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Pioneering organiser takes her leave: As one of NZNO's longest serving organisers prepares to leave, she reflects on her 25-year career helping nurses and other health care workers.

Retiring organiser Jackie McGrath has always been something of a pioneer in her working life. She was the first enrolled nurse to work in theatre at Nelson Hospital in the 1960s; was on the New Zealand Nurses' Union's (NZNU) committee of management that, in 1987, decided to break away from the then NZNA; and established NZNO's first office in the Top of the South in 1994.

After more than 30 years--25 as a union organiser--of serving members in Nelson, the lower half of the North Island and the Top of the South, McGrath is now signing off. Reflecting on a working life that has spanned enrolled nursing at Nelson Hospital, motherhood, cleaning, fruit picking, meat packing and an 11-year stint in theatre at Manuka Hospital, a private hospital in Nelson, McGrath's commitment to helping workers, fostering political awareness and challenging unfairness in whatever guise, is undiminished. But family commitments call. Her feelings, as she departs at the end of this month, are mixed with regret, realism and some relief.

Her path to full-time union work began after she sorted out a colleague's pay problem, prompting others to ask for help with workplace issues. She became an NZNU delegate, then chair of the Nelson region. At that time, NZNU was a separate legal entity under the auspices of NZNA, responsible for practice and Plunket nurses, occupational health nurses, and members in aged care and private hospitals. She was then elected regional secretary, the role a mix of administration, liaison with the organiser and helping sort out local and regional workplace issues. In this role, she was also a member of NZNU's national committee of management (CoM).

'A traumatic time'

McGrath had been on the CoM for two years when NZNU decided to break from NZNA. The committee believed the union was contributing significant resources to NZNA but not getting enough back to serve private sector members properly. The split was "bloody awful, a traumatic time". The breakaway union was headed by secretary Steph Breen. McGrath, now one of eight staff, covered the North Island up to Taranaki and Gisborne and the Top of the South. She started work in August 1987. "If I'd known what I was going into, I would never have done it. But we had the conviction to follow through and we believed the break was the right thing to do at the time."

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Working huge hours and travelling long distances were among the challenges, but the aged-care sector provided the biggest. There was a national strike in aged-care hospitals two years after the split. The strike--"it was mostly smoke and mirrors"--succeeded in securing better national award conditions. "Breen was a formidable advocate, one of the best I've ever worked with," McGrath said.

Some aged-care employers caused major problems. "Now employers are more up with the play about employment law. Back then, I was dealing with cases such as an employee being fired because she was too small. And at one facility, I was called in to deal with 'the rash', ie scabies. With the help of the local public health nurse, we got it sorted."

It wasn't only aged-care employers who were difficult. McGrath was involved in a headline-making case in which a Wellington GP fired his practice nurse while she was on bereavement leave.

After its traumatic beginnings, the union began to make ground with membership growing, but the 1991 Employment Contracts Act (ECA) sounded its death knell. Describing that time as a nightmare, McGrath was refused entry to many sites, had to deal with an employer who only invited staff who had signed an individual employment agreement to a work dinner and had to sidle up to the staff cafeteria window to talk with members at one private hospital. Membership was decimated in aged-care, to a lesser extent in private hospitals. Such was the impact of the ECA, the NZNU had to reunite with NZNA, with NZNO formed in 1993. "The time to re-unite was right. We achieved what we had set out to do--established a profile in the private sector and given members the services they needed. The ECA did not have the same impact in the public sector."

The challenges of unionising outside the public sector remain. "It's a very difficult and thankless task at times, particularly in aged care. You often take one step forward and two steps backwards. Practice nurses and Maori and iwi provider nurses are often in small worksites scattered all over the place."

Against that background, she sees the maintenance of a primary health care (PHC) agreement, throughout the tumultuous years of the ECA and beyond--first as the national practice nurse contract, now as the PHC multi-employer collective agreement--as a great achievement.

She still rues the repeal of pay equity legislation by the 1990 National Government. "Women workers, particularly in aged care, are still paying for that decision."

While there have been highlights and low times, it is in the everyday work that McGrath has found most satisfaction--"watching delegates grow in confidence, empowering people to help themselves, winning something for a member, completing negotiations that will make a real difference to people's working lives, problem solving, knowing when to stop using diplomacy and move to firmer action."

As she departs the organisation, she has concerns over how democratic NZNO's new constitutional structure will be, over the proposed changes to employment law--"they're dangerous"--over the continued use of the International English Language Testing System, which keeps many migrant nurses as caregivers, and a long-standing concern over many nurses' reluctance to be politically involved. "Some are, but most nurses still don't make the links between what they do and the wider political environment. If nurses are to be truly caring people, they have to be political."

By co-editor Teresa O'Connor
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Title Annotation:PROFILE
Author:O'Connor, Teresa
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Aug 1, 2012
Words:966
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