A union is an organisation that supports employees in the workplace by acting as an advocate for them collectively (and with the consent of the employee, individually). Unions bargain for collective employment agreements with employers and help employees with information and advice about work-related issues. You have to pay a fee to be a union member.
There are unions for different kinds of workplaces and jobs so if you’re thinking about joining or setting up a union, you should find out about the ones that cover the type of work you do. For more information about unions, visit NZCTU. (external link)
A registered union has to: have at least 15 members, become an incorporated society and register as a union.
The Register of unions (external link) provides industry coverage data on all registered unions.
The Companies Office (external link) website can help you with union registration.
As an employee, you have the right to choose whether or not to become a union member. No-one (employers, managers, colleagues, union members or union officials) can threaten, or put (directly or indirectly) undue pressure on you:
- to be or not to be a union member, or
- to not act on behalf of other employees, or
- to leave your job because you are or aren’t a union member.
A contract, agreement or other arrangement can’t:
- require anyone to be or not to be a union member or a member of a particular union
- give a person, just because they are or aren’t a union member or a member of a particular union, any preference:
- for getting or keeping employment
- relating to terms or conditions of employment
- opportunities for training, promotion or transfer.
An employer can’t discriminate against an employee in their employment because they’re involved in union activities. Union activities include:
- being an officer, management committee member, delegate, representative or official of a union
- being a collective bargaining negotiator or representative
- participating in a lawful strike
- being involved in forming a union
- submitting a personal grievance
- being involved in making or supporting a claim for some benefit of an employment agreement
- applying for or taking employment relations education leave.
Discrimination has more information that can help you determine your legal rights.
Cost to join a union
Each union sets its own fees, so membership fees can vary from one union to another. Usually the fee for union membership is deducted from your pay and passed on to the relevant union directly by the employer.
Deductions has more information about union-related deductions.
Union members can go to at least two union meetings (which can be up to 2 hours long each), every calendar year. If a meeting is during an employee’s normal working hours, the employer has to pay them their ordinary pay while attending the meeting (but not if the employee wouldn’t normally be working then). If an employment agreement has more than the minimum, for example, it states that each meeting can be up to 4 hours long, then the provisions in the employment agreement apply.
Notice of union meetings
- The union and employer should act in good faith to try to agree on a meeting time that works for both of them, thinking about the employer’s operational requirements.
- The union must give the employer at least 14 days' notice of the date and time of a union meeting.
- The union must make arrangements with the employer to maintain the employer's business during union meetings (which may include enough union members not attending the meeting so the employer’s operations can continue).
- After the meeting, the union must give the employer a list of members who attended and confirm how long the meeting was.
- The employees must be back at work as soon as practical after the meeting, and the employer doesn’t have to pay a union member who attends a meeting for any period longer than 2 hours in respect of the meeting.
Both the employer and the union should deal with union visits in good faith.
A union representative may enter a workplace in relation to employment of the union’s members, this includes:
- representing union members by participating in bargaining, carrying out recruitment, discussing matters with members and providing information about the union to employees in a workplace
- supporting compliance with employment law, collective agreements and dealing with matters concerning the health and safety of members
- dealing with matters relating to a proposed or current individual employment agreements, or the terms and conditions of such agreements, with the authority of an employee
Recent law changes that came into effect in late 2018, add an additional purpose for which a union representative may enter a workplace. This is to assist a non-union employee with matters relating to health and safety if that employee has requested their assistance. This change aims to reflect the important role that union representatives play in providing advice and support in relation to health and safety matters in the workplace, both to members and non-members.
A union representative must still:
- access a workplace at reasonable times and in a reasonable way, having regard to the normal business operations in the workplace
- comply with any reasonable procedures relating to health and safety or security
- provide an employer with the purpose of their entry and give evidence of their identity.
Where a union representative cannot find the employer or an employer representative, they are required to leave a written statement outlining their identity, union, date and time of entry and their purpose for entry.
There are limited circumstances where a union representative can be denied access to a workplace. This includes where entry may prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the investigation or detection of offenses, or where an employer has a certificate of exemption based on religious grounds.
A union representative can only talk to an employee for a reasonable amount of time and the employer can’t deduct anything from the employee’s pay for the time they’re talking to the union representative. An employee’s discussion with a union representative in this situation is not a union meeting.
A union representative wanting to come into a workplace must come at reasonable times when any employee is employed to work.
Since recent law changes came into effect in late 2018, a union representative does not need to obtain consent from an employer before entering a workplace if there is either:
- a collective agreement is in force that covers work done by employees at that workplace; or
- a collective agreement is being bargained for that covers work done by employees at that workplace.
Where either of the above doesn’t apply then the previous rules still apply — union representatives must obtain the consent of an employer or representative of an employer before entering any workplace.
An employer cannot unreasonably withhold consent for a request to enter, and must respond to the request by the working day after the date of the request. Consent is treated as having been obtained if an employer does not respond to a request within two working days after the date of the request.
Where consent is not required, the current conditions on entry still apply. They will only be able to enter for certain purposes, during business hours and must follow health, safety and security procedures. On arrival, a union representative will need to make a reasonable attempt to find the employer or, if they are unable to, they will need to provide a written statement with the date, time and reason for their visit.
Conduct of union representatives in the workplace
Union officials must act in a reasonable way in the workplace. Union representatives must:
- act reasonably, having regard to normal business operations
- comply with any existing reasonable health, safety and security procedures
- notify the employer or occupier of the reason for coming in, provide evidence of their identity and authority to represent the union. If the employer or occupier isn’t there or can’t be found (despite reasonable efforts), the union representative must leave a written notice saying who they are, the union they represent, date, time and purpose of entry. (Evidence of identity will often be required for all visitors anyway for security and health and safety requirements).
Employment relations education leave
Some members may be entitled to paid leave to attend approved employment relations education courses.