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Helen Kelly's final campaign

CTU president Helen Kelly is trying to haul the unions into the 21st century for the sake of all who live by selling their labour, but the future is uncertain – she’s had a shock diagnosis.

Helen Kelly. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Helen Kelly keeps a cheque for $50.05 in her file. Made out in neat cursive handwriting, it is a motif for all that she fights for and against, a page out of what she calls the “dominant narrative” in which workers should consider themselves lucky to have a job and expect no more than what a beneficent employer will give them.

Kelly, New Zealand’s top trade union boss, never knew the 22-year-old computing student to whom the cheque was written out. Charanpreet Dhaliwal went to work late one Thursday night in November 2011 as a security guard on a Fulton Hogan building site in West Auckland. His employer was a small firm, CNE Security, and he met his boss for the first time at 10.15 that night. He was shown around by another worker, who had done just one shift for the company.

He was handed a set of keys, and at 10.30pm, Dhaliwal – whose nickname was Lucky – began his first shift. He was equipped with his own small torch and cellphone and shod in boots borrowed from the other worker.

Five hours later, he was found by Fulton Hogan workers lying in his own blood. He’d been bashed to death.

Kelly read about it in the newspaper. As is typical, her response was both visceral and strategic. “It said, ‘Killed on his first night at work.’ I said to Peter Conway [then secretary of the Council of Trade Unions], ‘We’ve got to follow that up.’”

She threw herself into the case, hunting out contacts in Auckland’s Sikh community, speaking out at every opportunity about Dhaliwal’s death, supporting his grief-stricken mother and brother in India and making sure they got the modest ACC payment available to them (a grant for funeral expenses). She even tried taking a personal grievance against CNE Security.

She pressured the labour inspectorate to charge Fulton Hogan, as well as CNE Security, on the grounds that the construction firm, while not the employer, was the ultimate beneficiary of Dhaliwal’s work. Fulton Hogan wasn’t prosecuted, but two years after his death it did make a confidential payment to his family.

In the middle of it all, the $50.05 cheque arrived in her mailbox. The payment by CNE Security worked out at $7.15 an hour for the seven-hour shift Dhaliwal was hired to do that night. Kelly was uncharacteristically vexed. She didn’t know what to do with it, and couldn’t bring herself to send it on to his mother. When she publicly questioned the assumptions on which it was made – after all, Dhaliwal hadn’t negotiated a wage rate and had no employment contract – the employer accused “that woman Helen Kelly” of milking the case for publicity.

CNE Security was eventually found not guilty of failing to provide Dhaliwal with a safe workplace, and the man accused of bludgeoning him to death was found not guilty of murder.


Helen Kelly, aged 26, in her first union job.

Three and a half years on, Kelly could be forgiven for abandoning Dhaliwal’s cause, if for no better reason than to focus on her own very immediate and personal battle with lung cancer. The 50-year old non-smoker was diagnosed earlier this year and is, as she puts it, “pretty crook”. She is undergoing chemotherapy and describes the future as “uncertain”.

Yet, even in the face of her own serious illness, she remains doggedly on his case. This month, she will make submissions at the coroner’s hearing into his death, last month she spoke at a memorial ceremony for him in Auckland, and she maintains close contact with his family in India.

Why go to such lengths? Dhaliwal wasn’t a union member, and paid no dues that contributed to Kelly’s salary as president of the Council of Trade Unions (a point made in anger by the Amalgamated Workers Union, which broke away from the CTU over the case, accusing Kelly of defending the interests of a non-union worker above those of its members who worked for Fulton Hogan). He was just a young man who had sold his labour in a casual transaction to a willing buyer in a barely regulated market and met a violent death at the hands of an intruder.

If her aim was to drum up publicity to recruit union members, there would surely be easier pickings elsewhere.

The same question might be asked of her ferocious and ongoing campaign on behalf of workers in the forestry industry, a sector in which 33 people have been killed and more than 1000 seriously maimed since 2008. When Kelly waded into the issue in mid-2012, researching and writing about every death in the forest and identifying recurring themes of production pressure, long hours, low pay and fractured lines of accountability, the industry was indignant.

Sheldon Drummond of the Forest Owners Association called her “naive and uninformed”; he said the sector was using drug testing to keep the men safe from themselves and the unions ought to be grateful. John Stulen, head of the Forest Industry Contractors Association, accused her of “deplorable grandstanding” and of conducting a “desperate” campaign for union membership among a workforce that would have no interest in joining up.

Indeed, if Kelly’s aim was to lift union penetration above the current level of around 20% of workers, she could scarcely have chosen a more difficult market than the men who make their living at the end of a chainsaw or at the controls of a hauler in New Zealand’s rugged and remote radiata plantations.

And look at the farming industry, another sector with next to no union membership but where Kelly has been quietly working up a storm over low wages, huge hours and poor safety protections. As if poking a stick at a slumbering beast, she tweets persistently about the evidence she finds on farm-worker recruitment sites: “Asst manager. 60 hours per week. 11 days straight. $16 an hour”; “$15 p/h, 55 hours per week. 12 days straight.” And so on.


Just another brazen drive for union membership by That Woman Helen Kelly? Not so simple. Kelly’s strategy is less about winning new members than it is about changing the very concept of unionism. In championing non-unionised forestry workers and the grieving families of their dead men, in becoming an ally of the family and community of Charanpreet Dhaliwal, and in countless other crusades, she is effectively trying to rub out the demarcation line between unionised and non-unionised workers. Her goal is not so much to bring workers into the union fold as to fold the unions into the lives of workers, their families and communities.

Kelly is trying to rewrite the “dominant narrative” which, since the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, has seen unions rendered largely irrelevant to the lives of the vast bulk of workers.

After 20 years as a professional unionist in the education sector, she took on the presidency of the CTU in 2007 with a “clear agenda” for change. In part, that agenda was entirely predictable – to get New Zealand’s labour laws rewritten to make it easier for unions to represent workers and negotiate collective employment contracts.

Eight years on, progress on that front has been dismal, notwithstanding recent popular union successes such as against fast-food multinationals over zero-hour contracts. The labour movement has failed to stop the elimination of mandatory tea breaks or the introduction of law allowing employers to sack workers without cause within the first 90 days. Despite Kelly’s intense and controversial involvement, it failed in 2010 to defeat pressure from Sir Peter Jackson and Warner Bros to have the statute book rewritten to classify movie workers as self-employed contractors with no employment rights.

The second part of Kelly’s agenda was no less ambitious: it was to haul the union movement out of its pre-1991 structures and mindset and reform it for the 21st century. It wasn’t enough for unions to focus their efforts on large and easy-to-organise workplaces – schools, hospitals, meatworks, government departments and the like, where the unions have retained a relatively strong presence. It was time to figure out new ways to reach those who would never be unionised under the traditional model – casual workers, those who (like movie workers post-The Hobbit law change) are technically “self-employed”, those in small far-flung sites, those who fear the consequences if their boss finds out they’ve joined a union. The number of New Zealanders in work is at an all-time high according to latest statistics, but Kelly claims more than 600,000 workers are on contracts that offer no employment security.

“Consider the worker in a small shop in Kaitaia,” Kelly told the CTU’s conference in a key presentation in 2009. “She needs to find a union that can represent her, sign the form and hand it to her employer, organise her workmates, hold meetings, collectively bargain (hard in a small shop), campaign and strike if needed, ratify the collective if it is achieved and maintain the organisation in the shop.”

Yeah, right. In the years since the Employment Contracts Act abolished national awards and wiped out union presence in large swathes of the workforce, the archetypal Kaitaia shop worker – and hundreds of thousands like her – has been largely on her own, selling her labour in a private transaction under an individual contract.

Kelly at a meatworks protest in 2012.


Kelly widens her green eyes in mock wonderment at recent community outrage over the most extreme manifestations of the deregulated labour market. What did anyone expect? “I get these emails: ‘Oh, they’re taking wages off petrol station workers when customers do a runner’, or ‘They’re deducting hotel workers’ wages when they break a plate’, or ‘My son got zero hours last week because he wanted to play sport on Saturday’. And I say, ‘This is the design. It took your son to be affected to notice it, but this is the design.’ And I tell them, ‘If this worker had a collective employment agreement, there would be hours of work, there would be rosters.’ How come a 24/7 operation like Wendy’s can’t have regular rosters?”

If unions wanted to influence the lot of workers for the better, she challenged the CTU, they had to make a choice: operate like a workers’ Fly Buys scheme (“join up because we are in your workplace and we will add value to the rate you get paid”) or become a social movement with a set of values and activities that people will want to be associated with.

Kelly, of course, has staunchly advocated for the latter. “All traditional organisations are struggling to maintain their traditional model – churches, political parties, social groups like Rotary and Scouts, and unions. And modern organisations that are growing have a whole lot of features in common. One is that they are not obsessed with leadership. Who is the leader of Amnesty [International] or Greenpeace? Who is the leader of the Tea Party? They have strong personalities but leadership isn’t their thing, values are.

“They also have easy access, so people join in a range of ways and move in and out. No one says, ‘You’re a non-member of Greenpeace.’ They don’t classify people like that – it’s more like, ‘We’re all in it together’ … It’s a very inclusive model with low thresholds for participation.”

In line with this philosophy, a new CTU-run union, Together, was set up for workers in sites with no existing union representation and open to their families. The concept of membership is fluid: as far as Kelly is concerned, if a young worker thinks he’s joined because he has ‘liked’ it on Facebook, that’s a valid form of participation: “You are one of us, you are part of our values proposition.”

It’s an approach that’s also reflected in the case of Amanda Bailey, the waitress at the centre of the so-called ponytailgate scandal, who was not a union member but sought and gained the help of Unite Union to represent her in the aftermath.

Behind all this sits a much bolder idea – that unions are more than just agents of workers’ private economic interests, but are “public institutions” playing a public-interest role just as the judiciary, the education system and the media do.

“Eighty-five per cent of Kiwis earn their income through work only. They don’t have houses, rent or shares. They have less than 500 bucks in the bank. Work is how they get their economic [security] … The single message is that working people are part of the New Zealand economy, they deserve respect, dignity and rights, and that unions are the groups that they join together within legitimately to fill that public space,” she says, in a rapid-fire recitation of her preferred narrative.

“The irony in New Zealand is that business is claiming a public space – ‘we’re the job creators’. They’ve got no public role – they are private … And unions have come to act as if ‘we represent our members, it’s members first’ – they have been pushed into that private space by law changes, whereas actually they are public institutions. So I am pulling them back into that public space – or the CTU is.”

Kelly promoting a change of government in the 2014 election campaign.


The forestry campaign exemplifies Kelly’s agenda, even if it began by chance. She had gone on TV to debate Government policy on drug testing beneficiaries. Opposite her was the operator of a company that claimed to have made forestry work safe through drug testing. It prompted her to go away and looked up the industry’s safety record, and she discovered it had a death and serious-injury rate 34 times that of the UK forestry sector.

Virtually overnight, she was immersed in the lives of families whose men had been killed in the bush. As if lancing a boil, she went public with the figures and accused the industry of “carnage”. Sheldon Drummond came back with the accusation that she was hitting “New Zealand’s leading health and safety innovator”. When she pointed out that three men had died in one Gisborne forest within 18 months, he responded that their deaths were “most unfortunate”.

Caroline and Roger Callow, the parents of one of those men, 34-year-old father of two Ken Callow, saw Drummond’s comments in the media and decided he needed some instruction as to the true meaning of the word “unfortunate”. In a heart-rending letter to the Gisborne Herald, they asked him to spare a thought for men like their deceased son, who had worked enormous hours in all weathers, often returning home too exhausted to eat, so that companies like his could meet their production quotas.

And so began a determined campaign that has resulted, three years later, in a far-reaching review of safety in the forestry sector, the proposed establishment of a Forestry Industry Safety Council, and two pending CTU-led private prosecutions by forestry families over the deaths of their men. Further, the police last year took the extraordinary step of filing manslaughter charges against an employer over the death of 20-year-old Levin forestry worker Lincoln Kidd just six days before Christmas 2013, signalling a major change in attitudes over workplace fatalities.

Lesley and Craig Kidd, whose son, Lincoln, lost his life in a forestry accident in 2013.


As with Dhaliwal, Kelly’s involvement in the forestry-safety battle has been intensely personal, patient and strategic. After she saw their letter to the editor, she travelled to Gisborne to meet the Callows, who were bereft and angry at the industry’s denial of the problem. Roger Callow says the message his family had been getting was that men like Ken were “just a statistic … It was all just kicked under the carpet.”

They soon became the public face of the nascent forestry campaign, speaking out through a CTU-produced video titled What Killed Ken Callow, fronting TV interviews and putting their son’s face on motorway billboards. With Kelly behind them, they began the process of humanising the industry’s unfortunate statistics.

“She never said, ‘You must say this or that’, but when we needed to express what was going on in the forestry industry, she was behind us all the way,” says Roger Callow.

When the Forest Industry Contractors Association brought in veteran left-wing politician Jim Anderton – a peer of Kelly’s unionist father, the late Pat Kelly – to placate her with talk of the industry’s progressive work on health and safety, Kelly was unmoved. She told the former deputy prime minister he was “out of line”.

There was no union for forestry workers, so one was formed that followed the template laid out to the CTU’s leadership back in 2009: First Forestry Together was conceived as a “union-backed community organisation” for workers, families and their communities. Membership is free, and money has been raised through street appeals and “Give a Little” crowdsourcing.

And throughout 2013, the deaths kept happening. When Charles Finlay – a man earning just $16 an hour after 27 years in forestry – was killed by a log on a pitch-dark winter morning that year, his widow, Maryanne Butler-Finlay, was encouraged by a relative to contact Kelly.

“She drove to Tokoroa to see us,” recalls Butler-Finlay. “And she hasn’t left us since. She’s been there every step of the way. She’s part of my whanau.” Butler-Finlay’s twin daughters call her Aunty Helen Kelly, and they paint her nails for her when she stays in their home (a rare concession to make-up for Kelly).

Ten men were killed in the forestry sector in that one year. “She has taken it upon herself to make sure she knows all of us [families] intimately. It’s personal for her,” says Butler-Finlay.

When 20-odd forestry family members travelled to Wellington last year for Workers Memorial Day, Kelly and her partner, Steve Hurring, moved out of their Mt Victoria house so the families could stay there.

Finlay’s case is one of two for which the CTU has won the leave of the court to lay private charges, after the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment did not prosecute. It’s a move that marks a distinct shift under Kelly’s leadership to more aggressive use of the courts to assert worker protections.

For Butler-Finlay, the court action is a high-stakes undertaking, one she says Kelly has enabled her to face by being available at the end of the phone day or night. “At one point, I rang Helen and said, ‘I don’t think I can stomach it.’ She said, ‘Mate, what do you want to do?’ She’s always said, ‘We work for you.’ She’s my rock.”

Kelly refuses to accept the idea that there is anything remarkable about her close personal involvement with the forestry families. “You can’t do the sort of work we are doing in forestry without getting to know the people. It’s not hard. I like people,” she says.

“I think people are surprised – because you are the CTU president – that you do it. People are into hierarchies: ‘Ooh, you’re so important and you spend time with people.’ Well, Maryanne is bloody connected with everyone and she spends more time than me. And you think about her circumstances.

“It’s easy for me. I’ve got a good job, it takes me around, and people then think it’s somehow exceptional: ‘Oh, you’re so kind,’” she mocks, as if to take herself down a peg or two in case no one else will do it for her.

Maryanne Butler-Finlay and whanau with a photo of her late partner, Charles Finlay.


Kelly’s rise to the top of New Zealand’s labour movement was, if not preordained, then propelled by a lifetime of preparation and superb genetic credentials. She and her older brother, Max – a Wellington DJ – grew up with their parents, Pat and Cath, in Mt Victoria, in the house in which Kelly and Hurring now live. Max lives two doors down.

Pat Kelly came to New Zealand in 1954 as a Ten Pound Pom, escaping a life of grinding poverty in Liverpool. He brought with him grim stories of survival – stealing food for the family table, growing up with rickets, selling firewood to make a few bob for his widowed mother, and a Catholic education that he saw as bullying and repressive. The same church later excommunicated him for being a communist.

He drove trucks in New Zealand and became the Drivers’ Union delegate while working at the Meremere power station in Waikato.

One of his early concerns was safety, says his daughter. “There were all these drivers dying on the roads between Waikato and Wellington, and he would get up in the middle of the night and drive with his camera to truck accidents to find out what the hell was going on.”

Later, as secretary of the Cleaners and Caretakers Union in Wellington, he would be up all night in high-rise buildings talking to his members. “He had natural leadership skills but he was also incredibly nice – and funny,” his daughter remembers. “And he really liked working people because that’s where he came from. He understood their power and strength.”

When Helen and Max got their first paper rounds, their father made them organise all the other kids. “There was an amazing code of rights – how much we could carry, how late we could be out at night. We believed in it. It was exciting.”

It has long been assumed that Pat, as president of the Wellington Trades Council, was a target of the 1984 Trades Hall bombing. His daughter was studying at Wellington Teachers College at the time and vividly remembers hearing the news of the explosion. She knew her father was supposed to be in the building that day, and she raced on her scooter to the house in Mt Victoria, which was chocker with people. The building’s caretaker and Pat’s best mate, Ernie Abbott, had been killed. “We’d spent our childhood in Ernie’s apartment, a flat on top of the Trades Hall,” Kelly recalled in a Radio New Zealand interview last year. “We all felt complete devastation and fear, I think for the first time.” No one was ever prosecuted for Abbott’s death.

Branded as a hard and uncompromising operator, Pat was in fact highly respected on both sides of the table, says his daughter. After he died in 2004, “hundreds of employers wrote to us about how honest he was, how they could do a deal, how he always brought back messages to the bargaining table that they knew were genuinely from the workers, how they felt he wanted their businesses to succeed”.

Business New Zealand boss Phil O’Reilly, who knew and respected Pat and now works opposite his daughter (both here and at the International Labour Organisation, where both have been negotiators on major international agreements), says she shares some of her father’s traits. “She can be bloody frustrating and bloody difficult to deal with and occasionally idiosyncratic, even occasionally offensive … but just like her father, we can have a beer afterwards and a laugh … She’s as tough as hell.


Pat Kelly and Cath Eichelbaum met through the Communist Party. Cath and her three sisters were the daughters of Siegfried and Vera Eichelbaum. Siegfried managed a sausage factory and Vera was a talented Paris-trained artist, the daughter and granddaughter of Supreme Court judges Frederick and Henry Chapman. Cath’s cousin Thomas Eichelbaum – who, with his parents, was sponsored to come to New Zealand as a German-Jewish refugee by Vera and Siegfried – became New Zealand’s chief justice.

It was a rarefied but liberal-minded lineage, and all four Eichelbaum girls were Communist Party members. Cath’s sister Anne married left-wing economist Wolfgang Rosenberg, whose son Bill – Kelly’s cousin – is the CTU’s economist.

Cath pursued her own career as a unionist and activist. She worked as a typist in the Department of Maori Affairs, where she sold Communist Party raffle tickets and was prominent in the fight for equal pay. She was also heavily involved in the 1970s Campaign Against Rising Prices, a housewives’ group that rallied to keep the price of milk and other basics down. Helen and Max were often enlisted as her foot soldiers, putting up campaign stickers and keeping watch in Woolworths to make sure the prices of old goods weren’t being illegally marked up. “We were totally integrated into Mum and Dad’s work,” recalls Kelly.

The Vietnam War and anti-apartheid movements were part of the fabric of the household. “Our house always had people staying. Workers, South African militants, anyone who was in town that needed somewhere to stay … It was an open house, and us kids were just squashed down the end of it.”

The house in Mt Vic was an open home for Helen and Max’s friends, and their parents often took in kids who needed somewhere to stay. One, Alby White, had been fostered out as a baby and became friends with Helen when they were five-year-olds at Clyde Quay School. When he was seven, he came to live with the family for a year. “[Pat and Cath] were always looking out for the underdogs, which explains the work that Helen is involved in,” says White, who is now a hairdresser in Sydney and retains close ties to the family.

A generation on, Kelly and Hurring have often played a similar role with friends of her 23-year-old son, Dylan, taking them under their roof when they need refuge or helping them dig themselves out of trouble. “They are all lovely kids, and the reason is that they have been loved,” says Kelly. “We’re not taking hard-end foster kids – although we have spent a bit of time at police stations and hospitals.”


Kelly worked as a primary school teacher for two and a half years before becoming a professional unionist. She loved teaching, but found being responsible for a room full of seven-year-olds every day was the “hardest job I’ve ever done”.

Linda Mitchell, formerly general secretary of the Kindergarten Teachers Association, hired her in 1987 as a union organiser. Mitchell, who remains a close friend, says that from the outset, Kelly was a highly effective grass-roots operator, with a gift for creative campaigning ideas and an enormous reservoir of energy.

Labour Party president Nigel Howarth, who worked with Kelly when she was general secretary of the Association of University Staff in the 2000s, describes her as “volcanically intellectual”.

“She has not always won everyone’s support … She’s got the capacity to dissect a problem from different perspectives from normal. That sometimes doesn’t work with people who work at slower speeds. And she can be challenging. She asks difficult questions. But that’s the art of leadership …

“I’ve rarely met someone with the workload she has who also has the time for family and people who need help. There’s an immense generosity of spirit. She’s done a lot for people in an informal way over the years without any fuss or palaver and she has an immense array of friends who would testify to that.”

Kelly considered going into Parliament under the Labour banner at the last election, and has long been seen as a talented potential recruit into the House. “Helen’s name as a possible person as [a future] prime minister has been raised more than once,” says Howarth. But she decided to stay on at the CTU, for the time being, in the role she describes as “incredibly responsible”.

“Supermarket workers who stack shelves at night pay my wages. They go out at night and put tins on shelves – while their kids are asleep – for $14.75 an hour, and contribute some of that to the union, who contribute some of that to us. That is a pretty incredible chain of supply, if you think about it, and I am at the luxury end of that chain. That’s the sort of thing that compels me, really.”

The possible political career was put to one side because projects she had been working on weren’t done yet, and she concluded that it would have been “reckless” to have left them unfinished in order to enter Parliament. The forestry campaign was still rolling, and there were the two – and potentially more – forestry prosecutions to get over the line. There’s still work to be done, too, for casual workers – such as kids hired to deliver pizzas, who are paid a pittance for the use of the family vehicle to carry out their work. There are also the farm workers toiling for huge hours and little money.

And there is Pike River, and the desperate quest for justice for the 29 men killed in the 2010 coal-mine explosion. Later this month, Kelly will be supporting two of the Pike women, Anna Osborne (whose husband, Milton, was a self-employed contractor in the mine) and Sonya Rockhouse (whose son Ben worked for Pike’s underground drilling contractor), in a CTU-backed judicial review of the decision of Judge Jane Farish to dismiss health and safety charges against Pike boss Peter Whittall in 2013. The legal action also challenges the action of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in giving weight to a $3.41 million offer to the Pike families by the company’s directors in deciding not to proceed with the prosecution.

Kelly is a prop for others, too, including Dean Dunbar, father of Joseph Dunbar, 17, who died in the mine on his very first day on the job. Three weeks after the explosion, when Whittall was being fêted by politicians and the media as a national hero, Kelly dared to speak out against him as the person who ought to apologise for the disaster.

There was a sharp intake of breath around the country – scandalised right-wing blogger David Farrar claimed the CTU “just doesn’t get it”. But for Dunbar, grief-stricken and alone in a Greymouth motel, Kelly was the only person who spoke any kind of sense about his son’s death. He called her and she went to Greymouth, sat with him in his room, helped the families organise themselves into a coherent group and has given comfort and advice to Dunbar and others ever since. “She has never once not been there for me and my family,” he says.

But, as Kelly puts it, things are “a bit up the boo aye at the moment”. Becoming “pretty crook” was not part of that carefully conceived and passionately argued agenda for change. Because of her cancer diagnosis, she has told the CTU affiliates she won’t stand for re-election to the presidency in October.

Aside from hospital stays for complications, tests and chemotherapy, however, she remains on the job: organising, talking, supporting, strategising, writing, reading, tweeting. Hammering away at that dominant narrative.

And getting married. She and Hurring decided, in the face of her mortality, to wed and invite their huge network of friends to a celebratory bash. The hardest thing was finding a venue big enough.

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