From the teachers’ mega-strike to the spotlight on workplace bullying, Peter McKenzie examines NZ’s recent and remarkable surge in union activity

COMMENT: It was a Monday evening, and the pews were full at St Peter’s Church in Wellington. It would have been heartening to the vicars, except these weren’t congregants. Sipping tea and nibbling on brownies, the crowd was composed of recent law graduates and current law students; curious, amused and slightly skeptical, they had all come to ask questions of and hear from the founders of the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union, a new organisation seeking to unionise junior lawyers.

ALWU’s timing could hardly have been better. The previous week saw the release of the Francis Review; an audit of the working environment in Parliament, where the workforce is full of lawyers. Debbie Francis pulled no punches, concluding that, “Bullying and harassment is systemic in the parliamentary workplace”, echoing previous investigations into major legal workplaces. Meanwhile, an enormous strike by New Zealand’s teachers is scheduled for the following Friday, marking a new high for the remarkable surge in union activity which has taken place over the past two years.

ALWU hopes to capitalise on both that increasing awareness of the legal profession’s shortcomings and that growing union interest and activity. Laura Taylor, a member of the ALWU executive, argued that “Recent revelations have given us momentum and credibility,” referring to both Francis’ parliamentary investigation and to the Bazley Review, the investigation into major law firm Russell McVeagh’s allegedly toxic work environment. “We have evidence, not just anecdote. They can’t ignore it anymore.”

Their approach seems to be working. Over the seven days after its launch on May 20, ALWU’s membership rocketed to 330 and has continued to grow since. It’s a phenomenon which many in the profession are unused to. Prior to ALWU’s launch, lawyers were generally non-unionised and employment was highly individualised. Indeed, one of the questions asked of the ALWU interim executive at the event at St Peter’s was, “I’m doing fine. I’ve got a good job and don’t have any problems. Why should I join a union?”

“Together we can give voice to the voiceless, and lift the mana of the profession.”

It’s a query which ALWU is familiar with. It is in order to address such questions that ALWU decided to hold Q+A sessions in Wellington and Auckland as part of its launch. Hayley Coles, ALWU’s interim President, noted: “There’s been an absence of real voices from people who aren’t senior practitioners in our profession.” Coles then emphasised the collective responsibility workers have.“Together we can give voice to the voiceless, and lift the mana of the profession.”

To support their outreach, ALWU reached out to other unions. Emma Rutherford, a union official at NZEI, was invited to the St Peter’s event to share her thoughts. “I didn’t join a union when I first started working. I couldn’t see the relevance of unions. They didn’t get me the job!” According to Rutherford, that changed when she moved into a new job and began to see the work unions to do. “Some reasons for joining a union are very pragmatic,” she noted, as she explained how some people see it as insurance for their job or a way of getting independent, professional support when they experience employment troubles.

The legal workforce’s lack of experience with unionisation means the ALWU executive have also struggled with junior lawyers’ fears. “There’s a fear of aggressive strike action. We’ve had to reassure them that we’re here for you and to listen to you,” explained Taylor. Honor Kerry, another ALWU executive member, noted that “A lot of people will be fearing joining and being treated prejudicially [by employers]. We want to put that out there, and explain [that membership is confidential].”

Of course, a project like this isn’t totally new ground for lawyers. Owen Wilkinson, another member of the executive, described how in the mid-1980s a lawyers’ union sprung up and enjoyed remarkable success, winning a stunning 50 percent pay rise for lawyers, before deciding it had achieved its goal and fading away. “Many senior lawyers and judges were part of that. They may have forgotten.”

That past success on pay increases seems to have inspired ALWU’s first focus: allegations that law firms are breaking the law by paying their junior lawyers less than minimum wage. Wilkinson grimaced as he explained that a junior lawyer being paid a standard $46,000 annual salary would only have to work 10 hours overtime a week in order to be paid less than minimum wage. In an industry notorious for its ‘Work hard, play hard’ culture, 10 hours of overtime a week is very common. “Minimum wage compliance is a clear issue, and one which can show junior lawyers in a positive light. There’s a view that all lawyers are well-paid and have yachts… That’s not true.”

“There’s a fear of aggressive strike action. We’ve had to reassure them that we’re here for you and to listen to you.”

ALWU has begun to lobby law firms to pay junior lawyers for overtime. In her pitch to the crowd of students and junior lawyers, Coles focused on the campaign. “We’re going to identify breaches and work with law firms to ensure compliance… It is not acceptable to pay anyone less than minimum wage. It has been going on for far too long. It has to stop.” They’re confident of succeeding. Wilkinson chuckles as he notes “The optics of charging $250 per hour [to a client] and paying your juniors less than minimum wage aren’t great.”

I cannot pretend to be objective in my assessment of ALWU’s emergence. As a third-year law student, the urgency of the issues ALWU hopes to address are readily apparent. Rumours of horrific experiences in the legal workforce are rife and were given voice by the Francis and Bazley investigations. Bazley’s description of how, for example, a Russell McVeagh partner “touched [a summer law clerk’s] bottom and waist multiple times, and then grabbed under her breast from behind [at a social event],” was instantly relatable to law students and junior lawyers throughout the country. The same was true for the Francis Review of Parliament, which quoted employees describing how “This workplace is so ridiculously demanding that only 24-year olds and older people can survive in here and then only with extensive self-medication. Anyone sane or with a family just gets out.” With hostile workplaces like this looming, myself and fellow law students find ourselves planning how to deal with horrific behaviour when, not if, it occurs. Anything which might change this inspires hope.

That is not to say that ALWU is entirely satisfactory. The ALWU executive, which is almost entirely white, has faced ongoing scrutiny over how it plans to increase its own diversity and work with representative organisations such as Te Hunga Rōia Māori, the Māori Law Society. In response to one question at the St Peter’s event, Taylor acknowledged that, “It’s something that law firms really struggle with. We’ve been reaching out to law societies and groups.” She was followed quickly by Tess Upperton, another executive member, who agreed that, “This is not a particularly diverse group. There’s very little ego here. We want our executive to represent the membership.” They expressed the hope that changes in the executive’s makeup could take place at ALWU’s August AGM. It was not enough for many of those who attended. A knot of law students of colour who were chatting after the St Peter’s event sighed as they expressed the belief that, “They hadn’t thought about it. It’s not enough [to just reach out].”

Nonetheless, as ALWU continues to hold its Q+A events and build on its initial launch, it seems well-positioned to succeed. It has received a broadly positive response from the law profession, including from existing power-holders like the Law Society, whose president recently declared that “I think the ALWU is a great initiative created by young lawyers for all employed lawyers. We welcome them to the table and we are ready to listen and work with them.”

In summing up this initial reception to ALWU’s launch, perhaps Emma Rutherford, the invited NZEI union official, put it best. As she began her speech to the assembled lawyers and students in St Peter’s grand wooden nave, she grinned and exclaimed that, “There is nothing more exciting than being present at the birth of a new union!” It remains to be seen whether ALWU will succeed past its recent christening.

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