14 Oct 2015

Helen Kelly steps down but fights on

9:52 am on 14 October 2015

Helen Kelly sees herself as a bit of an opportunist.

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Helen Kelly, who worked as a teacher before switching to working for unions, has been the president of the CTU since 2007. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ms Kelly has been the president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) since 2007 but steps down today.

For much of her time in the job her voice has not been as widely heard as she, or the union movement, might have liked.

But no longer. Now everyone is keen to listen to her.

Diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier in the year, Ms Kelly has become a media attraction. It is a situation she has been keen to exploit.

"I have deliberately made a decision that I was going to use that to promote our union programme. Obviously there has been a lot of publicity. In each case I have said I want to talk about my work as well as my health."

She said her approach was a bit opportunistic - but who could blame her?

Ms Kelly started her working life as a teacher but quickly became immersed in union affairs. She held senior positions with the New Zealand Institute of Education, which represents primary teachers, and the Association of University Staff (AUS), which is now the New Zealand Tertiary Union.

She was general secretary of the AUS until her election as CTU president in 2007.

While union membership has fallen since the advent of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, Ms Kelly said there was good reason for people to join unions.

She pointed out that in the last year 98 percent of union members got a pay increase while 46 percent of all workers got nothing.

But Ms Kelly said - for almost her entire adult life as a trade unionist - times had been tough, with legislation making it difficult for unions to operate and a political right-wing narrative depicting workers as a problem.

"That employers like Peter Talley can get a knighthood shows how far the narrative has gone for the deserving and undeserving."

Mixed relationship with government

It goes without saying she is not a fan of the present government - and not just its policies.

Ms Kelly said Prime Minister John Key made commitments to the CTU that the government would not proceed with some of National's industrial relations policies, including limiting the access of unions to the workplace.

The policy changes were made despite those assurances, she said.

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Ms Kelly gives a speech following a march to Parliament to mark Workers' Memorial Day on 28 April 2014. Photo: CTU

Nor has she forgotten how, during the employment law dispute over the Hobbit films, senior minister Gerry Brownlee called her a liar on television when the government knew the dispute had been resolved.

"When you can't trust people, it is very difficult to operate. Employers will tell you, you get that one chance to build trust. When it's gone, it's gone. The scariest thing for me is when employers lie and that is very rare," she said.

Mr Key conceded he has had his differences with Ms Kelly.

"There is often quite a divide between what I might particularly think on an issue and what she might think but she was always respectful of that," Mr Key said.

His deputy Bill English is more fulsome in his praise of both Ms Kelly and Peter Conway, the CTU's former secretary who died earlier this year.

"These are talented New Zealanders who were strong advocates and they've both been... well, Pete's passed away, and she's badly affected by health problems. It's not just a shame for the union movement but for the country as a whole," Mr English said.

John Key and Bill English.

Prime Minister John Key and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English celebrate the party's win on election night in 2014. Photo: RNZ

For Ms Kelly, despite her own illness, Mr Conway's death was her worst moment as CTU president.

"We loved Peter. He is a huge loss to the movement but [was] also a great mate."

The Hobbit dispute was also a difficult time.

Ms Kelly knew the CTU was taking on a tough challenge when it backed Actors Equity in its dispute with Warner Bros but, more importantly, with New Zealand film director Peter Jackson.

So did she feel brave taking on such powerful people and institutions?

"No. It is the job. Imagine if we had said 'we are not going to support performers having collective bargaining rights'."

For Ms Kelly it was all about principle: "The role Jackson played in that dispute was wrong."

Looking back, looking forward

While there have been plenty of tough moments, there have also been many achievements.

Ms Kelly has campaigned successfully to make the forestry industry safer than it was just a year or two ago. She cites the living wage campaign, the ongoing push for equal pay and the broader campaign around health and safety as other examples of the positive influence of trade unions.

But she said there was still much for trade unions to do.

"What I am urging them to do is to continue to evaluate their own structures and performance."

She said unions needed to collaborate more because, when they did, "we are spectacularly successful".

While the union movement continues to face challenging times, Ms Kelly is not pessimistic about its future.

"Where there is a union supported by members and respected by employers, people will join it. Where that does not exist, it is bloody difficult for them to join a union. [But] people who have the opportunity to join a union will."

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said Ms Kelly had made a huge contribution.

"You look at her achievements in raising awareness about health and safety, whether it's out of forestry or out of Pike River - and I think giving a lot of union members, a lot of workers who even aren't in unions, a sense they do have a voice, they do have rights and there's something worth fighting for."

While Ms Kelly is stepping down as the CTU president, and despite her own grim prognosis, she intends to keep fighting to give workers a voice.

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