New Zealand Law Society - The firm that represents unions — and employers

The firm that represents unions — and employers

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Paul McBride
Paul McBride

So where do those unions without in-house counsel go for legal assistance? Among the small group of firms that represent unions is Wellington-based McBride Davenport James. They also represent a range of employers, but not both sides at the same time naturally.

Partner Paul McBride, who has for many years appeared in the Employment Relations Authority, Employment Court and senior courts, says the firm’s six-member employment team currently represent four trade unions in the transport sector and also other unions in other sectors.

“In the transport sector we have some long-standing – by which I mean 15 or 20-year relationships – with some unions. They are unions that largely don’t have in-house lawyers and effectively we take on the role of providing their legal advice and legal representation,” he says.

“One of the unions we act extensively for does have an in-house lawyer but for various reasons they instruct us to do the litigation work for them and to deal with other things in employment, health and safety and other areas that we specialise in.”

A recent ongoing dispute has been at the Lyttlelton Port where members of transport unions went on strike over pay and safety.

“There’s been extensive industrial action involving the Lyttleton Port Company over the last few years involving strikes and pickets and we have been heavily involved in a series of court actions for a number of unions arising from that dispute.”

Mr McBride says the firm appreciates that unions don’t have a great deal of money to spend on legal fees, so they tend to come to arrangements that accommodate their financial vulnerability.

“One of the things that unions look for, in my experience, is cost effective service. We look at a range of factors including ongoing relationships, familiarity with the general issues and context, the interesting variety of work, volume of work and other factors that temper fees we could otherwise charge.”

Mr McBride says the firm ensures there is no conflict of interest as it also represents employers, and individual workers.

“That work is generally in sectors where we don’t represent unions, so at one level it enables us to bring a balanced approach to the advice we give both to our employer clients and our union clients because it means we know which buttons can be pushed on both sides.

“We can take a far more critical approach to advising each of unions and employers: no beating around the bush and no posturing and stuff like that because we have seen all of that before. It’s best just to get down and look at all the real issues and look at what the pragmatic solutions to those might be. Because, when you’re working for employers who have ongoing relationships with unions, or vice versa, the dynamics include that neither party is going to disappear anytime soon. So even if they don’t like each other they have to work together, to a greater or lesser extent.”

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