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 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.