NZ POLITICS DAILY: Remembering Helen Kelly – Don’t mourn, organise
Helen Kelly was one of New Zealand’s most high-profile, effective and respected trade union leaders of recent times. This column rounds up some of the best reflections on the life of an extraordinary woman.
On the morning after the 2014 general election I tweeted: “Long term prediction: Prime Minister Helen Kelly in 2020.” In an interview recorded in August with TV3’s Lisa Owen, Kelly confirmed she intended to stand for Parliament before she was diagnosed with cancer – see: Interview: Helen Kelly. See also TVNZ’s Ryan Boswell’s interview: “I'm passionate about this country and the people who live here” – Helen Kelly.
Despite her already impressive achievements on behalf of New Zealand workers, there was a sense that she was only just hitting her stride. After her death, current CTU President Richard Wagstaff said "I think she would have made her presence felt in a big way if she had remained with us. She seemed to be growing in her presence and her influence” – see: Matthew Hutching and Mellissa Davies’ Former CTU boss Helen Kelly dies after cancer battle, whose video report also looks at some of her most high profile campaigns in the forestry industry, Pike River and the Hobbit movies.
Former Labour Party president Mike Williams agrees: "Moreover she was the future of the Labour Party in many ways… She expressed to me many years ago her intention to go into Parliament, and I would've welcomed that. This has sadly been taken away from us."
In Nikki MacDonald’s Unionist Helen Kelly dies in Wellington, Trevor Mallard is reported as hoping Kelly “might one day be prime minister, and had been involved in talks aimed at wooing her to national politics. He had even offered to step aside for her in his Hutt South seat. But Kelly had believed in the union cause too much, he said.”
Chris Trotter is another of many who believe Kelly would have made a fine parliamentarian: “Had she not succumbed to lung cancer, it is likely that well before the end of this decade she would have made the transition from the trade union movement to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Once in Parliament, her rise to the top would have been inexorable. In relatively short order New Zealand would have had its second Labour Prime Minister called Helen” – see: Giving Workers What They Want: Honouring The Legacy Of Helen Kelly. Trotter asks “What better time could there be to talk about Kiwi workers’ rights than in the days following Helen Kelly’s death?“ – in line with that old union phrase “Don’t mourn, organise!”
Of course, success in rising up the ranks is only one part of the equation. And in recent times there has been scant evidence that unionists turned politicians make as big as impact in parliament as they do on the picket lines. The jury is still out the highest profile current example, Andrew Little.
And you can read In her own words: Helen Kelly’s vision for the Labour Party from last year.
An unbroken theme of admiration and respect runs through the commentaries published about Helen Kelly since her death on Friday morning. This is hardly surprising as there was certainly a great deal to admire.
The Herald editorial said Kelly “never shirked a fight”, taking on “unpopular causes and confront[ing] sacred cows” – see: Helen Kelly - a fearless campaigner and a fine New Zealander. It continues: “Her courage made her a valuable asset to the union movement, and gave workers' groups political momentum when their ranks thinned through economic change and workplace transformation… It was a mark of the deep respect she had earned that her passing drew sincere tributes yesterday from across the political and industrial spectrum.”
For more idea of the depth and breadth of respect she engendered, see Isaac Davison’s comprehensive Helen Kelly a 'relentless change maker’ and my blog post, Top tweets about the death of Helen Kelly.
The Dominion Post’s editorial also declared NZ richer for Helen Kelly's tireless campaigning saying she “was a willing and vocal participant in the public arena, in a country where people often prefer ideological shyness.” It argues, “Her death leaves a hole in New Zealand – and a challenge. Who else will step up to take the mantle of this public advocate and campaigner?”
It’s her campaign in the forestry industry where Kelly “named and shamed until the industry listened and acted” that Duncan Garner says he will never forget, and why Helen Kelly my New Zealander of the year. He explains: “Her campaign changed the industry. When she started, 11 hard-working men had died in the forests in just 12 months. By the time she'd finished it was just one. I think it's fair to say she overhauled the industry and changed it for good. That is a remarkable legacy. She has saved lives, potentially dozens.”
After the initial shock and mourning for the workers killed at Pike River, there were clearly hard questions to be asked about the causes. Kelly personally supported the families of those workers to make sure they got answers about the tragedy. If the tougher new health and safety laws save lives and serious injury in years to come, then Helen Kelly will have played a huge part in that – see Mai Heron’s 'Helen gave us hope where nobody else did'.
It was one of her most high-profile losses that was also one of her finest hours. Her choice to front the Actors Equity dispute with Peter Jackson and Warner Bros in the face of widespread hostility exemplified her courage. She didn’t have to lead that fight but she recognised that the issue was important and that Actors Equity needed help.
Kelly stood her ground despite coming under widespread and sustained attack from the government, the media and the likes of Peter Jackson. Despite losing that battle, history will probably judge her on the right side, in stopping employment law being made at the behest of a multi-national.
Medical marijuana campaign
In recent times, Kelly was frequently in the news for her high-profile campaign to change policy on medicinal marijuana for pain relief. Kelly went public with her own use of cannabis oil to manage pain caused by her lung cancer. In January this year her must-read Life and Death and Cannabis set out her case.
In being open about her own circumstances, she acted as an advocate for those who were less able to draw attention to their plight, and removed some of the shame of cannabis use.
As Russell Brown points out she didn’t need to speak about her use of cannabis and “even as her time was being cruelly shortened, she offered that time to the people who contacted her to tell her their stories. She listened” – see: Helen.
The Dominion Post is unequivocal on Kelly’s campaign: “She was right about that. There is no case for denying cannabis to those with terminal illness, and the public agrees. Politicians should summon a shred of bravery themselves and pass a law allowing such an exemption, in the style of the Australian state of New South Wales. It would be a fitting tribute for Kelly” – see: NZ richer for Helen Kelly's tireless campaigning.
See also my Political Roundup from February this year where I looked at The Battle over medical marijuana.
There have been a number of tributes from former colleagues on their working relationship and friendship with Kelly. See Rob Egan’s Helen Kelly: Just plain good, Tina McIvor’s Working with Helen, and Morgan Godfery’s He Aitua, Helen Kelly: a force of nature, a national treasure, my comrade and my hero.
Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty offers a fascinating and unique perspective in Helen Kelly: A leader who inspired and well respected. Delahunty writes “I am one of the many who knew her but was not in her inner circle. However, we had a connection that goes back to a unique childhood.” She goes on to describe their childhood in the 60s and 70s with families who were both at the centre of Wellington’s political left.
It’s a warm and vivid reminiscence, and Delahunty concludes “I would argue that our childhood shaped her absolute determination and analysis, but the courage and kindness evident in her living fully and bravely for others to the end is beyond any tradition.”
The Stuff website has also republished the 2007 Dominion Post profile on Kelly written when it was announced she would take over the reigns of the CTU, becoming the first woman to lead the organisation. The profile describes a life “steeped in the labour movement” – see: From the archives: The making of unionist Helen Kelly.
In a very thoughtful post, Wellington musician and long-time worker’s rights advocate Don Franks describes an “irrelevant” union presentation he gave to students on Thursday, while “across town that day, Helen Kelly lay dying from a disease as cruel as capitalism.” He uses it as a springboard for reflecting on the state of the union movement and Kelly’s role in it – see: Helen Kelly.
He writes, “Helen Kelly came to leadership of the CTU at an extremely difficult time, when much former workers’ organisation had been destroyed or dissipated. In these circumstances she managed to put unionism back on the map, sometimes by sheer force of will. I sometimes thought of her as a big general with a tiny army. Now it’s time for the general to rest and the best legacy the army might provide is to regroup and reassess its line of march.”
Like Kelly, Franks is a straight talker and is one of the few willing to inject a note of criticism in his assessment of her leadership. His post is no less respectful for it.
Franks says, at times “we worked side by side on industrial issues, such as support of struggling AFFCO meat workers, where Helen Kelly’s leadership was tireless and inspirational.” But he also acknowledges “Helen Kelly and I had several torrid political run ins, mostly over the Labour Party. She viewed that party as some sort of vehicle which could, however imperfectly asset the workers cause. I saw and still do Labour as part of the class enemy, weakening our side by adaptation to the system.”
Certainly, her tendency to let people know precisely where they stood was not only reserved for employers and government, and she could be caustic with people who disagreed with her, even within the union movement.
Her capacity for loyalty was a great strength but when it came to the Labour party it can also be seen as a fundamental weakness, shared by other union leaders in New Zealand, having divided loyalty between the party and the labour movement. This is particularly problematic when Labour governments need to be held to account.
Of course Kelly’s time as CTU president coincided mostly with National-led governments and she showed herself to be determined and fearless in holding them to account, especially when it came to health and safety. Franks is correct that the union “army” remains small, and in reality it got smaller during Kelly’s time at the CTU, as it has for over a generation – see Victoria University’s The state of New Zealand Union membership in 2014. But Helen Kelly’s advocacy for groups like forestry and farm workers demonstrated a determination to broaden the relevance of unions in New Zealand.
In Nikki MacDonald’s very good Obituary: Union leader Helen Kelly she notes, “Her campaigns were not universally popular. Many of the workers she fought for weren't even union members. Some unionists thought she was wasting time and money at the expense of those who actually paid her wages.” However it was precisely when Kelly took the more expansive modern view – reaching out to those in need, not just those were already part of the club – that she was at her best and had the most impact.
During her time as CTU president Kelly came to recognise the fundamental problem of declining membership and relevance. She would often invoke a theoretical “young Four Square shop worker in Kaitaia” as the exemplar of the workers the union movement wasn’t reaching but needed to. Many such workers will still be waiting for unions to make a difference to them, but Kelly showed they haven’t been forgotten.
So what was it all about? What was Helen Kelly trying to achieve in her union organising? Kelly’s values-based approach is nicely summed up in Oscar Kightley’s Why Helen Kelly's fight will never stop. He simply says that although “things like ‘workers' rights’ seems a bit old fashioned now”, “Kelly belonged to the tribe of people who prefer to think that while we live, we all have a responsibility to each other as well. We are, after all, in this together.”
Finally, for some poignant visual representations of the life and death of Helen Kelly, see my roundup of Cartoon tributes to Helen Kelly.