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Union leader Erin Polaczuk opens up about the future of the movement

Erin Polaczuk. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Some of the most important influences in union leader Erin Polaczuk’s life are indelibly etched on her mind and body. 

A generational change occurred in New Zealand politics in October when Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as Prime Minister. With less fanfare, one of her contemporaries, also from Auckland, is bringing about generational change in the union movement. In 2014, 38-year-old Erin Polaczuk became national secretary of the Public Service Association, which represents 65,000 public servants.

In her previous role as deputy head of the secondary teachers’ union, the Post Primary Teachers’ Association, Polaczuk was widely respected. An education sector leader describes her as “refreshingly straightforward, highly intelligent and more pragmatic than some of her predecessors. She made genuine gains for her membership by putting their case eloquently and persuasively in negotiations.”

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Polaczuk comes from a Polish-Irish family raised in the Hutt Valley. After spending most of her working life in Auckland, she packed up herself, her surfboard and her nine-year-old daughter, Summer, to return to Wellington for the PSA job. She misses Auckland’s weather and beaches – the surfboard has had little use since she moved south – but being closer to her extended family is a big consolation. Her mother, Patricia, is a cook at a rest home and her father, Jock, works as a Cook Strait ferry engineer. On Labour Day, she will marry her fiancé, Aaron Packard.

When Polaczuk graduated with a BA from the University of Auckland in 2001, there was no doubt of her career direction. Driven by a strong sense of social justice and with survival skills honed as one of 10 children, she became a trainee at the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). One union job led to another and she has juggled work and sole parenting with on-again, off-again studies for a law degree.

One of a new generation of union leaders – too young to have experienced the strikes that routinely crippled key industries in the 70s and 80s, including the ferries on which her father works – Polaczuk characterises her approach to union business as belonging to “a mature era”.

Polaczuk filing an equal-pay claim with Pollyanna Alo last year. Photo/Polaczuk family

What do you mean by that?

I am lucky to have been born in the 80s, because I largely skipped that [strike-ridden] period. I remember some strikes, though, and Dad losing his job in the 90s. He was made redundant and survived on his redundancy pay. It terrifies me to think some people don’t have that backup, so have no way of feeding their families if they lose their jobs. I don’t think we will ever go back to the way things were; you can’t erase 30 years, because we have moved on.

What does the modern union movement look like to you?

We are smarter now. Look at the huge settlement for care and support workers, those ridiculously low-paid women doing fantastic work caring for our elderly and disabled people. We got that through a strategic court case taken by E tū union and negotiation in a tripartite forum. That is how we get big wins now. We have had strikes, but they have not led to the big wins. If we get into stupid oppositional behaviour, strikes are a last resort, but that is not how the PSA has worked. Maybe we are in the mature era and the feminisation of the union movement has changed things. We are not guys coming in and having a punch-up any more.

Erin Polaczuk has many tattoos, some that have a story and some she regards as artworks. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

You credit, in part, your Catholic upbringing for the social conscience that led to this career, but at the same time you say you’re always trying to shrug off the church. What’s the reason for your ambivalence?

It is an odd place for a feminist to be, but I find myself at church a few times each year. I remember having a conversation with Mum when I was about 12 and asking, “Why are you so active in this church that believes women were created from the rib of a man and makes them subservient to men?” Neither Mum nor the nuns at school tried to disabuse me of that sort of thing, but Mum was keen to impress on me that the church’s charity work, the social-justice stuff, is important and a reason to be involved.

How did being one of 10 children shape your thinking?

With nine brothers and sisters, you are a pack and you look after one another. You are a team and you are safe. That collectivism is part of why I feel comfortable in the union environment. The idea of safety and strength in numbers, that you achieve what you want through collective force, is a no-brainer for me, probably because my life was like that from the time I was born.

Polaczuk with daughter Summer and fiancé Aaron Packard. Photo/Polaczuk family

What personal challenges have there been since you took on your PSA role?

Social media. It’s important that we stay on Twitter, and our members use Facebook. So I feel obliged to be on Facebook, but I find Twitter is more vicious. People feel free to slam one another in a way I don’t think they would do elsewhere.

How has that affected you?

When I started, it was around the time of the sexual-harassment allegations at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority [Cera]. We came out strongly against sexual harassment and chief executives abusing their power in that way. For a few days, I was alone in taking that stand – it felt like forever. I received a lot of hate emails before other people came in behind us and also said it was appalling. I had never done media work before and I got emails calling me such things as “f---ing hairy-legged bitch”. It was the kind of derision women get when they raise feminist issues.

With, from left, friends Gem Browne, Lisa Hefford and Sera Tuitaru in 2013. Photo/Polaczuk family

Do you think the #MeToo movement means women are finally going to be safe from predatory or demeaning behaviour by male colleagues?

I hope so. Older feminists say, “Are we still having to do this?” I get the sense of fatigue, and déjà vu, that they have to go through another round of convincing people why equal pay is important. I hope we have momentum now, but I think men have a lot more work to do. Women should be able to say “it is inappropriate for women to be harassed at work” or “women should be paid equally” or “men aren’t doing their share of work outside the workplace” without being abused or sent abusive emails or tweets. That needs men to talk to other men and pull them up on their behaviour. I think that didn’t happen during the 70s feminist revolution. Maybe men didn’t do their share of that work then.

Other than family, who’s been a big influence on you?

Helen Kelly [former CTU president]. Someone needs to write her biography. She is someone the entire union movement cherished. What I loved about her, apart from her belief in people, was that she didn’t think of the union movement as just covering the one in five workers who have opted to pay their fees every week. She knew the union movement had its rightful place; it had a long history and a role as a voice for all workers. She was visionary. She reached out to people who didn’t know unions existed. She will be remembered for a long time for campaigning, even in her dying days, for the legalisation of marijuana. She knew what had to be fixed in society and she wouldn’t let anyone or anything hold her back.

Polaczuk, left, and Sarah Knowles campaigning for an end to youth pay rates at the Big Day Out, circa 2001. Photo/Polaczuk family

What are you reading?

Everything and often. I read fiction every night, because I don’t own a TV. It is the way I shut my brain off. I am reading The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and before that I read The New Animals, by Pip Adam. The books that have influenced me have been autobiographies or biographies, because I think people influence me more than the ideas woven through fiction. An example is Haruki Murakami’s small but gorgeous memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He doesn’t clutter his work with a lot of descriptive language; it is very sparse.

Do your many tattoos tell your life story?

In some ways, but I’m not convinced every tattoo has to have meaning. Some tattoos are artwork, which is just beautiful. I like abstract art, so it doesn’t all tell a story, but the piece on my leg does and so does the one by my heart. And on my stomach I have Solidarność, the Polish word for solidarity, because I was born in the 80s when Poland was moving away from communism. That got me interested in politics. I recall wearing the Solidarność badge as a child and the conversations my dad had with my uncles and aunties.

In the arms of her mother, Patricia, in Naenae in 1981. Photo/Polaczuk family

You say your mother approves of only one of these tattoos – which one?

It is on my left calf and is about the legend of St Veronica’s veil. Veronica was the woman who ran up when Jesus was being dragged along and his disciples had denounced him, but she was brave enough to step up and give him her veil to wipe his face. I have always loved that story of somebody who didn’t care about what authority was saying or her own personal physical safety and did what was right and expressed compassion for another person. I have also got a tattoo that is like a matryoshka [nesting doll] to remind myself of my grandmother, who is very important in my life. My babcia, which is Polish for grandmother, came here after World War II.

The only tattoo that’s usually visible is on your chest – what’s the background?

It is a lotus flower, which I got when I was 21 as a present to myself. It is the symbol of the heart chakra. I wanted to remind myself to always be listening to my heart and what it is telling me and living truthfully.

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.