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.

‘An NZNO leadership willing to face reality’ – Letter to Kai Tiaki

It was sad to see in October’s coverage of the NZNO annual general meeting that membership had dropped by 0.9 percent over the 2019/20 year, to end on 31 March at 51,643. But I was struck by chief executive Memo Musa’s comment about this to the AGM, that “the trajectory still pointed to growth”. 

As a union, we have power in numbers. So a trajectory of growth would be good news for members. It would mean more union strength to deliver for each one of us, and more resources to support nursing. Sadly, however, this doesn’t appear to be the case. 

Just six days before the AGM, on 11 September, the chief executive had emailed all members with the results of the Board by-election. The notice stated that total membership (the number of eligible voters) was now 50,418. In other words, there had been a further 2.4 percent drop the in five months from 31 March. 

NZNO won an award at the 2019 Congress of the International Council of Nurses, for having at least three quarters of New Zealand’s practising nurses as members. This was based on an NZNO membership return submitted in 2018 and the Nursing Council’s register, as at 31 March 2019. If the awards ceremony was held today, NZNO would not qualify.

The chief executive also told this year’s AGM that, “NZNO was ‘lucky’ compared to other unions, many of which were seeing a decrease or ‘stunted’ growth”. 

The day before these words appeared in the October Kai Tiaki, a headline on Stuff announced, “Covid-19 boosts NZ union membership”. According to the Stuff article, “Union members as a proportion of the workforce rose over the three months to June, to 19.8 per cent compared with 19.1 per cent in the December quarter 2019, according to Statistics New Zealand data released by the Council of Trade Unions. Union membership rose by about 12,000 to 411,000 by the end of June, from 399,000 in March.”

Musa’s account to the 2020 AGM had the story back to front. Over the two years from September 2018 up until the 2020 Board election, while other unions have been growing, NZNO membership dropped by 4.4 percent from 52,712 to 50,418. This is not a “trajectory of growth”. 

NZNO members deserve the truth. And NZNO staff – whose livelihoods depend on the number of fee-paying members – are entitled to no less. 

The fall of 2,294 members since September 2018 is the largest numerical drop over a two-year period in NZNO’s history. This is sapping our union strength, and shaving more than a million dollars off NZNO’s annual income. It should be ringing alarm bells for all our leaders and triggering urgent corrective action. To rebuild our organisation, we need a leadership willing to face reality and be held to account. 

Grant Brookes, RN

First published (slightly abridged) in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, December 2020. The resignation of NZNO chief executive was announced two days after the letter was submitted for publication.