Jeff Sissions: Jack of all trades

by Samantha Woodhill23 Mar 2016
Having a grandmother who worked in the Tailors and Tailoresses Union in the 1930s and a mother who worked for various unions in the 1980s, Jeff Sissions says he’s got unionism in his genes.  But Sissions’ passion for justice is what led him to a career as an in-house lawyer.  Working in-house has rid him of the “dreaded billable hour”.

“Working without the billable hours’ treadmill allows me to use my judgement as to how best to resolve situations without worrying about whether my client can pay my bill,” he says.

“Because employment law is such an interpersonal, relational field, the best outcomes aren’t necessarily the ones that lead to a payout at the end.

An introduction to workers’ rights
Sissions began his legal career while still at law school, helping to found the Workers’ Rights Service - a free advice and advocacy service - before heading to a role in private practice at an employment law firm in 2003.

“Right off the bat I got to do advocacy and case work through that and this introduced me to the intensely rewarding nature of employment law in general and individual casework, in particular,” Sissions says.

“I’ve focussed on industrial law and employment law for pretty much my whole career to date.”

After a stint at Cullen- the Employment Law Firm, Sissions put his legal career on hold to work as a caseworker.

“For the next eight years I undertook a variety of roles for doctors and nurses unions in New Zealand and the United Kingdom including case work, campaigning, bargaining and organising roles,” he says.

Sissions began to practice as a lawyer again after he joined the CTU in 2012. 

Working at the CTU, Sissions focusses on employment law and legislative change while undertaking some research into human rights.

“At heart, I’m a utilitarian and I don’t believe our current industrial relations system is delivering the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” Sissons says.

“I feel very lucky in my job that my politics and my role align closely.”

Workers in New Zealand
For Sissions, workers remain systematically disenfranchised and disempowered but he says he’d like to work on a new deal for working New Zealanders. 

“I believe that working people in New Zealand have a right to be respected and happy in their work, to receive a fair wage for it and to come home safely to their families with enough free time to actually spend time with their loved ones and participate in society,” Sissions says.

A third of the growth of income inequality has been put down to the decline of unions by US researchers, Sissions says.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, the Government and employers went to war with workers and unions in the hope that de-regulation and attacks on unions would unleash a massive jump in our productivity and wealth as a country,” he says.

“These results never eventuated and we’ve been left with a hostile, low-trust, low-productivity employment environment when the evidence is that high-trust workplaces are the most important factor in safe, happy, high-performing workplaces.”

According to Sissions, unionism is the only way to combat income inequality.

“Unions haven’t been perfect but they perform a necessary and important part of society and social progress that has been lost in many areas,” he says.

From private practice
“It was something I grew up around and always knew a little bit about and was interested in,” Sissions says of his gravitation to a role where he could utilise his passion for unionism.

Despite having different ambitions from many of his law-school peers, Sissions says he’s grateful for the time he spent in private practice.

“I’m really proud and grateful for the time I spent in private practice, I worked with some great lawyers and I learnt a lot about working hard and working efficiently but relationships matter in employment law and it’s really nice to get away from the hired gun mentality and build up a series of long term relationships.

Outside the law
Having studied psychology and English literature along with film and theatre as well as law, Sissions has always had a keen interest in the arts.
“The latest challenge for 2016 is that I’ve just been appointed to the film and literature review which reviews the decisions of the censor,” Sissions says.
“I’ve recently become an accredited mediator as an associate of the arbitrators and mediators institute of New Zealand.”
2016 will be a busy year and he looks forward to new challenges, he says.