14 Oct 2016

'Helen gave us hope where nobody else did'

8:18 pm on 14 October 2016

Tributes to Helen Kelly, one of New Zealand's most prominent unionists, are flowing from all corners of the country.

Politicians, unionists and business leaders joined forestry workers and families of the Pike River Mine disaster victims in praising her passion and unwavering commitment to workers' rights.

The former president of the Council of Trade Unions, who was 52, has died of lung cancer.

RNZ's John Campbell visited Helen Kelly in her home in August to discuss her work, her life and her illness. This is her story, in her own words:

Born September 1964 in Wellington to Pat and Catherine, Helen Kelly started her working life as a teacher, but she quickly became immersed in union affairs.

It wasn't surprising, considering her father, a truck driver, was a well-known hard-hitting unionist and her mother was passionate about the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Helen Kelly's first union official job was in 1990 and she continued to fight for workers until the end.

Pike River was close to her heart. She was a strong voice in the aftermath of the 2010 mining tragedy, as her union pushed to have criminal charges laid against the directors of Pike River Coal.

Sonya Rockhouse, whose son died in the blast, said Ms Kelly became a close friend.

"I mean Helen gave us hope where nobody else did. She believed in us, she got us, and she was such a positive influence and a calming influence.

"The one thing that Helen wants from everybody is to never give up the fight, fight for what you believe in. That's one of the last things she said to us, and she was sad that she wasn't going to be there to see us through to getting some justice and accountability," she said.

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

Left to right: Anna Osborne, Helen Kelly and Sonya Rockhouse Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Workplace health and safety was an issue Ms Kelly fought tirelessly for. She pushed hard to regulate, unionise and improve safety, particularly in the forestry industry.

Maryanne Butler-Finlay's husband, Charles, died after being hit by a log in 2013.

Ms Kelly and her union successfully prosecuted the forestry company he was working for, after WorkSafe declined to, and won more than $100,000 in compensation for Charles Finlay's family.

Ms Butler-Finlay said Ms Kelly never gave up fighting for her.

"You know, who would do that really? Who would do that? They don't know us from a bar of soap. But at the end of the day, it just comes down to - she was always about the people.

"To my family and I, she became a very, very important person. She was our lifeline back to Charles. She became more than just the union lady, Helen Kelly, she became like my sister. She's part of us," Ms Butler-Finlay said.

Ms Kelly became the first female president of the Council of Trade Unions in 2007. She stayed in the job for eight years until her lung cancer diagnosis saw her step down a year ago.

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Photo: CTU

Her attempt to manage the pain - which included a broken back caused by tumours - led to her next campaign, as she battled to get medicinal cannabis legalised.

Pike River widow Anna Osborne is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, but has found chemotherapy hasn't worked.

She turned to medicinal cannabis for pain relief on the advice of her friend.

"I'm going to be strong and I'll beat this cancer if I can and I will... I'm going to do that for Helen. I'm going to keep fighting like she has, she's my inspiration," she said.

Sonya Rockhouse visited Ms Kelly in a hospice two weeks ago with Anna Osborne.

She said others must now carry on the fight to legalise medicinal cannabis in Ms Kelly's honour.

Even in her final days, Ms Kelly never lost her empathy for others, Ms Rockhouse said.

"We would go to the hospice and we'd spend time with her, then we'd go outside. The constant stream of people that were coming to visit her, and phone calls, and emails, and just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.

"She was exhausted, absolutely exhausted. But she wouldn't turn anyone away," she said.

Labour leader Andrew Little has worked closely with Helen Kelly since the 1990s, when he too was a union official.

He said Ms Kelly had helped change the face of unions in New Zealand.

"She's established an inspirational style of union leadership, which is about picking on issues that are emblematic, that are symptomatic of problems, and just fiercely and fearlessly going after them.

"Her legacy will be an emerging generation of young new union leaders. Because in reality, that fight isn't over."

Ms Kelly had a fraught relationship with the present government and said Prime Minister John Key had made commitments to her union that were not followed through.

She also said she never forgot how during the employment law dispute over the Hobbit films, senior minister Gerry Brownlee called her a liar on television.

But today, that fractious past was put to one side.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse paid tribute, describing Helen Kelly as a "passionate advocate" for workers' rights.

Helen Kelly is survived by her husband Steve Hurring, her son Dylan, brother Max and mother Cath.

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