As I announced recently, there has been a Bill introduced to be debated in parliament, a Bill that, if passed, would restore the right of freedom of association to students in New Zealand. This is a positive step in upholding fundamental human rights and freedoms.

It didn’t take long for the old, tired, thoroughly discredited arguments for compulsory unionism to start coming out of the woodwork. This particular fellow did not want to debate the issue with me, so I won’t name him, but here was the argument he used: If we want unions to become voluntary, then what we want will “destroy” the unions, and since unions have done so much for us historically, that would be terrible.

One caveat should be added here: Student associations actually don’t do what unions do. They can claim to “represent” people all they want, but they have no record of achievements akin to professional unions (things like entitlements to sick days, a limited number of hours per day, weekends, etc). So even if I bought this argument for unions in general, I still wouldn’t have any reason to think that it justified compulsory student associatioans.

But secondly, and this is the main thing: Unions are voluntary here in New Zealand! Unions are everywhere, and their existence is under no obvious threat whatsoever. Nobody is forced to join them, they simply join them because the union has persuded them that it’s in their insterest to join. True, if a union offered nothing of value, then people would not choose to join it – and rightly so! There is nothing wrong with a union that offers nothing going out of existence, surely. But keeping unions voluntary is no threat to the existence of good unions whatsoever.

[As a matter of interest, making student associations voluntary is no threat to their existence either. When the Waikato University students union (WSU) was voluntary for a brief period in the mid-late 1990s, it still managed to maintain a membership of around three thousand.]

Glenn Peoples