Unionist Helen Kelly dies in Wellington video


Looking back on the life of trade union leader and medical marijuana campaigner Helen Kelly, who has died of cancer.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester has announced the city will hold a public service for Helen Kelly.

Details of the service are yet to be announced but are being planned with Kelly's family.

The union stalwart died of lung cancer in Wellington on Friday morning, aged 52.

Family and close friends of Helen Kelly knew the end was near when her condition rapidly deteriorated after the weekend.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard, a decades-long friend, was among those who went to her bedside to say farewell on Thursday.

It was the end of a very long battle and came 20 months after the doctors gave Kelly only weeks, or possibly just a few months, to live.

*Obituary: Union leader Helen Kelly
*From the archives: Chip off the Kelly block
*Helen Kelly on cancer, dying and bad access to good medicine
*The Wellingtonian interview: Helen Kelly

"She was determined to fight. She tried everything that was available publicly and privately in New Zealand," Mallard said.

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The long serving Labour MP pays tribute to Helen Kelly, who has died after a battle with cancer.

"Right at the end when she did her Cuba thing…..lots of people would have accepted and succumbed to the inevitable in a very short time. But Helen on issues and principles has always been a fighter and that showed through."

Her family were "shell shocked but resigned" Mallard said.

After Kelly's health dramatically worsened at the start of the week, no one wanted her to keep suffering.

Kelly's battle with cancer, and her campaign in support of medicinal cannabis, summed up her approach to life, Mallard said.

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She had been a tireless fighter for workers' rights.

"Everyone knows she's fiercely intelligent; I  don't think a lot of people realised  the range of people she personally touched over a career in the union movement."

Kelly seemed indefatigable to the end, continuing to comment on issues she believed in even as she underwent ...

Kelly seemed indefatigable to the end, continuing to comment on issues she believed in even as she underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer.

He had hoped she might one day be prime minister, and had been involved in talks aimed at wooing her to national politics. He had even offered to step aside for her in his Hutt South seat.

But Kelly had believed in the union cause too much, he said.

"It was still a possibility but it's also fair to say she was very very committed to her job as president of the CTU and saw both the health and safety work but also campaigns for low wage workers and agricultural workers as being something that she could better lead and achieve from outside rather than inside Parliament."


"An incredible leader and a formidable woman" the President of the CTU Richard Wagstaff recalls the life of Helen Kelly. Her work around health and safety - Pike River, forestry deaths, farming injuries - will be remembered.


Daughter of union legend Pat Kelly and his political activist wife Cath, Helen Kelly was born to agitate. She started out as a primary school teacher but lasted only 2½ years before taking up a job with the union representing kindergarten teachers.

She went on to work in other education unions, including teachers' union New Zealand Educational Institute and the Association of University Staff.

In 2007 she became the first female president of the Council of Trade Unions, where she became a national force to be reckoned with. Her campaigns included fighting for safer conditions in the forestry and mining sectors following the deaths at Pike River Mine and a string of logging fatalities. She drove around the country to support the victims' families and spearheaded court cases attempting to achieve accountability for the workers' deaths.

Kelly resigned from the CTU in October 2015, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in February that year, despite having never smoked.

Even as she underwent chemotherapy for terminal cancer, Kelly kept campaigning - for the right to die with dignity and the right to use medicinal cannabis to combat pain and nausea.

The CTU president at one of many marches campaigning for better workers' rights

The CTU president at one of many marches campaigning for better workers' rights

Kelly travelled to Cuba in August in search of a miracle cure, undergoing treatment at Havana's La Pradera medical centre.

Almost to the end, she used her last vestiges of energy to help others, posting messages on Twitter supporting refugees, working poor and families of workers killed on the job. Her last Facebook post was a plea to get out and vote in the local body elections.

She leaves behind her son Dylan from a previous marriage and long-term partner Steve Hurring, whom she married in 2015, after her cancer diagnosis.


"Today New Zealand mourns the loss of union leader Helen Kelly. She was a fighter who died after a battle with cancer," CTU president Richard Wagstaff said.

"Helen died too young, and will always be remembered in our hearts, minds and on the frontlines of the fight for everyday working people." 

He hailed her commitment to fairness and justice and described her as generous, creative, innovative, inspired and determined.

"We're a better country for her achievements."

Kelly was a "relentless changemaker"  who worked for people killed in the forestry sector and fought for justice for the West Coast community ever since 29 miners were  killed at Pike River. 

Wagstaff said Kelly's death would be felt throughout the union movement.

A young Helen Kelly.

A young Helen Kelly.

But she had left a wonderful legacy that will inspire working people and their unions into the future.

"Our thoughts and love are with Helen's husband Steve and son Dylan."

Teachers' union the PPTA described Helen Kelly as a "union rock".

PPTA President Angela Roberts said she gave up fighting for working people from every sector, "whether they be education staff battling for better working conditions, or saving the lives of forestry workers by advocating for improved health and safety protections".

"Helen has been a staunch presence for teachers and working people for so long, we can't imagine the union movement without her."


Labour leader Andrew Little paid tribute to Kelly.

Kelly spent her adult life fighting for the right of working people to have dignity and a better life, Little said.

"Helen was a fighter. She was a passionate advocate for the causes she believed in – fair treatment for working people, justice in the workplace and the opportunity for all Kiwis to live better, more fulfilling lives at work. 

"Her tireless campaigning and advocacy made a real difference and her commitment to her cause saw her championing the need for safer working conditions for those in the forestry industry, shining a light on an industry that has for too long neglected the people who work in it."  

The way that Kelly continued to stand up for what she believed in even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer was an inspiration, Little said.

"To the very end of her life, she was an example of extraordinary dedication and tenacity.  

"Helen spent her life standing up to powerful people and fighting for justice. Her passing is an enormous loss to New Zealand and our thoughts are with her husband Steve and her son Dylan."

NZ First leader Winston Peters said Kelly had made a significant contribution to New Zealand, and he was sad to see her go "long before her time".

"Helen Kelly was an absolute stand-out person and we're very lucky to have people like that in our country, prepared to give so much up for their fellow human beings."


Prime Minister John Key said he was saddened to hear about the passing of Helen Kelly.

"She was a strong advocate for workers' rights and the causes she believed in. We had a constructive working relationship.

"My thoughts are with her family and friends at this time. "

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse also expressed his condolences.

"Helen was a passionate advocate for the rights of New Zealand workers," Woodhouse said

"She championed the cause of making our workplaces healthier and safer, particularly in the wake of the Pike River Mine disaster.

"I enjoyed our robust and respectful discussions on employment law and health and safety and admired her passionate advocacy of the causes she strongly believed in.

"I extend my condolences to Helen's family and friends and to the wider Union family."

BusinessNZ credited Helen Kelly for her significant contribution to public life and the interests of working people in New Zealand.

Chief Executive Kirk Hope said the organisation had worked with her on a range of issues of the years and "she would be remembered as a fierce champion of worker rights with warm and sometimes mischievous humour, and would be greatly missed".

Federated Farmers said the country had lost "a great New Zealander".

"Helen was an advocate with the highest integrity. She was passionate, intelligent and dedicated," Federated Farmers president William Rolleston said.

"She put forward rational and empathetic arguments which were often hard to disagree with no matter what end of the political spectrum you came from."


The Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei sent her condolences to the family of Helen Kelly, who she said was  "unafraid of speaking truth to power".

"Helen was an exceptional New Zealander – a force to be reckoned with who always stood up for the people who have the least," Turei said.

"She was the kind of person that you’d want in your corner, no matter the fight."

Turei cited Kelly's struggle for workers’ rights, pay equity,  families of forestry and farm workers and the Pike River miners as some of her biggest achievements.

She also cited her fight for access to medicinal cannabis for people in pain. 

"We have lost a one-of-a-kind New Zealander," Turei said. 


New Zealand's biggest union, the Public Service Association said Kelly was an inspiration to Kiwis.

PSA National secretaries Glenn Barclay and Erin Polaczuk paid tribute to her work and the "grace and courage" Kelly showed after her cancer diagnosis.

"Helen was a towering figure in the union movement both here and internationally - and an inspiration to all New Zealanders.

"The best tribute we can pay to her is to continue to fight for a better life for New Zealand workers, now and in the future."

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 - Stuff


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