A feisty activist with generous heart

20:55, Mar 30 2014

Vivienne Lesley Walker, trade unionist, rights activist: b Palmerston North, August 22, 1947; m Geoff Walker 2d 1s; d Wellington, March 15, aged 66.

Viv to her family and mates - was a woman with a strong sense of natural justice and a delightful black sense of humour.

She left strict instructions that no-one was to make her into a hero at her funeral - she wanted to be seen as ordinary.

Ms Walker's middle name should have been resilience - she experienced a difficult childhood and tough times with her health during her later years but she let none of this block her path. Hers was a life-long quest for justice and fairness - fairness in the workplace, equity for women and the right for all to be treated with dignity and respect. When people needed support, friend or stranger, she was there to help.

Ms Walker left Palmerston North Girls' High School and went nursing in Wellington. Before she left for Wellington, she met Geoff Walker with whom she was to have two girls, Lisa and Janie, when only just out of her teens.

Ms Walker began to flex her organising muscles during her days as a student nurse.


One former nursing colleague Susie Tyer remarked: "We are lucky to have known her over the years. Her 'feistiness' is legend. Those days in the nurses' home . . . the battles with the home sisters and fun in the corridors. Her sense of humour and strong belief in fairness for all, I'll never forget."

Ms Walker found herself swept up in the feminist movement of the 1970s and attended the United Women's Convention in 1973.

But her agenda was not to get more women into the board rooms or CEOs' offices; it was to get rights for the women who cleaned the boardrooms and corporate offices.

"All the Femme Corps in the world won't change the lot of working-class women. I don't care how many women bosses there are. I take the best bits of feminism - abortion rights, refuges, rape crisis, winning the DPB," she once said.

She was also active in the anti- Springbok tour movement. On the day some of the protesters ran on to the runway at Wellington Airport, she and Mr Walker were arrested.

They ended up in different cells with about 50 other protesters. Mr Walker called out to her from his cell: "Who is looking after the kids?" Ms Walker called back that she'd asked a policeman to do that. The entire police station, police included, roared with laughter.

In 1987, Ms Walker helped establish the People First party - a forerunner of the Alliance, and stood for Parliament in the Miramar electorate. She first became involved with unionism when she volunteered to be union delegate when working as a shop assistant at the PSIS bookshop.

Having got her taste for unionism, her close friend Marijke Robinson talked her into applying for a job with the Clerical Workers' Union, which to her surprise she got. She was later to work for the Photo Litho Union, the Journalist and Graphic Process Union (Jagpro), the Printing, Packaging and Media Union and then, when they merged with the Engineers Union, the EPMU. Her career was cut short when she was left with a permanent brain injury following a serious motorway car crash.

But that didn't stop Ms Walker becoming active in yet another cause, the "independent living" group for people with head injuries. She renamed them the "head cases". The group became very important to her. At her request, they decorated her coffin for her packed funeral at the Paramount Theatre.

Her greatest cause through life was her family, her children Lisa, Janie and Ted, and grandchildren Max and Mia. She shared her unconditional love widely with friends, their children, and friends of her children. She looked after her friends' children when they needed a break, and she sheltered troubled teenagers.

She was generous in spirit and in kind. Former Consumer chief executive and life-long friend David Russell reminisced at the funeral about the time when he had a young family and no car. The Walkers dropped off the keys to an old bomb for them to use till it broke down - it went for years.

Those at the funeral spanned the years of Ms Walker's life and mirrored her many causes. They ranged from neighbours, family, friends, caregivers, journalists, prominent trade unionists, lawyers and members of the "head cases", and of course, cleaners.

In keeping with Ms Walker's sense of humour and her activist background, at her request her close friend Therese O'Connell led a rousing rendition of "If you hate the British Army, clap your hands" as her coffin left the theatre. 

Sources: Geoff, Lisa and Janie Walker and Ted Haldane; Glenda McCallum; Marian Cadman; David Russell; Jen Toogood; Susie Tyer.


A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape their community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email obituaries@dompost.co.nz.


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