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Benedict Fergusson – Walking a fine line

Benedict

For the past three and a half years, Benedict Ferguson has been working to create an active partnership between union members and Auckland Council – the only local authority in the country to have a full-time union delegate.

He spoke with Ruth Le Pla about the challenges of his role and his work to date.

Contrary to what many people presume, full-time union delegate Benedict Ferguson is an Auckland Council employee. He’s on council’s payroll, working within council’s organisational design and learning development team. He’s also the convenor of the Local Government Sector Committee for the Public Service Association (PSA), a mantle he carries by dint of his role as the union’s Auckland/Northland rep.
The PSA is our country’s largest union, supporting 70,000 members across not just local government but also the public and state sectors, district health boards and community public services.
In recent years, local government membership numbers have consistently hovered around 11 to 12 percent of the total. A head count in March this year identified 8200 members throughout the sector.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Auckland Council, with its 2500 union members, represents the lion’s share. That’s council only: council controlled organisations (CCOs) are listed separately.
Christchurch City Council trails behind in second place with 1000 members. CCO Auckland Transport has the third largest membership total at around 630, followed by Dunedin City Council (440) and Wellington City Council (340).
Benedict plays an unusual hybrid role within this framework. To the best of his knowledge, his job is the only one of its kind within local government, although the public sector employs a handful of full-time union delegates.
Benedict is part of a larger group of around 120 PSA delegates spread across Auckland Council. That number has risen from 80 just three years ago. He says he’s proud of the growth in delegate numbers and “the maturity of conversations” between union and council.
“Our delegates get some time off to do their duties,” he says. “I just happen to get full release to do my side of the programme.”
This enables him to focus on longer-term issues and programmes that can carry union members and council forward together.
Benedict says this greater emphasis on deeper, collective initiatives was signalled a while back.
“Previously the role always reported through the employee relations arm of HR. Then it was seen that if we really want to drive this partnership [between union and council] let’s take the role away from operational day-to-day reactions and put it into more of a strategic role where we look at some of the long-term changes that we want to make.”
Benedict has been employed by Auckland Council for the past 17 years: the same number of years he’s been a member of the PSA. Prior to taking on his current union role at council he worked in regulatory, among other responsibilities managing land development, enforcement and prosecutions.

STRADDLING THE ROLES

He says people are often intrigued about where his loyalties lie. “I say I have an allegiance to being a staunch public servant and a staunch unionist. I’ve never had an issue bridging those two.”
He recalls a manager telling him years ago that he had to pick whether he was first a manager or a union delegate. “I remember clearly saying I choose both. I don’t see why you have to be either/or.”
That said, Benedict knows there are times when he has to take a certain stance on a particular issue. “But my view is always to problem solve. I come back to the idea that if there wasn’t a council here there wouldn’t be any jobs for our union members. So, you have to make the council succeed. And I work on getting the council to understand they need to help the PSA succeed as well: so, there’s that real partnership idea.”
He’s also aware that if he doesn’t get the balance right, he runs the risk of being alienated by both sides.
“I guess the myth would be that I’m paid for by council so therefore I’m not a union person. We used to say I’m a paid delegate and I say, ‘hang on a minute, all delegates are paid because all delegates get paid to do their work’.”
Benedict has tried to challenge perceptions over the past three years. “The term is ‘full-time delegate’ not ‘paid delegate’,” he says. “Everyone that works for council – regardless of if they’re a health and safety rep, a fire warden or a union delegate – they still get paid for doing that job. It’s the role you have in council. I’m paid like everyone else: it’s just that I’m released to do full-time work.”
He says he appreciates being challenged on what he does as it helps him question his own values around what he’s doing. “Members keep you honest.”
He also works to cut out the jargon in communications being sent out to staff. “Let’s break it down into standard language so people will understand and relate to it.
“When you talk in jargon, people switch off – I’ve seen it happen in meetings – whereas if you talk in normal day-to-day language people will become engaged.”

SUPPORTING

As part of his role, Benedict responds to, and supports, delegates and members as specific matters arise. While he may not personally go in to bat for them on individual concerns, he’s available as a resource to connect people to the best help available.
He says Auckland Council initiated ways to help Muslim staff affected by the March 15 shootings at the Christchurch mosques.
“I didn’t get approached [by members] myself, but some of our delegates did and they came to me asking what to do in this instance.” Benedict suggested delegates make time to listen and, where necessary, play an advocacy role.
He’s mindful that he, and other delegates, are not professionally trained to deal with trauma or other types of pastoral care and will often put members in touch with organisations such as Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) services.
“In the past we’ve got involved but it’s a bit risky for delegates if they don’t have appropriate training.”
He adds that he’s also “a bit of a go-to” for Auckland Council if it wants to engage with the PSA.

HIGH ENGAGEMENT

Meanwhile, as part of his strategic work, Benedict is working on a joint council/union initiative called high performance through high engagement. As part of this, 700 council staff are now going through the first stage of group effectiveness training.
The programme uses interest-based problem solving which, rather than jump straight from problem to solution, first fleshes out what each participant’s interest may be in solving the issue.
A slower and much deeper process than others traditionally used, Benedict says it has the power to transform relationships and change organisational cultures.
This is just year one of what may be a three-year journey.
Benedict says the process works by ensuring everyone in the room is not just heard but understood by others. “We train people how to ask more exploratory questions and looking at their own active listening skills.”
Currently being trialled by council’s libraries and information management departments, the process is based on the idea of co-designing and
co-leading.
Union membership is traditionally high in councils’ libraries departments across the country. Other departments at Auckland Council have expressed interest in taking part in the training. “If we were to go to another area,” says Benedict, “you’d have to have a good delegate structure and at least a general manager or lead team very committed to it.”

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

The union already uses interest-based problem solving in its collective bargaining with council: adopted in favour of the traditional positional bargaining stance often characterised by union/council negotiations.
When the collective agreement was up for negotiation last year, Benedict says his role was to support the union side. “I hate saying side: I mean, support the union team to get them ready for bargaining. So, there was a lot of pre-work, coaching, explaining how negotiations work and what can be expected.”
At Auckland, the main collective deal, which covers about 2000 members, is reviewed every three years – although, depending on the specifics of any agreement, some items could be scheduled for talks on a one – or two-year cycle.
In the latest deal:

  • Allowances were increased by 3.5 percent. Among other items this included shift, on-call and meal allowances.
  • There’s a new clause around Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This is a much broader clause than previously, covering how Maori members are supported to bring their whole self to work and for council to understand they have a life outside of work that may impact on work and vice versa.
  • Travel hardship: People can apply if they’re finding it difficult to get to work. There are requirements around how this is applied but in essence, it says that if someone earns less than $70,000 and has been impacted by an organisational change, they can apply for a travel hardship allowance.
  • There is an idea that people can trial new roles. There’s now a process where, by agreement, someone could trial a new role for 12 weeks if their existing role is disestablished.

While the bones of the deal were ratified in mid-December and are now operational, Benedict says three “quite big issues” remain to be resolved. These have been put to working groups for further development.
These three chunky topics span what many people would see to lie at the core of a union’s reason for being: recognition, remuneration and pay equity.
Benedict says the work on council’s remuneration system is akin to an education piece. “We’re just going around department-by-department running sessions with people saying this is how remuneration works in council: this is why it works. It’s a bit of myth busting.”
The largest piece of work is on pay equity and equal pay. “It’s a bit hard to comment on any of that without having the research done yet,” says Benedict. “It’s in that initial stage of saying we jointly agree we want to look at it and then have to agree what the issues are.”

LOOKING BACK – AND FORWARD

Now three and a half years into the job, Benedict says he’s adapted from his previous role as a manager to working with people who are volunteering their time and efforts. He’s also learnt to work with the changing cycle of delegates who may come and go as their circumstances dictate.
“It’s quite a lonely role because there’s only one of me. It took a while to adjust, from having been a manager and having a team, to being just me.”
It’s all about walking a fine line, he says. “The idea is to ensure the PSA can be an active partner with council. And that the council is an active partner with the PSA. You advocate for your members: you can advocate for council as well.
“A big part of it is the relationships you build over time.”
Benedict says he’s now looking at what, if anything, could be done differently and how the role could be changed. “Is it sitting in the right place within the organisation? What else could we do to support the partnership we have with Auckland Council?”

 


This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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