Farewell to Irena.

Hau Taki Haere | Tertiary Update Vol 28, No 06

Te Hautū Kahurangi | Tertiary Education Union will farewell Te Pou Ahurei Takirua – Ahumahi | Assistant National Secretary – Industrial Irena Brörens next month as she has decided to retire.

Irena has worked for the TEU, via our predecessor union ASTE (the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education) for thirty years – starting in 1994, when she was the only organiser north of the capital.

Irena’s ‘patch’ stretched from NorthTec all the way down to EIT in the Hawkes Bay including all polytechnics and colleges of education in between.

In her first week she, was sent to Tauranga where there was a strike. Members were trying to get a new Collective Contract at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, where the boss hadn’t settled one since the Employment Contracts Act.

They were very well organised and we finally achieved a CA. Irena says she “had to rely on every bit of skill I had, from my previous union work in the private sector and it worked because I wasn’t caught up in the history at the branch.”

Pam Fleming, Branch President at the time, says “we were just so thankful to have her. The employer was being tough, refusing to negotiate, and we really believed she had come to save us! It was such a relief and her presence really helped to make us stronger. She was positive, knowledgeable, she really knew her stuff, she always stood up for us and, all through the past 30 years, we have always known she was on our side.”

Former National President of ASTE Lloyd Woods says “Irena always maintained a very steady hand. You wouldn’t find employers who disliked her, but they would tell you she’s tough. She’s consistent but not bloody minded. I would say her greatest strength is her personality. She always stands up to be counted. She listens but isn’t shy to challenge. Will acknowledge good ideas but not scared to say no.”

After the BOPP dispute, Irena led a campaign for a consolidated collective agreement – this would eventually become a significant Multi Employer Collective Agreement in the polytechnic sector.

Former ASTE and TEU National Secretary Sharn Riggs says “I really admired the way she worked so hard trying to pull a MECA together, which was always going to be hugely problematic. It’s all very well to say we want a MECA but if you don’t have the density you’re always going to be on a hiding to nothing. But Irena believed in the members and she believed in the staff of the union.”

ASTE soon realised it needed to increase its staffing to cope with the increased bargaining load of the time. Five new organisers were employed and someone was needed to coordinate negotiations nationally – a National Industrial Officer.

Lloyd says “Irena was put in charge of bargaining. She developed parameters, set rules and developed industrial strategy and for the first time we had national ‘core conditions’ in negotiations. Nobody was allowed to deal away or reduce core conditions.”

When ASTE amalgamated with the Association of University Staff to form the Tertiary Education Union, Irena kept her senior role, which was deemed similar to the Deputy Secretary of AUS.

Sharn says “the merger was tricky but Irena was instrumental. We were able to take the best parts of ASTE and bring them into the TEU, which have greatly contributed to making it the significant union it is.”

“I really value Irena’s unionism, which influences every single thing she does. Between 2000 and 2010 unionism was almost written out of history by the whittling away of conditions and we had a way of working in ASTE that was grounded in guiding values that Irena and I shared. She has a staunchness and a passion for protecting workers’ rights and her leadership in that regard made ASTE and TEU better unions.”

Irena says her favourite moment from the TEU era has been “settling a collective agreement with a 7% pay increase at MIT after a strike. This was also when we started to get union only deals.” She also singles out the Te Pūkenga collective agreement settled last year and her 20 years organising AUT as career highlights.

She says “my biggest job satisfaction comes from negotiations and successful legal challenges. I take satisfaction from process, strategy, getting members engaged, checking in with people and getting more people involved.”

“The biggest challenges have been getting all the branches to work together across the unis and polys, defending attacks on conditions and any time when the employers collectivise themselves against us.”

“But as long as you take people along the way, whatever the outcome, it’s union building.”

There will be an official farewell party for Irena at Conference on the evening of May 2.

Also in this update:

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