After five years at the Tramways Union, in April 2012 I became an Organiser at the New Zealand Public Service Association (NZPSA or PSA). I would stay at the PSA for another five years as an advocate, employee representative, international youth rep (barely qualifying as youthful towards the end) and campaign manager.
The New Zealand Public Service Association is New Zealand’s largest Trade Union, which had around 60,000 members when I worked there and has slowly grown since. There had been a bit of a family tradition with this Organisation. In the 1960s my grandfather had been a member of the PSA’s national executive. At this time there was concern that the PSA had been taken over by Communists. My grandfather, who at the time worked for the Public Trust Office, stood for the national executive as part of a Catholic led anti-communist ticket. When I started at the PSA, I joked that 50 years later I had joined the union to undo Grandad’s good work.
My Dad was also a PSA union delegate, who like Grandad (his father) worked at Public Trust. In 2014 I was to become the National PSA Organiser responsible for Public Trust, continuing the tradition. Public Trust is a government entity specialising in Trust and estate law. They were great to work with, but bloody hard work.
My next few posts will talk about the work I was involved with at The NZ Public Service Association, ranging from youth and international work as well as organising public sector employees in both local and central government.
Above: Nick holding a PSA marriage equality sign with Labour MP Louisa Wall in Masterton, September 2012.
The PSA has a diverse membership. Whilst many of its members were what could be deemed white-collar or professional roles, a significant number of members were low paid and in roles that would traditionally be considered blue-collar. The incredible diversity of professions and people working for the government or government-funded organisations made the role fascinating.
The NZ PSA had a reputation as being conservative. As alluded to earlier the union had been through periods of militancy and political radicalism. An example of this was the PSA’s advocacy for equal pay for women in the public sector, which I wrote about in my 2016 history honours dissertation. However, at other times it had been more moderate.
The PSA took a significant hit to membership numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because of privatisation of public services and government attacks on collective bargaining. After this, the PSA adopted a strategy of Partnership for Quality. Described by its critics as getting into bed with the boss – the strategy was not universally popular. One theory of its origin was that it came from the Moscow aligned Socialist Unity Party, as one of the leaders of the PSA in the early 1990s had affiliations to this party. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Russian Party told its followers that capital could not be overthrown, so best try to influence and establish worker participated partnerships with it.
Whether partnership was just part of a soviet plot or not is speculation. But the strategy remained PSA policy for the two decades before my starting with the organisation. In 2012 the strategy changed to Transforming the Workplace. This was not seen as a fundamental departure from the earlier strategy, rather building on the gains that had been made earlier (the union had grown during the partnership era, in no small part due to gains made in bargaining under the 1999 to 2008 NZ Labour Government). The new strategy focused on increasing members participation and input into how these government agencies ran. Many trade unions act as little more than bargaining agents primarily focused on pay and certain conditions of employment. This strategy aimed to take the conversation beyond this, through to one of the workers getting a meaningful voice at work.
For whatever strengths or weaknesses were of the PSA strategy, it was nice to be part of a union that had a strategy. Moreover, a strategy that was more than just defensive and dared to try new things. Many unionists are wary of moving away from adversarial industrial relations. And I agree when facing capital those representing labour should expect conflict, up to and including strike action. But where unions or workers organisation is strong enough to gain decent engagement with employers, governments, or major corporations why on earth wouldn’t unions use that? Further, why not advocate for this alongside pay increases and other conditions of employment?
I started as a PSA Organiser in my late 20s, having held leadership roles in both the Tramways Union and before that in Student Politics. The PSA would be a much bigger organisation for me, and subsequently, I was much further down the organisational food chain. However, I quickly found myself in various leadership roles, both within the national union and within the international union movement.
Earlier posts in this series:
“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving
Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months
Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008
Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety
Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity
Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport
Earlier Blog posts about Nick:
School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly
University and Student Politics
Blogs and the Political Establishment
VUWSA President – the realities of leadership