July 4, 2023
By Nigel Haworth (Waipapa Taumata Rau | The University of Auckland)
What might have been? It’s no secret that Helen Kelly would have been a strong candidate for selection by Labour for Wellington’s Rongotai parliamentary seat. She would have entered Parliament with that same mix of intelligence, political commitment, and energy shown throughout her trade union career. And she would have been a force in Parliament. She would have aimed high, certain in her commitment to working people. Trimming towards the centre was not in Helen’s political lexicon. As her union career showed, she set herself challenging targets, and moved heaven and earth to meet them. A parliamentary caucus with Helen aboard would have been an interesting beast.
Alas, this could not be. A hateful illness, borne indomitably, took her too early, leaving a hole in many friendships and the wider workers’ movement. I cannot hear Don McGlashan’s “Anchor Me,” memorably performed at her memorial service, without that momentary stutter as memories flood back. I’m sure many of us have that same moment of sad reflection.
I met Helen in late 2004 when she “interviewed” me as a possible candidate for the Association of University Staff’s (AUS) presidency. Of course, the choice was for members, but Helen, then General Secretary of the union, had firm views about what sort of president was needed. We met in a Wellington bar and, presumably, I met the required standard in both her and the members’ eyes. Working with Helen was fun, if sometimes akin to being on a roller-coaster. I am reminded that Helen was not the preferred choice of some of the trade union oligarchy for the AUS role. She won through by sheer force of personality and intelligence. Her transition to the General Secretary role was not easy, but she was, when needed, a formidable opponent.
It was a busy time for the AUS. Industrial action across all universities was launched, leading to major success for academic staff, unfortunately not shared in equal measure by the general staff. The campaign for a MECA was hard-fought but foundered on the rocks of government-driven managerialism and vice-chancellorian egos. The campaign to build one tertiary sector union was, broadly, successful. Helen’s thinking was fundamental in all these initiatives, as were her personal skills (especially when dealing with ministers and the more truculent VCs).
The TEU owes its existence in part to Helen’s vision of a union defending working people across the tertiary sector. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Helen had to face some serious staffing issues, and also members who, properly, sometimes sought different strategic directions. The AUS was a broad (and wordy) church, and it needed skill to meld its different traditions into a working whole. Strength of character, a clear message, and excellent presentation skills went a long way towards the circumvention of challenges.
Helen wasn’t always right, and she’d be the first to admit this, but mistakes were few and far between. She would accept, I think, that impatience with ponderous process was in her genes. Helen had one of the quickest minds with which I’ve worked; she had to be reminded on occasion to let people catch up with her.
Elevation to the leadership of the CTU surprised few who knew her. Leading the CTU was a natural outlet for her beliefs and commitment. Her impatience for change was substantially masked by the close collaboration and friendship between Helen and Peter Conway. Helen threw herself into CTU and ILO work. Without her pioneering thinking, Fair Pay Agreements might never have existed. Helen’s work on industry agreements was a long, hard road, obstructed for much of the time as much by union as employer opposition. She stuck to the task of promoting ISAs and would have been proud to see Michael Wood bringing them home.
Helen was being courted internationally. Had she not entered Parliament, a career in the ILO would have beckoned. Colleagues in Geneva have told me on many occasions how she was carving out an important role in the ILO and its Workers’ Group. I note that she was at one stage taking French lessons. Equally, could one really see Helen outside Wellington for any length of time?
As I reflect on Helen, her political and union views, and her hopes for the TEU, the strength of her commitment to industry-based strategies, in which the interests of all workers are included, stands out. Her vision was for agreements that would include all workers in the industry, showing clearly to all the benefits of solidarity. As we move into the first phase of Fair Pay Agreements, many of us will be hoping to see that inclusivity fostered. It would be a fitting outcome of Helen’s labours.