Obituary: Union leader Helen Kelly

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BY NIKKI MACDONALD

The Kelly name was already heavy with political pedigree. She only grew its legend.

Helen Kelly was born to be a unionist. Her parents Pat and Cath met while distributing People’s Voice Communist newspaper.

Pat was the staunch president of the Wellington Trades Council at the time of the 1984 Trades Hall bombing. Cath spent time planning Vietnam War protests. Their daughter was organising meetings before she could write.

Her best school friend told everyone Kelly would be Prime Minister. She did consider politics, but unfinished union business always got in the way; workers being mistreated or industries dismissing workplace deaths as “most unfortunate”. And then there was the lung cancer that killed her, at the young age of 52.

But the woman with the deep dimples and deep well of resolve seemed indefatigable to the end. Even while undergoing chemotherapy she would pop up regularly on television, radio and in newspaper opinion columns, fighting for fair access to medical marijuana or a better deal for downtrodden workers.

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A trained primary school teacher, Kelly taught for only two and a half years – at Johnsonville Main School – before diving headlong into unionism. She once said it was the hardest job she ever did. She was already a workplace union delegate and the transition to the world of her childhood seemed inevitable. She joined the Kindergarten Teachers Association as a union organiser, beginning 20 years of fighting for better pay and conditions in education.

She moved on to represent teachers and university staff. But it’s her work since 2007, as president of the Council of Trade Unions, that will be added to the Kelly legacy.

The first woman in the job, Kelly seemed a gentler face than her father’s uncompromising reputation. But those who underestimated her no doubt regretted it. When Kelly took very public aim at the forestry industry’s abysmal safety record, industry heavyweights dismissed her as “naive and uninformed” and accused her of conducting a desperate campaign to increase union membership.

But Kelly did not give up. Far from it. She drove to Gisborne to talk to the Callows, whose son Ken was crushed by a falling pine tree. They fronted a CTU-produced video and television interviews to put a face to the statistics. Then she drove to Tokoroa to talk to Maryanne Butler-Finlay, whose husband Charles Finlay was killed by a falling log later in 2013.

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Kelly also got stuck in to the farming industry, publicly shaming farmers who offered jobs that worked out at less than the minimum wage. She supported the Unite Union’s campaign against zero hour contracts.

She was fearless and everywhere. And no-one was safe from her tough tongue. In 2010, during the failed fight to block employment law changes to smooth the way for the Hobbit filming, Kelly uncharacteristically lost her rag and called Sir Peter Jackson a spoilt brat. She regretted the comment, but not the fight.

In the early weeks after the 2010 explosion at Pike River killed 29 miners, while everyone was lauding mine boss Peter Whittall, she was already questioning. “We’ve got to be more mature about who we honour, how we think about things, what we demand,” she said.

Her campaigns were not universally popular. Many of the workers she fought for weren’t even union members. Some unionists thought she was wasting time and money at the expense of those who actually paid her wages.

Kelly didn’t see it that way. Unions, she believed, were about values not membership fees.

Kelly was tempted by politics and considered standing for the Labour Party in the 2014 election. But she put it off and then never got the chance, being diagnosed with incurable cancer in February 2015.

She stuck at the CTU job until October, sitting in the High Court for the Pike River families’ judicial review of the government’s decision to drop charges against Whittall over those 29 mine deaths.

She also took the opportunity to marry long-time partner Steve Hurring.

A year on, Kelly admitted the chemotherapy was taking a toll, while still tweeting daily about threats to workers’ welfare and wellbeing. An irrepressible scrapper, she continued to appear in public, fighting for access to medicinal marijuana to ease the cancer pain and for a frank discussion about the right to die.

At her CTU leaving speech, Labour leader and union stalwart Andrew Little called her fearless and a complete pain the arse. Even Prime Minister and ideological nemesis John Key has praised her tenacity, determination, can-do spirit and willingness to work.

She did not return the compliment. She was too busy holding the government to account.

 – Stuff

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