Cornelius Devitt died in Wellington a couple of weeks ago. That name would mean nothing to younger New Zealanders, but to those of a certain age, Con Devitt was once a household name. In fact you could almost say he was public enemy number one.Devitt was a trade union official. To be precise, he was secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union.
That may not sound significant, but the Boilermakers’ Union included the workers who did the welding on construction jobs involving structural steel.It was a small union, but it wielded power far beyond its size because it effectively controlled some of the country’s biggest construction jobs. And in the 1970s, under Devitt’s leadership, the Boilermakers’ Union was synonymous with militancy and disruption.
Most notoriously, the union was blamed for endless delays in the building of Wellington’s showpiece BNZ Centre. Begun in 1973 and intended for completion in 1977, the 31-storey building wasn’t finished until 1984. The final cost was four times greater than the original estimate.The BNZ site wasn’t the only one where the boilermakers made their presence felt. They were also involved in long-running disputes at Mangere Bridge, Marsden Point oil refinery and the Kawerau pulp and paper mill.
But the BNZ job caused the greatest outrage. It was in the heart of Wellington and thus smack-bang in the public eye. And because the BNZ in those days was still state-owned, the taxpayer had a direct stake in it. One consequence of the BNZ fiasco was that New Zealand architects stopped designing buildings that depended on structural steelwork.I interviewed Devitt in 1995 and he insisted the union was made a scapegoat for other problems on the BNZ job. I’m sure there was an element of truth in that, but there was no doubt that the boilermakers were a bloody-minded lot who seized any excuse they could for downing tools. On one memorable occasion they went on strike because a union delegate didn’t like his company-issue boots.
Rob Muldoon was prime minister then, and he was in the habit of referring to “Clydeside militants” – a shorthand term for left-wing unionists from Britain who attained positions of influence in New Zealand unions. That was a direct reference to Devitt, whose early days were spent in Glasgow’s Clydeside area, then a hive of heavy industry. Devitt proudly told me it was known as “Red Clydeside” on account of its tradition of union militancy.Devitt, who was 86 when he died, was one of the last of a generation of union leaders whose faces were very familiar to New Zealanders in the 1970s and early 80s. They included Bill Andersen (Drivers’ Union), Pat Kelly (Cleaners and Caretakers), Blue Kennedy and Frank McNulty (Meat Workers), Don Goodfellow (Railwaymen) and Jim Knox (Federation of Labour president).
Some were Marxists, though not always openly so. Factionalism ran deep within the union movement, not only between militants and conservatives (of whom the Irish Catholic Tony Neary, of the Electrical Workers’ Union, was the figurehead) but also within the left – most notably between Moscow-aligned communists and those who took their ideological cue from Beijing.It was a time when militant unions wreaked economic havoc in key industries. Freezing works, the wharves, car assembly plants, transport (especially the Cook Strait ferries, which were seen as especially vulnerable) and the pulp and paper industry were often targeted.
It was ironic that Muldoon, despite his much-vaunted tough-guy image, never got on top of the union problem. Unions went on strike with almost complete impunity throughout his nine years in power, and no doubt contributed to the woefully sick economy that Labour inherited in 1984.Only a handful of union survivors from that era remain. They include Ken Douglas, who went on to head the Council of Trade Unions, and former Seafarers’ Union president Dave Morgan, though neither remains active in union affairs. Douglas tried to hold the movement together when it began to break apart in the late 1980s and was savagely attacked for supposedly betraying the workers – another irony, given his socialist and militant credentials.
It all seems a lifetime ago, which I suppose it was. Yet that period of strong-arm unionism left an enduring legacy.Many New Zealanders retain sharp memories of the damage done by industrial turmoil. That goes a long way toward explaining why the union movement today is a shadow of what it once was.
Economic upheaval, deregulation and globalisation wiped out the old centres of union power, such as the big freezing works and car assembly plants. Politicians did the rest, passing new employment laws that tipped the scales in favour of employers.The abolition of compulsory trade union membership in 1991 was a turning point. Some militant blue-collar unions never wanted it in the first place, believing the movement was weakened by numerically large unions, such as those covering retail and clerical workers, whose members were not strongly committed to union principles and were reluctant to take industrial action.
Today, less than 17 percent of the labour force is unionised and some once-formidable unions no longer exist. Others have shrunk or have been absorbed by others. Power has shifted to white-collar unions, such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations.There’s a new generation of union leaders – typically much better-educated than their predecessors, more media-savvy and less locked into old, class-warfare mindsets. And because unionism is no longer compulsory, unions have to work a lot harder to attract and retain members, which they do.
I believe that in some ways, the balance of power in industrial relations has swung too far in favour of employers. Workers need strong, effective representation to protect themselves against abuse and exploitation.But if today’s union leaders want to understand why politicians have nobbled them, they need only look back at the rampant abuse of power by militant unions in the era of Con Devitt.