Helen Kelly

Posted: October 14, 2016 by Admin in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

by Don Franks


Helen Kelly

Yesterday I was hired by a university professor to sing for his class. These students were business management graduates. Their well meaning tutor wanted them to hear some union songs “to balance things up a bit”.

I told my audience the most enduring English language union songs I knew came from the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World. Founded in the USA in 1905, radical anticapitalists. The only union then and for some time to recruit women, immigrants, unskilled and all races into its ranks.

I told how the IWW had influenced early 20th century New Zealand unionism. I mentioned that several American IWW organisers had lynched by capitalist agents in the course of the struggle.

I also noted that three people in this country had been killed in the pursuit of union activity; Fredrick Evans, Ernie Abbot and Christine Clarke. To round off, I sang my song about Ernie’s murder in Wellington Trades hall.

The young business graduates suffered my presentation quietly, most fiddling with electronic devices, some kept up whispered conversation. At the end I received polite applause and left them to get on with 2016 matters of meaning to them.

Across town that day, Helen Kelly lay dying from a disease as cruel as capitalism. She had chaired AUS meetings in the lecture theatre I was singing in, and her father was leader of the union movement at the time Ernie Abbot was killed.

Helen Kelly and I had several torrid political run ins, mostly over the Labour Party. She viewed that party as some sort of vehicle which could, however imperfectly asset the workers cause.I saw and still do Labour as part of the class enemy, weakening our side by adaptation to the system.

At other times we worked side by side on industrial issues, such as support of struggling AFFCO meat workers, where Helen Kelly’s leadership was tireless and inspirational.

The irrelevance of my union presentation to students reminded me of how much ground organised labour has lost over the last decades.

Helen Kelly came to leadership of the CTU at an extremely difficult time, when much former workers’ organisation had been destroyed or dissipated. In these circumstances she managed to put unionism back on the map, sometimes by sheer force of will.

I sometimes thought of her as a big general with a tiny army. Now it’s time for the general to rest and the best legacy the army might provide is to regroup and reassess its line of march.

  1. Lilly says:

    Need to keep up her fight, and yes she was definitely an inspiration

  2. johnmc2 says:

    Excellent tribute Don

  3. Daphna says:

    I was impressed by Helen Kelly’s energetic defence of workers’ rights in recent years. Particularly the fact that she threw herself behind campaigns for blue collar workers and didn’t let up, even as she was dying. But she was so utterly wrong about the Labour Party that any good work would in time be negated by peddling a myth that Labour somehow has something positive to offer workers. At Redline we’ve consistently highlighted how National and Labour complement each other as the A and B team for capitalism. This was neatly illustrated today when Labour MP – now mayor of Auckland Phil Goff appointed a National Party guy as deputy mayor. That came just weeks after John Key had vigorously supported Helen Clark for the top UN job.
    National-Labour really are an alliance, and it’s obvious to all except those who are wilfully blind.

    • Phil F says:

      This alliance was really clear during most of the life of the NLP/Alliance. Labour preferred National, for instance, in the Tamaki by-election. Labour is always much more worried about, and viscerally hostile to, the growth of anything to its left than it is to National.

      I have a different view, however, of Helen Kelly. I was a general staff member of AUS when she was general secretary of the union and my experience was that at the start of a negotiating period she would talk the talk and then, once negotiations started, she would begin trying to lower our expectations. I was on the Canterbury branch committee of the union and we also had to endure the union brass, and she was the key player, trying to ram the ideology of ‘partnership’ down our throats.

      In my view the role she played around Pike River was negative too. As soon as she arrived on the scene, that was the end of any possibility of any sort of independent struggle by the families, the mining community and supporters. The families and their supporters needed a campaign that was independent of the EPMU (whose leader, Andrew Little, had signed off on PIke River), independent of the top CTU brass, and independent of the LP. In my opinion Helen Kelly was a force for that *not* happening, however much she may have sympathised with the families as an individual.

      I think the fact that she was a bit feisty, for instance over the government’s change in the industrial laws to please Peter Jackson and the Hollywood bosses, was the result of the fact that the government wouldn’t do business. What most of the top union brass want is a government that will sit down with them and let them play their mediating role between labour and capital. Because neither Labour nor National need to do this these days, the style of union leadership that dominated in the 20 years before here was/is no longer able to deliver anything to workers. So we have a bit of feistiness from time to time. This was true of both Peter Conway and her.

      Of course, the biggest problem is not them but overall working class passivity. In the context of a working class that, so often, would rather break out into tears than break out into struggle, Helen Kelly probably really was the best that was on offer. Sadly.

      Even more sadly, there’s no signs of that changing. So we are stuck in a pretty clapped-out capitalism that survives more because of the exhaustion/passivity of the working class than due to any dynamism of its own.