National Secretary - PSA Te Pukenga Here Tikanga Mahi.
Children from big families invariably do well in life.
They learn responsibility from a young age, they have to fight for their place and most importantly they quickly figure out that if you don’t get to the table when you’re called for dinner there’s a good chance your meal will have already been consumed by one of your siblings by the time you do.
For Erin Polaczuk, growing up as number five in a family of 10 children, all of the above applied. It was a household where you knew your place and you were expected to pull your weight.
Of Polish descent, Erin’s family immigrated to NZ as refugees following the end of the Second World War as part of a larger group of migrants who were offered places, many of whom eventually settled in Wellington.
Growing up in the working class suburb of Naenae where she attended Naenae College, Erin credits one of her English teachers for helping her to interpret the punk rock scene as well as giving voice to some of her more extreme tastes in music.
But there were also the many causes that she immersed herself in including: animal rights, the environment and social justice issues such as poverty and neglect, the latter as a result of observing her mother’s involvement in the Catholic charity St Vincent de Paul.
“From a relatively young age I began to realise that there were lots of people who didn’t have a voice, were powerless and in many cases were also struggling financially. It made me realise how divided the world was and how many people faced discrimination through no fault of their own.”
Back at home debate was encouraged. With a large family there were plenty of opinions to be canvassed and that helped to develop a level of resilience in the young teen. As it turned out, it was also good preparation for University where you were expected to form arguments and back these up with well thought out positions.
Moving to Auckland and enrolling in a BA, Erin admits that she regrets not getting more involved in uni life off campus.
“There were the more practical issues of having to earn money to support my studies and coming from a family where money was tight, I wasn’t able to rely on my family to support me, I had to do it for myself.”
It was while working in the hospitality sector as a student that Erin began to experience some of the harsh realities of the work place including no sick days, rosters being changed at short notice and long work hours without breaks which fostered an interest in trade unions.
“It was a shock to me just how vulnerable and exploited many low wage earners are, particularly students. It certainly got me thinking about a possible role I could play in advocating for the rights of workers.”
Being the first in her family to graduate, and following a family tradition of gaining qualifications, Erin says her father’s generation were the first of the Polish refugees to be born in NZ and despite their parents arriving with nothing they all went on to have a good life and a good education. But not all of her own siblings were keen to follow in her footsteps.
“I recall having a conversation with my younger brother shortly after my graduation who told me that he was going into the army because he didn’t want to end up with a student loan.”
She began her involvement in the union movement as part of the CTU’s ‘Youth Rates Suck’ campaign and joined the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) while still at university initially as an intern. As well as being appointed women’s officer for the Association of University Staff, other roles quickly followed including a year as an adult educator for the NZ Council of Trade Unions and seven years at the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) rising to Deputy General Secretary.
In 2014 Erin says she was offered what might be described as her ‘dream job’ as National Secretary of the largest union in the country; the powerful and influential Public Service Association (PSA). “This was certainly a big step up for me to lead a very impressive organisation with a history dating back more than a century. I’ve had to overcome my natural shyness and learn to become a more effective communicator, particularly when it comes to fronting the media and speaking at large rallies. But I get to work with some amazingly dedicated people and I feel very privileged to be able lead the organisation at this time.”
As for the future, Erin says she hasn’t lost any of her youthful energy to bring about change in the world.
“I want to see an end to pay disparity based on gender and ethnicity. I want to see a stronger public service and a more equal society in Aotearoa. I want to be fluent in three languages and learn all throughout my life. I want to see a reduction in pollution in our oceans and waterways by the time my children are adults and a serious effort underway to address climate change.”