The Union Within

By the time of the PSA’s 60th Jubilee in 1973, the Association employed more than 50 staff in National Office and the six Regional Offices. The staff was represented by a Staff Association and pay and conditions were generally based on those of members in the Clerical Division of the Public Service. An ambitious claim was filed by the Staff Association, which was not agreed to by the General Secretary and the Executive Officers and a degree of frustration developed

General Secretary Dan Long was a fair but very firm boss, respected for his left of centre views and staunch efforts for the membership, but thought by some to have a paternalistic attitude towards staff. The Staff Association, an incorporated society with no means of mediation or arbitration of their claims came up with the idea that they should become a union under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act – a very revolutionary concept in those days when the general rule was that union employees came from the ranks of the members and were steadfastly loyal to the union. The Association was moving into an era of union professionalism in which some specialist staff were from outside the PSA activist ranks and it was also in a period of growth and development of services.

Dan Long did not approve of the move to set up a staff union. When it was discovered that the Clerical Union could have exclusive rights of coverage under the ICA Act and that PSA staff could join that Union and have an award or agreement negotiated by it, the Executive Officers became outright hostile to such a course. Dan Long was infuriated that staff issues could be subject to external examination. Dan had a quick temper and could let fly on some issues – especially this one. Despite misgivings among some staff the Staff Association decided to carry on and a number of them joined the Clerical Union which set up a special PSA branch and communicated the news to Dan Long that it had sole negotiating rights. In the meantime some members of the Staff Association remained and the Executive Officers decided that it would be the only bargaining agent.

At that time I was PSA research officer and chairperson of the Staff Association, subsequently the Clerical Union Branch, and came under pressure to discontinue the process, but we believed that a principle was involved. Personal relationships became tense and often destructive of harmonious working conditions. My office was next door to Andy Bell’s. Andy was a returned serviceman and had been Regional Secretary Waikato until brought to National Office as Director of Administration. He was an old school union official, a close ally of Dan Long and forceful in the expression of his opinions. I never felt intimidated by Andy, just disloyal. Industrial action in the form of work bans and pickets took place but the situation dragged on. It became so uncomfortable that some of us resigned to take up other union work. In 1974 I joined the Wellington Clerical Union as assistant secretary.   

The following year the Clerical Union lodged a claim on behalf of PSA staff creating a dispute of interest. The Association responded by claiming to the Court that staff could not be covered as their work was not of a clerical nature. The Court decided against the PSA and the Union attempted to negotiate despite strong opposition from Dan Long and the Executive. In fact it was not until after Dan died in 1976 that an industrial agreement was finally completed in 1977. The chapter closed for me when I rejoined the PSA in December 1977 as Industrial Officer in National Office. The situation settled down and annual negotiations under the auspices of the Clerical Union became the new norm. No doubt remains in my mind that the agony was worth it and that the new process made the PSA a better place to work in.

Bill Thomas. PSA Research Officer 1969-74. Senior/Industrial Officer 1977-87.        

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