Newtown Union Health Service – Chairperson’s report to the 2020 AGM

Newtown Union Health Service is a not-for-profit community service providing healthcare for community service card holders, low income earners, union members and their families. NUHS is community owned and has provided affordable, accessible, appropriate, quality, not-for-profit and community based primary health care in Wellington since May 1987. Established with the support of local trade unions, two seats on the NUHS Policy Board are reserved for representatives endorsed by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi. Since 2013, I have filled one of these positions – serving for the last four years as the Policy Board Chairperson. In the interests of getting the NUHS story out more widely, it was agreed by the Policy Board that I may re-publish my report to the 2020 AGM on this blog. The entire NUHS Annual Report 2019/20 is available online here.

“He waka eke noa – We are all in this together”. The story of NUHS over the past year has been inseparable from the story of Aotearoa New Zealand, as we united against Covid-19 and for healthy communities. Although the first known infection of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in this country did not occur until two thirds of the way through 2019/20, the pandemic strongly shaped our year as a whole. 

The role of NUHS staff as essential front-line health workers against the virus was recognised and accorded a higher priority. An immediate increase in Covid-19 Response and Sustainability Funding enabled NUHS to react quickly to making sure we had the tools needed to continue providing a health service while keeping patients safe. NUHS was also contracted by Tū Ora PHO to provide an Outreach Service in Strathmore and Kilbirnie, the Mobile Swabbing service for the Wellington area and to start delivering a Covid-19 Pacific Response Package for Pacific peoples.

Some differences in timing of income and expenditure relating to the Covid-19 response contributed to an end of year surplus of $257,444, against a break-even Budget. The pandemic also made the introduction of a Hardship Fund in the 2019/20 Budget, for patients experiencing financial difficulties as a result of health care costs, particularly timely. 

As the operational team under the management of Fiona Osten adopted new ways of working under changing Covid-19 alert levels, the Policy Board provided monitoring and oversight of compliance with the evolving restrictions and guidelines. A particular focus for the Policy Board, under alert levels 2 to 4, was compliance with health and safety guidelines for NUHS staff. 

The pandemic also impacted on longer-term projects. Major work to extend the life of the building at 14 Hall Avenue, due to take place this year, was not able to begin. The Policy Board was able to allocate funding, however, so that a new roof and other external remediation is expected to be completed in 2020/21, without recourse to borrowing. 

Long-term work in our wider environment was affected, as well. In 2018/19, the Government responded favourably to 38 of the 40 recommendations in the Report of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, He Ara Oranga, including several with ramifications for our service. However, implementation of these recommendations this year was delayed firstly by the pandemic and then by the approach of the general election.

It was a similar story with the Health and Disability Services Review. We were fortunate to receive some early insights into this review from panel member Margaret Southwick, who spoke at our 2019 AGM. When the final report was released in June, the Government accepted the direction of travel outlined in the Review, but detail of the changes will not become clear until the new Government gets to work after the election.

Yet by pulling together, the Policy Board did achieve some long-term goals this year. Work on updating the Constitution, which began back in 2014, was finally brought to a conclusion when the new NUHS Constitution was approved at the 2019 AGM. A major change to membership criteria means that membership of the NUHS incorporated society is no longer automatic for, or limited to, enrolled patients. Under the new Constitution, membership will now be voluntary and membership applications will be considered from supporters of the service who are not enrolled patients. These changes were prompted and guided by legal advice from Oakley Moran on current best practice for incorporated societies. Processes to operationalise the new membership system were developed over the course of 2019/20 and will be implemented in time for the 2020 AGM. 

Long-proposed governance training was undertaken. And work on reviewing and updating the organisation’s strategic plan was also completed. The new NUHS Strategic Plan 2020-25, as approved by the Policy Board, is appended to this report. 

Our efforts to seek wider unity with stakeholders has also borne fruit. Joint work with Whitireia tertiary institute this year to develop online learning packages for Primary Health Care Nurses has resulted in a set of four Refugee Health Modules. Further Nurse Education Learning Modules are planned. 

Our relationship with Tū Ora Compass PHO continues to deepen, too. We have appreciated the opportunity to participate in discussions around changing the voting system for the election of PHO Board members. And our role in the Riddiford House Incorporated Society, of which NUHS is a member, has expanded to take on the secretariat function.

We continued our excellent relationship with University of Otago, Wellington medical student teaching, including being adaptable and innovative in changes prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. A growing relationship with Wesley Community Action bodes well for the future.

2020/21 has also been a year of individual achievements at NUHS. Serena Moran successfully completed all of the requirements laid down by the Nursing Council of New Zealand Te Kaunihera Tapuhi o Aotearoa to become our first Nurse Practitioner (NP). The requirements include a minimum of 300 hours of clinical supervision from another NP or senior doctor, which NUHS GP Dr Jonathan Kennedy was proud to provide.

Nurse Fou Etuale joined the team of Nurse Vaccinators sent to Samoa by the New Zealand Government to help with the measles outbreak. And three NUHS staff were recognised in the inaugural Primary Health Care Awards He Tohu Mauri Ora. Dianne Theobald was runner up for Practice Nurse of the Year. Pharmacist Linda Bryant won the Green Cross Health Award for Outstanding Contribution to Health while Dr Nikki Turner was runner-up for the same award. 

The composition of the Policy Board has remained largely stable in 2019/20, as it was in the previous financial year, with gradual evolutions rather than wholesale changes in our line-up. At the 2019 AGM, the Policy Board farewelled our inaugural community representative from the Massey University student body, Jacob Paterson. Fortunately, his Massey University successor elected at that meeting, Amy Palmer, has made an equally valuable contribution. 

At the end of the 2020/21 year, we were saddened but also happy to farewell community representative Ibrahim Omer, who stepped aside after being named as a list candidate for the Labour Party. We congratulate Ibrahim on his journey to become New Zealand’s first African MP, in the certain knowledge that he carries the health and wellbeing of the people in his heart. 

I acknowledge too the remaining Board members who have helped us unite this year for health – Tāngata Whenua rep Fiona Da Vanzo, union rep Sam Gribben, community reps Barbara Lambourne and Roger Shaw and Treasurer Julie Lamb. I am also grateful to Board Minute Taker Vanessa Gray and Finance Leader Giordano Rigutto, whose support has underpinned our collective achievements.

Nō reira, me maumahara tātou ki tēnei whakatauki, “Ko te toki tē tangatanga i te rā. He toki, he tāngata” So at this time, let’s all remember this saying, “We are the adze whose bindings cannot be loosened by the sun. People together grow in strength”. 

Grant Brookes, Chairperson NUHS Policy Board

‘What’s really happening in our Mental Health Unit’ – Letter to Kai Tiaki

We write in response to an article about our service in the October issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand. Under the headline, “Acute mental health units being upgraded” (p8), it was reported that, “A new six-bed inpatient mental health facility at Wellington Hospital will be ready in 2021.” 

Unfortunately, there is nothing in that statement that is true. 

As a standard topic for media sensationalism, mental health services in Wellington sadly suffer from inaccurate reporting, on a regular basis. So we would like to take this opportunity to inform fellow health professionals, in this privileged professional forum, about what is really happening at Te Whare o Matairangi. 

Kai Tiaki New Zealand was correct to report that our 30-bed mental health inpatient unit was one of those named in August by chief ombudsman Peter Boshier as breaching the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, for our use of seclusion rooms to home patients. 

As Stuff has reported, staff had been raising these issues with senior management long before the Chief Ombudsman’s visit. In February this year, for instance, we put them in writing in a collective letter to the chief executive and board of Capital and Coast DHB and the general manager of the mental health, addictions and intellectual disabilities (MHAID) directorate. 

Our letter expressed our concerns as health professionals at the use of inappropriate rooms in our seclusion area to house patients, as well as many other concerns over the safety of staff and patients. 

Although this work has been led by the mental health union, the Public Service Association, we are collaborating closely with NZNO and we are receiving support from the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. 

In recent meetings with the MHAID directorate leadership team, we have been encouraged by their willingness to acknowledge, and act upon our concerns. We have also met with officials at the Ministry of Health. 

Although the solutions under discussion do not include a new six-bed inpatient mental health facility at Wellington Hospital, we are hopeful that our collective action and union solidarity will yield results which address our concerns and those of Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. 

  • Ian Monzari, PSA delegate
  • Grant Brookes, RN

The co-editors reply: We apologise for the error in our report last month about mental health unit upgrades. Six new units for the highest needs intellectual disability and mental health patients at Capital & Coast District Health Board will in fact be attached to the current forensic intellectual disability facility at the Rātonga-Rua o Porirua mental health campus in Keneperu, not Wellington Hospital, as reported. Completion is scheduled for 2021.
An updated news story is on p8.

‘No more pokies!’ – A submission on the City Council’s Gambling Venues Policy, on behalf of Unions Wellington

Unions Wellington is the Local Affiliate Council of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi (NZCTU), bringing together tens of thousands of union members in our city. Currently led by a committee of six members and staff from affiliated unions, we are the united voice for working people and their families in the Capital.

Our Constitutional Objects, which include promoting and protecting the economic, social, industrial, political and educational interests of working people in Wellington, led us to make a submission as part of Wellington City Council’s review of its Gambling Venues Policy.

We consulted our parent body, the NZCTU, considered the position of working people in the city and consulted with representatives of the unionised workers in health and social services who provide support to individuals and communities experiencing gambling harm.

It was great to work with the rest of the Unions Wellington committee to produce the submission, based on a Public Health approach, calling on the City Council to:

  1. Implement a sinking lid, which allows no new venues or machines in Wellington.
  2. Support the ActionStation submission (“No More Pokies in Wellington”), and specifically to implement a gambling venues policy that provides:
    ★ A ban on any new venues including TAB venues: No new pokies venues will be permitted in Wellington.
    ★ No relocations: If a venue with pokies is forced to close or voluntarily closes, the Council will not permit the pokie machines to be relocated to any venue within the Council area.
    ★ No venue mergers: Where pubs and clubs that host pokies merge, they will no longer be permitted to host pokies.

Our full submission is available at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we vote to end NZNO’s woes?

The power of collective action, as seen in the Primary Health Care strike this week, is the key to positive change inside NZNO as well as in the health sector.

Members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation have until Friday, 11 September to cast their vote. For the fifth time in three years, we’re being asked to elect people for positions on the NZNO Board. Voting on remits (proposed alterations to NZNO’s Constitution and policies) is taking place at the same time.

As Board resignations and by-elections have escalated, there’s been a growing sense of confusion and powerlessness among NZNO members. With the future of the organisation on the line, some have asked me for advice on what to do. As an NZNO member myself, it’s something I’ve pondered long and hard. The turmoil at the top of New Zealand’s second largest trade union and the traditional voice of nursing in this country is raising concern well beyond the ranks of the NZNO membership, as well. 

My key messages to my fellow members have been twofold:

  • Voting in the 2020 NZNO elections is important
  • Voting alone will not be enough, sadly, to pull NZNO out of its current troubles.

My thoughts on the Board elections and remits come later, in section 6 of this long-form article. But first I need to explain why voting alone won’t be enough. Understanding the background, and how the wider social context has contributed to NZNO’s woes, might help guide other actions to fix things. I end on these other actions, including what they mean for bread and butter issues like the 2020 DHB MECA, in section 7

The current turmoil in NZNO broke out in 2018. I give an account of the last two years in section 4. But the roots of the problems run deep. They can be traced back to the early years of our organisation, because when NZNO was founded in 1909, it started out as an anti-union organisation. 

1. Historical roots

The decade leading up to World War One saw a huge surge in industrial action and union organisation in New Zealand. Working people flocked to join and form unions in large numbers so that by 1914, we were the third most highly unionised country in the world after Britain and Australia. Calls for a nurses’ union were growing louder.

In response, the first issue of Kai Tiaki after the formation of NZNO contained this warning from inaugural president Hester Maclean: 

“We must, however, guard against any elements of trade unionism creeping in among us. A nurse must be a woman, working, not in the first place for the sake of money-making, but for the good of her fellow creatures to alleviate suffering when she can and help towards health for those who need her care.”

This remained a core part of her leadership. In her memoirs written 23 years later, Maclean recalled NZNO’s biggest achievements. “One of the first important steps taken by the Association”, she said, “was to protest against a clause in a Hospital Bill then before the House, which would have made compulsory an eight hour day for all nurses in hospitals.”

The Hospitals Act 1909 limited working hours for student nurses to 56-hours a week. But thanks to NZNO’s protest, there was no limit on the hours that RNs could be made to work – morning to night, seven days a week. 

The anti-union stance at the top of the organisation persisted through the ensuing decades. The First Labour Government, elected in 1935 under Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, announced a bold goal of unionising all workers. The idea was popular among nurses. But president Cecilia McKenny told the 1941 NZNO Annual General Meeting, “Unions, however valuable, with their demands and possible strikes, have no place in nursing. Nursing is very much more giving than getting.”

In the 1950s, as momentum grew for pay equity in the public sector, NZNO refused to join with the PSA and other unions to win it, out of fear of seeming “political” or Left wing. NZNO managed to achieve recognition as a negotiator of employment conditions for nurses without embracing trade unionism. 

This conservative, anti-union stance reflected the fact that NZNO was a professional organisation for nurses, but one that was run by hospital matrons (the nurse executives of the day), alongside Health Department officials and, in later years, nursing academics. For the first half of its existence, NZNO was a niche association for a minority of the profession willing to submit to this regime. 

Attitudes at the top started to shift in the 1970s. But at the end of that decade, membership of NZNO still comprised only a third of the 30,000 RNs and ENs practising in New Zealand. 

The transformation of our organisation into a mass membership trade union representing the whole profession didn’t get under way in earnest until the 1980s. Hand in hand with this transformation was a struggle to democratise the organisation and take it out of the hands of the nurse executives and government health officials. 

“Democracy, participation and structure were the organisational issues of the 1980s for nurses”, observed feminist historian Linda Hill. The situation inside NZNO in 1981, as she describes it, might sound depressingly familiar:

“Senior nurses… attended its evening meetings while others worked shifts. Their presence discouraged staff nurses from speaking up at branch meetings; enrolled nurses and aides were probably unaware they could attend… Yet decisions from such unrepresentative meetings, backed by the membership numbers of the whole region, led to policy at national level… The hierarchical organisation within [NZNO] was not designed to hear or respond to membership views”. 

But thanks to a decade-long battle by a group of union activists, largely from the Greater Auckland Region of NZNO, there was a complete overhaul of the NZNO Constitution. By the time NZNO formally registered as a union and went on strike for the first time in 1989, “the internal political groundwork had already been done to transform [NZNO] from a senior nurses’ club into a organisation which represented members lower in the nursing hierarchy.” 

When the DHB MECA was signed in 2004, creating the largest collective employment agreement in New Zealand, NZNO had taken its place at the forefront of this country’s union movement. Vestiges of conservative, anti-union sentiment remained. But the arguments were largely settled. When I talked as president about the need to build NZNO’s dual identity as a union and professional association, and about how these are inseparable, I was simply reiterating the established view, codified years earlier by people like former NZNO chief executive Geoff Annals

Former NZNO chief executive Geoff Annals

2. Fast forward to today

In his first interview as the new NZNO chief executive in 2013, however, Memo Musa revealed a desire to roll back these changes and revive older ideas and attitudes. For him, NZNO was primarily a professional association. Our trade unionism was to be relegated once again to a subordinate, supporting role. 

Asking himself, “What drives NZNO’s agenda?”, he said: 

“Is it nursing as a professional body or is it industrial relations? From my value base, it is nursing as a profession… The industrial relations component supports the nursing profession; that’s how I see the balance playing out.” 

This was not surprising, coming from a former Ministry official and DHB chief executive who in 2007 had gone as far as issuing a trespass notice banning union representatives from entering the workplace at Whanganui Hospital. 

After encountering early internal resistance to his ideas (for example, around his extreme proposal to redefine union members as “customers” of NZNO), the NZNO chief executive rarely nailed his colours to the mast like this again. But behind the scenes the ideas and attitudes remained, to re-emerge at critical junctures.

At the 2015 NZNO AGM, he argued that the unions were in decline and NZNO’s future lay in Increasing its role as a professional association. When NZNO’s Strategic Plan 2015-2020 was opened up for review and renewal at the February 2019 Board meeting, he pushed even further in this direction:

“The chief executive drew the Board’s attention to the previous strategic plan process where the description of NZNO was changed in 2015 from a “union and professional association” to a “professional association and union”, reflecting a stronger emphasis on promoting the profession.  The chief executive acknowledged that NZNO needs to do more to profile the nursing profession and advised that the media have been able to cherry-pick information about NZNO activities making a stronger reference to being a ‘union’ than a ‘nursing professional association’.  The chief executive said that over time, he has explained to various reporters that the bulk of NZNO’s work is professional in its content.”

Then there was the curious case of his speech to the 2018 NZNO Regional Conventions. 

The three members of the NZNO leadership team – president, kaiwhakahaere and chief executive – had each been asked to speak about, “Approaches to overcome barriers to membership participation”. The topic, set the year before, was being well and truly overtaken by events. By the time of the first Regional Convention in April 2018, members in the DHBs were rising up. “Barriers to membership participation” were being smashed. 

Yet in his speech to that first convention in Christchurch, the chief executive expressed the belief that members were not participating in NZNO. And to explain this perceived problem, he cited a four year-old membership satisfaction survey. Completed by less than one percent of members (376 people), the 2014 survey report contained a single comment on the final page that “a small minority” of these 376 people felt that NZNO had a “left wing bias”. This, said Musa, was a reason why members don’t participate. 

After this first Regional Convention, it was suggested to the chief executive that the DHB MECA ratification votes in December 2017 and March 2018 had seen membership participation on a scale greater than anything in our union’s history. Yet as membership participation continued to smash records in subsequent MECA votes, the chief executive ignored the overwhelming evidence and clung to his ideological position in speeches to the other conventions. 

To Memo Musa, NZNO’s problem is not only that it’s too much like a union. It is also too far to the Left. 

Over breakfast with Helen Kelly one morning in 2015, not long after her diagnosis, the former president of the Council of Trade Unions asked me bluntly – How the hell did the Whanganui DHB chief executive end up at the head of our union? 

Having been an NZNO Board member in 2013, I knew exactly how it happened. I was there when the Board met to decide who the new chief executive would be. Confidentiality obligations prevent me from sharing information about that meeting – who was in favour, and how the decision was reached to appoint Memo Musa. But for readers of this article, there would be no great surprises if I did. And even though I knew then just a fraction of what I know now, I can say that I still personally voted against hiring him. 

Top-level conservatism and aversion to trade unionism, however, are not the only problems now facing NZNO with deep historical roots. The wider social context contributing to NZNO’s present woes also include changes in Te Ao Māori. 

3. Bicultural partnership?

For most of the last century, the prevailing view in the Māori world was that the aspirations of tāngata whenua were aligned with the goals of the labour movement. This was famously expressed in 1936, at a high-profile meeting between Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana and newly-elected Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. 

In 1928, 10 years after his first religious visions, T.W. Rātana founded a political movement which grew in the space of a few short years to number 40,000 strong. The alliance with the dominant political wing of the labour movement, cemented at that historic meeting in 1936, brought together the struggles to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to liberate working people. Speaking afterwards in the Wanganui Chronicle, Rātana told of a prophecy made by King Tāwhiao in 1869 that, “When the shoemakers, watchmakers, blacksmiths and carpenters rule this country then will the Māori people receive their salvation.”

Iwi-labour alliance, 1943: The Auckland Star reports union activists erecting palisades to defend the last remaining Māori-owned land at Bastion Point/Takaparawhā. Three decades later, the Auckland Trades Council would support the 506-day occupation which led to the return of land to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei under the first historic Treaty settlement.

The Māori resurgence of the 1970s built on this alliance. In the historic 1975 Land March led by Whina Cooper, the organising group took out newspaper advertisements appealing for support from all working people. These advertisements explained why they wanted Pākehā involvement: 

“We see no difference between the aspirations of Maori people and the desire of workers in their struggles. We seek the support of workers and organisations, as the only viable bodies which have sympathy and understanding of the Maori people and their desires.”

None of this was to suggest that all Pākehā trade unionists were somehow free from racism, or that every union supported Te Tiriti. Rather, it was a strategic recognition by the organisers that, “The people who are oppressing the workers are the same who are exploiting the Maori today.”

Historian Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) describes the positive response: The considerable support of Pākehā sent the message that Māori were not the only ones who were fed up with racial discrimination and unjust laws in Aotearoa.”

Labour governments from Michael Joseph Savage up until the present day have done more to improve the lives of the people than any of the others. But there’s one thing they have conspicuously failed to do. They not fulfilled King Tāwhiao’s prophecy. Working people are no closer to ruling this country today than we were 85 years ago, and Māori still do not have equity. 

After six decades of failing to honour Te Tiriti, strains in the relationship between Māori and the Labour Party were apparent for all to see by the 1990s. In 2004 the historic alliance finally snapped and the new Māori Party arose to claim independent political leadership. 

This justified and long-overdue move, however, would soon produce far-reaching, adverse effects. Freed from the last historic linkages to the labour movement, the prevailing view in the Māori world found a new social alignment. This is because, as prominent Māori leader Annette Sykes has explained (in an essay worth reading in full):

“The same period saw the rise of a Maori elite within the process of litigating, negotiating and then implementing Treaty settlements, many of whom have become active sycophants of the broader neo-liberal agenda… An aura has built up around these Iwi leaders who, in tandem with the Maori Party, are now treated as the authorised voices of all Maori.”

“In the process, the reality of our people has been lost sight of…. Given this history, it is not surprising that one of the strongest criticisms of the [Māori elite] is that it is not democratic and is made up of a very small sector of the Maori community who has little, if any, direct accountability to the whanau and hapu it serves.”

After gravitating to this “upper layer of Maori society, created to engage with the Crown”, it was only a small step for the ascendant Māori Party to forge a new alliance between tāngata whenua and the political representatives of New Zealand’s corporate elite. 

For nine long years, the Māori Party supplied the votes in Parliament to prop up a Right wing National Party government. For three full parliamentary terms, as austerity and cuts created growing misery (especially for Māori) and workers’ rights were stripped away, they clung to an alliance with the elites. 

In 2011, the tensions of supporting a government that was making life worse for their people split the Māori Party. Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira broke away to form the anti-neoliberal, pro-worker MANA Party. At each successive election, the Māori Party lost seats, until finally it was voted out completely in 2017. Today there is an acknowledgement by the party that supporting National was unpopular with Māori – most of whom are working class, like the rest of us. But doubts remain that the alignment of the Māori Party has fundamentally changed – prompted for example by the recent election of John Tamihere as party co-leader.

A career chief executive, Tamihere was once asked what he thought about the power of the unions. Where the Land Marchers had spoken of unions as “the only viable bodies which have sympathy and understanding of the Maori people and their desires”, Tamihere said: “Unions? I can’t stand them”. 

And where the Land Marchers had appealed for Pākehā support, John Tamihere suggests that every Pākehā is a racist (and those who don’t seem like one are simply “asymptomatic racists”). 

In this worldview, genuine unity in struggle is impossible. The people oppressing Māori are not holding down workers, too. The oppressors are the Pākehā workers themselves. This false and divisive perspective destroys union solidarity between working people of different ethnic backgrounds. Attempts to win non-Māori away from their lingering personal racism and forge genuine bicultural partnerships are pointless. Wherever possible, it’s better to simply shut down democracy and exclude them from decision-making. 

These developments in Te Ao Māori have also contributed to NZNO’s current woes. 

Like the “Māori elite” described above, the currently authorised voice of all Māori inside NZNO is an undemocratic body which has little, if any, direct accountability to the thousands of Māori NZNO members it serves. 

In a moment of candour, not long after I was elected as president, kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku told me she didn’t really believe in unions. This is not as surprising as it might sound. After all, she has never been active as a trade unionist in the workplace, and Companies Office records show a long history of directorships and major shareholdings in multiple businesses. 

Whatever the personal political allegiances of individuals, a worldview emanating from the Māori Party prevails at the top of Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO. The divisive and anti-union perspective which comes with it reinforces the direction of travel under the NZNO chief executive.

4. Years of turmoil, days of hope

“2018 – It’s been some year”, observed the headline of the editorial in the December issue of Kai Tiaki. It was referring, of course, to the momentous DHB strike in July that year and the wave of member-led change it unleashed both inside and outside of NZNO.

The wave of change arrived in December 2017, when members in the DHB Sector voted to reject a poor MECA offer which had been recommended to them by the NZNO negotiating team. It was the first time that NZNO members had ever rebelled against their leaders on a national scale like this, and it set off a chain reaction. 

Three further offers were voted down, in online votes that saw record member participation – well over double the 25 percent turnout typical in previous MECA campaigns

Every single step forward towards the final result, which delivered a whopping $300 million extra and a promise of jobs for every new grad, was powered by the unity and determination of the membership. Those were heady days of hope. 

Days of hope: Standing up for for safe staffing in Wellington on International Nurses Day 2018. The marches held in towns and cities around the country that day were organised by nurses ourselves, independently of NZNO national leadership – who banned the use of NZNO flags and banners.

In June 2018, members voted for two 24-hour nationwide strikes. When the decision to call off the first strike was confirmed on 29 June, at a 10.30am meeting between Memo Musa and Cee Payne, the outrage reverberated around every hospital in the country. The response was told through media headlines – “Activists seeking NZNO reform following DHB deal”. 

Once again, as in the 1980s, the reform was spearheaded by a group of activists from Auckland. Calling themselves the NZNO Members Action Group (MAG), and working through the Greater Auckland Regional Council of NZNO, they submitted a paper for the NZNO AGM in September. The paper, duly circulated to all NZNO member groups, outlined the case for change. Their number one proposal was: “That an external independent evaluation of NZNOs DHB MECA negotiating process and the NZNO Bargaining Policy is conducted.”

The idea of independent review was then raised at Special Meeting of the NZNO Board on 15 August 2018. The minutes of that meeting record how the chief executive managed to block it:

“A Board member asked whether the planned review of the DHB MECA bargaining should be conducted externally. The chief executive said that the first thing to do is to establish the terms of reference for the review, and then determine who has the expertise to deliver.” 

“The Industrial Services Manager [Cee Payne] advised that the bargaining process involved a lot of work regarding approach, communications, social media and campaigning which need to be looked at in a review.  She advised that she is willing to lead the review.”

But but as MAG groups started popping up in centres outside of Auckland, calls for reform grew louder. 

On 17 September, two days before the 2018 NZNO AGM, the kaiwhakahaere raised doubts about whether AGM delegates should be allowed to vote on the MAG proposals. The chief executive immediately picked up on the suggestion. On 18 September, after speaking with a lawyer, he declared that they could not be voted on. Going further, he added that the MAG paper had not been properly submitted and implied that it should be pulled from the AGM agenda entirely. 

I put my foot down. As co-chair of the AGM due to take place the following day, I rejected his advice. I said we would put it to the meeting to make a democratic decision on whether to allow the MAG paper to be discussed. 

The rest is history. The member revolt that took place on the conference floor at the 2018 NZNO AGM was captured in pages of Kai Tiaki

After the AGM, the chief executive dutifully announced that the DHB MECA review would be conducted externally – falsely claiming that it was “not in response to a resolution from the Greater Auckland Regional (GAR) Council” and that the “the management team [which included Cee Payne] had already recommended to the Board that a full review be undertaken by an independent, external person”. 

The terms of reference for the review, which he had put up as a prerequisite for any decision on who should lead it, had not been established. In reality Ross Wilson’s Independent Review of the District Health Board MECA Bargaining and Campaign Process only happened because member activism overpowered the resistance from the kaiwhakahaere, the chief executive and his management team. 

But that was not the only reform passed at the 2018 NZNO AGM. Angered by the recommendation in December 2017 to accept a MECA offer that was $300 million short, members voted to change the Constitution to remove the ability of NZNO negotiators to recommend any offers in future. 

And most far-reaching of all, they passed a remit inaugurating NZNO’s bold new experiment in democracy – the “one member, one vote” system. From now on, all proposed alterations to NZNO’s Constitution and policies would be subject to a democratic ballot of all financial members. 

When the result of voting on this remit was announced at the AGM – 57 percent in favour, to 43 percent against – the kaiwhakahaere was visibly surprised. She had believed she’d secured enough votes to defeat it. The “one member, one vote” system immediately became the focus of attacks from her people at the top of Te Rūnanga – an early sign of the clampdown on democracy to come. 

Agitational post from the Members Action Group, 2019

But the wave of member-led change continued rolling on into 2019. When the chief executive refused to commit to releasing Ross Wilson’s report on the DHB MECA, a member petition organised the MAGs forced his hand. In the 2019 NZNO elections, MAG candidates won four of the five Board seats they contested.

Election promo for MAG candidates in the 2019 NZNO elections

And a bid by the kaiwhakahaere and the outgoing Board to remove me from office as NZNO president failed, when members voted to reject their motion at a Special General Meeting (SGM) in September. 

By the end of 2019, plans for the 2020 DHB MECA were looking radically different from last time. Of those who led the 2018 MECA bargaining and campaign, not a single NZNO staff member would be left. And the first round of consultation on NZNO’s new strategic plan, completed by December, delivered a very clear result: “Demonstrating that NZNO is a membership-driven organisation – this was by far the strongest message to come through from almost everyone”. The message came not only from all the member groups. It came from the NZNO staff, too. 

Although much less visible than the wave of member activism, the role of staff in pushing back against the anti-union conservatism at the top of NZNO also hit the public eye in 2019, when an edited letter of complaint to NZNO management was published on Facebook. The “multiple front line staff” who signed the letter made clear that they were speaking as frontline advocates for members, who wanted change. But this letter was to pale in comparison with what was to come. 

On 13 December 2019, in an action unheard of in a New Zealand trade union, the staff of NZNO held stopwork meetings around the country in protest against NZNO management. Out of these meetings came a collective letter to the NZNO chief executive about the “increasingly dysfunctional employment relationship between NZNO management and NZNO employees”: 

“As a union, we expect NZNO to be committed to the principles of unionism, specifically the principles of natural justice, and to good faith obligations. A more traditional ‘top down’ management approach, that may be standard practice in non-unionised sites, does not meet the expectations of NZNO staff.”

In summary, the wave of member-led change in 2018 and 2019 resulted in great strides forward for NZNO. But it also created enormous turmoil. A chief executive and and kaiwhakahaere who are committed to curbing democracy, downgrading NZNO’s trade unionism and steering the organisation towards the Right politically have collided with a membership moving in the opposite direction. This is the root cause of the turmoil, which is now set to get worse. 

5. A wave of reaction 

In March and April 2020, five of the eleven NZNO Board members resigned. Although the vice-president, the three from the Members Action Group and I were by no means always on the same page, we had three things in common. We were dedicated trade unionists, we were committed to democracy and we were politically in tune with the direction the membership were heading. Once we were forced out, the counter-balance at the top of NZNO was removed. A wave of reaction has now been unleashed, aimed at reversing the last two years of progress. 

At the start of May, I was asked who are the “shadowy forces” behind the Board’s bid to remove me from office last year and to stem the tide of member-led change. At that time, I chose not to name them, suggesting instead that, “If people continue to push to make NZNO genuinely membership-driven and bicultural through a new Constitution, as I suggest in my latest blog, then the “shadowy forces” will become known through their resistance to this change.”

And so it is proving to be. 

In June, a member petition for a Special General Meeting calling for fresh Board elections was rejected by the chief executive, based once again on questionable legal advice. Two loyal insiders at the top of Te Rūnanga, close to the kaiwhakahaere, launched a very poorly worded petition aiming to stop NZNO to petition for SGMs in future. This attempt to block members from exercising their democratic rights under the NZNO Constitution was supported by the Kaiwhakahaere.

Also in June, according to Kai Tiaki, the kaiwhakahaere pulled her support for the draft NZNO Strategic Plan 2021-25. The draft reflected the overwhelming feedback from 2019 that the new plan must be about “demonstrating that NZNO is a membership-driven organisation”. Instead of this, Kerri Nuku reportedly wants a stronger focus on what she calls “biculturalism”. She also wants less of a focus on the DHB Sector, where the majority of our union members (Māori and non-Māori alike) are based. 

There are unlikely to be major changes to the draft NZNO Strategic Plan 2021-25 at this late stage, given that it’s been approved by the Board, sent for final consultation to all member groups and is due to be formally adopted at the AGM next month. What’s more likely to happen is that it will be adopted without the blessing of the kaiwhakahaere, then sit in a drawer for the next five years gathering dust while her agenda sets the direction. 

Then in July, a “Special Hui ā-Tau” convened by the kaiwhakahaere met to consider Policy Remit 2Full independent review of the Constitution, submitted by the NZNO Mental Health Nurses Section and Cancer Nurses College. CNC vice-chair Kirstin Wagteveld explained to Kai Tiaki that, “the aim of the joint remit was to ensure that the constitution has a “careful and thorough independent review” to ensure democratic processes, and the one-member-one-vote process was adhered to”. In a message to college members, she added that, “It is not our intention to alter the bicultural foundation of the constitution- rather it is to strengthen the protections within the relationship and produce a guiding document which helps to unite rather than divide members”. 

The Special Hui ā-Tau decided not to endorse the remit. It will probably never be known who, or how many people participated in the decision to oppose this attempt to ensure democracy, strengthen the bicultural foundation and unite rather than divide members. In all likelihood it was a dozen or two of the kaiwhakahaere’s close supporters, out of the 4,000-strong membership of Te Rūnanga. 

Finally, reports Kai Tiaki again, the kaiwhakahaere wants to cancel the Board reconciliation process – agreed earlier as an outcome of the 2019 Independent Review of the District Health Board MECA Bargaining and Campaign Process. After interviewing and surveying NZNO members and staff and finding deep divisions and scars, Ross Wilson had made a strong recommendation: 

“That the NZNO invest in an internal reconciliation and dialogue process for employed NZNO staff, independently managed and facilitated, to address the issues arising from the 2017-18 DHB MECA Bargaining process and any damage done to personal and working relationships, with the objective of restoring respect, communication and cooperation within the NZNO paid workforce.”

It was unanimously agreed that damage to personal and working relationships on the Board also needed to be addressed. A year after Ross Wilson’s report was released, no reconciliation meetings have been held. For the Board, it looks unlikely they ever will. 

Having secured total control at the top of the organisation, there is no longer any pretence about engagement with different perspectives through a democratic process. Dissenting views are to be crushed – and typically branded as “racist”. This, more than anything, is now driving NZNO’s decline. Nurses who don’t feel they’re heard or reflected in NZNO structures are simply going elsewhere.

Monthly membership of NZNO peaked at 52,712, at the conclusion of DHB MECA bargaining in September 2018. When the 2018/19 Annual Report was published the following year, membership at 31 March 2019 was down to 52,093. An email sent to all NZNO members on 13 September 2019, reporting the Board election results, said that the number of eligible voters (NZNO members) was 50,946 – an overall decline of 1,766 on the previous year.

NZNO membership normally dips a little after a DHB MECA is settled, before starting to pick up again a few months later. But this was clearly something different. It was the first drop in annual membership for NZNO since the late 1960s. 

Membership has not recovered. In June, Kai Tiaki reported that NZNO membership stood at 50,950. (Addendum 11/09/2020: And when the latest NZNO election results were reported today, 11 September 2020, membership had dropped to 50,418). The lack of growth in 2020, a year when the DHB MECA is being re-negotiated, does not bode well. Up until now, membership numbers have always surged in a MECA year. Based on historical patterns, further membership decline next year looks likely. This is a serious problem, when NZNO’s three-year budgets are set on the assumption of ongoing annual growth. 

Even more telling than the numbers, however, is who they’re losing – people who built the union. And it’s what they’re losing – credibility and authority.

A small organisation registered a new, rival nursing union in December 2018. It now claims 5,500 members, and a right to speak on behalf of nursing in New Zealand. Hundreds of Mental Health and Public Health Nurses have switched unions and joined the PSA. NZNO’s status as the unrivalled union for nurses and the voice of the profession is being eroded. 

The direction of NZNO’s evolution is now backwards, towards its earlier incarnation as a niche professional body, suspicious of trade unionism and democracy, representing a minority of New Zealand nurses. 

6. The 2020 NZNO election 

It should now be clear why electing four Board members isn’t going to be nearly enough, on its own, to pull NZNO out of its current troubles. 

Exercising our democratic rights however is important. So I will be voting and encourage others to do the same. There might be as many as two or three candidates (certainly no more than that) who would try to work for the membership as a whole, if elected. But the sad fact is, given the current line-up, any possible permutation of Board members holding office after September will leave the people unleashing reaction with a tighter grip on power than they had after the last election. 

That has implications also for the voting on remits, which this time round are probably more important than the Board election itself.

According to Clause 9.1.1 of the NZNO Constitution, an all-member ballot is the highest decision-making authority of NZNO. The outcome of voting on remits is constitutionally binding upon the Board. But unfortunately, the people on the Board – and a majority of those who will be on the Board after September – do not actually believe that. 

The most important remit that members are being asked to vote on is Policy Remit 2 – Full independent review of the NZNO Constitution, mentioned above. Back in April, I said that the starting point in the fight to take back NZNO for the members had to be a complete overhaul of NZNO’s Constitution and membership structures. I also commented that:

“A Constitutional review was finally agreed by the Board last December. The terms of reference for this review were to be presented at this year’s NZNO AGM. Not that I expect this will happen now. If a review does eventually go ahead, it will be directed by entrenched interests that created the Constitution and defend it to this day.”

This prediction has been borne out. The Board’s so-called “terms of reference” for their “review” consist of five bullet points which specify nothing meaningful, leaving the Board free to do more or less as it chooses. The document also omits vital information about core parts of the Constitution which the Board has decided to exclude from their review – Clauses 1-5 (including Vision, Mission and Philosophy), clauses 25.2.3 (Remit Committee) and 29 (Voting for Constitutional and Policy Remits), and Schedule Three (Election of Board members).

I believe that a Board under the present leadership will actively block a full independent review of the NZNO Constitution, if this remit passes. But that at least would would further expose the anti-democratic agenda that must eventually be rooted out. So I encourage all members to vote for Policy Remit 2

Policy Remit 1 – Review of NZNO strategies for Safe Staffing is one which I wrote myself before I resigned, with help from one of the MAG Board members, Anne Daniels. My four and half years on the governance group of the Safe Staffing Healthy Workplaces Unit convinced me that Care Capacity Demand Management, on its own, will never deliver safe staffing. If you agree that we need legislated minimum nurse/patient ratios, then vote for Policy Remit 1. 

I also wrote Constitution Remit 3. The intent of what I wrote in that remit is to acknowledge Tino Rangatiratanga – and to protect the right of self-determination for the (entire) Māori membership. Only on this basis, I believe, can we one day achieve genuine partnership based on the ideals of reciprocity and mutual benefit. 

If it is passed, however, those in power today will use it for different purposes. They will use it not only in service of Māori self-determination, but to exert control over other groups of NZNO members as well. This does create a dilemma. 

But I believe that rules have to be based on principles, and written with a good and reasonable person in mind. You can’t write your rules around the small number of people in any group who don’t fit that description, because they will find a way to get around or misuse anything you draft. 

On that basis, I support Tino Rangatiratanga and I believe that a good and reasonable person would use the wording proposed in the Remit only in pursuit of this. So I will be voting for the Constitutional Remit I wrote. I will also understand if others vote based on how the kaiwhakahaere and Board are likely to misuse it.

I will be voting against Constitution Remit 1 – Board Powers. Democracy is being rapidly rolled back already inside NZNO. This remit would probably result in some unelected accountant or lawyer from outside being brought in to help govern our organisation for us. To resolve the turmoil being created at the top of NZNO, we don’t need an independent director. We need the independent review of our Constitution proposed in Policy Remit 2.

By comparison, the rest of the Remits are inconsequential. I have no thoughts on these worth sharing. 

7. The way forward

Bargaining is now under way in New Zealand’s biggest collective employment agreement, the DHB MECA. Heading into those negotiations is a union with fewer members than last time, who are now much less engaged, and a government that is stronger and talking openly of financial restraint. A repeat of those heady days of 2018 is looking decidedly unlikely. More likely is a half-hearted campaign and a mediocre outcome which – coupled with the conclusion of the painfully drawn out DHB pay equity process – worsens the member exodus. 

To shore up its membership, the NZNO MECA negotiating team has presented a claim to the DHBs to, ”Ensure members of other unions do not receive the benefits of the NZNO/DHB MECA”. This claim, designed to make NZNO membership more advantageous and attractive, has been the subject of criticism on social media. 

Aiming to build up union membership during bargaining is more than justified. It should be an automatic part of the plan. But asking employers to help drive your recruitment is at best a short-term fix which will create bigger problems down the track. When any union starts to rely on employer favours like this, it starts to look less like an organisation for the workers. In NZNO’s case, it fails to address the fundamental problem. Under its current leadership, NZNO is not an organisation that nurses and healthcare workers trust and feel proud to be part of. 

Four brief general points can be made about the way forward. Firstly, the loss NZNO’s status as the unrivalled union for nurses and voice of the profession, and the rise of others, means that restoring nursing unionism and voice in this country will require work outside, as well as inside of NZNO. 

Secondly, history has shown – twice – how to fix NZNO. In the 1980s, as recounted in section 1 above, a small group of union activists dug in for a long-term campaign. But it took the mobilisation of the membership in large-scale industrial action to deliver the power needed to democratise the organisation, remove the brake on membership growth and oust the conservative elite from the top. The same thing happened – sadly, only temporarily and partially – in 2018-19. 

Based on this, the most important action that members can take right now to save NZNO is to build on the Primary Health Care workers strike that happened on 3 September. On its own, it won’t be big enough to deliver the power for change. But if it can inspire ongoing union action, then as a tributary to the river of member power, that strike will help provide the pressure for change. 

Thirdly, we have to reject the false dichotomy between Te Tiriti and democracy. As hard as it might be to work through the tensions, we can and must strengthen our commitment to both. That’s what genuine bicultural partnership means.

We can build in protections for minority interests and Tiriti rights, like those in Constitution Remit 3, while pushing to democratise NZNO – and democratise Te Rūnanga, as well. The alternative is to proceed further down the path of division which weakens our union and ultimately serves only the corporate elites. 

Finally, it’s time for me to turn around one of my earlier statements. When I was asked by Kai Tiaki in May to comment on the role of personalities in the Board’s 2019 bid to remove me from office and stem the tide of member-led change, I replied: “It’s about an individual, but it’s not about an individual. It’s about getting NZNO’s system and its democratic processes working.” 

But so much power is now concentrated in the hands of so few, who are so disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the majority of the membership, that getting NZNO’s system and its democratic processes working will now require the departure of certain individuals. 

Given the current wave of reaction within NZNO and the wider social factors without, the prospects for a repeat uprising to achieve it any time soon look dim. It’s going to be a tough few years. But I live in hope that it will happen again, before too long.