14 Oct 2016

Trade unionist Helen Kelly dies

10:30 am on 14 October 2016

Helen Kelly, the life-long unionist and, more recently, medical cannabis crusader, has died aged 52.

She was elected president of the Council of Trade Unions in 2007 - the first woman to hold the role - but she will be equally remembered for her fight to legalise medical cannabis as her terminal lung cancer advanced.

Ms Kelly was born in Wellington in 1964 to Pat and Cath Kelly.

Pat, a truck driver, was a well-known, hard-hitting unionist. He was a former official of the Drivers' Union, the long-time secretary of the Cleaners' Union and president of the Wellington Trades Council during the days of the Federation of Labour.

Ms Kelly's mother was very involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, which Ms Kelly said had a big impact on her as a young child, and protests were a common part of life in the Kelly household.

Her parents instilled the values that Ms Kelly carried through into adulthood, she told RNZ's John Campbell in an interview before her death.

"Equality and humanity - everybody is of the same value. When you saw someone being treated in a way that was unfair, it was because they were not being treated as a human being, or a citizen or an equal."

Watch or listen to John Campbell's full interview with Helen Kelly from 5pm on Checkpoint

She also saw the dangers of activism up close - the 1984 bombing of the Trades Hall in Wellington and the death of caretaker Ernie Abbott had a big impact on her.

"It was blood-chilling. My father was completely devastated by it. He was his best mate, he was the president of the union. We spent our childhood in Ernie's apartment - he had a flat at the top of the Trades Hall. We all felt complete devastation, and I think fear for the first time really."

Pat and Cath Kelly had huge aspirations for their children, older brother Max recalled.

"Back when we were kids we had towels in the bathroom, and mum labelled them 'Max Kelly, MP' and 'Helen Kelly, PM'. That's what we expected her to be one day - we expected her to be prime minister."

Instead, she followed in her father's footsteps, via a short stint as a primary school teacher - which she said was "a fabulous job".

"It's the hardest job I'll ever do - it was harder than the CTU president's job. It's absolutely non-stop, unfinished, constant pressure to teach in a class of 30 seven year olds."

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, Helen Kelly.

After several years as a primary school teacher, Helen Kelly became a union delegate. Photo: CTU

She soon became a delegate for the teacher's union, setting her on the path that defined the rest of her life.

She held senior office with both the New Zealand Institute of Education and the Association of University Staff, where she went on to be appointed as New Zealand's youngest-ever union general secretary.

She was a vigorous advocate for women's pay and employment equity through legislative and social change.

In one of the most contentious industrial disputes during her time as CTU President, Ms Kelly found herself centre-stage in a union row with filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson and the government over the making of 'The Hobbit' movie.

She was also a strong voice in the aftermath of the 2010 Pike River mining tragedy as the CTU pushed to have criminal charges laid against the directors and senior management of Pike River Coal.

09082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Pike River families want mine's CEO to face charges. L-R Anna Osborne, Helen Kelly and Sonya Rockhouse.

Helen Kelly earlier in 2016 with Pike River family representatives Anna Osborne (left) and Sonya Rockhouse (right). Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Health and safety in the workplace was an issue close to her heart. She pushed hard to regulate, unionise and improve safety particularly in the forestry industry, while meeting and supporting the families of those injured and killed.

"If the deal is that you get up at four in the morning, drive into the woods in the middle of winter and work in the dark until someone drops a log on you - that's not a great deal."

Continuing to improve the lot of forestry workers was one of the items of unfinished business she listed off in the weeks before she died, telling Campbell she hoped to finish setting up an organisation for forestry workers and their families to provide information and support in the event of accidents or fatalities.

Injuries and deaths in the farming industry, as well as the working conditions of farm workers, were also in her sights - she was frustrated by the inability of farm workers to unionise.

Despite never having smoked, Ms Kelly revealed in February 2015 that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Her attempts to manage the pain - which included a broken back caused by tumours - led to her next great campaign, as she did battle to get medical cannabis legalised.

Her championing of the issue brought it to the forefront of public consciousness, with polls conducted in the wake of her cancer diagnosis finding up to 79 percent of people supported the use of cannabis for medical reasons.

She sought approval from the Health Ministry to use imported cannabis oil from the US, but gave up on the application after it proved too difficult for her oncologist to provide the information the ministry wanted.

She did not stop taking cannabis though, using cannabis oil, a cannabis tincture and cannabis edibles to keep a lid on the pain.

"Totally illegal," she told Campbell.

"[But] nobody's judged me on that. Nobody's criticised me - [even though] I'm breaking the law big time."

As time ran out on Ms Kelly, she only got busier.

"I'm flat-out," she said, as she worked the phones from home, canvassing union members to support meat workers standing in the October local body elections.

22082016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. L-R  Max Kelly (Helen's brother) Helen Kelly and Dylan Kelly (Helen's son).

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Her son Dylan Kelly said his mother had "boundless kindness and energy and time for other people".

Her illness only made her more outspoken and determined, he said.

"She's kind of, 'Well, I better get everything I care about sorted out before I'm gone."

In her last months, even her greatest detractors had only kind things to say, Dylan said.

"[Right-wing blogger] Cameron Slater, who's the last person you'd ever think would say something nice about mum, posted a litte thing when she got sick saying... 'I'm sorry to hear that about Helen.'"

Brother Max called his sister "strong, stoic ... and invariably right".

"Everything she does, everything she's raised awareness of, they're some of the most important issues facing this country. I hope part of the legacy she leaves behind is progress in those areas.

"She'll never be forgotten."

Ms Kelly leaves behind her son, Dylan, husband, Steve Hurring, brother, Max, and mother, Cath.

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