Late CTU leader ‘unionist to her boots’

May 1, 2021

She was a “unionist to her boots” and had she lived, Helen Kelly might even have a nice view from a Beehive office by now.

Helen Kelly - her life - book coverJournalist and author Rebecca Macfie launches her biography of the union champion on May 15 – covering the extraordinary life of the first female head of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU).


Macfie said she started work on Helen Kelly – Her Life in 2018, and knew Kelly for about three years before her death in 2016 from lung cancer.


In 2018, NZNO donated $5000 towards the publication of the book about the life of the staunch workers’ advocate.

“Kelly had grown up in a union household – Pat Kelly (her father) was a very prominent militant unionist who she saw at work all through her [early] life.”

Kelly “absorbed” that the union movement was a means for improving life for working people, Macfie said. “It was more than ‘I belong to this club’: it’s an identity.”


Over the years, that commitment to unionism saw Kelly involved in a series of high-profile battles on behalf of workers. This included a stoush with Sir Peter Jackson over pay and conditions for workers on The Hobbit films, seeking improved safety for forestry workers, and seeking justice and safety improvements for miners after the Pike River tragedy in 2010.

Macfie said that Kelly would likely have become involved in politics as another avenue for improving people’s lives.


She was approached to stand in Wellington for Labour – which she turned down at the time because of her union commitments.

“I think if Helen lived she would have been in Parliament now… had she lived she certainly would have been in caucus now, and certainly would have been a cabinet minister.”