Q & A
Head delegate at NZ Steel, Lester Udy, came back to his roots to work in the once rural town of Waiuku where the steel mill at Glenbrook – the country’s largest producer of steel – is taking steps to take care of the climate and in turn, secure its future.
What’s your story?
I was born and raised in Waiuku, round the corner from the steel mill. When I grew up, the area had a really rural feeling about it. I’ve always worked in construction, trades and things. When I started work in NZ, I did a number of concrete laying and block laying jobs, before I went overseas to do my OE, and started building storage sheds. When I came back to New Zealand, I bought the house I grew up in in Waiuku and I’ve been at the steel mill ever since for about 18 years.
Tell us about your job at the mill.
I’m a caster operator – we cast the molten steel into slabs and billets. Dealing with molten steel does have its inherent dangers and risks. It can look spectacular and risky to the untrained eye, but we have safety protocols to keep us safe from those risks.
Recently, the Government announced that it was going to fund up to $140 million towards an electric furnace at NZ Steel, so you can start producing half of all steel from scrap rather than using coal to produce it new. How does it feel to be at the forefront of this initiative?
As the head delegate (called the site convenor) for the whole site, it’s exciting for the future of NZ Steel. Like a lot of industry, we go through cycles, and this will help secure the future of steelmaking in our country for some time. There is some unease among those who work in our ironmaking process areas, as at this stage we don’t know what it will mean for the future of their work. We are advocating for a ‘Just Transition’, which means training skilled workers to take on other roles, as we transition to the new way that we’ll eventually use to make up to 50% of our steel.
How did you come to be part of E tū?
NZ Steel is close to 100% unionised, with well over 750 E tū members, so I guess it goes with the territory as far as our collective workforce goes. I’m the kind of person who needs to be working on something, so after I’d been here for about three or four years and the Health and Safety Rep (HSR) in my area was nearing retirement, I was elected as the new HSR. I quite quickly found my feet and really enjoyed the role. In 2018, I even got my Graduate Diploma in Health and Safety through Massey University. I also got involved in my first round of bargaining at that time, and I’ve been the site convenor – or head delegate – temporarily and then permanently since late 2021.
What’s one thing that members might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a very proud father of my three kids. They’re all teenagers now – the oldest is 18, then 16, and 12.
Any words of wisdom for new members or delegates?
Stay true to yourself. In particular, when you become a delegate, you need to remember that you’re representing members, and you need to be honest with them and with managers. Quick tip for new starters: a lot of people think that when you fill in an MBIE form that you’re already part of the union. But you also have to fill in an E tū membership form as well, so make sure new staff know how to do that!
What motivates you most as a delegate?
NZ Steel has got a very strong collective, and we have a good union presence. I pride myself on upholding the terms and conditions of our collective, and I try to ensure that members are treated fairly and get everything they’re entitled to. The main reason I became a delegate is because I wanted to