Helen Kelly first drafted up a proposed law for what became Fair Pay Agreements in 2011 and died in 2016. Photo: Supplied

This week’s passing into law of the Fair Pay Agreements Bill is the legacy of a passionate union leader who was driven to uphold the rights and dignity of workers.

Helen Kelly used to talk about the Four Square worker from Kaitaia. She never met this particular individual; the small-town grocery worker was instead a creature of political narrative.

Helen conjured her up from the daily reality of low-paid workers, toiling in sectors from which trade unions had been banished; workers for whom jobs were often precarious and their hours unpredictable, and for whom the notion of bargaining with the boss for better wages or conditions was pure fantasy.

When workplace relations minister Michael Wood said in Parliament on Wednesday night, as he rose for the third and final reading of the Fair Pay Agreement Bill, that “this one’s for Helen Kelly”, he might also have mentioned the mythical Kaitaia worker, for she became the emblem of everything that Helen thought was wrong about work in New Zealand’s flexible and deregulated labour market, and why there needed to be deep change.

It was October 2009 when the Four Square worker first appeared in Helen’s dialogue within the union movement, of which she had assumed the leadership two years earlier as president of the Council of Trade Unions.

The worker technically had bargaining rights in law, but in reality the path to representation and genuine negotiation was strewn with obstacles. “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 organisation in the shop,” said Helen.

Instead of any of this happening, workers who needed a job simply took whatever the employer gave them.

The Kaitaia worker became a mascot of worker powerlessness, and a lead character in a major programme of reform that Helen laid out for the union movement in late 2009. She wanted the movement to become a genuine voice for all workers, a force for social justice that organised and agitated for fair, dignified and safe work.

But she also believed that the vision of decent work for all required law reform. She had been brewing the idea of a new industrial relations regime in which unions could negotiate with industries for collective pay deals that would cover workers across entire sectors or occupations – and not just the one in five who belonged to a union.

By then it was nearly two decades since the 1991 Employment Contracts Act had obliterated the old national award system, turned collective bargaining into a privilege restricted to a minority of workers, and made a swathe of already-low paid workers poorer.

Although the ECA had been repealed in 2000, it had so effectively atomised workers and weakened the union movement that it continued to define the limits of worker power.

Against a background in which individual employment contracts had become the norm – and in which the then National-led government was rolling back worker rights – Helen’s idea of returning to a system of industry and occupation-wide pay deals was so radical as to be breathtaking. But she hadn’t got to the top of the union movement to simply oversee its decline into irrelevance; she was there to restore its mana, energy and fight.

“We don’t need low wages in this country,” she said at the time. “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.”

She analysed employment regimes from around the world, particularly those of the various European regimes that allow for minimum wages and conditions to be extended across whole industries.

By 2011 she had drafted up a 207-page bill that would allow every worker to participate in collective bargaining, regardless of union membership. Her system involved setting up ‘industry councils’ of unions, which could seek industry standard agreements once a certain portion of the sector was covered by a collective agreement.

Her vision was that any worker ought to be able to join a workplace and be protected by minimum pay and conditions negotiated between unions and employers in that sector, and not be disadvantaged by dint of working for a small employer in a small town, or for an anti-union company that resisted collective bargaining.

The whole package was guaranteed to be completely unpalatable to employers. Some unionists weren’t fussed either, and thought it was a convoluted and complicated scheme.

But she persisted, organised her political allies, and by the time of the 2011 election, Labour’s manifesto included a promise to bring in industry standard agreements.

Labour stuck with the policy, or some variation of it, at every election thereafter.

It wasn’t always a sure thing. By 2014 Andrew Little, a former national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, was Labour’s industrial relations spokesman. He wanted to water down the industry standards policy and push out the timetable for implementing it if Labour was elected. He thought the policy was “too big a chunk to bite off” and that first there needed to be a process to rebuild the practice and culture of collective bargaining given that many workers had no experience or understanding of what it was.

By then it was six years after the height of the Global Financial Crisis and the former bastions of neoliberal economics, the International Monetary Fund and OECD, had started to rethink their former enthusiasm for de-unionised and deregulated labour markets. Collective bargaining was now seen as a good thing, and a helpful mechanism to mitigate soaring inequality.

As far as Helen was concerned, the issue was simple: the vast majority of New Zealand families relied on wages and salaries to survive, yet having a job was no longer an antitode to poverty. Two out of five children in hardship lived in families where at least one adult was in full time work.

“This can’t be right,” she said in one speech. “It can’t be the deal about work that people understand. It can’t be the deal that you can work Monday to Friday or longer and spend Saturday at the food bank. Work has to make a greater economic and social contribution than that. It is not a deal anyone I know has signed up to.”

It was patently obvious to her that creating a mechanism to lift wages was critical to fixing the nation’s glaring crisis of inequality and deprivation.

A staunch Labour party member and formidable combatant in any dispute, Helen wasn’t prepared to tolerate any softening of her party’s commitment to industry standard agreements. At one meeting she told Little that she wasn’t beholden to Labour, and would go out and campaign against him if his attitude didn’t shift.

In the end the divisions were papered over, and Labour went into the 2014 election with a commitment to industry standard agreements as a way of setting reasonable minimum pay and conditions.

Within a few months of that election Helen was diagnosed with lung cancer. She survived – fighting, organising, persuading, tweeting – until October 14, 2016. Labour formed a government, in coalition with New Zealand First, a year later.

By then industry standard agreements had been renamed fair pay agreements. A tripartite working group was set up to figure out how they would work in practice, led by Jim Bolger, the former prime minister whose Employment Contracts Act had shattered collective bargaining in 1991 and who was now vexed by the weakened state of the union movement.

The working group traversed many of the same issues that had fuelled Helen’s reforming zeal: a ‘race to the bottom” in industries like security, retail and hospitality, in which competition was based on ever-decreasing labour costs rather than increased quality or productivity; workers’ falling share of national income and the need for more collective bargaining to raise incomes and reduce inequality.

In the end, it was a further four years after the working group’s report – and six years after Helen’s death – before fair pay agreements passed into law this week. The vote in Parliament was accompanied by howls of derision from National and Act, and accusations that it would take New Zealand back to the 70s. A Business New Zealand leader predicted that if there’s a change of government next year the fair pay agreement regime will be “gone by breakfast-time”.

Helen would have rolled her eyes at the critics. She would have seen the passage of the law as a good win for workers, but one that needed to be vigilantly defended by vigorous organising, sound strategy and a genuine care for the most vulnerable workers. And she would have looked forward to the moment when there was a fair pay agreement that boosted the pay, security and dignity of the Four Square worker from Kaitaia.

Rebecca Macfie’s biography, ‘Helen Kelly: Her Life’, was published by Awa Press in 2021.

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