President's Blog: Heads up 22

It’s been quite a while since my last blog. I’ve been off on Work Accident, a benefit of logging the original injury 3 years ago, gone through minor surgery to my knee and underwent a strenuous interview for SSO. Happy to report I am back to work in my new position of SSO of which I am extremely proud of achieving. I do have to say I was really impressed with how my District leadership and particularly the IMU treated and assisted me in my rehabilitation; very responsive and accommodating.

I also struggled with a few things after our National Conference late last year, mainly around my lack of preparation for our Local Secretaries in trying to re organise the National Committee because of a review of our structure that we undertook as recommended by conference 2 years ago in Wellington. More about that later.  

Over this period of time we have been struggling to gain traction with the FENZ negotiating team. 1 step forward 2 steps back seems to be an overly generous description. When we think we have explained, demonstrated and provided evidence to their team, they return supposedly after talking to ELT, with blanket no’s and comments like it’s already something you’re paid to do or it’s our organisational position not to consider … you get the picture. I know you are all frustrated, some of which has been manifested in anti-Union Committee sentiment. You have to know that the NCOM and Council is working and will always be working for the benefit of all of you, our members. It’s difficult times like this when our strength will be in our unity.   We are elected officials and firefighters who are affected directly by the negotiation process, we are not immune to the stress and frustration, however, we also have the benefit of first-hand experience and long term strategies that for obvious reasons cannot be publicised.  But we have stepped up the communication and involvement with members.   This negotiation round has given members the earliest and deepest insights into our process to date that you ever have had including a comprehensive round of membership meetings held by video conference to detail the bargaining process, claims and responses. This has been a deliberate deviation from past negotiation rounds and supported widely across our membership. We have also had updates to Locals since mid-2020 and Locals have nominated representatives that have been involved in discussions preparing for all possible outcomes including industrial action.   

While the feedback from those meetings was really positive we know a couple of members have spread some mis-information.  Please remember the only source of truth in this process is from the members of the NCOM and if you have a question don’t hesitate to contact us.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in the recent approach to the management of FENZ. FENZ being an emergency organisation needs to be flexible and be able to make decisions quickly, just as we do on the floor, however, as has proved true in recent times and the now famous phrase from our Timaru sisters and brothers, when important issues go to ELT it goes through the complicator and is slowed down to glacial speed or stopped completely.

I am reminded of another quote by Thomas Sowell who wrote extensively with themes of writing that range from social policy, on race, ethnic groups, education, and decision-making.

It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.
Thomas Sowell

This quote will resonate with us as Career professional firefighters, trainers, comcen dispatchers, reduction experts and support officers. It forms the basis of all our selection, training, examination, assessment, and promotion processes. Decisions need to be made that protect the integrity of the organisation with the public and most importantly us as firefighters.

This is why, critical decision makers need to be operational, those decision makers also will understand the importance of a strong and engaged workforce and Union. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we are the gate keepers of the standards that keep us all safe. This runs through our equipment selection, fleet selection, recruit selection, staffing levels, covid response and protections and everything in between.

The National Committee recommended 2 conferences ago to investigate alternative representative models for our National and Branch committee models and relevant representation and inclusion including membership numbers, classifications, geography and other interest groups such as Māori and Pacifica, gender etc.  This work was undertaken by an external experienced former Union Official, Joe Tonner. In response to this important and confronting work, the NZPFU set up a sub-committee to process the recommendations with Joe.  This work personally resonates with me given the historic collective responsibility that trade unions have always carried for elevating the voices of those which often are ignored or dismissed.

The review on the whole found that our representation model was fit for purpose other than reflecting our community and membership, specifically accounting for women and Māori. One recommendation was to have FENZ women career professional firefighters and members to select 1-2 representatives to be full members of the national committee and the same for our Māori members. There is much work still to be done in this area, particularly in educating our local union leaders around understanding unconscious bias towards women, what barriers there are to being engaged and indeed stepping up and leading union work and at a local, branch and national level. I feel it is imperative that we address these barriers and proactively work to “open the door” for women (and Māori) in the Union movement so that specific issues can be addressed.   I know from my own discussions with women career fire fighters that their experience are often different to our men, they face many challenges that we just don’t see.  One example is uniform, where women’s fit is often not available particularly with operational uniform, this can compromise our women’s ability to perform their duties confidently, competently and, in some cases safely.  Statistically our career women serve half as long as our men, which disadvantages their progression, renumeration and superannuation.  They are further disadvantaged in promotion stakes if they take time off to have children, where they are encouraged (for safety reasons) to remove themselves from operational duties to reduce dangerous exposures while pregnant yet they only get paid their basic salary while they are carrying out “alternative duties”.  Stories like these have more weight with management when they present these issues directly to management with the support and protections of the Union.  And I would also add that these kind of discussions around child care and better support for whanau also open the door for our partners to take on more responsibility at home without it adversely affecting their career, a win win.

We also have to recognise the barriers that may be preventing Māori and Pasifika  members nominating or being elected to Local and National Committee positions. the Union movement and society as a whole are embracing our responsibilities in the relationship, and recognising the Tiriti O’ Waitangi.  We need to ensure the  Union structure and the way we work and communicate  is not a barrier to having representation across our membership.  Diversity can bring a richness and ensure we are hearing all perspectives.  It would also provide us guidance in matters related to the Treaty, Te Reo and tikanga as required.

This thinking might be dismissed as favouritism, or tokenism by some of our membership. As disappointing as it is from my perspective, I firmly believe it is an education issue. Our members show enormous amounts of empathy for our crews, the many varied interactions with the public under trying circumstances, I am confident our members can show the same level of empathy towards those currently under-represented in our structures and in particular women and Māori and Pasifika members.

Finally, it is Local Committee office holders elections this year. Local President, Vice President, Local Secretary and local committee members. This is where a lot of great work and support for you as members comes from, it is the learning ground, supported by very good and strong Branch and National office holders. I ask that members who are considering standing for Local positions put their hands up and if you have any questions about what is expected, please feel free to contact your NCOM, who have all been Local Officials, some for many many years and have a lifetime of experience in advocacy, negotiations, working parties, all working to ensure the best outcomes for you as members.

I would be particularly keen to see women in each of our local committees, think of this as an opportunity to lead the way, to encourage and support our amazing women.

As always, stay safe 

Ian Wright
New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union

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