The President comments: ‘Just a union?’

Kai Tiaki November 2015
This column first appeared in Kai Tiaki Nursing NZ, November 2015. Reposted with permission.

“It’s just a union” is a comment you hear about NZNO from time to time. It comes from decision-makers looking for a reason to ignore us, or from those few diehard colleagues who say they’ll never join. Sometimes you hear it from members, too.

This issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand reports on the Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference (p11), which I attended as part of a strong NZNO team. So it’s a fitting time to remember that yes, we are a union. But it might also be a good time to reflect on this “just a union” talk, and what to make of it.

I wonder if derives from a view that professional and industrial issues somehow belong to separate, even opposing dimensions. Perhaps there’s a related belief that greater attention paid to one dimension means less attention for the other.

After all, NZNO staff are organised into separate professional and industrial teams. One team focuses on strategies to strengthen confidence in nurses in support of greater status and authority, in line with other powerful professions. It works closely with members belonging to NZNO’s colleges and sections.

The other team focuses on strategies to promote fairness at work, for all. It draws on the power afforded by employment rights and the caring work we collectively perform. This team provides close support for workplace delegates.

The idea that they’re somehow in competition leads to arguments about the right “balance” – or worse, advocacy for one strategy, over the other.

In this context, talk of NZNO as “just a union” can arise and create division, where none should exist. This is because professional and industrial realities are not opposing dimensions, but inseparable parts of a whole.

This is clearly embodied by those members who are both leaders in their college or section, and delegates in their workplace.

So strategies should not be based on one part of our reality, or the other, but on the shared goal we’re trying to achieve.

I believe that in the broadest sense, the goal we are pursuing as NZNO members is the wellbeing of people. And we are people too, just like our patients, whānau and communities.

Viewed from this perspective, our industrial and professional (and political) strategies become mutually reinforcing approaches. When members are presented with this perspective, I think it feels right, at a gut level.

It can be hard to uphold these truths sometimes, I know. Our allies and external stakeholders tend to pull us in one direction or the other.

Some of our union allies, for example, are suspicious of “professionals”. And some health sector leaders don’t trust unions.

But we shouldn’t let external forces define us. We should stand on our own whole reality, and reject attempts to divide it.

We are not “just this”, or “just that”. By proudly embracing our dual identity as a professional association and registered union, NZNO members can achieve our common goal together.

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