Recently the NZPFU became aware of a FENZ Subject Matter Expert role description which blatantly discriminated against union representatives.  A role description for Subject Matter Experts (SME) Working Safely in Water listed union representatives as having a conflict of interest.  If the person had the relevant skills and technical knowledge to be a SME but were also a union representative, that employee would have to “formally document” their union involvement, put a “management plan in place”, and if the perceived conflict of interest was “severe” enough it would “disqualify” them from performing as a SME.

The NZPFU notified FENZ this was unlawful discrimination requiring the conflict of interest reference to be withdrawn and removed.  FENZ has since removed the “conflict of interest” section but CEO Rhys Jones informed the NZPFU that had been done “to avoid confusion”.  There was no acknowledgement that it was discriminatory and offensive.  There was no apology.

Mr Jones asked that the Martin Niemöller poem be removed from our national notice as it insinuated a comparison of FENZ to the Nazis.  We responded confirming we had not compared FENZ to the Nazis.  Mr Jones then wrote to the National President requesting an apology for using the Martin Niemöller poem.  

Today the National Council responded:

Tena koe Rhys,

This letter serves as a formal response to your email dated 16 August 2021 titled “RE:DISCRIMINATION AGAINST UNION REPRESENTATIVES”, from the National Council of the New Zealand Professional Firefighters’ Union (NZPFU).

As a Registered Trade Union with rights, entitlements, and obligations under New Zealand legislation the NZPFU represents the majority of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s (FENZ) employees, including Career Firefighters, Career Officers, Communication Centre Dispatchers, Communications Centre Shift Managers, Volunteer Support Officers, Fire Risk Management Officers, Trainers (Area, Regional & National) Health and Safety Advisors, Welfare Officers, and many of the advisors employed in National & Regional Headquarters offices.

As an affiliated member of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), the NZPFU works diligently and tirelessly with other Trade Unions to combat unfair, unreasonable, and unjustifiable discrimination and disadvantage of union members for the sole reason of their union membership.

We believe that the Expression of Interest notice for the “Safely Working Around Water” project was discriminatory against members of the NZPFU because of the assertion that a “Conflict of Interest” may occur solely due to union representation/membership implied that contributions made by NZPFU members seeking appointment to this position may have different interests than providing safe systems of work, effective training programmes, and enhanced operational and tactical decision making strategies for those responding to those emergencies.  It is our opinion that the additional requirement in this notice was an overt attempt to control and diminish NZPFU members’ input into the project that will deliver an enhanced way of working in and around water during emergency incidents.

What is most concerning to the National Council is that instead of accepting that this constraint was either an inadvertent error, or a deliberate attempt to discriminate against union membership, was an attempt at gaslighting your actions through an attack on a picture that was posted to the NZPFU Facebook Page.   This excerpt of the poem “first they came…” by German Theologian Martin Niemöller has not been used as an attempt to compare FENZ to the fascist Nazi regime.  It has been used to remind our members about the ways in which subversive authority figures quash contradictory or representative voices.  The third line refers to “trade unionists” as a group that represents the voice of workers.  The vilification of trade unions and oppression of workers continues to happen in all societies with the livelihoods of workers remaining in the balance.  The poem serves as a reminder that the silencing of representative voices can, and has been, the first steps towards attempts to undermine and break a Trade Union.  Union breaking is not new in New Zealand, in fact arguably  the largest industrial confrontation in New Zealand's very short history the 1951 "Waterfront Disputes" saw the deployment of the figurative ancestors of the very troops that you would take command of as the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, to break the will of the workers.

As a person who has served the large majority of your life as a member of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in a relationship with the Crown that is not employment, you may lack understanding what it means to us as workers to be able to exercise the rights given to us under New Zealand law to enter into an equal relationship with our employer.  In the type of relationship that the NZDF has with its enlisted and commissioned personnel there is no capacity to question the authority or decision making of superiors, there is also no recognition of the efforts of those that provide the means of production (workers).  While there are some similarities between some of the structures in a Fire and Emergency Service and the military, the key differences are in the ability of the members of the Fire and Emergency Services to Unionise and question the decisions of the agency and their superiors.

In conclusion:

The National Council of the NZPFU stand by our assertion that we have not compared FENZ to the fascist Nazi regime in any of our communications whether in private or public. This poem, to us and much of the Trade Union Movement, serves as a reminder that all it takes for an authority to control workers is for those workers to be isolated from those around them by their differences, and to lose their voice. The fascist Nazi regime is regularly used as an example in many writings because it is a glaring contemporary example of the extremes that human intolerance will devolve our empathetic natures to.

FENZ’s use of “Conflict of Interest” provisions to restrict NZPFU involvement in work directly concerning our membership is blatant discrimination.  The interests of our membership do not diverge from FENZ, as long as FENZ retains the key interests around community & worker safety, and operational & tactical effectiveness that have been listed above.  Any suggestion that there is a conflict implies that FENZ does not have these interests as their priority.

While no offence was meant, we cannot abide any attempts to gaslight the membership of the NZPFU into feeling that raising issues with discriminatory practices is in any way an attack on a group or individual.  Our use of the work of Martin Niemöller is with the utmost respect to him, and as a reminder to our membership how fragile representative voices can be.

We will also be advising our members of this response.

Stronger Together

Ian Wright      
National President

Wattie Watson
National Secretary

Joseph Stanley
National Vice President

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