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Public support for union default

13 August 2019

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A new survey of nearly 1500 New Zealanders shows the majority support a union default in the workplace.

Professor Mark Harcourt from Waikato University Management School is the lead author of a new report that gives the results of a survey of 1471 New Zealand citizens and permanent residents and where 59% of them favoured a union default.  The sample was random.

Perhaps unsurprisingly 72.7% of union members surveyed wanted a union default; that is, new workers would be automatically enrolled in a union where there was a collective agreement that covered their work. Employees would then have a right to opt out anytime.

Professor Harcourt and his fellow researchers from Waikato University, Professor Margaret Wilson and teaching fellow Korey Rubenstein, and Dr Gregor Gall from the University of Leeds, have been studying the union default idea for more than a year now. Professor Harcourt says a union default would enable unions to expand their membership and place them in a stronger position to collectively bargain for improved pay and working conditions, ultimately leading to a reduction in inequality, reversing a 30-year trend.

The researchers had previously interviewed 42 legal experts, including partners at top law firms, to assess their support for a union default and solicit their ideas about how it could be brought into law. In this most recent survey, the researchers wanted to ascertain how much support there was for such a proposal across the population and among various population subgroups.

“So nearly 60% support introducing a union default, and that support comes across a range of groups,” says Professor Harcourt. “From management, professional, service and retail, trades and labouring. I think the result demonstrates that a union default is not a pie-in-the-sky concept. It has wide appeal and should be further investigated as a genuine policy option. Interestingly, a majority of non-union workers, 53.3%, in non-union workplaces still supported a union default.”

Mark Harcourt
Professor Mark Harcourt

Again unsurprisingly, left-leaning voters were more likely to show support for a union default. And support for a default is strong among part-time and casual employees, the unemployed and those not currently in the work force. “A reason for that is perhaps these groups feel more vulnerable, more dependent and less empowered than other groups, so they better appreciate the protection and advocacy a union can provide,” says Professor Harcourt. Nearly 76% of Māori surveyed showed support.

A majority of professionals and managers also support a union default.  Professor Harcourt attributes this to relatively high levels of unionisation for such groups, many of whom work in the public sector.

He says that support for a default depends on whether people have positive views of unions. “The clear lesson for politicians who support the default is that they should emphasise that unions are fundamentally good for society and the economy, for improving pay and working conditions, reducing inequality, providing a stronger voice in the workplace, and better enforcing existing rights and entitlements.”

The researchers are not done yet. Professor Harcourt and his team are keen to find out more about why people do or do not support the default idea.

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