2018-19 is increasingly becoming a time of strikes. Nurses, midwives, hospital attendants and court workers have all had high profile strike actions recently, while primary and secondary-school teachers have been striking on and off throughout this period.
In the latest series of strikes, Post Primary Teachers Association members said they would refuse to teach Year 9 students on particular days, mixing this action with regional strikes through until early July.
Strikes do not have to be a complete 'walk off the job' halt to all employment activities. A partial strike occurs where employees engage in strike action by not accepting some of the work they usually do, or by reducing their normal output/rate of work. As the teachers are only refusing to teach one year level, they are engaged in a partial strike and should be paid in full, unlike if they were engaged in a full strike. While statutory reporting requirements must still be met, with details of the strike and its participants being passed to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the wages of teachers cannot be docked or recovered.
This seems to have caught many involved by surprise, with the unions having expected that the pay of their striking members would be docked, and secondary school principals having made preparations to do so. Previous legislation allowing pay deductions for partial strikes was introduced by the former National government, specifically in sections 95A-H of the Employment Relations Act 2000, which allowed employers to deduct at least 10 percent of workers' pay when partial strike actions took place. The Employment Relations Act Amendment Bill 2018, which received Royal Assent in December 2018, repealed sections 95A-H, making it illegal to dock the pay of a unionised workforce which is engaged in partial strikes.
Despite an apparent breakthrough in negotiations between the Government and teachers, strike actions in a range of other industries will likely continue throughout the year to come. Legal obligations around unions, strikes and negotiations will no doubt be in the spotlight as these actions unfold. Employers should be aware of their changed obligations since the recent amendments to the Employment Relations Act, and ensure their processes and systems are caught up with the new 'rules of the game'.
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