‘Time for NZNO to be honest’ – Message from 2020 NZNO Award Winner

Last week, Ann Simmons received a National Award for Service to NZNO at the 2020 NZNO AGM. She had prepared a short acceptance speech, but was not given the opportunity to deliver it. In recognition of a career spanning more than 50 years, I am very honoured to be able to publish Ann’s speech notes, below. 

“Nurses Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Bedpans!”

Apparently that was the catch cry of a wildcat strike of student nurses I organised in 1968 at Hutt Hospital. It was felt that after working 12 days in a row (we only had one day off in seven and 12-day stints were common) we required a day off before we went into a study day, as many of us were sleeping that day away and not learning. We did achieve this and not much later we were required to work only five days in a week – such progress! – and all for $25.00 a fortnight, in the hand.

Thank goodness for industrial progress. Thank goodness for a recognition that nurses needed professional training. Thank you, NZNA/NZNO.

On Thursday 17th September 2020, I received an Award for Service to NZNO. I was nominated by Denise Braid and the Women’s Health College and by Erin Kennedy and Lizzie Kepa-Henry on behalf of the Greater Wellington Regional Council. I’m told it is unusual for a nomination to be received for the same person from both the ‘professional’ and the ‘industrial’ side of the NZNO. I have been very flattered and my ego received a huge boost by this nomination. Thank you, everyone.

That NZNO has these two sides is a sad fact. But the history of the organisation has recently been the subject of a paper posted by Grant Brookes, and interesting reading it was. It helped me understand and put into context why the events of the recent past within the Union have happened. It also has made me come to the conclusion that it’s time for NZNO to be honest with itself.

In my time with NZNA/NZNO, I have known the organisation employ some amazing nurses as professional advisors and researchers. People like Kate Weston (there is not enough praise for this woman), Jill Clendon, Marilyn Head, Anne Brinkman, Suzanne Rolls, Hilary Graham-Smith. I have learnt so much from these outstanding professionals and from others. They have given me a base that I have used as a bottom line for all my nursing, and for some life decisions. They have been there when the Women’s Health College tackled the hard topic of Family Violence, helping and supporting us to make a difference in women’s lives. When the contentious subject of abortion law reform arrived, Womens Health College also had the support of NZNO Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku to help boost our submissions for law reforms and Kerri to this day is, I believe, still involved on behalf of nurses working in this field.

The nurses I have met along the way who have shown their wisdom and compassion like Lizzy Kepa-Henry, who can always keep me humble and grounded with her work stories. Denise Braid (friend, boss and mentor) and all the wonderful women I have met through the Women’s Health College. Women in New Zealand may not know it, but they are very lucky to have you on their side. Your collective knowledge and wisdom is enormous.

Yet NZNO is not very good at using the professionals they employ or the clinicians who belong to the organisation to speak on matters of importance. Our infection control nurses have been working so hard during this Covid Pandemic but never quoted or asked to speak out. 

We hear from the CEO of the organisation and sometimes from a highly placed member of the organisation’s executive team. But we never hear from the people who are living the experience. Nor did we hear from any representative who had been elected by all the members of the NZNO, Grant Brookes for instance. The reasons for this are known to members and leave such a bitter taste in my mouth. Grant has taught me more than anyone about fighting for a cause. Fighting with passion, with logic, with facts, with courage. Being true to yourself and holding true to the values that underpin your life path. Thank you Grant, as a leader, as a fellow nurse and as a friend. 

We are again negotiating the DHB MECA. This is happening at a time when there is unrest and probably distrust in the industrial side of this organisation. I have recently been working with nurses from PHOs. Most didn’t even know there was a strike last week for their MECA agreement! 

In a traditional sense, it could be argued NZNO is not a Union. It has some components of a Union but at its heart, in its core, it is not. This is in spite of employing amazing people, my experience being Wellington based but not exclusively, like Georgia Choveaux (resigned), Laura Thomas, Danielle Davies, Deb Chappell (retired).

Then there are members, the people who have taught me about the importance of the collective, of justice and fairness. Erin Kennedy, one of the bravest comrades I have ever known, Simon Bayliss, Anne Daniels, Katrina Hopkinson, Cheryl Hanham, Jenny Kendall, Annie McCabe, Al Dietschin, Freya Albertine-Head. And definitely many more. Many of whom have resigned as delegates or left the organisation altogether. The loss of these people leaves a gaping hole in the collective knowledge of the Union.

NZNO, thank you for the award. My hope is that what I now see as an identity crisis will be resolved. Nurses in New Zealand need our professionalism to be recognised and enhanced. We have a Chief Nurse but she/he is not part of this, at least not visibly. Look again at the Covid Crisis I haven’t heard a thing about the Chief Nurse, even though Nurses are at the core of the care. That is a disconnect that needs addressing.

Nurses need someone to fight for their working conditions and their wages. This means brave people to stand and fight against massive organisations such as DHBs, Aged Care Facilities, large medical companies, powerful Iwi health providers and the Government (whatever its colour)

This is not a fight for the faint hearted or for an organisation whose roots are firmly planted within a bed of compliance and complacency – of the old era.

My hope is that NZNO decides what it is, a Union with the balls to fight for its members or an organisation that supports and encourages professionalism, working more with the Chief Nurse and her/his office and with the NZ Nursing Council.

My opinion is that the time to try and be both has passed. So NZNO, as the song from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy goes: “So long and thanks for all the fish, so sad it has to come to this.”

Ann Simmons, RN RM (mostly retired and Proud to Nurse)
• Past Chair and member Greater Wellington Regional Council NZNO
• Past Chair and member of national team Women’s Health (section) College NZNO
• Past Union delegate NZNO

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