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Helen Kelly, audacious leader

Helen Kelly, audacious leader

Helen Kelly’s vision for a better New Zealand was simple but audacious. And so the campaigns she unleashed to bring about that vision were similarly so.

Kelly, born on suffrage day in 1964, lifelong resident of Wellington’s Mt Victoria suburb and lifelong campaigner and union member, died last night from cancer, aged 52.

TEU members will remember her as the general secretary of the Association of University Staff (AUS) between 2002 and 2007.

Prior to that, she learnt her union skills first as a primary teacher delegate at Johnson Main School and then as a staff member of the education union NZEI Te Riu Roa.

There she played an instrumental role in the nationwide campaign to win primary teachers the same rate of pay as their secondary teaching colleagues. As she and tens of thousands of teachers said at the time - a student’s shoe size should not shape their teacher’s salary - simple but audacious.

At AUS, Kelly led nationwide industrial action for all people who work at universities to have the same employment agreement. She pointed out that people at universities worked in a global environment but they were being left behind by overseas colleagues who were earning significantly more than they were.

For many people working in New Zealand universities this was their first experience of either working nationally for a single goal, or of taking industrial action.

Their single collective agreement did not eventuate but union members did force the Labour-led government to set up a tripartite sector group of employers working people and the government. The group’s sole purpose was apportioning government money to lift the salaries of people working in universities. This it did between 2006 and 2008, until the new National Party-led government shut it down.

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Kelly also pushed AUS to develop its General Staff Manifesto. This manifesto became the frame which brought general, allied and professionals staff into the heart of first AUS and then TEU.

Kelly was a keen supporter and advocate for the polytechnic union ASTE and the university union AUS to join to increase the power of both. She advocated vigorously for this amalgamation during her time at the head of AUS and led many of the negotiations that formed TEU.

In 2007, shortly before the two unions ASTE and AUS officially amalgamated, working people elected Helen president of New Zealand Council of Trade Unions

There she led some of her most memorable campaigns on behalf of working people - standing up for film makers who had laws passed to strip them of their employment rights, for farmhands who were being made to work 60 hours a week for minimum wage, for forestry workers being killed in horrific health and safety abuses, and for the families of the Pike River miners.

For eight years she was the voice of ordinary working New Zealanders. For the families of those workers whom she was protecting, she was also the first person to come into their kitchens and listen to their story rather than tell them how it was going to be.

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

She will be missed deeply by her friends, fellow union members and admirers in the Tertiary Education Union.


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