A short report from the launch event of the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union

They have a sign.

Last week I read about the formation of the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union and decided to go along to its launch event so I could write about it.  I figured my opening line would be something like this:

There’s an old labour movement tactic where members from one group take up positions of power within another and subvert it to their will.  It’s known as (and I’m not making this up) boring from within.  The launch event of the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union went in a different direction, but I can assure you it was still boring from within.

Having attended the Auckland launch event, though, I don’t think it’s fair.  It was… something. I don’t think the Union quite knows what it is yet or whether it will be a long term success, so neither do I.  But the people running it seem to have a clear idea of what they want to do, and it was interesting to see the beginnings of something that has the potential to go far.

It was held at the Pioneer Women’s Hall in Freyberg Square and it was chaired by a pioneering woman.  Hayley Coles is formerly of Simpson Grierson and presently interim president full-time out of the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union.  The last lawyer to start a union was Jordan Williams.  Without meaning to damn with faint praise, Hayley Coles is not Jordan Williams.

She outlined a clear, concise vision of the short to medium term goals of the union.  A campaign to ensure law firms comply with the Minimum Wage Act.  The law is clear, timesheets can be checked, and people know what they get paid.  Other goals will come later, and will be determined by membership at an AGM in August.  In the meantime, this is an issue with which they can engage with law firms.  In doing so, they can speak softly with the big stick of the Minimum Wage Act looming in the background.  There followed a very capable Q & A.

She spoke to maybe 40 attendees (among which was one of her Majesty’s counsel).  Presumably changing working conditions so that lawyers can leave work for a 5.30pm meeting is one of the long-term goals.  Those attending were mostly young.  I don’t know how many, like me, went along just to see what happened.  I was wanting managing partners of big law firms to appear on the scene like Team Rocket and have some sort of confrontation.  The most drama we got was a microphone that kept dropping out.

The Union calls itself ALWU – pronounced as its spelled, and sounding for all the world like an Ikea side table.  An announcement that it presently has over 330 members got a round of applause.  They’ve met or will meet with some big law firms – part of the tête-à-tête offensive that is their overall strategy.

If everything seemed very tame then the guest speaker – barrister Helen White – brought some fire and brimstone with weirdly out of place political comments.  Unions are good, and the leader of the Opposition’s recent comments to the contrary were “completely ridiculous”.  “If the leader of the Opposition doesn’t get it then he’s living in the past,” she announced.  The room didn’t quite know what to make of that.

But if anything that served to emphasise ALWU’s apolitical or, at least, not overtly political nature.  Ms Coles and her colleagues didn’t come across as motivated by that at all.  Who knows where ALWU’s membership will take it.  At “worst” it will settle for being a slick, yo-pro advocacy group.  I don’t think that’s what it wants to be, but it’s a possible future.  The goals were bigger.  There was talk of collective bargaining.  With whom was not clear.  But there are ambitious timeframes which depend on getting a large membership.  At one point, in response to a question, Ms Coles referred to beginning collective bargaining later this year or early next year.

There seems real value in the existence of the ALWU.  That value comes from its independence.  The Law Society has recovered reasonably well, I think, from its position on the back foot in 2017 and 2018.  But part of being an industry regulator is being a punching bag for all and sundry.  I thought Dame Silvia Cartwright’s report was excellent.  Rightly or wrongly, the Law Society has to walk the middle path – doing as much as it can in valuable initiatives like a new National Standards Committee on bullying and harassment, while not actively calling for the reintroduction of the guillotine when it comes to some of its law firm members who worship the billable unit.

There are alternatives.  There is a dynamic Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa who pakeha practitioners like me never appreciate enough.  Auckland Women Lawyers Association is doing good stuff.  Others are less active.  ADLS trades on the name of its heyday but is the society equivalent of a small town trying to survive a newly-built motorway bypass.

But the ALWU has the potential to occupy a new space in legal associations and societies in New Zealand.  It will have to be accountable to its members, and presumably common decency will prevail.  Add to that a tentativeness stemming from the fact the poor people fronting it are sticking their heads above the parapet.  In theory, though, the ALWU’s spade-calling skills will be reasonably strong.  Stronger than NZLS’ in any event.  And it can complement other organisations and do things that they can’t.

The launch event served to emphasise that the ALWU is full of serious young lawyers, with serious ideas.  I liked it.  I struggle to get excited about it because I’m one of the privileged types that is well served by the system and am starting to age into higher salary bands.  But I liked it.  I think they deserve to be taken seriously.

In the meantime though, they’ll also have to put up with me making memes like this.

Drake meme

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