Newsroom’s investigations editor Melanie Reid reports on one of the country’s worst fallings-out within a union in years – and an aftermath of expulsions and a possible legal challenge.

Sulu Devoe is widely known within the NZ Fire Service as a “legend”. He’s done 41 years on the job and has been a senior station officer for 17 of those.

His status is like “the godfather” in the Fire Service, especially among Pacific and Māori staff. He’s the guy you want to have in charge at a fire or emergency, highly respected, calm and level-headed. Sulu Devoe is responsible for leading crews that have saved countless lives over many years.

He was also the president of the Auckland Local branch of the NZ Professional Fire Fighters Union (NZPFU). Until a few months ago, when the NZPFU, in an astounding move, expelled him and his union secretary, long-time senior fire fighter John Waldow.

It has caused one of the country’s most serious fallings-out within a trade union in years. The NZPFU stands riven by a dispute between its biggest local group, Auckland, and its national leadership in Wellington.

There are allegations of defamation, vote manipulation, and abuse of power.

There have been the expulsions, denunciations of people as “scabs” and silencing of dissent.

And even talk of a ‘bloodbath’ at a national conference, a breakaway union and a legal fight as far as the Supreme Court.

The national union president Ian Wright has refused to discuss the issues with Newsroom, saying: “We will not be responding to your demands for an interview other than to say we do have more important things to do advancing the cause of Firefighters.”

The trigger for the bitter dispute was an online notice put out by the Auckland Local branch before a national election but it has prompted broader concern about the top leadership acting as judge and jury and raised concerns about some spending and a lack of transparency, including over a 10-day trip to the United States for a conference.

One of those expelled, Waldow, had been a union official at Auckland local level for 11 years and was standing for the role of national vice president at the upcoming union elections.

“The motivation behind why they wanted to get rid of me is I represented a threat to a longstanding gravy train, because I made it no secret that if I became the national vice president I would be pushing for a forensic audit of union accounts going back at least a decade, whether it be by PwC, KPMG – to get a proper audit and get some answers and some accountability for the collective”.

In what Waldow describes as a “contrived move” he could no longer stand for election as national vice president having been expelled from the union (with Sulu Devoe). The national committee’s reason for the expulsion was for failing to apologise over the online notice which called into question a candidate standing for the national presidency.

“For the National executive to impose the harshest penalty, expulsion from the union, for an innocuous event which has been neither substantiated of investigated by them is beyond bizarre,” Waldow said…”Look at the rules of the union, you have to do something serious.”

Not only has the Auckland branch duo refused to apologise for what was circulated, citing the truth, it has argued the national committee’s subsequent expulsion order was unlawful and an abuse of process.

Waldow says: “The rules were run roughshod over to get to this stage in the first instance but it beggars belief….it’s grossly unfair, no due process has been followed. This is an organisation that you actually pay your money into and then they turn around and screw you over, then you have no recourse because the rules are so archaic that there’s no right of appeal within them.”

Funds are being raised from firefighters around the country to go to court to have the expulsions ruled invalid on the basis the national committee breached the union’s own rulebook over disciplinary matters.

Next week’s planned nationwide union conference in Auckland has been shifted to Christchurch because of the level of anger and antipathy over the expulsions.

Auckland is by far the biggest branch of the union, with 600 members providing about $300,000 in fees to head office each year.

After questions from Newsroom to the national union, it issued a statement from the acting Auckland Local president James Hall which was careful to say there was no “split” with the NZPFU – and as there is nothing yet like a formal move to form a breakaway union, Hall’s statement is correct.

But Hall acknowledged Auckland was “constructively” challenging the basis for the expulsions:

“The Auckland Local members and its committee have raised concerns with the national committee of the NZPFU over its handling of the recent expulsion of its members. To this end we have actioned and progressed complaints to the committee which will be addressed via conference and discussion. This is an internal matter that we will discuss no further with the media.”

Background to the expulsion

On behalf of the Auckland Local branch, Waldow, issued the notice to members about a planned visit to Auckland by then national union vice president Ian Wright, who was contesting the presidency.

Wright wanted to visit Auckland fire stations and that was when the Auckland Local union branch used the online notice to members to raise concerns over the reason for his visit, his level of connection to Auckland and his other business interests.

The national committee of the union demanded the notice be retracted and that the branch apologise for the criticisms raised against Wright. However the Aucklanders stood firm, saying what was said was, according to their information, correct and the notice was for the benefit of its members.

Waldow was summoned to a meeting in Wellington to face the national leadership but couldn’t attend because of a longstanding commitment refereeing an international sports tournament. Later both Waldow and Devoe were called to a second meeting but Devoe had earlier suffered a heart attack so both meetings were unattended.

It was at that second scheduled meeting, while Devoe was recovering and unable to travel, that the national committee voted to expel them both for failing to obey the instruction to retract and apologise for the notice.

Waldow was furious. “Sulu couldn’t attend because he was on bed-rest following a heart attack, and the national union committee went ahead and voted to expel us anyway. What kind of a people go ahead and do that in the circumstances? Where is the compassionate ,caring members of the community of firefighters? They’re not representative of the people that I know who are dedicated firefighters. They’re looking out for their interests and not the interests of the collective.”

The aftermath

Wright went on to be elected president. The vice-presidency election was paused and is yet to be completed, but with Waldow “expelled” he was removed from the contenders.

The two Auckland officials continue to demand reinstatement to the union but in one instance were told by longtime union secretary Derek Best: “Members and locals [branches]…. cannot properly demand anything of the committee.”

Earlier, after the national union demanded the retraction of the notice, the Auckland Local committee engaged lawyer, Aishleen Sluiters of Edwards Law, who wrote to Best: “It is an abuse of power to deem all critical or negative correspondence defamatory to union officials and require it be retracted without any regard for the basis for such comments.

“Such an oppressive and undemocratic approach is not in line with union values.

“Effectively the resolution is being used to silence genuine concerns being raised against union officials in a draconian and oppressive fashion.”

Sluiters said the Auckland Local branch and its members’ right to freedom of speech was being curtailed.

Her letter says the branch would consider High Court action alleging a breach of natural justice and the union acted outside its own rules, as well as the union itself defaming Waldow by openly discussing its disciplinary action over the online notice.

The men are now mounting a legal challenge against the national executive and firefighters nationwide have already contributed thousands to the legal fund.

The Auckland Local branch has stood by its two leaders, but Devoe and Waldow have stepped aside from their positions while the matter is argued so the process is kept within the union’s rules.

Among the Professional Firefighters Union disciplinary rules is one which says expulsion is only for serious offences and that a member complained about must be given the detailed complaint and given an opportunity to appear before the national committee to defend him or herself.

In this case no mediation or arbitration occurred.

In one email exchange, Devoe wrote to union secretary Best (who is leaving the role next month after years at the helm):

Late last month after pressure from firefighters around the country the national executive flew to Auckland to meet with Sulu Devoe. That’s when things got ugly.

Below are extracts from notes taken at that meeting by John Waldow:

Devoe: “We were elected officials. How you removed us was unlawful and you have to make that right”.

It was pointed out they had legal advice telling them this and that a strong legal letter had been sent to Wellington.

Best: “We have the best lawyers from the Council of Trade Unions. We’re briefing a QC right now as we speak here. We’ll go to the Supreme Court if we have to. Do you have $500,000 in your back pocket?

“….. if the courts reinstate you, you’ll be expelled again and the process will be done differently.”

Asked if it would be appropriate for an independent review the new president, Wright, said: “We want to go forward. A review would be going back, you have to let history go.”

Devoe responded: “The past would need to be addressed, we are elected officials….They threw us out of the union”

The meeting deteriorated with Best eventually saying: “The national committee made the decision knowing people would break away. They’ll come crawling back, one-by-one. You’re scabs now. Auckland dealt harshly with scabs in the past. You’re nothing but scabs.”

Asked by Newsroom how he reacted to that, Devoe said: “Considering I have been in the Fire Service for 41 years and a union member all that time, longer than Derek Best, it was absolutely insulting and disrespectful. I was very upset and angry.”

He says: “It has got to a point where we need a full independent inquiry. The national union is out of control. It needs to reinstate us, clean itself up, and until that time there is just no faith or respect in the leadership or the organisation.”

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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