Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Helen Kelly

Helen Kelly. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Helen Kelly. Photo / Paul Estcourt

It's a little over a year since the 90-day-trial law was introduced for all businesses and there have been many stoushes for the president of the Council of Trade Unions. But, she says, she is far from battle-weary. She lives in Wellington with her partner and has a 20-year-old son.

Twenty per cent of new jobs under the 90-day trial are being "liquidated" under that law. Success or failure, and why?

It's a failure. We're seeing people devastated. People with good records and reputations. It's disempowering and it's deferential to business and this idea that people are "lucky" to have a job. There's this assumption that work is a charity and you should be grateful to have it. Employment is a mutual obligation, a reciprocal obligation.

What would you change about battles of the recent past?

With the Port(s of Auckland), Affco and The Hobbit, I'd like to have been more strategic at the beginning. I'd like to have had more of a strategic discussion.

But I do think even with The Hobbit, that those disputes weren't so bad for us. With a little time and distance, people understood the complexities ... I think in some cases it inspires people. They realise that you can fight back. You can win.

If you invited Sir Peter Jackson to dinner, what would you cook him?

I'd say let's go out and split the bill.

Would you split the bill with John Key?

Our values are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I have a fundamental problem with his attitude to workers and his Government's undermining of collective bargaining and reducing wages. New Zealanders cannot afford to get less in wages. It's not fair. I respect him, purely because he's the Prime Minister, but I couldn't sleep straight at night asking New Zealanders to take less in pay.

When did you last shed tears and over what?

Last week in the post I got a pay cheque for a young man who was killed at work. It was his first pay cheque and his last. He worked one day. The cheque was for $50.05 from his employer CNE Security who were contracted to Fulton Hogan. It was made out to him. It can't be banked by anyone. There was no pay slip, nothing. Just his name. I just shut the door and started to cry. There is no way I'm sending it to his mother. I had a very bad week, last week.

Do you ever feel like chucking it in and taking off? Do you feel New Zealanders are even behind unions any more?

I'd never take off. I'm in the battle. One of my biggest concerns is with this growing trend to a lack of reciprocity, of the fundamental undertaking of employers being avoided by contracting or through laws like the 90 days law. It's wrong. And it's bad for business. That's why people are taking off overseas. But 22 per cent of New Zealanders belong to unions. That's nearly one in four. We're the biggest democratic organisation in New Zealand.

If you could live in another time, when would that be and why?

The 1970s. It probably wouldn't have been the greatest for me in that there wouldn't have been a woman running the CTU. But there were such broad industry documents. I would've liked to have taken advantage of that. I don't think the unions saw what was coming with the radicalisation of the labour laws of the 90s. But interestingly I'm glad to be alive this century. Since feminism, women have been able to live their lives and do anything.

Women in prominent, powerful roles are often called "lippy" or "stroppy". Does that bother you?

It's the sort of thing you'd say - especially "stroppy" - to a kid. Or to a woman. You never hear a man being called stroppy. But it doesn't bother me.

When are you frivolous?

When I'm with my gang of girls, hanging out and having fun. Laughing, telling stories, dancing, singing.

What's to celebrate about life right now?

I've got a 20-year-old kid who's finding himself. It's great. He is dreaming his own dreams. You do worry about how your kids will make it. He works for the teachers' union. Yes, I know. But he swears he's not going to make it his career.

What's the most absurd thing you've ever done?

When I was 17 or 18 I did have a massive 250cc Honda motorbike, which I'd drop every five minutes. It was only massive because I was so small. The mechanic down the road would have a ready supply of mirrors and brake handles because they snapped off every time the bike fell over. I'd be at the traffic lights and I would just fall over when I had to stop. People would walk past me lying on the ground under this bike at the traffic lights.

What makes you weak at the knees?

George Clooney.

- NZ Herald

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