Reflections on the LHP Symposium: ‘From Kinleith to the dole queue: workers’ struggles of the 1980s’

Reflections on the 2021 Labour History Project Symposium by Paul Maunder and Grant Brookes.

Paul Maunder, LHP Bulletin Editor, reflects

The seminar left me with the feeling of having experienced a contradiction at a deep level, but one which is not easy to articulate.

Having started off on a high (the victory at Kinleith), the union movement, as a social and political institution, obviously diminished in power and influence during the 1980s. From the Federation of Labour having a high media profile and with ready access to government, the body became something of a marginal player. And this diminishing has never been reversed.

Of course this is explicable. During the decade the manufacturing sector virtually disappeared, and this sector had provided the labour intense work sites that were often the base of militant unionism. But as well, white collar jobs were re-organised with short term contracts and an approaching digitalising of work. Meanwhile the service sector grew, characterised by low wages and precarious conditions. There was probably only hard-fought-for continuity in health and education, both sectors proving resistant to neoliberalism.

This was the negative story of the day.

The positive story was the diversification of the union movement during this same period, opening itself to women, other gender, Maori and Pasifika voices, leading to campaigns for equal pay, against sexual harassment and racial discrimination and beginning to bring tiriti relations into the movement.

The contradiction is that the garden in which this flowering took place diminished in size, even though the impulse was shared with more human rights focused campaigns. And there have been some notable blooms: the important care workers campaign and of course the more recent living wage campaign.

Yet, at the end of the day, at the negotiating table, a worker is a worker and a manager a manager, no matter what gender, race or sexuality either might be. The culture of the organisation getting the case together and the negotiating process should be inclusive, but that is not ultimately the matter up for negotiation, nor can failure be excused by good intentions.

Put it this way: If the negotiating team is ethnically, gender and sexually diverse, yet doesn’t achieve a good result, there is a cultural achievement yet ultimately a union failure. Scale this up to workers not getting their share of the cake and growing inequity, the end of union monopoly and the reduction of collective bargaining, poor health and safety, the housing crisis, an inadequate benefit system… The latter can be downplayed and the former celebrated – and there is cause for celebration − but also a failure if it becomes the goal of the union movement, that is, if the culture of the union movement becomes the central focus of the movement, as a way to sidestep the dominant crisis.

And was it in the eighties that this possible confusion of intent, imposed by crisis, became present?

In writing this I become aware of being on dangerous ground, but perhaps I am old enough and irrelevant enough as a Marxist to test the thinning ice of post modernism.

Grant Brookes, PSA Eco Network National Co-Convenor and nurse, reflects

History, as they say, is written by the victors. And in Aotearoa in the 1980s, there is no doubt who the victors were. 

So complete was their control of the narrative that up until February’s Symposium even my own memory, as a young adult during that decade, contained recollections of dole queues but none of the strike at Kinleith. 

As a consequence of this, the newly restored ‘Kinleith ’80’ film, shown at the start of the day, was an eye-opener. For me it was riveting to see the power of working people when we organise and the way that industrial struggle can transform every area of our lives, from our gendered relationships to cultural attitudes. The people in the film looked and sounded like my uncles and aunts. It brought the history to life. 

From that high point, as a number of speakers observed soberly, the trajectory for our class was downhill. 

But not everything was lost. As I entered the workforce myself in the following decade, the gains from Fighting sexual harassment in the 1980s had been sustained – at least in my unionised, public sector workplaces. Those oral histories from the Clerical Workers Union in the early eighties were eye-opening, in a different way. They were shocking. 

A highlight of the day for me was the presentation on Workers’ resistance to destructuring in the 1980s. This challenged the prevailing state-centred account of the rise of neoliberalism, which sees it as a response to the failure of Keynesian policy prescriptions and an organised takeover by ideologues in Treasury and in the Fourth Labour Government. 

The alternative explanation offered, in terms of a class assault to address a crisis of capitalist profitability, seems to me to allow an answer to the question posed in the final Panel on Intergenerational conversations: “Does history provide the answers for how to address our current crises?”

That answer is – yes it does, when theorised correctly. Many of the systemic drivers are the same today. Viewed through the right lens, history provides us with track markers and signposts the pitfalls. Although they do not know it, multitudes of working people in this country owe a debt of gratitude to LHP for keeping the flame of scholarship alight and organising symposiums such as this, where answers might be found for us all. •

First published in LHP Bulletin, 81, 52-3. Re-posted with permission. For a one year individual membership of the Labour History Project and subscription to the Bulletin, deposit $30 to the LHP Kiwibank account, 38 9012 0672630 00, and email with notification of deposit.

‘Questions for the NZNO Board and CEO’ – Unpublished letter to Kai Tiaki

As top public sector union leaders went in to bat for their members and for public services over the last fortnight, one group was conspicuously missing in action. With DHB nurses facing the prospect of a four year pay freeze and voting for historic strike action, where were the NZNO President, Kaiwhakahaere and Chief Executive?

NZNO member-leaders and DHB sector reps have spoken up for us brilliantly in the media. But from the three top positions – which collectively cost members around half a million dollars a year – there’s been silence. It wasn’t like that last time, under my watch.

NZNO President, Kaiwhakahaere and CEO front a press conference to announce that union members had voted to reject the DHB offer, 18 June 2018.

But asking hard questions like this, and seeking accountability for fee-paying members, may no longer be allowed in the letters page of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand

Founded in 1908, a year before NZNO, Kai Tiaki has enjoyed editorial independence for 113 years. Although under increasing strain in recent years, this freedom from control by vested interests and independence from political agendas of the day has enabled Kai Tiaki to remain the pre-eminent voice of nursing in Aotearoa New Zealand. The professional journalists employed at Kai Tiaki have set the editorial policies, including for example a “Letters to Editor Policy” which upholds freedom of expression and opposes censorship, so that the letters pages can remain an important forum for debate. “Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand is committed to publishing all letters it receives”, it says.

But no longer. On 14 May, the day that the DHB strike was announced, the acting CEO of NZNO sent an email. It wasn’t about supporting the strike. A decision on printing my letter to the May issue of Kai Tiaki, asking questions of the NZNO Board, had been taken out of the co-editors’ hands. I had been banned. The letters to policy and the CEO’s email are reproduced here side-by-side.

Two questions arise immediately. Why is the acting NZNO CEO interfering in editorial decisions at Kai Tiaki and undermining the operations of our prized journal? And does the NZNO Board approve of this censorship? 

It appears that an NZNO member can now be barred permanently from the letters page of our journal. My unpublished letter is posted below, so readers can judge for themselves whether there is any validity at all in Mairi Lucas’ justifications. 

The NZNO Board has approved a Strategic Plan which stresses that NZNO is a democratic, membership-driven organisation. But this is not how a democratic, membership-driven organisation operates. The Board should direct the acting CEO to respect Kai Tiaki’s editorial independence. Let the different sides of a story be told, and let those same old false and divisive allegations, which are now trotted out routinely in response to any criticism of the leadership, stand the test of scrutiny and debate.

As stated in my original letter below, NZNO members deserve a functional system of governance that meets their legitimate needs and expectations – at the very least including public support, when they’re going on strike. Heaven knows we pay enough for it. 

Letter to Kai Tiaki, 27 April 2021 

Questions for the NZNO board of directors continue to grow. 

The board’s chief executive (CE) employment committee hoped to appoint a new NZNO CE before Memo Musa’s last day, said board member Simon Auty in the February issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand (p7). There had been “a significant number” of applications, he added. 

Applications closed on 26 January. Musa finished on 26 February. It is now May. Why has no CE been appointed? 

What does it mean for NZNO democracy, now that the full-time leadership team consists of a single individual in a permanent role with two in acting positions who previously worked under her? (Eg. see here, and here)

How can the President fulfil her constitutional role as the representative of non-Māori members, in NZNO’s bicultural partnership, if she’s also part of Te Poari meetings of the Māori leadership? 

What has happened to the full independent review of the NZNO Constitution which members voted for last year? According to the Terms of Reference sent to all members in December, it’s supposed to be completed in time for the 2021 NZNO AGM, four months from now. Yet there’s no sign that it’s even started. 

In March, Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand reported that a “board review recommends some radical changes” (p4). Key recommendations of the review included a smaller board of nine, an appointed chair, two appointed directors to bridge skill gaps, a half-time president and kaiwhakahaere and a strategic wānanga “to clarify how the bicultural model enhanced NZNO’s purpose and vision”.

If the board won’t release the report to members, as they should, will they at least inform us of their response to the recommendations

And when will NZNO have a functional system of governance that meets the legitimate needs and expectations of the fee-paying members? 

Grant Brookes, RN

PSA Mental Health delegates support NZNO members

The letter of support for the NZNO members of the DHB Sector below was sent to their Industrial Advisor David Wait on 4 May 2021, for the attention of the members and their bargaining team.

Tēnā koutou David me ngā mema o tō koutou uniana,

We write to you as a group of PSA union delegates at Capital & Coast DHB. Please feel free to share this letter.

We are your colleagues, who work alongside you in the DHB Sector. We know from personal experience the difference nurses make to the lives of health consumers, tāngata whaiora and to our communities.

We see your unsafe workloads, under-staffing and stress. We’re affected by it too.

So when the “April Fool’s Day” offer was released, we shared your dismay. In a very real sense, our fortunes are entwined with yours.

When DHB spokesperson Dale Oliff tried to justify it as “reasonable in the context of other public and health sector settlements”, we were angry not only because it showed how little the DHBs thought of you, but because she was obviously talking about our pending offers as well.

As you now undertake a strike ballot and nationwide members’ meetings, we cannot sit silently on the sidelines.

We applaud your decision to reject the DHB offer. We encourage you to push hard for a settlement that reflects your value. As you push, know that we are with you. If push comes to shove we pledge you our support.

Nō reira, kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui! Be strong, be brave, be stout hearted!

Nā mātou noa, nā

PSA Delegates Committee
Mental Health, Addictions & Intellectual Disability Service

PSA Eco Network: Your new convenors, Wellington vacancy, PSA Strategic Goals, submissions and protests!

It has been two months since our last newsletter for Eco Network members. The Network Convenors would like to provide an update on how the Network has been promoting environmental interests within the PSA, facilitating the sharing of information and resources and encouraging engagement and action on the environment.


Thank you for your Climate Change submission feedback

We would like to thank members who provided feedback for the PSA submission to the Climate Change Commission on its draft advice to Government on climate action in Aotearoa. Some clear themes came through:

  • Considering emissions from the production of imported products which are consumed in New Zealand, not just those emitted by local production
  • Enabling Local Government to make effective decisions for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including aligning the Local Government Act and the Building Act and Code 
  • There should be no buying of emissions units from overseas to balance New Zealand’s carbon budget
  • Achieving an equitable transition means strengthening workplace democracy.

The feedback also addressed the need for the PSA to become more sustainable, too.

The final PSA submission can be viewed on the PSA website here. According to the Commission, ours was one of more than 15,500 submissions which they are now reviewing. Thank you to everyone who submitted – whether individually, through your work or through contributions to collective submissions like the PSA’s.

Making climate justice a PSA strategic goal

Since our last newsletter, the Eco Network Convenors have also participated in the refresh of the PSA Strategic Goals 2018-2024. The outcome of this three-yearly review will set the guideposts for how the PSA advances the interests of members.

The Eco Network is clear that there are no jobs, no unions and no people on a dead planet.

After seeking input from members, Eco Network Convenors met with PSA President Benedict Ferguson and provided a written submission to the Executive Board. We have called for the addition of a new Strategic Goal for the PSA: Climate Justice. Our submission argued that only a standalone goal can give the appropriate level of visibility and mana to this existential issue.

At the same time, we said that the existing Goals should also be updated to address climate change. This is necessary to clarify and build the narrative of the intersections between climate and workers’ justice. You can find our submission online here

School Strike 4 Climate

On 9 April 2021, thousands of students and supporters took to the streets in cities and towns around Aotearoa for the latest School Strike 4 Climate. PSA members and staff attended events around the country. 

The school strikers this year delivered six demands for the Government to take real, meaningful climate action. These had a strong focus on union issues like the impacts of climate change on working people and the need to invest in a just transition. They also echoed many of the points in the PSA’s submission to the Climate Change Commission and the approach to public transport in the PSA’s “Let’s Do Even Better” campaign.

SS4C was supported by the PSA . After a shout out to the Eco Network to help, Network members signed up as volunteers on the day, arranged the loan of megaphones and mobilised support from within the PSA and in the wider union movement 

Climate Change Minister James Shaw tweeted his support and told students in Wellington they needed to keep on showing up and putting the pressure on the politicians right across the House. 

Young people are showing us the way. The Eco Network Convenors look forward to many more opportunities for the Network to engage in environmental activism for the benefit of union members. 

Introducing your new convenors

We are very pleased to introduce three new Eco Network Convenors:

  • Grant Brookes – National Co-Convenor 
    Grant has been involved in the Eco Network for a while as the Wellington Convenor. Grant has now stepped up to the National Co-Convenor role alongside Briar Wyatt. Grant works as a Mental Health Nurse at CCDHB in Wellington. 
  • Alana Reid – South Island Regional Convenor 
    Alana Reid works at Dunedin City Council on building consents. She is a member of the PSA Executive Board and Local Government Sector Committee, and now also a representative for South Island PSA Eco Network members. 
  • Shonagh Clark – Auckland Regional Convenor 
    Shonagh Clark works in the contact centre at Statistics NZ in Auckland. She is a representative for Auckland Eco Network members.

Wellington convenor vacancy

As Grant is now Eco Network Co-Convenor, this has created a Wellington Convenor vacancy.

We welcome expressions of interest for this role.

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 ‘Eco Network Structure’ tab.

We invite you to express your interest in the Wellington convenor role 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 Friday 14 May 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, 
Grant Brookes and Briar Wyatt 
PSA Eco Network National Co-Convenors

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.