Keith Locke on the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill – 2nd call in committee stage



A previous National speaker spoke about unions versus union members, which struck me as rather odd, because union members are the unions. They make up the unions. There are, of course, officials elected in unions. Perhaps the member was going to talk about union officials versus the members. Union officials are always elected by secret ballot. If any union official starts to kick the union members around, force them to go on strike, and beat down anyone who votes against a strike or anything like that, those union officials do not last very long, particularly in the next secret ballot election.

When we look at the actual process in the workplace of deciding on a strike, the secret ballot is a protection, primarily not against union members being pushed around by union officials, but against union members being pushed around by the employers. Anyone who has been in a workplace knows that the fear of supporting a strike amongst workers is a fear about what their employer might think about their decision to vote to go on strike, not a fear of what union officials might think about whether they are voting for or against, because there is usually a democratic atmosphere in the union, which the workers insist on. Those officials accept people voting for and against the strike, but the employer gets rather upset and makes that quite known to the workers, if they vote to go on strike.

When the workers go back from the union meeting to the shop floor or whatever it might be, often the person who is in charge—the supervisor or something—will ask them about the meeting and how they voted, and all the rest of it. The secret ballot is a protection of the workers against harassment from the supervisors and employers, not from union officials. That is a practicality of the workplace.

I support the amendments being put forward subsequently by Darien Fenton, although I am a little questioning of one of the provisions that it should require a secret ballot in every case of a strike, because as I indicated in my first speech, sometimes that is impractical. It should be a rare exception, and in any big workplace, normal workplace, Public Service workplace, or whatever, a secret ballot is certainly practical and should be pretty universal—although I am not sure whether that universality should be in law. There is another question relating to rules, and this is where it comes back to this clause in the Employment Relations Act. This is an Act that is supposed to govern the relations between workers and unions, and employers, organised in some form as employers. It is not supposed to be an Act to determine exactly how the employers will conduct their business, or how all the unions conduct their business. That is not the nature of the Employment Relations Act. It is an Act of relations between two self-determining parties. This bill is trying to say that one of those parties is no longer self-determining, and that we will prescribe exactly how it will function. Once we do that, we disrupt that balance between the unions on one side, and the employers on the other. We will give the employers the right through pressure on the State or judicial process to then say that this other party, the unions, is not abiding by this or that provision in terms of the conduct of the secret ballot. Someone can say that they have proof that so and so at 36 Lewis Street, Wadestown, or wherever it is, did not get a ballot paper in the mail, and was not able to participate in the election, therefore that ballot on a strike is illegal, and da-de-da-de-da. It just causes huge frustration amongst the workers concerned, who otherwise have perhaps voted by 95 percent for some sort of strike action, but are hampered by the State getting involved in their internal affairs.