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Book Review Helen Kelly: her life

Written By: - Date published: 7:05 pm, January 8th, 2022 - 12 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

I spent the past few days reading Rebecca Macfie’s biography of Helen Kelly and I was absolutely captured by it.  The book details the happenings over the past 50 years and New Zealand’s transition from a highly unionised highly organised and equitable society to what we have now.

Her early years were so much like mine.  Her father was an integral part of the Wellington Trade Union movement and my father was heavily involved in Auckland Trade Union activities.  It feels like our childhoods were very similar.

The description of her earlier years perfectly captures the solidarity of the working class and how class dominated politics back in the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s.

Macfie then dissects the advent of Rogernomics and Ruthenasia and the carnage that followed.  In particular her description of the continuous attacks by National on the trade union movement and how Labour each time it was in power only partially wound those changes back are clearly linked to rising inequality.

Helen was a regular writer on this blog.  In 2013 she requested a login and who could object!

Her first post was a beauty and spoke volumes about Helen the person.  She attended a WINZ organised meeting about “voluntary” attendance at bootcamps as a supporter of a young person.  She was not on the invitation list but managed to get herself into the meeting.

She said this:

I was once an undercover Boot Camp recruit.  No not really.  I went with a young person I know to a boot camp seminar that he had been required to attend.  It is fair to say I was the oldest one in the room by about 25 years.  I insisted on being allowed to attend despite “not being on the list”.  20 young people, in a room, heads down.  Don’t catch anyone’s eye!

If I had been running it I would have got them all talking to each other – what they were doing, what they wanted to do, what they thought of WINZ and life generally.  But no – they were told to watch a video (about 20 minutes maybe) which showed some fun and some not so fun activities (depending on your interests), which had some graduates saying how great is was and which showed activities which apparently they didn’t do in the Hutt course (rafting, climbing – just about everything as far as I could tell was not actually on the programme).  They shaved their heads.

At the end, the helpful facilitator said she had anticipated all their questions – could they smoke?  Yes they could.  Could they have cell phones (can’t remember the answer).  Up went my hand to ask if the programme was actually voluntary – something omitted from the Q & A thus far.  It was, but those that did not go would have this marked on their record.  I was unable to get clarity on what this meant – but clearly it was a threat (they were saving the assaults until when you got there).

I did ask what else WINZ could offer if one did not want this hair cut/frog march/smoking/non rafting experience.  No answer was forthcoming and we were told to make another appointment if we wanted to discuss other options.

The book details some of the major struggles that Helen was involved in.  Remember the Warner Bros dispute where she was accused by the National Government and by Peter Jackson of threatening New Zealand’s ability to film the Hobbit?  Remember how Warner Brothers executives flew in and collected a $35 million payout (kaching!) and the Government passed legislation under urgency to prevent a suitably minded model maker from taking out a personal grievance?  How Helen said that the do not work notice had been lifted but was accused of being a liar?  It turns out she was telling the truth and the liars were the accusers.

The Standard has through Irish Bill and others given in my view by far the most perceptive and correct analysis of the dispute.  I thought that this was a time when this blog shone.

There are other disputes detailed in the book.  Affco and the Tally Brothers, Pike River and all of its misery, health and safety issues for forestry workers, and Auckland Ports all get significant coverage.

Helen’s work for ununionised forestry workers whose death rates were appalling showed clearly her commitment to the plight of all workers.  In a post here she said this:

If these workers could work together safely, they may have some form of agreements in the industry that restrict hours of work and security of employment. These workers may be able to organise to put pressure on the Forest Owners to drive out bad contractors or to even move to direct employment, giving them security at work. They may have a mechanism to discuss being paid for the long drives into the forests and to have regular breaks and days off. They might get paid when the weather is bad and they can’t work – avoiding the temptation to work regardless. They may be able to stop the outright competition over the price of labour and make their whole workplace safer.

If these workers were unionised, their union delegate may have talked to the Waikato Times, photo and all, about the issues in the industry.

With workers talking to each other and having a voice, the profits of the industry might have to be more evenly shared between those that work in it – giving their sweat, skill and energy – and those that invest in it (benefitting from the labour). All of this, these employers do not want.

Rather than acknowledge that this is the problem employers have with a union in the industry, Sheldon Drummond thinks the “reds under the bed” rhetoric might be his industries best defence for not addressing the criticisms the CTU is making of forestry safety. His real concern is that if workers are offered easy and safe access to union membership they might actually take it and exercise their rights to join a union and to associate together on issues relating to their work

There is a familiar theme through all of the disputes. The right telling Helen that she was completely wrong and did not understand.  Helen sticking to her guns and her principles no matter what the costs.  Helen thinking of the big picture and what was best for all workers.  And with the benefit of hindsight the total vindication of the positions that she took.

She was also a total pragmatist.  Even though she was the daughter of two card carrying members of the Communist Party she realised the importance of political might and how the best results could be achieved from within the Labour Party and not from outside yelling loudly.  The party needs every damn principled radical that it can get.

Helen was frank in her acknowledgement that the existing model for union activity was not working because too few workers belonged to unions, and if they were going to achieve their role in improving the plight for workers then a new model was necessary.

Her drive is captured in this passage:

… [f]or the six years she had been in the role [of CTU President] Helen has been trying to pull down the walls that separated the union movement from the great majority of workers.  Consciously or not, by diving headling into the forestry scandal and building up a grassroots campaign, she was demostrating what an open, inclusive union movement could look like.

It came down to a fundamental question:  What is a Union? “When [forestry workers] say, as they do, that they want to join a union, I say they have one” she told the CTU’s biennial conference in last 2013.  “Look at them – talking together and with their families and communities, discussing healtn and safety, discussing indusry training, discussing wages and conditions – what else does a union look like?”

An example is the living wage movement, which represents a coalition between unions and community organisations and based on the clear ethos that all workers, unionised or not, should be paid a living wage.

Other examples, litigation support for home support workers and a claim under the Equal Pay Act to address chronically low wages for workers in the female dominated residential aged care sector are also mentioned.  All workers benefitted from these successes, not only union members although a number of workers then joined their union.

Helen’s targets were not only Employers but underfunded and indifferent Government agencies whose job was to enforce safety standards but who too often failed to do so.

The last few chapters are very sad.  But even when facing her mortality Helen chose to address another injustice that she saw and that was the country’s cannabis laws.  Peter Dunne’s prevarication about allowing her medicinal cannabis showed clearly how crazy the situation was.  From a doctor you can get morphine prescribed but if you want some wacky backy you have to get Ministerial approval because, I think, of reefer madness.

The book is a fascinating review of the events of the last 40 years and a must read book for any progressive activist or politician wanting to improve.  And it is reason for us all to reflect and think about how we should be educating future activists, organising workers and controlling our future.

12 comments on “Book Review Helen Kelly: her life ”

  1. Johnr 1

    Damn, she was a stunning, stunning person. The world is the poorer for her absence

  2. So far I am 8th out of a 16 person waiting list for Rebecca Macfie's book on Helen Kelly and 22nd out of 31 for Margaret Wilson's book. I am looking forward to reading them both.

    The documentary on Helen Kelly was fantastic and got a standing ovation at the screening I went to at the theatre at Te Papa.

  3. Byd0nz 3

    Here is a person who should have been recognised in New Years honours a long time ago, it’s not too late to do so in any coming year.

  4. Patricia Bremner 4

    Helen was and still is inspiring. A very special person who helped many.

  5. Blazer 5

    A huge loss.

    Someone with the courage of their convictions.

    Can't think of too many-Norm Kirk,Sue Bradford…Chloe looking good.

    God knows what she thinks of 'Tony Blair' in high heels.(a petition to strip TB of his knighthood already has over 1million sigs)

  6. Anne 6

    The primary reason why Helen Kelly was relentlessly attacked was because she was her parents' daughter. Had she not led a public life she would still have been attacked albeit in some other way.

    I never met her despite my membership of the Labour Party on and off for the past 50 years, but I came to feel a kinship with her because I went through a similar set of attacks on my character and reputation for the same reason. I was my father's daughter. The difference being… Helen's was played out in the public eye and mine was not.

    The establishment was wrong about my father. They were wrong about me. And they were wrong about Helen Kelly. But one thing I have learnt over the past 30 years:

    They will never admit they were wrong nor will they apologise.

    I laid a compliant with the Broadcasting Standards Authority over the treatment meted out to Helen Kelly – and members of the actor's union – over the Warner Brothers saga. They did not uphold my compliant on the grounds that: Helen Kelly is a big girl and she can handle it. Since that had nothing to do with the content of my submissions, I found their response pathetic and concluded it was an example of the "reds under the bed" mindset which is still alive and well to this day. It just goes under different names.

    Tom Scott summed it up beautifully in a cartoon back in the 1970s. I will see if I can locate it.

  7. Anker 7
    • Outstanding woman and an outstanding book about her life and the influence her parents and had on her values and her life.

    Helen was driven by improving the lot of working people and NZ lost a true giant when she passed so early.

  8. Rod 8

    Helen along with Dame Whena Cooper. One taken early one blessed with longevity. Both icons of NZ

    I cried when each died. Totally irreplaceable!

  9. adam 9

    Does beg one question, how does Andrew Little sleep at night?

    One for the fact he's done so little to help bring back unions –

    and secondly for his bloody awful handling of the medical cannabis laws. The current medical cannabis laws have made it worse, not better for people suffering from cancer and other major illnesses. It's a bloody disgrace.

    So how does Andrew Little sleep at night?

  10. Mr Nobody 10

    Does anybody know where this can be purchased in e-book format?

    It's not listed on the link but neither is Pike River which I have been able to purchase previously as an ebook.

    Thanks.

  11. pukahu road 11

    Helen Kelly was simply "a cut above."

    Irreplaceable.

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