We are local heroes

Across New Zealand, every single day, we’re making a huge difference. Connected by our PSA membership and our shared passion for building a stronger society, it’s time to celebrate all that we do.

Laure Michon and her dog Cleo

Laure Michon and her dog Cleo

Story by Asher Wilson-Goldman

More than one in every hundred New Zealanders is a PSA member – that’s an incredible statistic. Put us all in one place and we’d be the country’s 10th largest city, bigger than Rotorua or Invercargill. Three times more people have PSA membership than play rugby league.

Our size means we have a significant impact on people’s lives – more than most will ever know, and perhaps more than even we understand.

It can be hard to realise, because we’re not very good at trumpeting our successes. When times have been tough, as they have for many of us in recent years, we’re conditioned to knuckle down and get on with our jobs, even as it gets more and more difficult.

But things can be different. We know the importance of the work that each and every PSA member does. We know we can do a better job if we aren’t dealing with unfilled vacancies, under resourcing and constant restructuring.

And we want to be better. In 2014, a Victoria University survey of PSA members showed that an overwhelming majority of us are committed to making a positive difference in our society, and are committed to quality public services.

In the next couple of months, we’ll see the results of a new survey by the University, and no doubt PSA members will still be vocal about our commitment to making New Zealand a better place for all.

In order to do better, we need that commitment to spread. 62,000 PSA members speaking up for quality public services is a great start, but it isn’t enough. We need support from the millions of New Zealanders who use the services we provide every day, and we need politicians to provide the funding necessary to let us get on with our jobs.

Stand Together is our newest campaign, and it’s our path to getting that support. In the lead up to the 2017 elections, Stand Together will be getting PSA members active around the country, building alliances with communities and other organisations, and highlighting the amazing work we do.

Proud to protect New Zealand

If you haven’t already heard of Laure Michon and her dog Cleo, you will do soon. Cleo, a Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) detection dog who works alongside her handler Laure, has already been featured on Radio New Zealand and in the NZ Herald, and next year she’ll be one of the stars of Dog Squad on TVNZ.

Laure says she sometimes feels overshadowed by her more famous canine colleague, but nonetheless has an immense sense of pride in her role protecting New Zealand’s precious biosecurity.

“There’s a lot of pride involved in wearing the uniform of MPI. You feel important, MPI really believes in what we’re doing – we have a strong sense of pride in protecting New Zealand”, she says.

As well as her core role at several borders – including Auckland Airport, the International Mail Centre and Ports of Auckland – Laure also puts her energy into her PSA activity as an elected delegate.

When she moved to Auckland from Queenstown to join the dog handling team, “we didn’t have a delegate,” she says, “we were going through a big roster review and I felt we needed the strength of our union to make sure our interests were protected and looked after.”

After discussing the issue with her human workmates (the dogs don’t get a vote), Laure was elected as the team’s delegate. She thinks it was “because I’m not afraid to ask sensitive questions, but also to do it in a diplomatic way. It’s been very enjoyable to be a part of the process, having team members really count on you, you do feel like you’re really contributing in that way.”

Working with a dog has significant benefits. Laure says “every day when I go and pick her up she’s always happy to see me – it’s always uplifting.”

Cleo and Laure have been together since the start, training alongside each other. “There’s no drama”, Laure says, before hesitating, “except when she eats her poop.” Every workplace truly does have its own unique issues.

Sally Simpson and colleague Zainab Mulla

Sally Simpson and colleague Zainab Mulla

Wriggle and rhyme, it’s learning time

Sally Simpson loves helping people, and she loves children – so it is perhaps unsurprising that she’s found a job that encompasses both of these. As a senior library assistant in Mt Albert, Auckland, Sally works with everyone from babies to adults, helping to build a love of learning amongst her whole community.

One of Sally’s roles is to visit early childhood centres and work with children. Recently, this took her to a centre where she ran a programme about Matariki, a festival often known as the Māori New Year.

“I did a special bilingual Matariki session for about 40 kids, they were just so engaged in the session, they’re from different cultures but they’re so into it,” she enthused to Working Life, “afterwards, the teachers invited me to morning tea, gave me a card and told me how much I meant to them and their centre and it was awesome, not in terms of ego, but to get that feedback and to hear about how much the kids got out of it.”

Sally says she can be shy, recalling the whakataukī kaore te kūmara e kōrero mo tōna māngaro (the kūmara does not speak of its own sweetness), but her passion for her job shines through in every word.

“One of the things that I’m really passionate about is when you see kids fostering that love of reading,” says Sally, who has spent seven years working at the library and seeing her community thrive.

“When they’re very little just seeing their love of books come alive, then watching them over the years as they grow up, some of the kids here I’ve known since they were babies and I’ve watched them go through their stages of development, seeing their love of reading grow.”

Whether it’s running wriggle and rhyme, the library’s free brain and movement development programme for 0 – 18 month olds, helping customers and other staff members with queries, or representing a colleague as a PSA delegate, Sally always throws herself into her role.

“In the past we sometimes had people complain about what the PSA was or wasn’t doing,” Sally recalls, “but recently we’ve had a growing realisation that we are the PSA, it isn’t something external to us. This has been empowering for us all.”

Navigating through the maze of justice

Access to the justice system is a fundamental right for all New Zealanders, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. For Kate Scarlet, a lawyer at the Wellington Community Law Centre, helping people to find their way through the system is a core part of her role.

“It’s not always an easy path for most people to get access to justice,” Kate says, “the system can be complicated, overwhelming and expensive.” The free nature of community law’s services mean they can help people out and make it easier and more affordable to resolve their problems.

Community law can’t fix everything though, Kate points out: “I think of us as GPs, you come to us and we can help with common things but for certain issues we might need to send you to a specialist.”

Kate’s job is wide ranging. In any given week, she could be seeing clients and helping them with their issues, supervising a team of volunteer lawyers, and educating community groups on aspects of the law. With new health and safety legislation coming into force, that’s taken up a fair bit of her time recently, as has talking with queer high school students about their rights.

Helping transgender people with changing their identity documents and other issues is Kate’s favourite part of her role. She says the law often isn’t helpful for her transgender and non-binary clients, but helping them to get the outcomes they want is important.

Kate became a PSA delegate almost by default – when her colleagues realised they needed a delegate, she was the logical choice as the office’s employment law expert. She’s also passionate about the rights of working people, dating back to her time volunteering at university for the Workers’ Rights Service.

During her time volunteering, Kate saw the massive gap in power. “People don’t see how bad things can get and where things can go wrong – seeing all the unfair clauses and terms in employment agreements that people think are standard but I can look and see that it’s really harsh.”

Early detection to help the next generation

Gail Tihore is making a difference to the lives of children across the Hutt Valley. As a vision and hearing technician, Gail administers screening tests to children as part of the B4School Check team. These tests aim to identify and refer on previously undiagnosed hearing and vision problems as early as possible.

Identifying issues that are correctable can make a huge difference, Gail says: “for some children it can be huge, perhaps they were unable to see leaves on the trees or hear their rustling, for whanau to watch their child have this new experience when they’re able to see or hear things they couldn’t hear before is amazing.”

Fixing a hearing or vision condition has wider implications too. Gail says the children she sees may have behavioural difficulties at home or school, that unbeknownst to parents or teachers were caused by impaired senses.

“Often when kids can’t hear well, their speech and language does not develop as it should. This can affect their self-esteem and their learning, but if we can get that sorted early on then their speech can improve in leaps and bounds and everything else along with it.”

The importance of quality public healthcare, available throughout New Zealand, is vital. Gail’s work is part of “a high quality consistent national screening programme. We’re all screening to the same protocol so any child around the country will get the same level of care.”

And that’s the way it should be. In unions, just like in public health, early identification of problems is the best way to make sure they get resolved. And just like the B4 School Check, PSA membership is available right across the country, so we can all stand together to make a better New Zealand.

“I’ve always felt that unions are able support you in the workplace,” Gail told Working Life, “unions oversee good practices – I think it’s really important.”