Category: Blog

Pizzas, dough, and mad employers

By John Ryall, former Assistant National Secretary of E tū

The 1991 Employment Contracts Act undermined collective bargaining and diminished the role of unions. It promised employers a world in which they could do whatever they liked without being restricted by “onerous” worker rights.

The post-1991 period was tough for unions, but sometimes union organising was temporarily helped by employers who, in my opinion, were certified nutcases – full of their own importance, blaming their workforce for everything and so frenetically busy that they never stopped to examine whether their style of management was destroying their own business.

One of these employers was Romanos Pizzas, which owned a small factory in the Hutt Valley and was busy setting up another one in Auckland. The owner was Elaine Gordon, but the driving force behind the business was the general manager Alister Kirby.

From Liverpool to Alicetown

In my first introduction to Alister Kirby, after giving me a handshake that almost broke my knuckles, he said “I faced down the TGWU in Liverpool. New Zealand unions are pussies compared to them.”

He was short of stature, had a very short fuse, and was so busy growing his business that workforce issues were of secondary concern. His regular overnight road trips between Wellington and Auckland did not help his demeanor.

Romanos produced wrapped fresh pizzas and pizza bases for supermarkets and employed about 25 workers at its Hutt Valley factory. Given the attitude of its management towards unions it was quickly de-unionised following the Employment Contracts Act.

In mid-1992 I was approached by a Romanos worker Liz Campbell, who had been unjustifiably dismissed and despite not being a union member was seeking the Service Workers Union assistance with her case.

I told Liz that the union would represent her providing she could get the other workers in the factory to a meeting and they joined the union. She organised the meeting at her house, 10 workers turned up and they all joined the union.

I raised a personal grievance on behalf of Liz Campbell for unjustified dismissal. After a number of communications with the Romanos lawyers it was settled on terms acceptable to her.

By the time of the settlement the Romanos union membership had grown to about 50% of the workforce and our on-site organising committee was meeting regularly, led by our two delegates Yvonne Bartle and Liz Campbell’s sister Hilda.

Smelly pizzas

On 11 March 1993 Romanos had complaints from customers that some of its pizzas had a strong and unpleasant smell coming from them. Alister Kirby’s immediate instinct was to blame the workers and accuse them of deliberately poisoning the pizzas in order to get him to recognise their union.

Local health officials were demanding to inspect the premises so he had a strategy to comply with their demands and also punish the workers. He announced to the workers that the factory was closed until further notice because of the deliberate sabotage of the pizzas and told them they were all locked out for health and safety reasons.

I responded to the situation at the factory within 10 minutes of the call from the union delegates and met with the workers by the back door. I told them that the lockout was illegal and if they wanted to get their jobs back and be paid for the lockout they should all stand together and join the union.

The union suddenly had 100% day-shift membership and we were in a position to threaten Alister Kirby that unless he agreed to lift the lockout and pay the workers for the time locked out we would picket the factory and also seek an injunction in the courts.

By then he was caught in a dilemma of provoking a picket and a lot of publicity around smelly pizzas or lifting the lockout, sending the workers home and paying them while the health officials did their tests.

The lockout was lifted but not without a mouthful of venom from Alister Kirby about his pizza poisoning suspicions.

Disciplinary action

The next day, as everyone returned to work, one of the workers Lofi Tupu was called to a disciplinary meeting over the damage to a locker. When we arrived at the meeting we found that the disciplinary issues had increased from damage to the locker to threatening violence to another employee, changing the “best before” date on the pizza date stamp and poisoning the pizzas with a chemical.

With very little evidence to back up the other complaints and only a couple of scratches on the locker Alister Kirby accepted that only a written warning for the locker was in order.

However, the issue did not stop there. Over the next few days super sleuth Alister Kirby interviewed a number of factory workers and came to the conclusion that Lofi Tupu had poisoned the pizzas with nail polish remover.

Alister suspended Lofi and when we met with him he said the interviews had revealed that Lofi had contaminated the pizzas with nail polish remover. He alleged she painted her finger nails and used nail polish remover, said he knew she was the culprit and out of the blue offered her $1500 if she resigned her employment.

When she turned down his offer he read out an already-prepared letter dismissing her for damaging a locker, threatening another employee with violence and changing the “best before” date on the pizza date stamp. There was no mention of the pizza contamination or the nail polish remover.

Collective agreement time

If this was meant to be a signal to the other union members that he was the boss and you should do as you are told, then it did not work.

While the union pursued a personal grievance for Lofi, the other members demanded that the union negotiate a collective employment contract with Romanos to strengthen their rights in the face of an unpredictable employer.

The response from Alister Kirby to the news of a collective agreement was an “over my dead body” verbal barrage down the phone.

I followed this up with a meeting in his office accompanied by the workplace delegates, where I presented him with a draft collective contract. Without looking at it he threw it into the rubbish bin. I told him that it was unlawful not to consider the negotiation of a collective agreement. He reached over to the rubbish bin, took out the draft collective agreement and put it in the bottom drawer of his desk with a comment “I am now considering it.”

He did though agree to negotiate individual contracts with each union member.

The negotiations were a farce as every worker was offered a 25 cents an hour pay increase with no other improvements to their employment terms. Even though the first few members made excuses about not accepting the identical offer on the spot, it soon became obvious to the workplace delegates that members wanted to grab the pay increase and to keep on organising later around a collective contract.

Stronger stance

Twelve months later when it was time to carry out the negotiations again, the members decided to take on a stronger stance.

We decided that we would get the Romanos offer for each member and not accept any of the offers until all of the members could talk about what had been offered together. It was a form of collective negotiation of individual contracts.

I arranged a date for the negotiations and asked Service Workers Union organisers Lee Tan and Nanai Muaau to be available for those members who wished to speak or have any offers interpreted into their own language, although Alister insisted that he would only allow myself and one worker at a time in his office for the negotiations.

I meet with Alister Kirby with the first member while Lee Tan waited downstairs with the other members. The first worker was offered 25 cents an hour pay increase with no changes to other conditions. I thanked Alister and said the member wanted to think about the offer some more.

The second member came in and she was offered 40 cents an hour because of what Alister said was her “sterling work”. After a brief adjournment I thanked Alister for the offer and said that this member wanted to talk to her partner about the offer.

When the third member came through the door Alister adopted a different tone. He said that this member was being offered 40 cents an hour on condition that he signed his individual employment contract before he left the room.

When we refused this demand, Alister stood up from behind his desk, told us to get out and then pushed past us and some other members waiting on the stairs as he headed to the factory floor. Once inside the factory he shouted “Its stopwork time. Stopwork meeting. Get out!” running around the factory floor pushing members towards the door and locking it behind him.

Lockout or strike?

We had a meeting with the members outside of the factory and all decided to return first thing the next morning for a picket.

When we returned the next morning there was a big sign on the factory door telling everyone that no work would be offered until the strike was over and each worker give a guarantee that it would not be repeated. If a worker wanted to return to work they needed to leave a letter in the office accepting these two demands and the company would then consider each letter and decide whether the worker would be welcomed back or not.

After a quick discussion over the definition of “strike” and “lockout” the members quickly came to the conclusion that the boss pushing you out the door and locking it was to any casual observer a fairly good example of a lockout.

The picket started that day and continued through until our day in the Employment Court on 15 September 1994. There was a good turnout of picketers each day and because an International Labour Organisation delegation was in Wellington that week investigating a complaint about the Employment Contracts Act, the action drew a lot of attention.

Representatives from other unions and from the NZ Council of Trade Unions joined the picket line as did Labour Employment Relations Spokesperson Steve Maharey and Alliance Party Leader Jim Anderton.

On 15 September 1994 the Employment Court granted the union an interim injunction against the Romanos lockout and the day later the union members marched back into the factory without any sign of Alister Kirby.

Nothing changes

That does not mean that there was any change in Alister Kirby’s position about collective bargaining and collective agreements.

While there were attempts by the union to gain a collective agreement they were continually frustrated by the actions of Romanos.

In August 1995 Romanos received another blow when the Employment Court decided that Lofi Tupu was unjustifiably dismissed and was awarded just over $10,000 in compensation.

It was the last straw for Alister Kirby. He had a heart attack just before the decision was released and the threat to his mortality opened the door to the union finally completing a collective agreement, with a 3% wage increase, an extra week’s annual leave and a set of standard conditions including accepted union rights.

However, this was a short pyrrhic victory as many of the original Romanos union activists soon left and the factory relocated to Auckland. Within a year of the move the Romanos business in Auckland closed as well and it was rumoured that Alister Kirby had experienced a second fatal heart attack.

Union organising at Romanos Pizzas only lasted about three years, but it was a sentinel event in our organising under the Employment Contracts Act. With the large effort put in by the union in trying to organise a small site, the question was asked about why we started in the first place.

Although the Romanos dispute did not gain our members everything that they wanted, it showed everyone, including other employers, that despite the Employment Contracts Act workers would still fight for their rights and there were no benefits in taking on a united workforce if doing so ended up destroying your business.

Member organisers at the heart of an organising union

By John Ryall, former Assistant National Secretary of E tū

Not long 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 about.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

My experience

My entrance into the union movement was as a delegate-activist and then plant union convenor in the car assembly industry in the Hutt Valley.

The car 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.

This 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.

Small night 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

The National 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.

Some 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.

Union 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.

The day 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 Union.

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.

Responding to the crisis

Change often does not happen without a crisis occurring. In 1993, all of the elements were present for change to occur in the Service Workers Union.

Unions were 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.

The Service Workers Union, which had flattened its operational structure with its redundancy programme in 1993, decided to organise its way out of the crisis.

It had looked at the experience of organising in de-regulated labour markets and decided to formally adopt what was called “the organising model”.

While it 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.

However, it 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 organising challenge.

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.

The 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 their worksites.

The 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.

Although a 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.

“Taking the 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 organising.

Many people 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.

Member organiser strategy

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:

“Identifying 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.”

Darien 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.

Jody 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.

She said 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.

Jody’s 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.

Even though 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.

“I would 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 than me.”

Not all 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.

Annie Newman 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. 

She recalled 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. 

However, 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.

Member 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.

Member 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 organising commitment.

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 members.

Some of 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.


Member 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 leaders.

While many unions talk about organising, the proof that organising is occurring is the presence in the union of thousands of passionate activists.

We need activists at every level of the union from its national executive and industry councils, in Maori, Pasifika, Women and Youth Networks, and in workplace committees.

These 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 committee.

If they are not there, then you are not organising, and your union will struggle to survive.

In this sense member organisers have remained a small, although precious, contributor to modern New Zealand organising unionism.

This article was originally published in the NZ Labour History Project September 2020 Bulletin.

The Struggle for Relevant Daily Pay

By John Ryall, former E tū Assistant National Secretary

It seems obvious that if you are forced to have a day off sick you should be paid from your employer what you would have normally received if you had worked on that day.

However, this has not always been the case and it has only been through an amendment to the Holidays Act in 2003 that a separate right to sick leave of 5 days a year was created and that this was to be paid at “relevant daily pay”.

Not many people will realise though that 20 years before then the orderlies at Wellington, Hutt and Silverstream Hospitals fought for the same right.

The orderlies were then employed under the New Zealand Hospital Domestic Workers Award, which up until 1979 awarded them 10 days sick leave per year to be paid at ordinary pay.

The orderlies worked six days a week and their sixth day always occurred on either Saturday or Sunday at Wellington Hospital and at the other hospitals could occur on any day of the week depending on the roster. They were required to work the six days. If they were sick on any of their first five rostered days they would be paid eight hours at their ordinary hourly rate and if they were sick on their sixth day they would be paid nothing.

Despite the occasional grumble that they should be paid sick leave for all six days the roster worked well.

Award Sick Leave Changes

In 1979 the Hospital Boards agreed to a union claim to replace the Award sick leave clause with another one that appeared in most employment agreements in the state service. This gave the orderlies a more generous entitlement with an accumulation of untaken sick leave up to 365 days.

However, the more generous entitlement came with a catch. If you were a Monday to Friday worker and were sick for a week then you were paid five days sick leave but lost seven days from your entitlement.

Clause 14 (a) of the Award provided:

Where an employee is granted leave of absence on account of sickness or injury not arising out of and in the course of his employment he shall be entitled to full pay according to the scale set out in the schedule hereunder.

And clause 14 (d) provided:

Sick leave with full pay for each period allowed shall be reckoned in consecutive days inclusive of Saturdays, Sundays and statutory holidays.

Before the ink was even dry on the newly printed Award Wellington Hospital orderlies started complaining about the non-payment of sick leave on their sixth shift, which always occurred on either a Saturday or Sunday.

Their complaint was that if they were sick on a Friday and a Monday then the new Award removed an entitlement of four days, but they were only paid sick leave for two days rather than the three days for which they were arguing payment.

The Wellington Hospital Personnel Manager wrote to the Wellington Hospital Board Industrial Relations Manager Rino Tirikatene, who responded

Should Wellington Hospital conditionally require orderly staff to be permanently engaged on a six day shift weekly roster then each one of those six working days becomes applicable for sick leave with pay providing such staff have genuine sick leave and an adequate number of days entitlement

Issue Won’t Go Away

Despite this memo nothing was done and when I commenced work as an organiser in June 1982 the sick leave issue was still bubbling away.

The Wellington Hospital orderlies raised the issue again with the hospital management in 1983 but were told that they didn’t have to work the sixth day if they did not want to.

In 1984 the power dynamic changed with the election of some new active Wellington Hospital orderly delegates, who were not scared to take direct action to fix outstanding grievances.

A number of strikes were held over the re-negotiation of the Award and despite the head delegate Alan Wakefield being dismissed, the compulsory conference held to determine the outcome of his dismissal also heard stories of the orderly’s sick leave grievance.

In July 1985 the Wellington Hospital Deputy Director of Administration agreed to part of the claim. While the payment of sick leave for the sixth shift was not agreed, the Wellington Hospital Board would not in future deduct this shift off the orderly’s sick leave entitlement.

This move did not shut the issue down but gave it more steam.

In September 1985 the Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers Union wrote to the Department of Labour for their opinion on payment of sick leave for the sixth shift under the NZ Hospital Domestic Workers Award. Their response supported the union view that the orderlies should be paid.

The Department of Labour opinion, which was circulated far and wide across the Wellington Hospital Board workforce, shook the Board managers.

Union Proposes Disputes Committee

The union, picking up on this state of affairs, proposed to the Wellington Hospital Board that the union and board should urgently meet as a Disputes Committee, with an agreed chair, put forward both sides in the dispute and allow the chair to issue a decision which would not be appealable.

In November 1985 the Board wrote to the union and agreed for a Disputes Committee Chair to give advice to the parties but not to make a binding, non-appealable decision on the matter.

The Board though did agree that if any orderly was absent through illness on a Friday and a Monday then in future they would be paid at ordinary rates of pay three sick days and not two.

This offer was taken back to the Wellington, Hutt and Silverstream Hospital orderlies and was unanimously rejected. The demands had hardened up and there was going to be no settlement without the payment of overtime when sick on the sixth day and the orderlies threatened to go on strike unless their demands were met.

Wellington Hospital orderlies delegate Jock McMahon posed the key question:

“Why do we have to lose pay when we are sick? We are a hospital caring for sick people and we should be paid for our sick leave the amount we would have earned if we had not been sick. We don’t want to be forced back to work when we are sick because we cannot afford to be off work.”

The threats of strike action led to an early meeting of the Disputes Committee, under Chairman Jim Newman, but no resolution was arrived at. After some delay the chairman referred the matter to the Arbitration Court in June 1986.

The Arbitration Court heard the case in October 1987 and sought to answer two questions:

  1. If a worker employed under the Award is granted leave of absence due to sickness under clause 14 and if that worker is required to work a six day week as a team of his or her employment, does the employer have to pay sick pay for the sixth day?
  2. If the answer to the question is yes, is the amount the board has to pay defined as “full pay” under the same clause, the amount the worker would have earned had he or she been working that day?

The union was represented by lawyer Sandra Moran. It was the first time I had seen Sandra in action. She was relatively small, very well dressed and looked like she would not hurt a fly. However, she had a steely tone to her voice that cut like a rapier and her cross-examination was so ruthless the employer witnesses just wanted to agree with everything she said in order to quickly depart the witness stand.

The Court took just less than two weeks to deliver its judgement in writing, affirming that the orderlies were required to work a 48 hour week and when sick must be paid “the monies he or she would have received had he/she performed his/her normal work on his/her sixth day on the roster irrespective of the day of the week on which the sixth day happens to fall.”

Attention Turns to Other Workers

While the union focussed on organising around the six year’s backpay for the Wellington, Hutt and Silverstream Hospital orderlies and other workers (such as a group of Wellington Hospital cleaners who worked a six-day week), it also turned its attention to other workers who were not receiving “full pay” when they were sick. This included public hospital orderlies, cleaners and food service workers who were sick on public holidays and weekends (where it was not their sixth shift) both in Wellington and throughout the country.

The actions of the Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers Union to extend the case beyond the sixth-shift orderlies was not without controversy both within the Hotel and Hospital Workers Federation and amongst other unions.

While the words of Wellington Hospital orderlies delegate Jock McMahon portrayed a simple concept of sickness not automatically leading to a reduction in pay others saw the concept as too radical and challenging, perhaps because of the potential cost to the public health system of six-years backpay for tens of thousands of health workers, including doctors and nurses.

The Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers Union returned to the Labour Court in October 1988 on behalf of a weekend cleaner and a kitchenhand on a rotating roster that included work on the weekends. Both these workers were paid ordinary pay when sick on the weekends. They claimed that “full pay” included their weekend penal rates and other allowances in addition to their ordinary pay.

Judge Castle, who had also heard the earlier case, said in his judgement that extending the full pay argument beyond six-day workers was “inevitable” and ruled that it was not proper to interpret “full pay” as anything else than the “agreed contracted pay with the worker”.

Both the newly created Area Health Boards and the hospital contractors refused to settle the 1990 NZ Hospital and Area Health Boards Domestic Workers Award without the elimination of the words “full pay” from the sick leave clause, the abolition of the travel time clause and the removal of the union veto over the employment of part-time workers.

With the writing on the wall for the fourth Labour Government and the National Party already secretly drafting the Employment Contracts Act, the union conceded full pay providing all members received hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay and the date for its removal was extended out to 26 August 1992, which co-incidentally was the day after the expiry of the last national award.

While hospital workers had to wait another 11 years before the fifth Labour Government amended the Holidays Act to allow for relevant daily pay rather than ordinary pay for sick leave, the change would not have been possible unless the Wellington Hospital orderlies had identified an injustice and fought for its removal.

John Ryall: Bright Stars, Comets, and Union Activism

John Ryall is the former Assistant National Secretary of E tū. This article was originally published in the Labour History Project Bulletin.

In my long experience as a union organiser I have met many memorable people who became great leaders in their workplaces, in their communities and in wider social movements.

Some of these leaders were active in the union for decades and some of them for only a short time.

While I have fond memories of all of them, the ones that appeared like comets in the night sky, shone brightly and then disappeared, have always fascinated me.

One of these people was a Wellington Hospital orderly called Alan Wakefield.

I had been appointed as an organiser with the Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers Union in June 1982 and the largest site in my organising patch was Wellington Hospital.

Wellington Hospital, along with three other public hospitals in my patch (Porirua, Kenepuru and Paraparaumu Hospitals), were run by the Wellington Hospital Board.

The Hotel and Hospital Workers Union had about 700 members in these four hospitals working as food service workers, orderlies, security workers and cleaners.

The Wellington Hospital orderlies were an interesting male-dominant group who complained about everything, but unlike the female-dominant cleaners and food service workers were reluctant to take collective action to get their issues resolved.

My first experience of them was of them moaning about why they had to be in the same national award as the cleaners and food service workers. They felt their jobs were more important and valuable than cleaning or kitchen work and they would do better by themselves. Much of this was in response to the equal pay settlement in the 1970s, where the female rates had been removed affecting the historical relativities between cleaners, kitchenhands and orderlies.

The day after I commenced employment with the Hotel and Hospital Workers Union the then Prime Minister Muldoon imposed a wage freeze, which lasted until his Government was defeated in June 1984. During this period it was illegal to negotiate awards or other collective agreements that increased pay rates.

The wage freeze did not mean that there were no workplace disputes. The orderlies had issues about the interpretation of their current award conditions and about their increasing workloads as the Wellington Hospital Board tried to make savings by non-replacement of staff who left employment.

In late 1984, with the incoming Labour Government’s removal of the wage freeze, the union was gearing up to renegotiate the Hospital Domestic Workers Award, which covered the Wellington Hospital orderlies.

I arranged meetings at the public hospitals in the Wellington area (including the Hutt, Silverstream and Elderslea Hospitals) in order to discuss the improvements that members wanted to make to the award conditions. There was a separate paid meeting for the Wellington Hospital orderlies, held by arrangement with the management at the shift changeover time in the afternoon. Prior to the meeting I had discussed the importance of the meeting with the workplace delegates and relied on them to ensure all of the 60 orderlies attended the meeting.

When I turned up the meeting there were only five members present, including three who were elected delegates. To my disappointment the delegates didn’t seem too concerned about the turnout saying that the Head Orderly wouldn’t release members from their duties and they would simply relay any information back to the members.

I continued the meeting, which was held in the orderlies tea room, with the five members. Near the end of the meeting an orderly walked into the tea room heading for the change area. He stopped and said “what’s going on here?” I explained that this was a union meeting in preparation for the union negotiating improvements to wage rates and working conditions. He asked why he hadn’t been told of the meeting. I looked at the delegates and said “never mind, you are here now, so let’s go back and quickly give you a briefing on what is going on.”

At the end of the meeting I introduced myself to the new orderly, whose name was Alan Wakefield. He had only commenced employment as an orderly in July 1984 but was full of energy about the action that was needed to improve the orderly wages and employment conditions.

I indicated to him that nothing was going to change unless we developed some delegates who were able to excite the members about winning better conditions. He had been a workplace delegate for the Drivers Union at a previous job. He agreed with my assessment and said he would talk to others and see what he could do.

A week later he phoned me to say that he had talked to the members, held a meeting in the tea room and they had elected him as one of the orderly delegates. He had a list of issues that the orderlies wanted to pursue in the award negotiations, which were due to take place in Auckland in January 1985.

Alan and a number of other delegates from Wellington were keen to attend the award negotiations in Auckland and so I arranged with the union secretary for us to hire a van and to transport 8 delegates to Auckland, who would be “observers” at the award negotiations.

The appearance of our 8 Wellington delegates was a shock to the Hotel and Hospital Workers Federation National Secretary and award advocate Russ Revell, who was not used to having a boisterous contingent of members in the back row while he was politely advocating our position to the Hospital Boards and contractors.

At that time the Government covered the accommodation costs for the small number of union negotiators, who were called assessors, but not the costs for observers. We made up for this by changing the rooms around and doubling up on people in the rooms so that the observers had somewhere to sleep and also smuggled them in a hotel breakfast.

What made it worse from Russ Revell’s perspective was that our contingent at later negotiations became even bigger as the other observer delegates from other parts of the country started pushing for more representation from their own areas.

The award negotiations occurred after a three year wage freeze and the 80 separate claims for improvements that the union put up to the Hospital Boards and hospital contractors did not impress them, especially when they thought there had been agreement between the central bodies of employers and unions for a “compressed” wage round.

The Hospital Boards and hospital contractors argued that because the award was “state-linked” and domestic workers in the state sector were paid less than the rates in the existing 1982 award that a wage reduction was in order. They followed this up with a demand that the union’s existing role in having to give consent to the introduction of part-time work must be removed. After two days the negotiations broke down.

I think the employers thought that they had the power to get what they wanted and that the union would eventually rollover to their demands without them having to offer any pay increase that was greater than the tiny increases that were then then being applied in the core state sector.

Alan didn’t wait for the union to call meetings to consider the outcome of the award negotiations. On his first day back at work he called a meeting with the orderlies and they rejected the employer position. He phoned me to report on the meeting and said the orderlies wanted to immediately put 24-hour bans on certain duties, including transporting dead bodies from the wards to the mortuary.

I gave him advice and encouragement and told him to go ahead and I would meet him at the hospital the next day.

By the time I arrived at the hospital the next day it was all on. I was summoned into the Head Orderly’s office and asked whether the union had given authority for the mortuary ban. I said that the ban was in line with us seeking an award allowance for the transportation of dead bodies and the action was a protest about the employers’ position.

They said they would not accept any bans unless notice was delivered to them in writing from myself or the union secretary, Peter Cullen. I said I was happy to do this.

The orderlies were excited about the action that was being taken and were in favour of extending it. They had full confidence in Alan’s leadership and felt proud of standing up for improved employment conditions.

Alan was always on the move taking up issues on behalf of members and calling meetings when the response was not positive. The Head and Deputy Head Orderlies had previously operated the department as if they were running a slave ship and when the slave mutiny commenced they were not happy. Any minor complaint about Alan was escalated to a major event and the disciplinary meetings and warnings started running thick and fast.

They complained that Alan did not come into the Head Orderly’s office for a quiet chat as the previous delegate had done and that there were too many meetings. Alan was direct and whether you were the lowest paid person in the hospital or the highest paid he would tell you what he thought. Telling the Deputy Head Orderly to “shut up” when he was being lectured about what he should nor should not be doing led to a warning for verbal abuse.  Another one followed near the end of February 1985.

As the award dispute continued the orderlies implemented a series of rolling bans on the keeping of records, the transfer of bodies to the mortuary, the movement of supplies from the stores and the handling of dirty linen and rubbish.

Alan played a prominent part in directing these activities and made frequent appearances on the radio and other media outlets talking about the dispute. The action at Wellington Hospital started spreading to other parts of the region and the rest of the country.

The union’s intention was to place pressure on the hospital management, but not to stop the operation of essential services.

During the middle of this action Wellington Hospital management employed some students as temporary nurse aides. These workers were not union members and had been employed specifically to do the work covered by the bans. Tension arose with the orderlies and Alan, as the main delegate, was right in the thick of it arguing that the strike breakers should be removed and holding orderly meetings to get support for this demand.

One of these meetings ended with the orderlies walking off the job for the rest of their shift causing chaos and confusion but leading to the hospital management withdrawing the strike breakers.

Alan was also involved in trying to stop the hospital management using volunteers to get around an orderly ban on the delivery of flowers to wards. His discussion with the volunteers was resented by the management and led to threats of further disciplinary action.

The Hospital Domestic Workers Award was finally settled on 6 March 1985 with a substantial wage increase and some improvements to allowances, including the creation of a new allowance for the transportation of dead bodies to the mortuary.

While the ratification of award settlements was not required under the existing employment legislation, Alan and I both agreed that a report back meeting and vote by the members was important.

Alan approached the Deputy Director of Administration John Joyce about holding a paid stopwork meeting to discuss the award settlement and some other issues about sick leave and weekend rostering. He agreed that a meeting could be held on Friday 22 March 1985.

However, when Alan talked over the details with the Acting Head Orderly an argument ensued over how the hospital would be staffed during the half-hour paid meeting. The Acting Head Orderly insisted that in addition to the Head and Deputy Head Orderly a further nine orderlies would need to remain on duty to cover the 30 day-shift orderlies who were on duty on that day. Alan argued that this was too many for a half-hour meeting and that the orderlies would keep their pagers on in case of any emergencies.

The arguments over the relief staffing during the meeting continued up to the time of the meeting, with no agreement. Alan was warned that if the meeting went ahead without the nine orderlies remaining on duty he would face disciplinary action.

With no agreement in place all of the orderlies went to the meeting.

Very wisely, at the commencement of the meeting Alan told the orderlies of the arguments about the staffing levels and about the threat that he could be dismissed if the meeting went ahead without the relief staffing that the management required. He asked the orderlies whether they wanted to go ahead with the meeting or for nine orderlies to go back to their posts. The orderlies moved a resolution that given there was no agreement reached on the relief staffing they would go ahead with the meeting involving all union members.

At the end of the meeting Alan and another delegate, George Kahu went to John Joyce’s office and met with him, the Acting Head Orderly and the Hospital Personnel Manager. John Joyce asked Alan whether he had complied with his instructions about the relief staff and when Alan replied that he had not, Alan was dismissed.

Alan and the other delegate returned to the room where the orderlies had remained following the meeting, and informed them of his dismissal. The orderlies voted to strike until Alan was reinstated.

The orderlies strike went on for 11 days, the longest strike of orderlies that I have ever been involved.

While the orderlies picketed the hospital and had support from both the cleaners and the food service workers refusing to carry out their duties and donating money to keep them fed, the hospital management was organising staff and outside volunteers to carry out the orderly work and running the line that Alan had been dismissed because of his alleged outrageous behaviour and aggression towards other staff members.

While Hotel and Hospital Workers Union members at both Porirua and Hutt Hospital took limited strike action to protest Alan’s dismissal the nurses and other workers at Wellington Hospital were not unionised in the same way as they are now and there was little support. The union was looking for other options to get Alan and the orderlies back to work.

The then Minister of Labour, Stan Rodger, was approached by the union and after much negotiation between the union and the Wellington Hospital Board, he called a compulsory conference under the chairmanship of Dunedin mediator Walter Grills, to enquire into all the circumstances of Alan’s dismissal and decide whether the dismissal was justified.

The terms of reference, which had been agreed between the parties and was confirmed in a formal Ministerial letter, stipulated that Alan would be off-the-job on full pay during the compulsory conference and if he was judged to be unjustifiably dismissed he would be immediately reinstated to his position at the hospital. The terms of reference also gave the power for the chair to make any other recommendations about relationships between delegates and orderlies department management.

When the Wellington Hospital Board agreed to put Alan on full pay during the period of the compulsory conference they must have been confident that this would only be for a short period and that Alan’s dismissal would be upheld.

The union and employer parties met with Walter Grills for four days at the beginning of May 1985. The union argued that the compulsory conference was not about the dismissal of an orderly but was about delegate victimisation and the refusal of the Wellington Hospital Directorate to accept independent union organisation at Wellington Hospital. The union presented statements from 10 witnesses supporting Alan Wakefield and condemning the approach of Wellington Hospital management towards union representatives.While the Wellington Hospital Board was expecting a quick decision, Walter Grills did not send out his written decision until 18 October 1985. By this time Alan had been off work on full pay for nearly eight months.

The decision of the compulsory conference was that Alan Wakefield had been unjustifiably dismissed because as a union delegate he was merely carrying out the instructions of his members in going ahead with a union meeting without leaving on the appropriate level of relief staff. If he was dismissed as a result of carrying out his duty as a union delegate, under instruction from his members, then he would have been discriminated against because of his union position.

The decision though came with a backhanded slap to the union about allowing strike action without the union’s general secretary being involved, about not pursuing arbitration in resolving disputes in essential services rather than resorting to strike action and indicating that if the Wellington Hospital Board had sought damages against the union, they would have been awarded.

However, none of this mattered as Alan Wakefield had been reinstated. While the Wellington Hospital management were appalled at the reinstatement, the orderlies assembled outside the hospital and carried Alan back into work on their shoulders, accompanying him to the Head Orderly’s office to sign in for work.

Alan had not enjoyed being off work for eight months as he was a very active type. Orderlies need to be fit because their job requires walking for long distances every day. When he came back to work it was not quite the same.

While he had been off work another orderly, Jock McMahon, had stepped forward to take over the delegate’s role. Jock was just as staunch as Alan but had a longer trade union history and had the negotiation and leadership skills to match it. Alan recognised his able replacement and stepped down as the delegate

Alan worked at the hospital for another couple of months and then quietly resigned.

The comet had shone brightly, the role of the union and its delegates had been reinforced and those who followed were in a far better position than if the light in the sky had never appeared.