From the TUC

Together: Union organising lessons from New Zealand

05 Nov 2012, By

Helen Kelly speaks at a Port of Auckland union rally. Photo by Maritime Union of New Zealand

I don’t think that anyone who heard Helen Kelly, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions speak at the TUC recently could have failed to be impressed. There was a great freshness and directness about her delivery and, of course, it’s great to see another national centre being lead by a woman.  But it was the subject of her presentation – on the NZCTU’s “Together” programme that really set me thinking. This is a different take on the “community-based”  trade unionism  championed not just by Unite and Community  but also unions  like  my own CWU,  who  have always looked to support members and their families  at home as well as work, and often when they are  out of work as well as employed.

Our counterparts in NZ decided in 2009 that although they claimed to be the voice and representatives of working people in that country, they could not really make that stand-up: Some sectors of their diverse economy were not represented.  Moreover, the organising model being used – seemingly largely defined by occupational demarcations and a classic workplace rep/official/leadership structure – was not delivering a growth of either members or density.  In a split we will all recognise, private sector membership was estimated at well below 15%, while public sector density stood at nearly 70%.

The NZCTU decided that the remedy was two-fold:  First start organising like successful social movements – Greenpeace, for example.  And second, go to potential members with a proposition based on values rather than membership. In very brief terms,  it means that you advertise for and  recruit “supporters” who pay a nominal sum  to receive access to  information and general   services, such as  an employment rights  call centre.  The aim of  this was  to dramatically lower  barriers  to  potential supporters,  and  to redefine what “support” was  to  make the proposition  more  attractive and accessible.

The key questions for us in the UK out of all this are of course “Does it work?” and “Can it happen here?” It’s clear in my mind that the answer to both is “yes” – but perhaps not in the most obvious ways.

There seems to be no doubt  that the idea has  great  traction in NZ,  as evidenced  in part by the Ports of Auckland dispute which started earlier this  year.  “Together” seems to have been instrumental in mobilising the community behind striking dockworkers.

But NZ and its labour movement are distinctly different from ours.  There are no all-encompassing general unions for example, leaving   significant sections unorganised and unrepresented. Union organisation is also very often co-terminus with  local  bargaining  units, so  there can be  literally dozens if not hundreds of  unions. There is scope and space for growth in a way that perhaps we don’t have.

And the “supporters” model is not necessarily a panacea – accountability can be difficult to establish, and ease-of-access also usually means ease-of-egress too!

But despite these differences, the Together model offers some very valuable food-for-thought. For unions to have the  self-awareness and self-enlightenment to perceive  and then embrace that  a collective  response is needed to remedy low density levels is not  a strange concept  for us – but  to do so in this particular way  has  some novel concepts.

So the  Memorandum of Commitment talks about  how  “Together”  subscriptions will be disbursed (most money will be invested in organising projects once the organisation is self-financing), where “Together” activity stops and NZCTU affiliate activity starts, and how, when and if  “Together”  members  will  be migrated to affiliates.  The breadth of this sort of   how-we-work-together document is eye-catching. (Here’s an affiliate’s view on how this works).

So too is the apparent willingness for affiliates to invest in “Together” and to, in effect, cede  some power to it. This suggests high levels of awareness or self-confidence or both.

And finally, the experience of how participants in “Together” have been trying to make this work is also instructive. Not all NZCTU affiliates are signed up. So those that are willing are pressing ahead   in an illustration of not allowing the agenda to be set by those who do not participate.

And amongst those who do participate, there is a need at senior level   for someone to continue to push the values of the project – to make sure sufficient attention (political, organisational and financial) is given and maintained.

In many ways ironically, “Together” is as much about Leadership as Organising (you could argue it was ever thus!).  But it is  certainly a bold  idea and, given the industrial landscape in New Zealand, will hopefully  flourish and in so doing  give  us  some  valuable insights into  our own work,  as well as  some good news  to share.

The dedicated “Together” website is

GUEST POST: Simon Sapper is National Officer with the Communication Workers Union. He is responsible for CWU’s relations with other unions, CWU Youth, the National Discipline Committee, General Policy Committee, strategy delivery, project management, field development and initiatives and CWU union awards. He also represents the union on/to a number of outside bodies including Liberty and Unions21. Outside of the CWU, Simon is Press Complaints Commissioner, and Chair of the Standards Committee of the local authority where he lives.


3 Responses to Together: Union organising lessons from New Zealand

  1. Helen Kelly
    Nov 5th 2012, 6:27 pm

    Thanks Simon. Just one point, the principles of our union change programme ( the values work specifically) was influential in the strategy for the Port dispute but Together is still fledgling and was not significant in the dispute ( which for readers, is an ongoing dispute. We got the wharfies back to work with massive community support, but we still don’t have a fair offer for a collective agreement).

  2. James Ritchie
    Nov 6th 2012, 8:34 pm

    “Together” is still a stronger theoretical concept than it is a practical reality but I am convinced it is a valuable contribution to expanding not only union membership but also union values throughout working communities. Together is a way in which workers who cannot easily access union membership can belong and share collective values. In NZ the next phase is to promote and resource and the global union movement should watch with interest and support and learn from this initiative which will ultimately succeed providing union leadership views access to unions as a right and not act as though unions are privileged clubs with barriers to access.

  3. Together: more thoughts for UK unions | STRONGER UNIONS
    Nov 7th 2012, 10:35 am

    […] The New Zealand answer has been to create ‘Together’ – through which they can bring into the trade union movement family and friends of members on a low fee basis and so create a social movement.  For more information, you can see Simon Sapper’s blog posting here. […]