Public Service International's 30th Congress

In October/November 2017, Public Service International celebrated 110 years in existence with their 30th Congress, held in Geneva, Switzerland. PSA board member Benedict Ferguson was in attendance, and caught up with Working Life to talk about the PSA’s place in the world, revolutionary art and young workers coming together.

PSI conference swagYou spoke on the importance of indigenous workers in public services, so what did you discuss?

I spoke about the need for supportive employment practices that recognise the aims, aspirations and employment requirements of indigenous people. I discussed the New Zealand context and our obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, outlining the hard work of Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Awhina – the representative Māori structure of the PSA – in developing Ngā Kaupapa, a set of principles that help us define and maintain our focus on the improvement of working lives for Māori across the union. From there I went on to talk about the role the PSI and its affiliates can have in making practical change for indigenous public servants through our industrial and political work.

We heard that when you opened your speech in Te Reo, you left the translators perplexed? Did you have any idea that was going on?

Not really. I opened with a mihi. But I didn’t hear what the translators were saying as I was too busy concentrating on speaking! Afterwards I was surprised at the amount feedback I received on my korero – especially that I spoke in Te Reo. It made me reflect on how in New Zealand, while we still have a long way to go in honouring our treaty obligations, we appear to be leading the world in how we value and partner with Tangata Whenua.

What did you learn about public services and local government in an international sense?

I learned that we all face many similarities in the work we do, and that we’re all working for a collective goal: “a strong push for the world to value public services as the heart of any functioning society.” It was neat to see most speakers referencing the power of collective bargaining and how important it is for unions to progress their agendas in both their industrial and political work. For local government, it was interesting to learn about the different funding models that are used throughout the world – some are funded by central government, some through rates, and some through a mixed model.

PSI conference groupTell us about the young workers seminar.

It was an interesting seminar – lots of talk about what we need to do but not a lot of concrete actions or examples of what unions have done. I was able to speak about the New Zealand example within the PSA of setting up our youth network. We saw a need to create a space for young workers in our unions. So we got on and did it. We invested in the network and it has grown and grown ever since. I think the model we currently use at the PSA for engaging young workers is quite unique on the international stage, and with more promotion it will go even further. During the congress, there was a remit to create a youth network, but it wasn’t supported by the PSI executive and was voted down. My feeling was that this was primarily due to the strain it would place on PSI resources.

You met with the Korean delegation of Youth in Public Service. What are the challenges that they face as young public servants?

I found that the challenges they’re facing are very similar to those we faced in New Zealand prior to setting up the PSA’s youth network. Young workers in Korea are not engaged in unions, unions don’t collect data on age, and there are no formal youth networks set up. There’s an appetite to do something, but they’re not sure what yet.

Tell us about the LBGTQI Seminar.

I attended the morning session of this seminar. The common theme that emerged was that unions are a place for people to belong, and this needs to include our LGBTQI workers. There was a bit of a history lesson provided by UNISON (one of the UK’s largest trade unions), showing the work they had done in developing their network over the past 40 years. A great opportunity that we need to look at is sharing the work that the CTU has been doing in this space – specifically the diversity resource kit that has been developed.

Impressions of Geneva? 

A beautiful old city! I only got lost a few times. 

What were the international group impressions of the New Zealand? 

I think international unions look up to us and the work we are doing – specifically with equal pay and youth. There was a lot of interest in what things were like over the past 9 years of a National Party Government and how things may change with recent changes in our political landscape. 

Any other key highlights or things you would like to share with us here? 

We can be proud of the work we do in New Zealand. NZPSA is a progressive union and our campaigns, political and industrial work is on par with any other country in the world. We need to keep the pressure on now that we have a worker-friendly government to ensure workers’ rights are restored to our employment legislation. Lastly, we must never ever forget that for unions to survive, we constantly need to be recruiting new members and promoting to the wider community the importance and the value of having a strong and effective public service.


“People over profit”
Public Service International Congress 2017

PSI has a strong tradition of paying homage to the Congress’ host country. This year’s Congress gave organisers a particular challenge of finding something peculiar about Switzerland that would also highlight the historic achievement of PSI’s 110th Anniversary and 30th Congress.

With that in mind, they brought together two contemporary themes: Dadaism and Constructivism. Dada is a Swiss-based art movement which started as a reaction to the horrors of World War 1. Formed by a group of artists, misfits, political exiles and revolutionaries, they opted for expressions of nonsense, irony, and chaos as a way of expressing their opposition.

Constructivism is an artistic political practice which is linked to the first workers’ revolution, seeing art as a practice for social purposes.

A century later, these themes are still relevant. The PSI describes the aims of 2017’s Congress as: to reject the privatization of our lives, to unveil the un-truths of corporate ideology and the chaos of market failure, to construct alternatives based on the power of organized labour, and to fight for our firm belief: People Over Profit!