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Teachers protest outside the Beehive in 2023. (Image: Getty Images)
Teachers protest outside the Beehive in 2023. (Image: Getty Images)

SocietyOctober 26, 2023

Apropos of nothing, here’s everything you need to know about unions

Teachers protest outside the Beehive in 2023. (Image: Getty Images)
Teachers protest outside the Beehive in 2023. (Image: Getty Images)

Have you ever heard the word ‘union’ and wondered what that is, who they are and what exactly they do? This is the guide for you.

If you enjoyed a lovely, leisurely, lay-around-the-house day off from work on Monday, you have the union movement to thank. Labour Day was first celebrated in Aotearoa in 1890 and commemorates the heavy lifting done by unions to achieve an eight-hour working day, a right which New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim.

While we might take the eight-hour working day for granted now, that standard – among other now completely normal things like annual leave, child labour laws and, shockingly, the weekend – were not simply gifted to us. Rather, they were won through the persistent struggle of unions. 

But for the last 40 years, the influence of unions has dwindled to a point where many workers, by no fault of their own, have only a passing familiarity with what unions are and what they actually do. Here’s what you need to know about these useful little organisations.

Let’s start with the basics; what is a union?

Broadly speaking, a union is a group of workers who unite to push for safe, fair and decent work. Rather than individuals having to advocate for themselves, which can be nerve-wracking to say the least, unions enable workers to band together as a louder and prouder collective voice to communicate with employers about their conditions – like a club for people who reckon people should be paid and treated properly at work.

How long have unions been around for?

Unions started popping up in the early 19th century in Great Britain, and spread around the world during the Industrial Revolution as word spread that labour rights were actually kind of cool. From the 1840s onward, worker organisations – often spurred by workers who had immigrated from England, Ireland and Scotland and had standards – sprung up in Aotearoa. By 1913, New Zealand was one of the most highly unionised places in the world. In fact, union membership was once so unremarkably normal in this country that it was compulsory to be a member. And it meant there were a mind-boggling array of specific kinds of unions, from bakers and pastry cooks to tailoresses to unemployed people to packaging workers. 

Do unions still exist?


They’ve been around for over 200 years – is it embarrassing that I don’t really know what they are?

Not embarrassing, but it’s probably quite good that you’re reading this. And it’s not surprising that you might not be entirely familiar with them. Despite unions once being super mainstream, over the last 30 years their influence has waned (to say the least) in most industries.


This might shock you, but we didn’t always have to go through the awkwardness of nervously asking managers for a pay raise following a week of rehearsing a script with your flatmate. In 1985, when unionism in New Zealand was at a historic high, with nearly half of all workers being members, your union would have dealt with that.

So what happened?

A major blow to the once-robust movement was the passing of the Employment Contracts Act by the National government in May 1991. The legislation deregulated the labour market and meant national awards (where whole industries would have the same baseline pay and conditions) no longer applied, and negotiations between unions and employers for collective agreements became increasingly onerous as the country moved from what was essentially compulsory unionism to every employee being on their own lonely, individualised contracts. 

In the years that followed, union membership plummeted, following a similar trend globally brought on by a decline in manufacturing, increased globalisation, and similar governmental policies.

So would it be a bit unusual to join a union these days?

Not at all. While unions have less influence than they once had and fewer workers as members, plenty of workers are still union members – and that number is growing, albeit slowly. According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, total union membership in March 2022 was 400,309; an increase of 3% compared to the previous year – enough to induce a quiet, collective cheer from unions around the country. 

Public service association members on a picket line in Auckland, 2018 (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Why do people join unions?

In today’s era of income stagnation, punishing cost of living and rampant casual and freelance work, some workers recognise that they may need to unite in order to secure a fair piece of the economic pie. Unions support employees in the workplace by acting as an advocate for them collectively or, when necessary, individually, around conditions like pay, benefits, training and protections against harassment. 

At the most basic level, it comes from having the chutzpah to know that your time is worth something. People spend a scary chunk of their lives at work, and while you could spend your time dwelling on that gloomy fact, you could instead ensure that time and labour is fairly rewarded and safe. Perhaps, then, unions are here to save you from existential dread?

Why are you telling me this now?

Good question! While governments might chop and change legislation which winds back or erodes minimum rights around wages, sick leave, holidays or health and safety, the collectivism of unions can help as a buffer to protect workers from the impacts of these kinds of legislative changes. Take, for example, minimum wage: the government might decide to pause minimum wage increases, but if your workplace is unionised, you just might be able to negotiate pay increases collectively.  

What if I don’t want to join a union?

You don’t have to! 

Although, you just might have to deal with the gnawing sense of jealousy when your happily unionised colleagues negotiate shiny new pay or conditions without you. 

How do I know which union represents my job?

Google the following: [name of your job] + union New Zealand.

(Photo: Labour Party)

Do you have to pay to be in a union?

The fees you pay to be part of a union, called dues, are usually between $3 to $10 a week. How much you’ll pay depends on which union you join and how many hours you work, but somewhere around the price of a coffee a week is a pretty good deal for labour rights.

Can you give me some real-life examples of what unions do?

Sure! Here’s three:

  • Unionised workers at West Auckland’s superstore Costco will be paid above the living wage after negotiating the store’s first collective agreement this month.
  • After the largest education strike in this country’s history, this year primary teachers won pay increases and doubled their professional time allowance.
  • In the US, after a five-month strike earlier this year, more than 11,000 Writers Guild members won concessions on writers’ payment, terms with streaming shows, and the use of artificial intelligence.

Hold on: if I join a union, will I have to go on strike?

We’ve certainly seen a lot of them lately because they’re photogenic and make for clickable headlines, but strikes are just one function of the movement and they tend to be thought of as a last resort. The vast majority of disputes between employees and employers are resolved without strike action – but if those conversations break down, union members might decide collectively to withdraw their labour. 

But I like my job. Why would I join?

Heaps of people who love their jobs and have decent employers join the union as a way to protect the job they love so much, or even as a way of showing solidarity with other workers who might not be so lucky. You could also think of joining a union as you would car insurance: your car might be running perfectly fine today, but you never know when someone might come along out of nowhere and slash your tyres for absolutely no reason. You just never know.

Keep going!