Obituary: Helen Kelly's life as a campaigner continued until the end

The trade union leader was widely respected.

Trade union leader Helen Kelly has died after a heavily publicised battle with cancer that also characterised her career of advocacy for worker rights.

When other forms of treatment for her lung cancer failed, she turned to medicinal marijuana as a palliative – a substance that is still illegal and effectively banned.

She also recently travelled to Cuba for alternative treatments.

Ms Kelly, 52, died overnight, one year after her illness forced her retirement as president of the Council of Trade Unions, a post she had held since 2007.

Even until recently, she made media appearances and spoke openly about her condition, winning admiration across the spectrum of people in public life.

Her Wikipedia profile reveals her parents, Pat and Cath Kelly, met selling the People’s Voice newspaper, published by the Communist Party of New Zealand.

Mr Kelly was a leading and militant unionist when the Federation of Labour openly challenged governments up to the 1980s while Mrs Kelly was a leader of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war years.

Ms Kelly qualified as a primary school teacher and started her trade union career representing that profession after just three years of teaching. She later studied at Victoria University, where she graduated in law and education.

She was elected head of CTU when she was general secretary of the AUS (Association of University Staff), now the Tertiary Education Union.

As CTU president, her most famous dispute was with the Warner Bros film studio in Hollywood over the employment of actors and film industry workers.

She championed fulltime worker rights in an industry where individual contracts and flexible working conditions are the norm.

In a statement at the time, she said: "Let's get all the facts on the table about taxes, subsidies, and other issues – rather than just blaming the union for asking to meet on basic terms and conditions."

It was a battle she lost as the government sided with the Hollywood studio and producer Sir Peter Jackson to ensure the Hobbit films were made in New Zealand.

But Ms Kelly will be equally remembered for the battles she won to gain safer working conditions in the forestry industry, equal pay, parental leave and, not least, respect for the quality of her leadership.

She is survived by her husband, Steve Hurring, and a son, Dylan, from a previous relationship.

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