An entertaining spat has been playing out in the pages of The Listener between historian Graeme Hunt and defenders of the late Bill Sutch. Hunt is convinced that Sutch passed information to the Soviet Union, despite his acquittal on spying charges, and wrote an article for The Listener setting out the basis for his belief (a remarkable occurrence in itself, since the Listener of old would have been very reluctant to publish anything likely to startle its genteel left-leaning readership).
There has since been a flurry of indignant correspondence defending Sutch’s honour, and the latest issue carries a long and detailed rebuttal of Hunt’s article by Sutch family friend John Edwards.
I wouldn’t know if Sutch was a spy. The circumstantial evidence against him seemed pretty damning, but my understanding is that the case against him failed largely because no one could prove exactly what information he gave the Russians – if indeed he gave them any at all. But I’ll leave that argument to people who know more about it.
What I do object to is people blithely rewriting history, as one of The Listener’s pro-Sutch correspondents did. Lenore Baxter of Khandallah wrote: “The NZ Communist Party was never particularly influential in New Zealand, even in trade union circles.” The latter part of this statement is demonstrably untrue.
Communist influence ran deep in the New Zealand union movement for decades and has been well documented in several books, including the memoirs of former Marxist insiders such as Dick Scott. Most famously, communists played a crucial role in the historic 1951 waterfront dispute, though they had been busy fomenting industrial unrest in key industries long before that (as Graeme Hunt demonstrates in Spies and Revolutionaries and his excellent biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh).
It’s unclear whether Jock Barnes, the charismatic watersiders’ leader in 1951, was a party member himself, though he used plenty of Marxist rhetoric. But many of those around him, including his close associate Alex Drennan, undoubtedly were.
Communist activists had a long record of involvement in other unions besides the watersiders, notably the seamen, miners, drivers and freezing workers. The militant activities of a communist element known as the Red Guard exhausted the patience of Labour Minister Jack Marshall (and to a lesser extent the seamen's own exasperated leader, Bill "Pincher" Martin) and led eventually to the deregistration of the Seamen’s Union after in the early 1970s. Dave Morgan, who was the seafarers’ leader for much of the 1980s and 1990s, was open about his Marxist beliefs though it seems unlikely he was a member of the Communist Party, which by that time had all but disintegrated.
Even in the generally moderate Public Service Association, communist influence was strong in the 1940s and 1950s. Both Jack Lewin, the national president, and Gerald Griffin, the Wellington secretary (uncle of Richard, the “silver fox” of media fame) were former communists who retained strong leftist sympathies. Party member Ken Stanton was the PSA’s research officer and communist stalwart Rona Bailey was on the national executive. The aforementioned Dick Scott, another party member, edited the PSA Journal (and had previously edited the wharfies' paper). None of this is paranoid speculation; it's a matter of record.
When I was an industrial reporter in the early 1970s, the union movement was sharply divided between communist factions, both of the Soviet and Maoist persuasions, and non-communists. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Federation of Labour conferences were a battleground between the two. But there was no doubt which was in the ascendancy: it was the communists.
Bill Andersen, who led the Northern Drivers’ Union for decades, was a member of the Communist Party before the great Moscow-Peking split of the early 1960s and subsequently became a leading light, with his Wellington Drivers’ Union colleague Ken Douglas, in the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party. The SUP also controlled the Auckland Trades Council.
Douglas’s then deputy Pat Kelly was a Peking-aligned communist – there must have been some lively office discussions – before later turning respectable and joining the Labour Party. Frank McNulty, the leader of the powerful Meat Workers’ Union, was another SUP stalwart. Meanwhile a newer generation of communists - such as Graeme Clarke - won control of key union positions in the car assembly industry.
Ken Douglas, of course, went on to occupy the most powerful position in the New Zealand union movement – that of president of the Federation of Labour. Sir Tom Skinner, a moderate who led the FOL from 1963 to 1977, was moved to remark in a TV interview in 1986 that communists had taken over the movement.
The lonely figurehead of the anti-communist faction for many years was the late Tony Neary, leader of the Electrical Workers’ Union, who fought tirelessly against communist influence. In his memoirs, The Price of Principle (written with Jack Kelleher), the Irish-born Neary explained Communist Party tactics for infiltrating and taking over unions. The communists, having worked out their strategy in advance, would attend union meetings in force, always sitting in different parts of the hall so as not to arouse suspicion. They would then deliberately prolong meetings, throwing proceedings into utter confusion with constant noisy motions, amendments, interjections and points of order until no one knew what was being discussed. After several hours, most attendees would lose patience and drift away, leaving the communists in control.
If it happened in the Electrical Workers Union, then it’s reasonable to assume other unions were being similarly subverted. The difference was that in Neary, the communists had an opponent who refused to capitulate, and who commanded his members’ intense loyalty because he was an outstandingly successful union leader, negotiating pay settlements that were the envy of other unions (much to the chagrin of his Marxist enemies, who were notably less successful at achieving gains for their rank and file).
Incidentally, New Zealand was not alone in experiencing conflict between communist and non-communist unions. The Australian Labor Party was torn apart – literally – by similar tensions in the mid-1950s, leading to the creation of the right-wing, Catholic-dominated Democratic Labour Party which later worked with the Liberal Party to keep the ALP out of power. If anything, communists wielded even more power in Australian unions - and for longer - than they did here.
That so many unionists of that era were communists was perhaps understandable. They had seen the effects of the Great Depression and the terrible suffering inflicted by the rise of fascism in Europe. What is less easy to excuse is their willingness to subvert democracy and use underhand tactics to gain control of unions; and it’s harder still to understand how they could remain loyal to communism once the world learned what was really going on in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China.
Of course, it’s all history now. But that doesn’t excuse people like Lenore Baxter, whose name is unfamiliar to me, taking liberties with the facts.