democratic processes to operate. But you also have to try to guide them to make good decisions and I think that representing very large groups is something that is unique to union lawyers.”

Ms McInally says the job is very challenging but highly stimulating as she is dealing with a raft of issues: “there’s no time to get bored”.

“It’s a privileged job because our members pay a fee every week to belong to the union and for most of them when they get into difficulties there is simply no way that they could afford to pay someone $400 an hour to represent them. So we have the opportunity to step up and help them with their issues, and it is very rewarding to assist them in that.

“Sometimes this may involve protracted litigation. On other occasions, a well-timed phone call has seen a worker reinstated to a job they love,” she says.

“My dad wore overalls to work every day. On the rare occasions he had to see a lawyer he’d put on his good clothes and it was a stressful exercise. I get so much pleasure from putting working people like my family at ease in their dealings with the legal system, knowing that even if they had the means to get representation outside of the union, they would probably lack the confidence to do so.”

Migrant workers

Oliver Christeller notes that a large number of the low-paid and exploited are people who do not speak English as their first language, which creates additional complications for them, both at work and in pursuit of justice and better conditions.

“I’ve represented a lot of people who wouldn’t have the connections, or the financial means, to pursue a case through to mediation or the Authority including migrant workers.

Striking McDonalds workers holding banners
Striking McDonalds workers holding banners

“They often are in a situation where they have not been paid or are being paid at rates well below the minimum wage – and I mean as low as three or four dollars an hour.

“Generally, migrant workers only have a visa to work for a particular employer which means that the employer has control of their legal status in New Zealand because if they cease to be an employee of that particular employer then they lose their legal right to be in the country.”

Mr Christeller says First Union has had its share of success and the most rewarding aspect of his job is when it is able to improve the terms and conditions in the contracts of vulnerable workers.

But he says that while the environment around workplace relations has improved since the establishment of the Labour-led Coalition government, with the changes in the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, these are “relatively minor”.

“I don’t think those changes are going to have a massive impact, however, things like fair pay agreements, depending on how they come in and where they came in, have the ability to materially improve conditions for workers.”

Nevertheless, Ms McInally feels there are significant changes in the bill, and also in workers’ outlook, that are beneficial to workers and therefore the country as a whole.

“We’ve seen an increase in strike action in the public sector which indicates some confidence on the part of working people that this government will listen to their concerns,” she says.

“We have seen some strengthening of the good faith obligations in the amended bill and that will go some way to improve working relationships between workers and employers. So we are facing a period of some positives but incremental change.”

In terms of pro bono work, Mr Christeller says he encourages lawyers to offer their expertise at Citizens Advice Bureaux, Community Law Centres and migrant organisations.

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