By John Ryall, former Assistant National Secretary of E tū
after the formation of E tū in 2015, I was asked by an ex-EPMU staff member
about the meaning of the term “member organiser”, which he had heard me talk
I told him
that a member organiser was a union member who had volunteered to carry out
union organising work on worksites other than his or her own site.
conversation was full of questions about how members got to volunteer, would
they be paid for their time, did they have the skills to organise and would
this undermine the work that was clearly contained in the role of a full-time
salaried union organiser.
conversation forced me to consider that perhaps my history in the Service and
Food Workers Union in the 25 years since the Employment Contracts Act had not
been a shared experience of others in the New Zealand labour movement.
into the union movement was as a delegate-activist and then plant union
convenor in the car assembly industry in the Hutt Valley.
industry was big and was full of activists who taught me the skills of
collective organising, running meetings, disputes and strikes, and winning good
working conditions while much of the time battling the interference from the
full-time officials in my own union.
experience carried over to my employment in the Wellington Hotel and Hospital
Workers Union in the 1980s, which was being transformed (as it was in Auckland)
by a group of new full-time organisers who had learnt their skills in the
workplace, in community struggles or in feminist organisations.
quarterly union meetings were replaced with large paid union stop-work
meetings, the number of workplace delegates increased
massively, union education took off and the formation of activist groups for
Maori, Pasifika and Women members commenced.
All this activity led to major gains for union members
and more confidence amongst delegates and members to confront their own
employer and contact other delegates and members in other workplaces to spread
the gains that they had made.
This came to a grinding halt in 1991, although the
storm clouds had been gathering for about three years before then.
The ECA Shock
Government’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act was the most radical piece of
industrial legislation ever introduced in New Zealand. Its professed aim was
“to promote an efficient labour market” but its real goals, according to most
commentators at the time, was to force wages down and to break the unions.
commentators at the time predicted that the Act would quickly increase
segmentation between the primary and secondary labour markets, with those in
the secondary labour markets (clerical, hospitality, service-type jobs) left
without rights and deteriorating employment conditions, while those in the
primary labour market working in the state sector or in larger worksites hardly
noticing any change.
This is what
largely happened although the changes brought about by the Employment Contracts
Act were more far-reaching than had been envisaged.
density declined from 41.5% in May 1991 to 19.9% in December 1996, the Clerical
Workers Union and the Communication and Energy Workers Unions both collapsed
and other unions amalgamated quickly to stave off their own demise.
before the Employment Contracts Act was passed, most of the unions that made up
the Service Workers Federation amalgamated into a new Service Workers Union of
Aotearoa (most of the regional Hotel and Hospital Workers Unions, Cleaners and
Caretakers Unions, Musicians Unions, the Northern Dental Assistants Union and
the Theatrical Workers Union). They were joined reasonably quickly by the
Northland and Southland Clerical Workers Unions and the Community Services
In May 1991,
the estimated number of actual financial members of the new Service Workers
Union of Aotearoa was 69,000 or 50,000 FTE, but by December 1992 it had dropped
by 50% down to 25,000 FTE.
In the year
ending January 1993, a serious financial deficit was sustained by the Service
Workers Union and by March 1993 the union was struggling with no cash reserves
and having to lay off more than 30% of the union’s staff, which included the
National Secretary and two other organisers, who luckily won parliamentary
seats and saved the union redundancy compensation payments.
to the crisis
does not happen without a crisis occurring. In 1993, all of the elements were present
for change to occur in the Service Workers Union.
trying all sorts of strategies to weather the effects of the Employment
Contracts Act from partnership with employers, to further amalgamations and to
beefing up member benefits systems.
Workers Union, which had flattened its operational structure with its
redundancy programme in 1993, decided to organise its way out of the crisis.
looked at the experience of organising in de-regulated labour markets and
decided to formally adopt what was called “the organising model”.
came with a new title, the organising model was not new to many people in the
Service Workers Union, especially those who came from community or wider
movement-based organising backgrounds.
did involve a conscious resolve to change the way that the union operated from
a dependence on 50 full-time organisers to do all the work, to liberating the
resources contained within the union’s 25,000-plus members to share the
At that time,
the union was totally swamped in the re-negotiation of hundreds of site-based
collective agreements, trying to maintain regular worksite visiting to recruit
membership and relying on paid union staff to resolve member grievances through
legal or formal processes. The more success organisers had in solving existing
member grievances, the more members bombarded them to solve even more
individual issues. Meanwhile, the union membership was declining and the number
of full-time staff doing the work was becoming smaller.
organising model tried to break this cycle by taking the reliance off paid
staff and emphasising a union based on active members who were encouraged and
supported to take responsibility for solving their own and the collective’s
problems and to extend union membership through organising both on and off
organising model was seen by some unionists as a narrow solution to make unions
financially viable (more unpaid organisers), but essentially it was really
about building real membership and ownership of the union as a vehicle, not
just for self-interested ends, but for social justice and greater power for the
whole of the working class.
move to a more organising union focus did meet some resistance internally from
union staff, the Service Workers Union, from 1996 under the leadership of new
National Secretary Darien Fenton, vigorously pursued a change process that included
building a stronger foundation of union member leadership, taking the debate
about organising and union change to the membership, freeing up resources for
new organising and growth and campaigning across workplaces and in the
community for better outcomes for working families.
debate to members” involved having a meeting in every workplace and giving
members a “no bullshit” presentation on the crisis faced by our union and the
need for all members to step up in a supported way and take responsibility for
thought this was nuts as members would say “this union is going under – let’s
join another union that can offer better services”, but that was not the member
response. Existing delegates were prepared to take on more if they were
trained, members had children and grandchildren being exploited in non-union
workplaces and everyone wanted to see them have the good working conditions
that their parents and grandparents had achieved through the union.
One of the
strategies that came out of taking the debate to the SWU (Service and Food
Workers Union from 1997) membership was to set up a volunteer organiser
programme that identified member volunteers who agreed to volunteer their time
to help organise non-union workplaces or networks. The volunteers would undergo
an intensive education process, would be reimbursed their travel and phone
expenses, and would be supported by a paid organiser on an identified project.
Current E tū
Assistant National Secretary Annie Newman said the member organiser programme
was about increasing the union’s depth of member leaders capable of building
sustainable workplace organisation. However, she noted that there was also
another benefit for the union:
member leaders to step up in this way sharpened the focus on organisers in
terms of skills, responsibilities and levels of commitment required. It also
required a wider skill set for the organiser because it was their job to
develop the leader.”
Fenton, since her time as the SWU Education and Organising Director, had
pointed out the necessity of changing the organiser’s role from being “the
leader” to “the coach”. Working with volunteers on a structured organising
programme put this role change into sharp relief.
Anderson, currently an E tū organising team leader, was involved in one of the
first volunteer organiser programmes in the late 1990s. She was a workplace
delegate in aged care and was invited by her organiser to participate, along
with 5 other members, in the programme.
that the programme involved a lot of education about the crisis in the union
movement and how we all came from union islands that were going to be submerged
in the non-union sea unless we all did something about it.
“We had a
deep understanding about needing to organise the unorganised if our movement was
to survive,” said Jody.
project was not just to recruit new members, but more importantly was to
identify other potential union activists in non-union workplaces who could
carry out the workplace recruitment and organising.
she was still employed in her aged care job during and after the organising
project, the experience led to further organising opportunities and built her
confidence to eventually apply for a full-time organiser’s job.
never have applied for an organiser’s job had it not been for the member
organiser programme. I was far more at home within the community support sector
and, as a working-class woman, saw union officials as being at a higher level
volunteer member organisers became paid union organisers, although some did,
both for the SFWU, other unions or community organisations. However, they did
provide a cohort of industry member leaders, executive members and
knowledgeable activists that built the wider union campaigns.
reflects that historically, the best member leaders were developed by young
energetic campaign-type organisers “because they were focused on developing the
workers through education and activism and not just treating them as an
appendage to business-as-usual.”
She warned though
that the programme exposed workplace leaders to the life of organisers, which
could be highly politicising, if not personally disruptive, for some.
on at least two occasions a member leader leaving a job they had been employed
in for many years because their involvement in the union had raised their hopes
and ambitions for a different kind of life that did not eventuate.
member organisers such as aged care worker Marianne Bishop said because she and
others were volunteers and
remained connected to their jobs during and after their organising project,
they were more grounded than full-time union employees.
organiser programmes were conducted in aged care, in cleaning and in disability
support with some member organisers working inside the union’s Māori, Pasifika
and Women’s structures to build their capability. In 2001, the union aimed to
develop 50 member organisers.
organisers were given status inside the union, being asked to stand up and
present at conferences, highlighted in union magazines and being role models of
In 2008, the
National Government depleted the Employment Related Education Fund, which the
SFWU had been using to employ full-time union educators. This encouraged the
union to extend the member organiser model to a new group called member
educators. They worked together in groups to learn the skills of adult
education and how to carry out one-to-one and group education modules for other
these member educators, such as Sharryn Barton and Mele Peaua, are still active
in E tū and are still using the skills they gained from this experience.
Sharryn, for instance, used these skills when she was supporting meatworkers on
the picket line outside the Horotiu AFFCO Plant during their 2015 lockout.
organiser/educator programmes and the development of member leaders requires
ongoing commitment from union leadership and the continual re-invigoration of
an internal union organising culture.
It is easy
once a financial crisis abates to take the foot off the pedal and go back to
funding more and more full-time organisers in lieu of investment in member
unions talk about organising, the proof that organising is occurring is the
presence in the union of thousands of passionate activists.
activists at every level of the union from its national executive and industry
councils, in Maori, Pasifika, Women and Youth Networks, and in workplace
activists need to be seen at every union event, whether it is the union
conference or a presentation to a local council or parliamentary select
If they are
not there, then you are not organising, and your union will struggle to
sense member organisers have remained a small, although precious, contributor
to modern New Zealand organising unionism.
article was originally published in the NZ Labour History Project September