Retiring, but still battling for the underdog
Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda retires in August after 27 years of service as a NSWNMA official. She tells The Lamp she’s still passionate about the causes that led her to unionism.
Judith Kiejda’s life revolved around being a nurse, a wife and mother of three boys until she turned her hospital training into a nursing degree in the late 1980s.
Judith trained to be a nurse and midwife at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, learning from senior nurses on the job.
Her university study was “an eye-opener; I loved learning the theory and joining in the tutorials and group discussions among fellow students,” she remembers.
“People were always talking about how nurses were getting ripped off. I could relate to that because I had always been concerned about justice and fairness. I started to learn about the role of unions.”
After gaining her degree, Judith went to work at St George Hospital and “got a little bit involved in the union”.
“Someone asked me to be a union delegate, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ They said, ‘Oh you’ve just got to hang up the meeting notices.’ I said, “Yeah, I can do that. Soon after I was president of the branch. I became a person that nurses would go to with their problems.”
In 1994, Judith accepted an offer to become an organiser for the then NSW Nurses’ Association.
At that time the union was entirely “service oriented” she says. “It was focused on recruiting members and dealing with their individual issues. There were limited attempts to organise and empower members to achieve outcomes for themselves.”
In the late 1990s, Judith was attracted to the “organising model” of unionism pioneered by North American unionists.
“The organising model emphasised workplace organisation and mobilisation. It meant union officials had to hand over a lot of control to the membership, which was unheard of in our union.”
A new way of working
Judith got a chance to put the new ideas into practice when she became the organiser for the Illawarra region. “I started weekly wine and cheese nights for all branch members where we would have organising chats. Simple changes like that showed me the potential to make valuable gains if you actually organised members and got them engaged in the work of the union.”
In 2002, Judith teamed up with Brett Holmes to run in union elections. Brett was elected general secretary and Judith as assistant general secretary.
They were responsible for 88 FTE (full-time-equivalent) staff serving 48,000 members. Today
the union has 200 staff and 73,000 members.
“Back then, the assistant secretary’s job was to run the office,” Judith says. “Right from the start I said to Brett, I don’t think that’s the best use of resources, and he agreed he wanted us to work as a partnership.”
In an address to the union’s state council, Brett said he and Judith shared an understanding that “the old world of being able to use industrial tribunals was disappearing and that we would have to get our members comfortable with the understanding that politicians made the decisions. If you did not like their decisions then you had to get your members to be political.”
He said Judith’s achievements included the creation of the NursePower campaign fund to pay for advertising and other costs of winning community and political support on issues: “Judith convinced me such a fund was essential to what we wanted to achieve.”
Judith says, “After the Howard government brought in its Work-Choices legislation I thought we needed a fund to pay for the campaign to defeat WorkChoices, and future campaigns.”
“Annual conference unanimously supported the proposal to levy members $2 a week – the cost of a cup of coffee back then.”
NursePower is now well funded. It allows the union to campaign on issues without sacrificing its other work – and provides returns on investment while waiting to be put into use.
PUT NSWNMA ON WORLD STAGE
Brett said Judith led the successful ratios campaign that persuaded the state Labor government to set Nursing Hours Per Patient Day in 2011.
“The outcome had its weaknesses and now desperately needs fixing but at the time it delivered 1500 more nurses as well as pay rises,” he said.
“Judith also had carriage of the BirthRate Plus staffing model for midwifery services which delivered more midwives and at least some staffing standards but is now also in need of repair.”
Along with organising and empowering members, Judith’s other main goal was to “put the union on the international scene” so it could draw on the knowledge and strength of unions around the world.
She led the move to join Public Services International (PSI) – which has seven million health workers, mostly nurses – and has held a range of senior positions with the PSI.
Judith then worked to create Global Nurses United in 2013,which has grown to encompass a coalition of 30 national unions that collaborate on joint projects.
In Australia, she has held senior positions on the Australian Council of Trade Unions including vice president.
Judith was elected President of Unions NSW in 2016 and she has agreed to remain in the role until her term expires in 2024.
She is retiring from full-time work because, “I’ll be 70 next birthday; my body is tired though my mind isn’t. I’m still passionate about the causes I believe in.”
She is “incensed” by the Morrison government’s inadequate response to the aged care royal commission and has taken an honorary position on the council of National Seniors Australia.
“I want to try to help seniors in residential aged care who have no voice. We cannot let aged care continue to be neglected.”