‘This is my way of giving back to nursing’ – union powerhouse starts role at NZNO

December 22, 2022

Karene Walton, NZNO’s recently appointed director of organising, says there’s never been a better, or more important, time for NZNO members to take collective action.

Despite wide-spread and unprecedented staffing shortages, and the toll this continues to take on NZNO members, Walton insists they are up for the challenge.

“The thing that moves people, for organising, to get involved, to campaign around, is when we’re angry enough about an issue that impacts not just me but our community – and as nurses we care deeply about that.”

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NZNO director of organising Karene Walton has 29 years experience in unions behind her. She recently took up the newly created role, based in Wellington.

Born in Scotland, Walton has spent most of her life in Australia, and recently finished a role as director of the global organising academy at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), based in Brussels, Belgium.

The three-year stint included the unexpected challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, while on a visit to family in Perth, she was unable to leave due to a lockdown and the closing of borders for international travel.  She spent the time converting face-to-face training programmes for union organisers around the world, into online modules.

Prior to the ITUC role, Walton spent 26 years working for Australian unions including the Health Services Union, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and most recently as national operations manager of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

In this role, from 2015-2019 Walton says she helped turn the tide on a significant membership downturn in the years prior to her appointment, and achieve growth of 1.6 per cent by October 2018.

Walton said she had huge respect for nurses and was excited to work for Tōpūtanga Tupuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO).

“My mum’s been a nurse, my dad’s been a nurse, my sister’s a nurse. This is my way of giving back to nursing.”

Karene Walton (right) with Lynley Mulrine, lead organiser – southern, at a welcome for Walton in the NZNO Christchurch office in November.

The role was also a fantastic opportunity to work with former colleague, chief executive Paul Goulter again – the pair worked briefly together at the ACTU – and be closer to her son, who lives in Australia, Walton said.

Asked what she wants to achieve in the role, Walton got straight to the point.

“I want to make NZNO the best organising union in New Zealand. And in doing that, we actually build power for nurses.”

While NZNO had achieved high density, with over 55,000 members, Walton said she wants to continue work under the Maranga Mai! campaign, to increase engagement and build member power

“High density doesn’t equal power – you need to have high density and you need to have your members willing to take action over the issues that are important to them.” 

Walton said the work of organising and organisers was about empowering workers, “to make sure they are front and centre of being union” rather than being “in the union”.

“If you’re thinking an organiser is the union, and is going to save the world then that’s not the union, that’s an organiser – and when an organiser walks out the door, so does the union.

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“So this is actually putting the power back into members and giving them power to stand up for themselves – we’re here to facilitate it.” 

Success in the role would mean that the community and government hear what nurses have to say, Walton said.