This story first appeared in the April issue of The Australian Women's Weekly
“Come and talk to me while I have my chemo,” she says. “It’s two hours sitting in a chair and I get bored.”
This speaks volumes about the sort of person Helen Kelly is. A woman we’ve come to know and admire – no matter what side of the political divide we inhabit – for her commitment to making things better for working people.
The first female head of the trade union movement in New Zealand, Helen is a trailblazer. She’s fearless, a powerful advocate, a fierce and determined negotiator and a compassionate friend to the many working people who have sought her help.
She is also single-minded about making every moment count.
Helen resigned from her post as president of the Council of Trade Unions last year after a shock cancer diagnosis. She has lung cancer and now it has spread to consume her. She has tumours in her brain, in her spine, her pelvis, her heart.
Typically, she’s looking on the bright side: “It’s not in my kidneys or liver… that would be really serious. And look at the life I’ve lived – I’m better off than so many others.”
She’s thinking of all the children she’s met during her course of treatment who are also battling cancer.
Helen had just finished walking the Waikaremoana track with a pack on her back when she woke one night with a searing pain across her ribcage.
“I think I’m going to have to go to the hospital,” she told her partner, Steve Hurring. He knew it was something serious, as Helen is not prone to sickness and had only ever been to hospital once before, to give birth.
Tests were done, and there it was – a sinister shadow in her lungs. She’s never smoked. Now, at just 51, she is dying.
At one stage she was told half the people diagnosed with the sort of cancer she has would have six-and-a-half weeks to live.
“I said, ‘Couldn’t you make it seven?’ – a negotiator to the last,” she grins.
Helen and Steve have been together for 10 years. As they left the hospital she said to him, “Let’s get married.” And so they did. They had a small private family wedding in the house in Wellington’s Mount Victoria where she grew up, and where she and Steve now live.
“It was very emotional,” she remembers. “Lots of tears. We didn’t want that sadness for our friends, so we invited 450 of our closest mates to a party afterwards at the old Wellington Teacher’s College. It was great.”
She laughs about the ‘450 closest friends’ but actually, she says, all of them were people who mean a great deal to her.
Helen Margaret Kelly was born on September 19, 1964 – Women’s Suffrage Day. Her mum and dad were trade union royalty: Pat, a ‘ten pound pom’ of Irish heritage, and a truck driver by trade, who became president of the Wellington Trades Council; and Cath, a fourth-generation scion of the Eichelbaum family of New Zealand legal aristocracy, a homemaker with a finely honed social conscience and a trade union activist.
Helen and her older brother Max grew up surrounded by activism. Her parents, who met while they were both delivering copies of the communist newspaper the People’s Voice, were at the heart of the protests against the Vietnam War. They later became embroiled in the bitter battle against the Springbok tour. Cath Kelly was also behind the campaign against rising prices in the 1980s and would regularly rope Helen and her brother in to place stickers on parliament’s doors.
The Kelly household was a lively one, always full of discussion. Pat and Cath were involved in bringing South African and Vietnamese dissidents here to speak. They would inevitably end up at the Kelly’s home.
“The kids were always included,” Helen remembers. “Mum and Dad would say to us, ‘Come and listen to this – it’s quite interesting.’”
The Kelly children grew up with a keen sense of justice.
“A sense of social justice is good for children,” says Helen. “They do want a better world. I think the next generation is capable of huge empathy.”
It’s certainly something she has passed to her son Dylan, from her previous marriage. Dylan, 22, is embarking on a law degree at Auckland University. When he was 15, Helen says, he asked for a membership to the Labour Party as part of his present. He’s still a member.
Helen looks back fondly on her own childhood.
“I think I was lucky to have parents who nurtured us and totally adored us.”
Summer holidays were spent camping and picnicking at Kaitoke north of Wellington. Those happy family times have left her with a lifelong love of the outdoors.
When she left school, Helen spent a couple of years working in a service station to get some money together before embarking on a career in primary teaching. Her first teaching post was at Johnsonville Main School in Wellington, where past students remember her being an ardent feminist.Education was her first love.
“If I had a longer life, I would return to teaching,” she says.
She is keen to start a conversation about the education system in New Zealand between parents, teachers and the government, saying we need to focus on why we do things and not so much on how.
With her family background and strong ideals, it wasn’t surprising that Helen was nominated as the union rep on her first day at the Johnsonville school. Typically self-deprecating, she says it was because all the other teachers were too busy or didn’t want the added responsibility.
She quickly became immersed in union affairs and moved on to senior posts at the Primary Teachers’ Union, the NZEI and later at its university equivalent, before being elected president of the Council of Trade Unions in 2007.
How did she cope in the tough, male-dominated union movement?
“I grew up in a robust environment, and [in the movement] there is an incredible sense of equity that balances out the sexism. I’ve had huge support from the trade union movement,” she says with real pride.
She went into the job determined to make the union movement more accessible to workers in a deregulated environment, to allow them to be a part of the union at a number of different levels.
Did her dad Pat cast a long shadow? She pauses to think for a moment.
“I think New Zealand needs some long shadow-casters. Too many New Zealanders are scared of speaking out.”
She is telling me this as a nurse probes desperately for a vein into which she can insert a needle to begin the chemo treatment. Helen comes regularly to a private clinic in Auckland to receive her precious doses of pemetrexed. It costs her $6000 a visit. Her KiwiSaver fund has come in handy, she says.
As she lies there, her face with that familiar pallor of the very ill and the shadows deepening under her lively green eyes, Helen is still on fire with a passion for her work.
She cares deeply about every one of the cases she’s championed, and often becomes personally involved with those she’s helping.
“It’s important to get personally involved. If you’re encouraging people to tell their story, and if you’re going to advocate for them, then you have to get close to them in their time.”
One of Helen’s greatest success stories comes from her work with the forestry industry.
When she gathered a group of young forestry workers together and asked them what they wanted from the union, their answer floored her. “Funeral insurance,” was their reply. So many of them were dying but the bereaved families couldn’t afford to pay for funerals.
“My view is that the union movement here has dropped the ball on health and safety. We have seven times the accident rate of the UK and twice that of Australia,” Helen says.
In the two years since she started telling the stories of forestry workers who lost their lives in work-related accidents, the accident rate in our forests has dropped by 60 per cent. Industry bosses were initially suspicious of her motives. “That woman Helen Kelly doesn’t understand,” they would say. Now those same people are sending her emails to thank her.
She has her sights set on achieving the same thing for farm workers.
“Accident rates could halve overnight if Federated Farmers would just get behind this and address things like long hours, a lack of systems and quad-bike safety.”
You sense that she won’t rest until she sees some progress.
Helen has a wry sense of humour and, in a play on the many protest chants she has led over the years, she tells me with great delight how she has taught the children of mates she stays with in Auckland to chant, “What do we want? Helen and Steve. When do we want them? NOW!”
Those children are seeing a lot more of Helen and Steve these days as she soldiers on through her treatment. It’s not a cure, but she’s hoping it will give her extra time.
It’s tough, and sometimes the pain is debilitating. That’s why she’s fighting for the legal use of medicinal cannabis. It reduces her pain and helps her sleep without a raft of nasty side effects. She sees it as a complete no-brainer.
Is she frightened of dying?
“You know, it’s a funny thing,” Helen smiles. “I’ve had a lovely, lovely year. People write me beautiful things, make me things, even a beautiful quilt. This hasn’t been a bad year. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m an atheist, but this is a social process and a very important one. It’s important that people feel included.”
I’m curious about why she would agree to an interview at this time.
“I’m considering myself living. When I consider myself dying, I’ll put my energy into that.”