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Default union enrolment widely supported

30 August 2019 - By Lynda Hagen

Nearly two-thirds of New Zealanders support automatic trade union enrolment for new job starters, provided they also have the right to opt out afterwards, according to research conducted as part of a Law Foundation-backed study.

What’s more, support for a “union default” policy extends across society, regardless of political, occupational, income and other differences. The idea is backed by managers, employers, workers and the unemployed alike. Supporters of most of the main political parties favour it, including ACT – only National voters are marginally against, with just under half liking the idea.

Study co-author Mark Harcourt, Professor at Waikato University School of Management, says the survey results surprised him.

“Support for this cuts across the whole population – even the few groups against had large minorities in favour. I find this fascinating and heartening,” he says.

The nationwide survey in May of 1,471 randomly-chosen people found that 60% of respondents favoured a union default policy. This complements the findings from in-depth interviews with 42 employment law experts, 70% of whom liked the idea.

Professor Harcourt wanted to test the union default idea as a way of reversing declining union membership and the accompanying growth in income inequality over the past three decades.

“I’m sure that the way people answered was motivated by their feelings about unions,” he says. “People were in favour largely because they think that unions are good for society and the workplace.”

Immediate opt-out right

The employment law experts convinced him that a union default had to be accompanied by an opt-out right, available immediately. This would overcome the argument that a union default would restore “closed shop” unionism.

“None of the experts we spoke to want a return to compulsory union membership – they all favour choice,” he says. “Neither National nor Labour want to return to compulsory unionism, and the International Labour Organisation opposes it. So opt-out must be available to keep unions accountable, offering services that members want.”

He says a major concern was that people will be “duped into membership” by being passively enrolled, without even thinking about it.

“We were thinking about a stand-down period before allowing people to opt out, but we now realise that’s a bad idea. There has to be choice, available immediately and easily.”

Support from most groups

The survey found that a majority of virtually every group studied in the survey favoured a union default. This included almost every ethnic group, both genders, all income groups except those earning more than $150,000, every educational group, almost all occupational groups (including managers), all groups by employment status (including employers). Perhaps surprisingly, 60% of managers supported union default, as did 62% of employers and 51% of self-employed people.

Professor Harcourt isn’t lobbying for a union default policy with decision-makers just yet – he wants to tease out the rich data from the survey over the coming weeks, to build support for change.

“We are thinking longer term. We’ve been in touch with other countries as well. I’m convinced that there is real potential in this.”

Professor Harcourt co-wrote the study with Waikato Law Professor Margaret Wilson, Victoria University of Wellington law student Nisha Novell, and affiliate researcher Gregor Gall of Glasgow University.

For more information on this and other grants made by the Law Foundation, visit  the Law Foundation website.

Lynda Hagen lynda@lawfoundation.org.nz is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Last updated on the 30th August 2019