Helen Kelly: 'One of our brightest has fallen'

10:58 am on 29 October 2016

More than 1000 mourners turned out at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre this afternoon for a memorial service for leading trade unionist Helen Kelly.

The former union leader and medical cannabis campaigner died a fortnight ago of lung cancer, at the age of 52.

Friends and family of Ms Kelly were joined by both local and international unionists to mark the occasion.

Ms Kelly was the president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) from 2007 until 2015.

Her eulogy was delivered by her close friend - and new CTU president - Richard Wagstaff.

Helen Kelly's son Dylan Kelly, at her memorial service in Wellington.

Helen Kelly's son Dylan Kelly Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

He said Ms Kelly was relentless in her pursuit of justice and what she felt was right.

"She pushed and she pushed... and she pushed.

"Helen never shied away from making it clear how things should be. And she never stopped fighting to make them that way."

He said Ms Kelly was a cornerstone of unions in New Zealand, and her strength and diligence inspired those around her.

"We were proud to stand with her. We knew we had someone on our side who was formidable, who was fearless, and who had our backs too."

"In your death, one of our brightest has fallen."

Helen Kelly's partner Steve Hurring at her memorial service in Wellington.

Helen Kelly's partner Steve Hurring Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Ms Kelly's husband, Steve Hurring, fought back tears as he spoke of her childhood and the profound impact Ms Kelly's parents had on her.

"Shortly after Helen's diagnosis in February last year ... many friends suggested she needed to retire and rest. Helen rejected that idea. For Helen, her work was her life."

Australian Council of Trade Unions head Ged Kearney said Ms Kelly could be infuriating.

"Just when we thought we were done... those eyes of hers would light up, and those dimples would get deeper and deeper in her cheeks, and she'd say 'just one more thing'.

"She wasn't just saving New Zealand - Helen was saving the world, just one more thing at a time."

Actress Robyn Malcolm speaks the Helen Kelly memorial service.

Actress Robyn Malcolm Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A close friend of Ms Kelly, the actress Robyn Malcolm, worked closely with her during The Hobbit industrial dispute.

She shared an anecdote from the dispute, which, she said, epitomised the kind of person Ms Kelly was.

"We were up on the top floor of the CTU building and it was the day the crew were protesting, and everyone had gone home and it'd all quietened down.

"Helen said to me, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Oh, nothing.' She said, 'Let's go to the Matterhorn! That's where they'll all be!' So we went - we were there for hours, and we have a huge number of conversations, a huge number of arguments.

"She didn't want to start a fight. She just wanted to talk."

International Trade Union Confederation president Sharan Burrow

International Trade Union Confederation president Sharan Burrow was among those who spoke at the memorial service. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

International Trade Union Confederation president Sharan Burrow said Ms Kelly had inspired unionists around the world, including Ms Burrow herself.

"Friend, mentor, absolute partner in crime, in civil disobedience, in fun, in irreverence and in frivolity."

"Farewell, beautiful friend, our warrior sister. Farewell. Solidarity."

Helen Kelly is farewelled at a public memorial at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

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