Trade unionists & environmentalism – Notes from a talk to the Green Party Rongotai Branch

Thanks to the Green Party Rongotai Branch for the opportunity to discuss trade unionism and the environment and for the chance to catch up again with Julie Anne Genter MP.

Tēnā koe te Kaiwhakahaere ko Tom. E te whānau kākāriki, tēnā tātou. Ko Grant Brookes tōku ingoa. He mema o te uniana ahau. 

Greetings everyone. Thanks to Rongotai Branch Co-Convenor Tom, for inviting me to speak. My name is Grant Brookes. I’m a trade unionist. As mentioned in Tom’s introduction, I am also the National Co-Convenor of the PSA Eco Network, although I should stress at the outset that I am not speaking on behalf of the PSA this evening. 

My topic for tonight, on the eve of the 2021 School Strike 4 Climate, is the relationship between trade unionists and environmentalism, and what this means for Green Party members. These notes will go online, where there will be lots of links to sources and to more information. I’ve been given half an hour for this talk. 

I would like to begin with a story – one which featured in an article in Forest & Bird magazine in February 2010. “During the 1970s and 1980s, Whirinaki [on the edge of Te Urewera] became a battleground as conservationists fought to protect New Zealand’s finest remaining giant podocarp forest from Forest Service logging.”

Eventually, “after the Labour Party won the 1984 election, selective logging at Whirinaki ended, and later that year Whirinaki Forest Park was born” – but not before a confrontation had taken place at the small mill town of Minginui, in June 1978. Here is a photo from that day, reprinted in Forest & Bird.

Anti-environmental protest at Minginui, June 1978

Local timber workers and iwi members are blocking the road against environmentalists from the Native Forest Action Council (NFAC). They hold a banner for an opposing “NFAC”, a “National Front Against Conservationists”. A placard on the right of the photo says, “People Before Birds – Jobs Before Parks”. 

Unions vs. the environment

There’s no getting around it. Such sentiments of working people have sometimes been taken up and amplified by unions. 

On 4 May 2000, for instance, the Greymouth Evening Star carried an interview with Jim Jones, Wood Sector Secretary of the National Distribution Union. Two years earlier, the Timberlands State-Owned Enterprise had announced plans to triple the felling of native beech on the West Coast. This sparked a concerted campaign by environmentalists in the Native Forest Action group. 

The National Distribution Union told the Greymouth Evening Star that the green movement was guilty of “emotive bullshit” and that logging of Crown-owned native timber should be allowed. The Furniture Association had claimed that without native logging, 4,000 jobs could be lost. “I have a saying”, said Jones, “that you have to be on the planet before you can save it.” 

Of course, it isn’t just in forestry where trade unionists and environmentalists have clashed. As recently as 2017, E Tū union praised Australian conglomerate Bathurst Resources and Talley’s Fisheries for a plan to expand coal production at the Stockton Mine by 50 percent. The argument was same: “More coal would mean more jobs”, E Tū union organiser Garth Elliott told the Otago Daily Times. There are other, similar examples. 

‘Unity between struggles’

But right from the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s, there have also been examples of trade unionists and environmentalists working hand in hand. One of the most internationally significant cases is the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). In the early Seventies, this union pioneered the use of industrial action to protect the natural and built environment of Sydney. 

The first of their famous “green bans” was in support of a campaign led by a group of women on Sydney’s North Shore to save a piece of undeveloped land called Kelly’s Bush. When approached for support in June 1971, the union suggested that the women call a public meeting. Attended by 600 residents, the meeting formally asked the BLF to prevent construction on the site. The developer retaliated by announcing that they would use non-union labour as strikebreakers. In response, BLF members on the developer’s other construction projects downed tools. The developer backed down and Kelly’s Bush was saved. 

The alliance between trade unionists and environmentalists at Kelly’s Bush captured the imagination of environmentalists, residents and heritage campaigners and soon spurred other successful campaigns. Between 1971 and 1974, 54 of these green bans were imposed across NSW. Bans were extended to express solidarity with the right of women to work in the building industry on equal pay, to support anti-motorways campaigns and for Aboriginal justice. In 1973, the BLF imposed a “pink ban” when Macquarie University discriminated against a gay student.

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1972, Jack Mundey (NSW BLF Secretary 1968-1975) explained the thinking behind these bans. He challenged the idea that jobs must always come before the environment: “Though we want all our members employed”, said Mundey, “we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build… The environmental interests of three million people [in Sydney] are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit.”

Jack Mundey passed away in May last year, aged 90. In a statement from NSW Greens, party Co-convenors Sylvia Hale and Rochelle Flood said: “Under his leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation, for the first time we saw unity between the struggles of unions and environmentalists.

“The Green Bans born out of this unity reshaped Australian politics and delivered significant wins for heritage, urban bushland and public housing. The union stood shoulder to shoulder with the community in fighting developments whose sole purpose was to enrich the few at the expense of the many.”

But even before the first green ban was imposed across the Tasman, linkages were already being forged between trade unionists and the emerging environmental movement here in Aotearoa. 

This is a page from the December 1970 issue of the New Zealand Public Service Journal. You can see, alongside the ever-popular PSA crossword and an advert for houses in Wellington for a $2,000 deposit, the lead article, titled “Saving Lake Manapouri”. 

Public Service Journal December 1970, page 8

The “Save Manapouri” campaign marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in New Zealand. Kicking off in 1969, it was our first nationally-coordinated environmental campaign, and the first to influence politics at a national level. In 1970, almost 10 percent of the population signed the Save Manapouri petition. Two years later, it added impetus to the formation of Green Party precursor, the Values Party

The goal of the “Save Manapouri” campaign was simple. It aimed prevent the construction of a dam which would raise the lake level and drown 800 hectares of forest, all so that “maximum exploitation of the resource” could deliver more cheap electricity to the Australian-owned aluminium smelter being built at Tiwai Point. 

Staff of the Electricity Department at Manapouri belonged to the PSA union. In March 1970, the PSA executive voted to support the Save Manapouri campaign. To drive home the point, PSA National Secretary Dan Long wrote to Prime Minister Keith Holyoake the following year. His telegram, reprinted in the union journal, said:

“Public Service Association reaffirms its opposition to dispoilation [sic.] of natural resources in possible raising of Lake Manapouri which we consider to be made more certain if Government proceeds with wide dam. Association urges Government to decide now that Manapouri will NOT repeat NOT be raised and plan accordingly.”

Message to the Prime Minister from the PSA

Why unions matter

It’s now almost 50 years since these events in Australia and New Zealand. Why does this history still matter? 

There are a number of reasons. Firstly, it is hard to overstate the enduring international legacy of the green bans movement in NSW. In 1978, the actions of the NSW BLF inspired the Auckland Trades Council to impose a green ban at Takaparawhā (Bastion Point). As Council of Trade Unions Vice-President Māori Syd Keepa has explained, “The reason Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) remained undeveloped for so long was because union members put a green ban on the site, that means they wouldn’t work on the site as long as Ngāti Whātua opposed it.” This helped to ensure the eventual return of land to Ngāti Whātua in 1988, kicking off the historic Treaty settlements process. 

It’s even possible that without the NSW example, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand would not exist – at least, not under its current name. Australian Greens leader Bob Brown said, in a speech to the Australian Senate in 1997, that the use of the term “Green” as a political category originated with the NSW BLF. German eco-activist Petra Kelly visited Sydney in 1977, he explained, and was so impressed with the linkage between trade unionists and environmentalism that she adopted the terminology when she co-founded the world’s first Green Party back home, two years later. 

But if such a thing can be imagined, there are even more fundamental reasons why these examples are still relevant. Through their green bans, the BLF revealed the rarely-acknowledged economic role of working people. “We are going to determine which buildings we will build”, said Mundey – and ultimately, through our free choice or under some degree of compulsion, the same thing is true for every enterprise, in every area of the economy. In the words of the old union song, Solidarity Forever, “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn”. 

When the Chair of the Climate Change Commission says in 2021 that to create a zero carbon economy, “we need to change how we get around, and rethink what we produce and how we produce it”, what he means is that working people will need to do things differently. And when the Commission’s Draft Advice to Government talks about an “equitable transition” which protects livelihoods and where benefits of climate action are shared across society, and do not fall unfairly on certain groups or people, then what is required is for working people to have a say in how their work is to change. 

In other words, the 1970s show us why there can be no equitable transition to a zero carbon economy in Aotearoa without the involvement of unions. 

Unionists and environmentalism today

Yet in some ways, times have changed since the 1970s. Wood Sector unionists, now part of First Union, no longer promote native logging. Instead, they call for job creation in “replanting and planting native forests”. Ngāti Whare have apologised for their role in the protest at Minginui. “We realise now that for a period our economic survival instincts caused us to lose touch with our traditional values”, they said – a salutary reminder that iwi, like trade unions, are not immune from capitalist mindsets.

So here in 2021, I would like to highlight three of the most exciting examples of unity between unions and environmentalists today. 

The first is the work of New Zealand’s largest private sector union, E Tū, in creating a Just Transition in Taranaki. 

Created through a 2015 merger between the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, the Service and Food Workers Union and the Flight Attendants and Related Services Union, it represents a very diverse group of workers. They include some in the most carbon-intensive sectors of the economy. “Our members work in mining, gas exploration and production, steel and aluminium making, electricity generation and aviation”, says the union. “Many other members work in engineering and services supporting these operations. E tū members in the West-Coast and Huntly mining operations [including Stockton Mine, mentioned earlier], at NZ Aluminium and NZ Steel, Marsden Point and in the on and off-shore Taranaki oil fields support their local community economies with wages and conditions included in good union employment agreements.”

In 2018, after a period of intense internal discussion, E tū issued a public statement supporting a Just Transition to a carbon-free future by 2050. This was followed by a comprehensive Just Transition policy the following year. In some respects, these moves represented a harmonising of national union policy with groundbreaking work already being undertaken by E tū in Taranaki. 

A series of decisions made during the last term of Government – including the ending of new offshore oil and gas exploration permits – made it clear that Taranaki’s primary industry will close. Rather than defend fossil fuels, E tū threw itself into the work of creating what comes next: 

“E tū believes NZ should lead the way with a strategy of ‘Just-Transition’ in which we start planning now for the transition away from a carbon-based economy while ensuring that working people and their communities do not bear the brunt of this structural adjustment. E tū is part of an international union movement, led by the peak global union organisation ITUC, that advocates for meaningful public and private sector strategies to ensure that good jobs and employment and income-related support is available as we transition out of carbon-linked jobs.

“We call that a ‘Just Transition’ into new employment opportunities, and the work must start now on what is needed in such a Just Transition strategy. We can’t wait until it’s too late. We are not interested in some plan that puts a couple more case officers in regional WINZ offices. We need a strategy for new high-value jobs and other forms of support that are real, practical, relevant, resourced and sustainable.” 

And this – called the Taranaki 2050 Roadmap – is what they’ve helped to create.

Taranaki-based E tū Organiser Jen Natoli speaks at the Just Transition Community Conference, 15 June 2019.

Having pioneered the work in Taranaki, E Tū is now gearing up for a Just Transition to manage the closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter

A second contemporary example of unity between unions and environmentalists comes from the education union, NZEI Te Riu Roa. Last year, NZEI became the first union in New Zealand to create a Community Organiser role, focused on climate action. One major piece of work for this new role will be organising with local communities to switch out coal boilers still used in about 200 schools. Some of this new work is documented on video and in media reports.

The final exciting example of trade unionists working hand in hand with environmentalists comes from the public sector, and New Zealand’s largest union. It’s one I’m privileged to be involved in myself. 

The PSA Eco Network (formerly PSA Eco Reps Network) was first established by members in 2010 following the development of the PSA Sustainability Policy and Action Plan. The overall purpose of the PSA Eco Network is to build union organisation to improve workplace sustainability and contribute to the global campaign for environmental justice and action on climate change. 

Delegates at the 2020 PSA Biennial Congress in November voted to formalise the Eco Network, so we now have official standing within the PSA membership structures. This vote reflected a wider democratic sentiment in the union. We have long known that climate change and other environmental issues are of concern to PSA members, but the 2019 election survey of PSA members highlighted just how important these issues are.  Members ranked climate change in their top three issues in election year, after “health and housing” and “families and people”, and above “pay, work and cost of living”. 

So far this year, our work within the union has included a contribution to the PSA submission to the Climate Change Commission and advocacy for Climate Justice to be added in the refresh of the PSA Strategic Goals. Our members were also involved in the PSA submission on the Water Services Bill. Externally, many of us are active in sustainability initiatives in the workplace, including the changes needed to meet the Government’s target of a carbon neutral public sector by 2025

On Friday, we will be marching with the students on their 2021 School Strike 4 Climate

What can Green Party members do?

What then can Green Party members do? First and foremost, join your union. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why. If you’re not sure which union to join, the Council of Trade Unions has a helpful online tool at

But the examples of the 1970s also contain three vital lessons for what else you can do to forge unity in struggle in today. These lessons could equally be demonstrated using the three contemporary examples from E tū, NZEI and the PSA cited just now, but it’s probably safer to refer to individuals and events which are a bit more distant. 

Firstly, the 1970s shows the importance of political leadership. Leadership in a union does not equate to having some official title or high-up position. In fact, as Senator Bernie Sanders likes to say, “real change never comes from the top on down, but always from the bottom on up”. Any union member can be a leader – at their workplace, in a meeting or even in an email. 

Jack Mundey was a builder’s labourer and a rank-and-file member before he became NSW State Secretary of the union in 1968. Crucially, what he brought to the BLF was political leadership – learnt after joining the Communist Party in his twenties and later demonstrated through his many roles in the Australian Greens. This political leadership also brought the union in behind other movements to end the Vietnam War, to support the Gurindji people battling for justice in the Northern Territory and to stop the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia. Two NSW BLF leaders were even arrested for breaking into the SCG and trying to chop down the goal posts in a bid to stop the Springbok match from going ahead. 

The green bans in Sydney came to an end in 1975, because of a change in union leadership. Jack Mundey and other elected leaders of the NSW BLF were ousted by the union’s national office. Conservative officials were installed to replace them, who did not support union action for the environment. (Astute observers of recent union events in New Zealand might see some parallels). The Federal Secretary of the union who orchestrated this anti-democratic coup was later convicted on 17 charges of corrupt dealings with developers. 

The importance of political leadership was also shown in the PSA. The biography of PSA National Secretary Dan Long is pointedly titled, “White Collar Radical”. It documents how the union leadership of Long and his allies, including their ardent support for the Save Manapouri campaign, was guided by their radical politics. In 1970, shortly after the PSA executive voted to support the “Save Manapouri” campaign, National Party Finance Minister (later Prime Minister) Robert Muldoon underscored this point in a speech where he attacked the PSA as, “the most leftist of the State Services unions”. The political leadership in the PSA also saw the union mount campaigns against nuclear testing, apartheid South Africa and anti-Māori racism, which were highly controversial at the time. 

So to reiterate – the first lesson of the union-environmental alliances of the Seventies is that political leadership counts. After joining your union, the very next thing that a Green Party member can do is to get involved in leading it. 

The second lesson is that if green union leaders want their union to defend the environment, they must also fight like hell for the economic interests of the membership. (The obverse is also true, by the way. Unions that don’t campaign for the environment tend to accommodate poor working conditions for their members). 

Sydney in the 1960s was in the grip of a construction boom of “Wild West” proportions. Money poured into new buildings, but wages stayed low. Health and safety on the job, by today’s standards, was virtually non-existent. Between 1968 and 1971, there were more than 61,000 injury compensation cases — some fatal, others creating permanent disabilities — in NSW’s building, construction and maintenance sector. But in May 1970, under new Secretary Jack Mundey, the union started to turn the tide. It organised a five week strike in support of wage increases as well as industrial recognition of the labourers’ skills. The strike ended in victory. 

“If it wasn’t for that civilising of the building industry in the campaigns of 1970 and 1971”, Mundey later said, “well then I’m sure we wouldn’t have had the luxury of the membership going along with us in what was considered by some as ‘avant-garde’, ‘way-out’ actions of supporting mainly middle-class people in environmental actions. I think that gave us the mandate to allow us to go into uncharted waters.”

Again, the lesson is the same with the PSA. “In March 1968”, said his biographer, “Dan Long stood before the [arbitration] court and argued that a 13 percent general wage increase was necessary… The court’s decision, issued the following month, was for a nil increase… The response of the union movement was volcanic.” The executive’s decision to throw the PSA’s weight behind saving Manapouri in 1970 came off the back of union support for the “tsunami of strikes” that overturned the 1968 Arbitration Court ruling and delivered a general wage increase. 

PSA support for the “tsunami of strikes” that overturned the Arbitration Court’s infamous “Nil Wage Order” is seen in the front page headline of the Public Service Journal from August 1968.

The final lesson from the 1970s for greens in the union movement is that environmentalism and union democracy go hand in hand. 

The first order of business for Jack Mundey and his allies, on taking up the official leadership of the NSW BLF in 1968, was to reform the undemocratic (and often corrupt) structures of union decision-making. 

They developed a “a new concept of unionism”. Union executive meetings were opened up to all members to attend. Mass stop-work meetings became the primary forums for deciding union policy. All decisions on green bans and actions, for example, were put to meetings of the BLF membership for a democratic vote. Further, the salaries of union officials were tied to pay rates they negotiated for their union members. Perhaps the most startling innovation of all was term limits for all union positions. To prevent the union from being captured again by corrupt career bureaucrats, it was decided that the officials should come from the job and, after six years at the most, return to the job. 

Long-serving Greens Senator and NSW MP Lee Rhiannon has highlighted that, “Rebuilding the BLF as a democratic, members run union could be described as Jack’s first achievement. It was certainly one that laid the basis for the Green Bans movement and the social movement unionism that came to characterise the BLF.” 

In this area, it cannot be said that the PSA went quite that far. But earlier democratic reforms by an insurgent left-wing PSA leadership had, the words of Dan Long’s biographer, transformed the PSA from a “complacent and top-heavy guild of senior bureaucrats into a broadly representative and far more effective organisation”. In reporting the PSA executive’s vote to support the Save Manapouri campaign, the Public Service Journal emphasised that it was a reflection of the democratic will of the membership: “This decision followed the expression of widespread concern in Section Committees around the country at the likely effects of the Electricity Department’s proposals.” 


In conclusion, three things go hand in hand. Since the 1970s, fighting unions which are member-driven, with green and left wing leadership at all levels (and especially from below), have taken up environmental causes. 

The Green Party Charter says that, “ecological sustainability is paramount”. Since working people are the ones who ultimately produce all that is consumed, any shift towards an ecologically sustainable economy will involve us. Any such shift will mean changes in what we do, and how we do it. 

Because Greens also believe in a world where “decisions will be made directly at the appropriate level by those affected”, the shift to ecological sustainability must also involve us, and the organisations – the unions – through which we participate in economic decisions about our work. 

The rationale for unity between trade unionists and environmentalism is surely clear. I hope that this talk has clarified, at least to some small extent, how Greens can help make it happen. 

7 April, 2021.

Moving on from NZNO and the past

A year ago this month, I reluctantly stepped away from the role of NZNO president. After persevering for years, I could no longer work with a Board dominated by individuals who were taking the organisation down the wrong path. 

Nothing can change the fact that from 2015-2020, I held the office for the longest continuous term in NZNO history. The hours I spent picketing and marching with my fellow DHB members in 2018 remains the high point of my nursing career to this day. 

But the year since my resignation has only confirmed my decision. The Board is deeply resistant to the changes that are needed. And for me, the realisation has grown that the world of nursing and trade unionism (and trade unionism for nurses) is so much bigger. 

As a member, I will continue to push for change within NZNO. But it’s time to move on, and no longer be defined by the past. From today, this blog of mine has a new name that looks forward and outwards: “Grant Brookes – Nurse & Trade Unionist”.

PSA Eco Network: Your chance to input on PSA Strategic Goals and climate submission – plus convenor vacancies

23 February 2021 

Kia ora,

In this newsletter:

Your views wanted on NZ’s climate change response

Grant Brookes – Wellington Eco Network Convenor 

This month has seen the release of the first report by He Pou a Rangi – the Climate Change Commission, the independent Crown entity established under the Zero Carbon Act in 2019. Their inaugural report contains draft advice to the Government on a strategy for meeting New Zealand’s emissions targets.

This follows the Government’s announcement last year of a requirement for all public service agencies (public service and DHBs) to be carbon neutral by 2025.

The task before us is momentous, but so too is the need. The PSA has welcomed the report and public service goals as both a challenge and an opportunity to build a more equitable society, reduce emissions, and ensure a just transition for workers.

Realising this opportunity will require the expertise and interests of working people to be front and centre in our transformation to a zero carbon economy. For this reason, your PSA Eco Convenors and Reps are working with the PSA policy team to produce a submission on the Commission’s draft advice. We want the views of PSA Eco Network members to be heard – both in the PSA’s submission and in individual responses, too.

The Commission has set 24 consultation questions, which are available here The first 19 questions relate to a wide range of actions that the Government should take over the next 15 years if we’re to be on track to reach the goal of net zero emissions of long-lived gases by 2050, and reduce biogenic methane emissions by between 24-47% by 2050. There is one question about the “rules for measuring progress”, or system of accounting for greenhouse gas emissions. And the last four questions are about our “Nationally Determined Contribution” under the Paris Agreement, asking whether Aotearoa’s current goals reflect a fair share of the global effort.

You are welcome to answer any or all of the questions, or comment on other aspects of an Equitable Transitions Strategy towards a zero carbon economy. Individual submissions close on 14 March. To contribute to the PSA’s submission, please send your views to by 7 March.

We also encourage you to get involved in your own workplace’s efforts to reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2025. Join your workplace green group if there is one or set one up if there isn’t! You can email for advice. We’d also love to hear how you’re getting on and if you have any ideas to share. 

Adding climate change to the PSA Strategic Goals

Grant Brookes – Wellington Eco Network Convenor

The PSA Executive Board is currently leading a mid-term review of our union’s Strategic Goals 2018-24 The outcome of the review will set the guideposts on the journey to advance PSA members’ interests over the next three years. In addition to reviewing progress towards the four existing goals (available here ), the Executive Board will also consider whether new strategic or interim strategic goals should be added, reflecting significant changes to our operating context and progress made since 2018.

The process being followed involves consultation with the PSA Sector Committees, Te Rūnanga and Networks, including the Eco Network. It is the view of our Network that there is a climate emergency and the passage of the Zero Carbon Act in 2019 and the 2020 introduction of carbon neutrality goals for the public service herald major changes for PSA members, which should be reflected in the refreshed goals and priorities of our union.

We have already made some progress on this. Last year, PSA Eco Network members met with the PSA Executive Board, sector committees, networks and candidates for PSA President and expressed our desire for climate change to be reflected in the PSA’s strategic goals. New PSA President Benedict Ferguson has expressed strong support for climate change to be included in our union’s strategic plan.

To support our advocacy to achieve this, we invite PSA Eco Network members to tell us how climate change is affecting your working life and home life, and how it might be added as a strategic or interim strategic goal for our union.  Please send your feedback to by 7 March. The Eco Network committee will be meeting to craft a submission based on the feedback we receive. If you’re interested in joining this meeting please let us know and we’ll add you to the invite. 

Keen to get more involved? Convenor vacancies

We have three Eco Network convenor vacancies – National Co-Convenor, Auckland Regional Convenor, and South Island Regional Convenor (for South Island members outside Christchurch). We welcome expressions of interest for these roles.

The network convenors help to develop and coordinate plans, activities, Eco Reps and members in their region and across the country. We also have unelected Eco Rep roles that anyone can volunteer for to participate as a leader in the network. More details about the roles, associated responsibilities and election process can be found on our website here under the tab titled ‘Eco Network Structure’.

We invite you to express your interest in one or more of the convenor roles or to be an Eco Rep. You can do so by emailing with a paragraph or two about yourself and why you are interested in the role. Please get in touch by Monday 8 March with your expression of interest. 

Please share these opportunities with other PSA members. If anyone is not an Eco Network member they can join by updating their details on the PSA website here or by emailing .

Ngā mihi,

Susannah Bailey 
PSA Organiser

The PSA & me: A review of ‘White-collar Radical – Dan Long and the rise of white-collar unions’, by Mark Derby

It was January, 1997 when I first joined the Public Service Association. 

Starting as a new grad nurse at Auckland DHB with nearly a decade of student activism under my belt, as well as a Nursing degree, there was never a doubt that I would join the union. The following year I would become a PSA delegate, and before long I was representing Health Sector members at the PSA Congress. 

But as a budding student of labour history, I was aware at the outset of the widespread perception that the union I was joining was on the conservative – even “Right wing” – end of the labour movement. 

The 1990s had delivered an unprecedented shock to workers’ organisations in New Zealand. Under the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) passed by the National Government in 1991, employers set out to smash the union movement. They almost succeeded. In eight short years, from 1989 to 1997, the proportion of wage and salary earners in unions collapsed from 44.9 percent to 19.2 percent. In the health sector union membership held up slightly better, but the national workforce was divided up into small groups, hospital by hospital, and prohibited by law from uniting to take action together. 

Unions responded to the crisis in very different ways. At one end of the spectrum, the PSA led a push by some to embrace “partnership” with employers (often the very same employers who were cutting jobs, pay and conditions for union members). They adopted a “service model” of unionism, where the paid officials focused on providing advice and individual representation, rather than organising delegates and members to act collectively in the workplace to tackle shared issues. And there was a common view – later confirmed in the official history of the PSA released to mark its centenary – that my union was largely responsible for pulling the plug on a general strike to resist the ECA in May, 1991. 

When the tide eventually turned in 1999, with the election of the Labour-Alliance Government under Helen Clark and the repeal of the ECA, I raised with my PSA organiser the idea of uniting across different hospitals to re-create a Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) for Mental Health Nurses. But by this stage, the conservatism ran deep. I was told, it’ll never happen. The wide variety of terms and conditions in the different hospital-based employment agreements meant it would be impossible to harmonise them again in a single MECA. 

So when I moved to Wellington in 2002 and had the option of joining the New Zealand Nurses Organisation – which at that time was pursuing a strategy to re-create a national Nursing MECA covering all DHBs – I leapt at the chance. I couldn’t really understand my older Nursing colleagues who remained luke warm about NZNO, continuing to insist that the PSA was “more of a real union”. 

After reading White-collar Radical – Dan Long and the rise of white-collar unions, I finally understand. 

White-collar Radical is really two books in one. First of all, it’s a biography of Dan Long, the man who led the union as its General Secretary from 1960 until his untimely death in 1976. This part, which fully occupies the first quarter of the book and intermittent sections after that, was for me the less interesting. 

It’s no fault of the author. The subject of the biography is simply someone described at various points as “circumspect”, “measured”, “not an effective public speaker”, “not fast, or funny”, “restrained, and even ponderous” – in short, someone whose personal life just isn’t terribly exciting to read about. On top of that, documentary evidence about Dan Long before his rise up the PSA is apparently so scarce that the book resorts to quoting some material that’s fairly marginal in its relevance. 

But in addition to this biography, the book is also a history of the PSA, focusing on the period from the 1940s to the 1970s. And this, for me, was absolutely fascinating. 

One of the most inspiring episodes in White-collar Radical is the account of New Zealand’s first ever Nurses’ strike (pp.182-186). This isn’t the strike usually credited as the first – the 24-hour, nationwide stoppage by NZNO members in 1989. It was eighteen years earlier in 1971, that PSA Mental Health Nurses at Oakley Hospital in Auckland walked off the job for two weeks. 

The immediate trigger for the action was a threat by employers to remove the “mental health lead” – the higher pay rate for Mental Health Nurses above that of General Nurses. But “significantly, when the PSA leadership at Oakley called for a strike the demands sought not only a successful outcome to the salary claim but also a Commission of Inquiry into conditions at Oakley… Those who felt that at all times ‘the patient must come first’ could feel that the strike was doing this because of the demand for an inquiry… The Oakley strike was made possible, not because staff disregarded an ethical relationship with the patients, but for reasons which were precisely the opposite.” 

The strike quickly spread, with Mental Health Nurses at Sunnyside and Templeton in Christchurch taking industrial action, followed by staff at Kingseat, Ngawhatu, Levin, Cherry Farm (North of Dunedin), Porirua, Tokanui and Orakanui. Attracting widespread public support, the strike succeeded in retaining the mental health lead and in delivering more humane, less restrictive care for patients. 

The episode highlights the role that Nurses and Allied Health Professionals played in the union. We’re described in the book as, “among the PSA’s most dedicated activists since the 1940s”. And this is illustrated not only in the industrial field, but also in the political arena as the PSA “assumed the role of advocating for public servants’ views on broader social issues” in the 1950s. 

It was the PSA’s Mental Health Nurses, for instance, who led one of New Zealand’s first union campaigns against racism (pp.231-2). 

It was a late summer evening in 1959 when “the chief medical officer at Kingseat mental hospital decided to wind up the week by taking his wife to the nearby Papakura Hotel. To the lounge bar, of course, since public bars were still considered unsuitable places for a respectable married woman to socialise. When he went to order their drinks, Dr Harry Bennett found that it was his own presence that was unacceptable on these premises. Dr Bennett was Māori.”

“Dr and Mrs Bennet were not the type to make a fuss… but other staff at Kingseat were less reserved. As already noted, mental hospital nurses had built a reputation by the late 1950s as one of the fiercest of the PSA’s occupational groups… Their protests ensured that the Bennetts’ visit to the pub attracted national and eventually international media attention.

“Nor did the Kingseat PSA activists drop the matter once the local hotelier lifted the ban and apologised to the doctor… Through their Association the mental hospital staff asked sections around the country to report on racial discrimination… After 1959, the PSA took a strong and consistent stand against both domestic and international racism.”

Racism was far from the only “social issue” taken up by the PSA. From the 1950s onwards, the union also campaigned against nuclear weapons and the destruction of our natural environment. But it was perhaps in the fight for gender equality that the PSA had the biggest impact. The inspiring story is vividly told in pages 106-117 and 119-131 of White-collar Radical. Starting off alone, the PSA built a broad-based equal pay campaign which by 1957 embraced 14 women’s groups and trade unions (although not NZNO, conspicuous by its absence). 

In 1960 the Government was forced to pass New Zealand’s first pay equity legislation. The Equal Pay Act guaranteed that women in the public service would receive the same pay as men, for the same job. (Later, after the passage of the law, NZNO declined to make a claim for pay equity with PSA Mental Health Nurses, due to a feeling “that nurses should not be unionised). 

The PSA’s industrial strength and political courage would never have developed without its radical leaders. The cast of characters giving leadership to the PSA in the book reads like a “Who’s Who” of socialist and Left wing figures in Wellington in the post-War period – Parihaka historian Dick Scott, Cath and Pat Kelly (parents of dearly missed CTU President, Helen Kelly), civil servant and public intellectual Bill (W. B.) Sutch, communist Rona Bailey (today honoured by the Labour History Project with a memorial lecture in her name), authors Conrad Bollinger and Tony Simpson, anti-war activist Gerald Griffin, Jim Delahunty (father of Green MP Catherine Delahunty), anti-apartheid organiser Trevor Richards, socialist feminist (later MP) Sonja Davies, dramatist Paul Maunder and many others. 

Yet despite their radical views, these leaders were able to maintain the support and trust of the union membership – even as anti-Communist hysteria was being whipped up at the start of the Cold War. This is most clearly seen in the scandal that erupted (pp.90-3) over a young PSA delegate at the National Film Unit named Cecil Holmes. 

One December evening in 1948, while meeting the PSA President Jack Lewin, Holmes carelessly left his satchel in an unlocked car. On that fateful night, a passing a security officer uplifted it. The satchel contained “Holmes’ Communist Party membership card, a letter he had written to Lewin about [a] proposed stopwork meeting, and a draft resolution for the meeting, supposedly in Lewin’s handwriting. This damaging material swiftly found its way to Nash [Finance Minister in the Labour Government], and within weeks copies were provided to every newspaper in the country, along with Nash’s statement that the… [PSA was] undermining the government’s programme of economic stabilisation.”

That part of the story, and how Holmes lost his job and was forced to leave the country, I already knew before reading White-collar Radical. What I did not know, was what came next. 

In February 1949, the PSA called a special conference to deal with the mounting crisis. Incredibly, “the conference upheld the actions of Cecil Holmes as a PSA representative. It fully endorsed Lewin, re-elected him as president and took the extraordinary step of awarding him life membership while still in office. Over the following six months, membership rose by 2,500, to 27,000.” 

Later that year, Nash’s Labour Government was voted out of office. 

This remarkable connection to the membership had been forged over the preceding decade, as a twenty-something year old Lewin spearheaded “a revolt from the ranks” (pp.82-3). Campaigning through the PSA Journal during the war years, he claimed, “with justification, that the executive was dominated by ‘permanent heads or aspirants to such positions’ and predicting that ‘the ordinary John Smiths of the Association’ would eventually wrest control ‘and make it a real employees’ association’.” Winning the election for PSA President in 1946 with a Left wing team around him, Lewin transformed the “complacent and top-heavy guild of senior bureaucrats into a broadly representative and far more effective organisation.” 

I have written elsewhere about how a group of grassroots NZNO activists mounted a similar campaign to transform that union “from a senior nurses’ club into a organisation which represented members lower in the nursing hierarchy”. But this didn’t happen until four decades later, in the 1980s. By comparison, the historical roots of unionism and democracy in the PSA go that much deeper. 

By 1970 the PSA was seen, in the words of National Party Finance Minister (later Prime Minister) Robert Muldoon, as “the most leftist of the State Services unions”. 

But the Left wing leadership over this period was by no means monolithic. There were vigorous debates over strategy. Cath Kelly recalls in the book, for example, that “Lewin always fought his battles in the executive but we wanted to involve the rank and file”. 

And as expected in a democratic organisation, the Left did not have it all its own way. Opposing them were not only employers, the media, the security agencies, Government and some more conservative union leaders, but an internal “coalition of rightwingers, Catholic activists, Moral Rearmers and, when Labour was in government, Labour supporters who believed they had to support ‘our’ government at all costs.” 

This Right-wing faction worked, in the words of retiring PSA President Jim Ferguson in 1958, “to push out of office those who work hard for the Association and to introduce those who have done little or no work… their chief activity is… to engage in cowardly name-calling and to refrain at all costs from producing any policy of their own” (pp.127-8).

The methods of conservative trade union leaders haven’t changed much, in the decades since. They’re easily recognisable, for instance, in the recent tactics of the people who dominate the leadership of NZNO. 

My verdict on White-collar Radical? It’s a marvellous book. With it, author Mark Derby confirmed his place among the finest labour historians working in New Zealand today. 

But for me, it’s confirmed two other things, as well. Resigning as NZNO President last year and returning to full-time clinical practice in Mental Health, I came back home to the PSA. While NZNO remains my professional association, it was no longer the leading-edge union that I joined in 2002. Reading this book reaffirmed my decision.. The PSA is a good union to represent Mental Health Nurses. 

More than that, however, the book brought home how the PSA still hasn’t recovered from the shock of the 1990s. Indeed, no union has. The claim from the 1970s that “who controls the PSA, controls the government” could never be made today. Rebuilding real union power will require the same kind of bold, Left wing leadership which brought it to fruition in the first place. 

In this, the history uncovered in White-collar Radical – Dan Long and the Rise of White-collar unions contains valuable lessons for the future. 

First published on Join me there for more activist discussion about books.

Book review: ‘On Fire – The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’, by Naomi Klein

The climate emergency existed long before the Government declared it. 

It’s been present not only in distant places, as rising seas gradually swallow low-lying cities like New York and London, and entire Pacific nations. It is present in New Zealand here and now, in the more frequent water rationing seen in Auckland and Northland, more fires on Christchurch’s Port Hills, more floods and uninsurable properties and more communities like Matatā, where 25 Bay of Plenty families are being forced from their own homes, as part of this country’s “managed retreat” from vulnerable land. 

No-one seriously believes that switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, getting an electric car and paying an extra $4 to “offset the carbon” emitted by a Wellington to Auckland flight will stop the coming catastrophes. But what alternative do we have? 

In the Introduction to her book, On Fire, Naomi Klein considers approximate historical precedents for today’s unprecedented climate crisis. According to some, she says, “the only precedents that show the scale and speed of change required in the face of the climate crisis are the World War II mobilizations that saw Western powers transform their manufacturing sectors and consumption patterns to fight Hitler’s Germany… Some argue that a better analogy than the war effort was the reconstruction afterward – specifically, the Marshall Plan.”

“Each precedent”, she observes, “has its own glaring weaknesses and contradictions”. But there is one which she chooses to give her book a subtitle. It was the call made by protesters who occupied the halls of the US Congress in November 2018. Given legislative form by House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey three months later, and harking back to president Franklin D Roosevelt’s sweeping package of policies to battle the poverty of the Great Depression and the ecological collapse of the Dust Bowl, it’s “The Green New Deal”.

Following the Introduction, Naomi Klein’s book consists of 16 previously published essays and speeches, dating from 2010 to 2019 and arranged in chronological order. 

I have followed Naomi Klein’s writing ever since I came across her first book, No Logo, as a young activist in the global justice movement in Europe at the start of the millennium. This latest book, On Fire – The Burning Case of a Green New Deal, is one of her best. 

If I say that it isn’t quite as good as her last one on climate change, that’s hardly a criticism. In my view, that 2014 predecessor – This Changes Everything – was the Non-Fiction Work of the Decade, which I referenced in interviews as president of NZNO. 

The issue with On Fire is that its 16 collected pieces are a little bit uneven. The weakest, to my mind, is the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture, delivered in 2016. 

It was always going to be tough to talk about climate change while honouring this great Palestinian intellectual. Edward Said increased our understanding enormously about culture and imperialism, but as Naomi Klein acknowledges, he also dismissed environmentalism as “the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause”. 

It is a strength of the Green New Deal, and of Naomi Klein’s writing in general, that they recognise the interconnections between the innumerable damaging effects of capitalism. And a point that she makes in the Said Lecture – that the oil companies which are responsible for climate change also fuel wars in the Middle East – is valid. But attempting to prove the connection by drawing a line on the map through the locations of US drone strikes, and looking for a link to average annual rainfall in those places, is stretching credibility. 

The other 15 chapters document the mounting environmental damage caused by capitalism, expose the forces which have sabotaged collective efforts to make sure Earth remains habitable and give encouragement and direction to the multiplicity of struggles for humanity’s survival and a socially just future.

In such a sea of brilliance, it’s hard to pick the gems. But there were three key messages, in three chapters, which stood out for me. 

The first was contained in Naomi Klein’s address to the graduating class of 2015 at the College of the Atlantic.

“In wealthy countries,” she told those graduands, “we are told how powerful we are as individuals all the time. As consumers. Even individual activists.”

Reflecting back on her time as a 26-year old researching No Logo, she remembered how “you expressed your political beliefs, first and very often last, through personal lifestyle choices. By loudly proclaiming your vegetarianism. By shopping fair trade and local, and boycotting big, evil brands.” Today that could be going dairy-free or camping out on Parliament’s lawn until a climate emergency is declared. 

But the message in her address was simple: “The very idea that we, as atomized individuals, even as lots of atomized individuals, could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system or changing the global economy is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together, as part of a massive and organised global movement.”

The second key message for me was about stories we tell ourselves, as a country, and how these national mythologies are reflected in governmental action on climate change. And judging by Naomi Klein’s 2016 Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture in Toronto, Ontario, it seems that these stories are pretty similar in Canada and in New Zealand. 

“A story cherished by a lot of powerful interests in this country”, she says, is that “we are a moderate people, steady-as-she-goes kind of folks. In a world of hotheads, we like to tell ourselves that we split the difference, choose the middle path. No sudden movement for us, and certainly no leaping.”

Reading this I was reminded of how Climate Change Minister James Shaw was absolutely committed form the outset to crafting a Zero Carbon Bill which had bipartisan support – and accepting all of the National Party’s bottom lines. “You need a consistency in public policy”, said the Minister, “so that investors can make long-term decisions”. Steady-as-she-goes. No sudden movement, for him. 

“Now, it’s a very nice story”, Naomi Klein continues. “Moderation is an asset in all sorts of circumstances. It’s a good approach for alcohol consumption, for instance, and hot fudge sundaes… [But] when it comes to climate change, incrementalism and moderation are actually a huge problem… When you have gone as badly off course as we have, moderate actions don’t lead to moderate outcomes. They lead to dangerously radical ones.”

Which is why New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act 2019 – which sets lofty goals to be met 30 years into the future, through yet-to-be-determined gradual steps, while plowing ahead today with fossil-fuelled, “shovel ready”, business as usual – represents failure. If we want a moderate and harmonious future, we now have to get more radical. 

My last key message from this book begins with an historical observation about the original inspiration for the Green New Deal: “It must always be remembered that President Franklin D Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamster Rebellion and the Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the eighty-three-day shutdown of West Coast ports by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint autoworkers sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937.”

Writing in 2019, Naomi Klein concludes that, “The single largest determining factor in whether a Green New Deal mobilization pulls us back from the climate cliff will be the actions taken by social movements in the coming years. Because as important as it is to elect politicians who are up for this fight, the decisive questions are not going to be solved through elections alone. At their core, they are about building political power – enough to change the calculus of what is possible.”

She concedes that, “Right now, civil society is nowhere near as strong or as organised as it was in the 1930s, when the huge concessions of the New Deal era were won – although there are certainly signs of strength, from movements against mass incarceration and deportations, to #MeToo, to the wave of teachers’ strikes, to Indigenous-led pipeline blockades, to fossil fuel divestment, to the Women’s Marches, to School Strikes for Climate, to the Sunrise Movement, to the momentum for Medicare for All, and much more.” 

Signs of strength have been apparent in Aotearoa, too – including in the union movement where my own activism is focused. My election as president of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation in 2015 came along with a groundswell of support for union action on pay and staffing levels, on the social determinants of health – and for action on climate change. But effective action requires collective leadership which is both responsive to the mood for change and visionary.  

“Right now”, continues Naomi Klein, “the Green New Deal is being characterised as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces (economic inequality, violence against women, white supremacy, unending wars, ecological unraveling) into walled-off silos… For this reason, one of the most pressing tasks ahead is to use every tool possible to make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked – and can be overcome only with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation.”

Delegates at the 2015 NZNO AGM voted strongly in favour of a remit I had drafted, for the union to divest from fossil fuels. I sought to channel the groundswell for climate action into NZNO support for the 2015 People’s Climate March and helped to produce an NZNO Position Statement on Climate Change

But I was personally disappointed, as the impetus was soon stifled by NZNO’s rigid internal silos and top-level resistance and indifference. The leadership of the NZNO Rūnanga, for instance, had little time for anything outside of the Māori and Iwi Provider Sector (and certainly little time for climate change). The industrial leadership had long resisted calls for a more holistic vision, including a bicultural equity lens. The idea of linking the various crises facing peoples and planet (or even all the crises facing different groups of members within the union) to one overarching system was inconceivable.

So when I was asked by union members at the Tai Tokerau Regional Convention in 2019, “What is NZNO’s position on climate change and how active are we and where is the accountability?, my answer was sadly limited to slim pickings. It represented the efforts of just a dozen or so self-motivated individuals in NZNO, over the four-year period.

Other unions however are seeing how the overlapping crises of capitalism are linked. They might not put it in exactly those terms, but they’re responding to a mood for change with a more holistic vision. 

The PSA, where I’m putting my energies now, has formed an Eco Network of union activists who build “organisation to improve workplace sustainability, and contribute to global campaigning for environmental justice and action on climate change”. 

“Climate change is a whole of union issue”, declares the PSA, and every member network in the union is engaging with it, from the PSA Pasefika Network to the Deaf and Disabled Network, from the Women’s Network to Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina. After a 2019 survey found that climate change was among the top three issues for PSA members, a responsive PSA Biennial Congress last month voted to strengthen the Eco Network and give it more reach. 

“[The Green New Deal] is not a magic cure for racism or misogyny or homphobia – we still have to confront those evils head on”, writes Naomi Klein, near the end of her book. “But it… would give a great many of us a sense of working together toward something bigger than ourselves. Something we are all part of creating… That kind of shared mission is something our late capitalist culture badly needs right now.”

For my union colleagues, this book will be gold. But to anyone concerned about climate or inequality (which is most people), I would also recommend it. On Fire – The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is filled with short, easy-to-read pieces you can dip in and out of. After you read it, think about going back to the longer and deeper account in This Changes Everything. And let’s keep talking, about how we can work on this future together. 

• First published on Connect with me there, for more talking about books.