This week, along with Labour MP Kris Faafoi, I accepted an invitation to spend a day working alongside the good folk at the Public Service Association in Wellington. As the Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson for the Greens, I was looking forward to an interesting and informative day, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The PSA is the largest union in New Zealand with 62,000 members, 3500 delegates and around 150 staff. It covers people working in a wide range of jobs, from boarder security staff to Department of Conservation rangers, to home support carers employed in the community sector.
After an initial briefing we set off with organiser Melissa Wooley to Presbyterian Support Services Home Support division – Enliven. In recent months they had lost their home support contract from the District Health Board to another home support provider. The home carers have some protection under Part 6A under the Employment Relations Act which says that “vulnerable” workers must continue on the same conditions and wages with the new employer in these types of circumstances.
Enliven still has other contracts but the complex changes involves ensuring that carers whose clients will be covered by the funding from the new contractor have the ability to remain with their clients in the change to a new employer, as well as ensuring that those left behind have some minimum permanent hours.
We heard from the management and the union organisers about the risks associated with utilising only one provider for home support services, as well as the difficulties in keeping staff when they are faced with uncertainly around their employer. For some of these home carers it is the second time in five years that the contract has shifted to another employer. I also wonder what the potential costs are associated with transferring contracts between service providers.
Back at the office at PSA house near the Terrace, Kris and I met with three of the four members of the PSA communications team. Dan, Jem, Jessica and Asher deliver a monthly magazine, do all the design for leaflets, stickers, posters and any other campaign material, liaise with the media and manage the Facebook and Twitter accounts.
At lunchtime we joined the staff raising funds for child cancer with a silly wig and sausage sizzle day. We also had the good fortune to chat with a few of the union delegates undertaking delegates training that day.
In the afternoon we met with Bronwyn Maxwell, the union’s education director. In 2011/12, the PSA undertook a complete review of their delegates’ education and have been working through the recommendations over the last few years. This includes revamped delegates’ induction, training and mentoring programmes, and enterprise-specific training as needed. The union runs around 150 training days a year – with between 10 and 20 delegates at each one it works out to be a lot of training!
I found the discussion with PSA lawyer Fleur Fitzsimons really interesting too. We looked at the principles for equal pay that have been agreed to by the working group, comprised of unions, employers and the Crown, in the wake of the ground breaking equal pay case for aged care worker Kristine Bartlett.
General secretaries Glenn Barclay and Erin Polaczuk met with us as well for an overview of the PSA’s general direction. One of its biggest challenges is that the general public tend to think of public servants as “fat cat bureaucrats” but Erin explained that the research conducted by the union shows that when people are asked about whether that description can be applied to people like librarians or social workers or mental health nurses or safety inspectors, they tend to change their view. PSA will be continuing to challenge the stereotypes and highlight the important work of its members.
All in all I found the day really useful. The PSA is a modern union – its work is based on evidence and research, and specialist policy development. It is committed to empowering its members and delegates and, while there are still conflicts within the employment relationships that need to be met head on, it works with employers to solve problems and deliver better working conditions for members.