This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 243
Helen Watson White
Helen Kelly: Her life by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, 2021), 410pp, $49.99
‘We don’t need low wages in this country,’ said Helen Kelly in 2007 on becoming president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). ‘There’s no excuse for it. People should be able to go to work, work their hours and have a decent standard of living at the end of the week.’
It sounds so simple, and to the Kellys it was. Rebecca Macfie’s action-packed and deeply thoughtful biography, Helen Kelly: Her life, is less one person’s story and more the biography of a radical family. Macfie shows us how, in the Wellington setting of parliamentarians, publicans and pundits, Helen and her parents, Cath and Pat, always knew what they wanted but also what they were up against. Knowing where the trade union movement came from made their joint trajectory sure, throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the new millennium, Helen continued the work for another sixteen years until her death from cancer when she was in her prime.
Macfie gives a fascinating chapter to each of Helen’s parents, showing how their different backgrounds contributed to Helen’s make-up, her way of operating and the strength of her beliefs. Pat, ‘of Irish Catholic descent with little formal education’, was an English immigrant from the Liverpool docklands, born in 1929 above the office of the Scalers’ Union. His dockworker father struggled through the Depression with no regular employment, the family surviving on ‘parish relief, weekly loans from the local pawn shop, and the mutual support of neighbours’. Life was what you made of it, together—together being the operative word.
At the other end of the social scale, the author describes Cath’s paternal grandfather, Max Eichelbaum, son of a ‘wealthy East Prussian Jewish merchant’, who moved his large family to Wellington and set up house in Thorndon. Cath’s parents, Siegfried and Vera, married in 1915 and were ‘well known in Wellington’s professional and academic circles’; Cath, born in 1926, became a university student with a purpose to ‘improve the world’. She had travelled abroad and seen much of life—and of left-wing activism—before marrying Pat in 1960.
Life and work were one and the same for this pair. The day before Cath gave birth to Helen in 1964, she was selling the Communist paper the People’s Voice and distributing anti-war pamphlets to factory workers in Kaiwharawhara. Pat, who was city organiser for the Wellington Drivers Union, would push Helen and her older brother Max in a ‘cart made of apple boxes and old pram wheels’ to visit fellow unionists on the waterfront.
Macfie describes the warmth and solidarity of the Kelly establishment—Cath’s house in Shannon Street, Mount Victoria—where friends and allies in the Labour movement were welcomed like family. Snapshots reveal how the neighbours’ kids became extra siblings for Helen and Max and joined the Kelly cousins on holidays. At home there was ongoing discussion about international affairs or current issues affecting workers’ families. The future leader of the CTU was thus educated from an early age by being immersed in her parents’ political lives. In one of Macfie’s hundreds of recorded interviews, Helen describes her father as ‘passionate about safety for drivers’. Always wanting to be at the nub of an issue, ‘He would go out in the middle of the night and photograph crashed trucks.’
Helen’s closeness to her parents meant that youthful rebellion would have been beside the point, writes Macfie. They were a team. The focus was always on the larger fight on behalf of workers, not just for higher wages but for their recognition as equal citizens and improvement in their working conditions, under employment laws that never stayed the same. For the twenty years from 1984 to Pat’s death in 2004, Helen’s ability to effect change, and her awareness of the need for it, meant she was on the same page as her parents, if working in different fields.
Single-minded as the Kellys were, a book encompassing the lives of four generations becomes, with Macfie’s addition of a rich, layered sense of context, almost a history of the period. Her building of the larger picture begins with the rise of Fascism and its effect on the Eichelbaums. Identifying the Cold War origins of New Zealand’s crusade of union-bashing, 1951–1991 and after, Macfie analyses the era of protest that unfolded alongside it, introducing the personalities involved in what seemed for the Left an unending battle with a many-headed foe.
Sometimes the battle became physical. In 1984 a terrorist bomb was exploded in Wellington’s Trades Hall, causing the death of caretaker Ernie Abbott, a Kelly family friend and lifelong servant of the Labour movement. Pat, then head of the Cleaners’ Union, was meeting with others at Trades Hall to discuss Muldoon’s wage freeze. When she first heard the news, Helen, then aged nineteen and a second-year student at Teachers’ College, was horrified that the person killed could have been her father. Left-leaning leaders were often the target of abuse and threats, writes Macfie, as anti-union forces intensified over the decade following National’s notorious 1975 election advertisements. As Pat thundered at Abbott’s funeral, someone driven by this ‘hatred’ had committed the ultimate outrage, ‘striking down a man who was going about his ordinary work’. This shocking event focused the Kellys on a drive to change the government.
After teaching for two years, in 1989 Helen took up the work the author feels she was ‘born to’: a half-time job with each of two early childhood education (ECE) unions, which began at odds but later merged. In Rosslyn Noonan and Sonja Davies she had excellent role models; her colleagues recognised her strong ‘sense of mission’ and impatience to improve life for workers who were often unqualified and invariably underpaid.
As Macfie tells the story, history and power seemed to abandon people like those ECE workers in the course of the 1980s and 1990s, as Labour’s Roger Douglas ushered in what she calls the neoliberal economics ‘revolution’. Then in 1991, the year in which Ruth Richardson cut social welfare benefits, the incoming National government dealt what was intended as a final blow to the union movement. The proposed Employment Contracts Bill individualised the contract between employer and employee and took away collective bargaining and worker supports. Macfie describes the ‘divisions and bitterness’ among the unions as they tried to prevent it coming into law: ‘The merger of the Federation of Labour and Combined State Unions to form the CTU had been supposed to achieve a single, unified voice for working people, but it was far from it.’ Setting the issue in a wider context, she quotes the radio programme Insight warning that New Zealand’s unions ‘would have fewer rights than in any other country in the developed world’.
While this crisis for organised labour comes less than halfway through the book, by this point in the reading we have already seen a determination and resourcefulness in Helen that will carry her unscathed through many further battles. In 1994 she was hired as an organiser for the Association of University Staff (AUS), in a climate Macfie describes as profoundly changed by free-market economics, government cuts and a policy of ‘user-pays’. Helen was not deterred. She was at home in the education sector, and in 1999, having returned to work for the NZEI (the primary teachers’ union), helped achieve pay parity for primary and secondary teachers, something Rosslyn Noonan called ‘one of the great negotiating victories in New Zealand trade union history’. Macfie describes it as ‘a rare success in a landscape of defeat’.
There are a number of stories going on at the same time in this book, which gives it a rough, recognisable humanity. There’s work and there’s unpaid work; Helen was always multi-tasking. Having ‘footslogged’ for Labour in 1996 while studying part-time for a law degree, she ran Marion Hobbs’ campaign for Wellington Central in 1999. By 2002, as general secretary of the AUS, she had joined the CTU’s governing council, and in 2003 Pat and Cath saw her elected vice-president of the CTU. Pat died shortly after of heart disease caused by ‘decades of roll-your-owns and beer’. His funeral in 2004, like Ernie Abbott’s, was a big event in Wellington; co-unionist Dave Morgan eulogised a man who was ‘funny, generous, wise, selfless, dedicated, determined, argumentative, loving, revolutionary and inspirational’.
Helen was now leading the 6000-member AUS, a role in which she was not universally trusted. The author has interviewed a range of participants, some of whom found Helen ‘ambitious and driven’ or ‘stroppy’, others ‘gregarious and vivacious’. It was a difficult job, as Macfie observes: ‘Salary bargaining was a zero-sum game: if staff got pay rises, something else would have to be cut.’ University staff were not natural unionists and had to be persuaded to pull together. After a year of nervous talks and another Labour-won election in 2005, a ‘significant bargaining development’ led to an extra $61 million being released to fund increases in university pay. Again Macfie finds that, in choosing CTU’s president in 2007, some unionists supported Helen while others did not; what won out was her ability to unite people and to ‘think outside the square’.
The author’s ironic chapter headings mark a trail of cost-cutting issues following the Global Financial Crisis: ‘Lucky to Have a Job’, which opens with the story of a young security guard killed on his first nightshift, refers to the common notion that employers are doing people a favour by giving them work and have no further responsibility. ‘Dangerous By Design’ exposes major breaches of workplace safety with employers in denial—the most notorious being the death of twenty-nine men at Pike River Mine. Helen’s narrative throughout the aftermath was that, at the very least, these workers should have been protected from accident—let alone death. They were not. Her support of the bereaved was timely and heartfelt, observes Macfie.
The solidarity process—Helen’s Jacinda-like embracing of an issue and of the people it affected—was repeated as the numbers of men killed in forestry mounted every year. Her actions (and this book) were based on thorough research, data-gathering and meetings with people on the ground. Poignant photographs memorialise the men who went to work in dangerous places where safety was not included in the expectations of the employer or the job’s design. Macfie relates how Helen became the face of this national disaster: anguished, critical, passionate about the need for change—and, through her position, able to effect it.
Colleagues in the education unions had called her ‘unstoppable’. The chapter title ‘Fight to the Last’ refers to the many campaigns—run concurrently—that merged Helen Kelly’s ‘life’ and ‘work’ in a seven-day marathon, every week for decades. But it also refers to the cancer that changed everything.
If you thought this book would be hagiography, or merely a catalogue of disputes, think again. Written by a senior award-winning journalist, it is packed with potent images, drama, storytelling, humour and realism. Quite simply, it is one of the best books I have read.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer with a background in university teaching, library work and editing. She has published a long list of reviews of theatre, books, music, art and opera, along with articles, short stories, poems and photographs.