GUEST BLOG: Grant Brookes – What’s behind the turmoil in the Nurses Organisation?


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:

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“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 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 petitionaiming 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 DHBsto, ”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 Tiakiin 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.

Grant Brookes is a nurse, Trade Unionist and NZNO Past President


  1. Waiting in the wings is the pandemic.

    Overseas experience has shown that the pandemic has the power to crush'>health systems.

    A nurses union that cannot fight for and maintain the working conditions of nurses or to raise staffing levels to meet this coming trial by fire, will be swept away along with everything else.

    Witnessing the collapse of overseas health systems, grass roots front line health workers organised a petition to the government calling for the immediate imposition of a full Lockdown.

    When this petition of front line health workers had only 3.000 names the Director of Health Ashley Bloomfield rejected their call for a Lockdown. When the petition reached 65,000 names it was a different story. Within hours of this petition landing on the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s desk, the Prime Minister declared a Level 4 Lockdown. The success of the lockdown was self evident. Dr David Welch, senior lecturer at Auckland University commenting recently on the first nationwide lockdown, said the Level 4 Lockdown had stopped the virus in its tracks quite quickly. 

    Symptomatic of the undemocratic right wing dysfunction at the top the Nurses union was the reaction of the NZNO to the petition.

    As well as announcing no official response to the pandemic themselves, the NZNO management attacked the grass roots health workers petition.

    …..the petition was met with frustration from the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) who were disappointed over how many people in the medical industry who supported it.

    NZNO associate professional services manager Hilary Graham-Smith said we should be guided by the Director-General of Health and the Ministry of Health instead.

    “If it [the petition] unsettles people and they think the right decisions aren’t being made then yes we will have a state of panic,” Graham-Smith told Newshub on Sunday 22.

    With the the tremendous world beating result of the lockdown the 65,000 front line health workers Drs, Nurses and Carers, who signed the petition in defiance of the NZNO directive were proved right and the NZNO leadership were proved wrong.

    If the government’s current efforts to suppress the virus do not succeed and the pathogen starts spreading exponentially it is inevitable that our underfunded and already stretched health care system will collapse under the strain.

    There are two possibilities; 

    That the NZNO will use this time using every means they have at their command, including industrial action, to demand that nurses be given the full resources they will need to meet this challenge.

    That the NZNO will fail to meet the needs of the time and will be swept away in the resulting chaos, and something better will emerge from the ashes.

  2. Pat
    I have lived for 28 yrs with a ‘chemical poisoning permanent Disability’ that the NZ Ministry of Health has never given me any treatment for during that time.

    I have lived outside the whole medical system with my disability by learning how to cope with my chronic disabilities by using the un-invasive alternative medicines tat suit my injuries.

    All through this time I am forced to pay for everything and am now broke.

    We need the nurses union to fight for our rights to have treatment given us under the human rights act as it is the nurses at ACC that were originally given the task of evaluating my medical status and the issues,needs and any treatments I needed.
    We were shocked then in the start as the nurses advised me that their were no treatments available during that time.

    ‘I was a case that fell through the cracks’ they said to my wife and I.

  3. This is a great full report on matters impacting on NZNO. And in fact I think it tells a lot about our difficulties as citizens getting movement to enable a better society. The clinging to convenient ideological views that fit within the strata that a leader likes to mix in must result in a dichotomy between the understanding of the words spoken and the actual actions taken. Sounds garbled and confused. I think that’s pretty rife.

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