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