Friday, August 1, 2014

Con Devitt and the decline of union militancy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 30.)
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.


Brendan McNeill said...

I remember looking out of my Wellington office in the Williams centre, over at the BNZ skeleton for a couple of years. Those were shameful days of union over-reach. They worked hard for it, and they fully deserve their current demise.

I cannot agree that the balance of power has tipped in favour of the employer. You only have to read the ERA rulings, some of which are published in the news papers, to realize just how absurd and one sided the law remains.

Health and safety and the enforcement of contracts to one side, the State has no role to play in employer / employee relationships. No one is forced to work for an employer, and no employer is bound to employ someone. If either party is unhappy with the relationship, then they should be free to terminate it based upon their contractual agreement.

What’s so difficult and inequitable about that?

Recently in a moment of wonderful irony, the staff of the ERA was threatening to go on strike over an employment dispute with the Government.

Who would be there to answer the phones when they called for assistance?

Jigsaw said...

Well said. I well recall most of the things that you mention although I was teaching in the country at the time. I still find that there are echoes of some of those militant unionist attitudes today in people like Chris Trotter who for some reason look back on it as some sort of golden age. The attitude of my children is quite different and unions really don't figure at all in their lives except one of them who has run up against a union when he was an employer. Teacher unions were not always as bad as they are today but in the PPTA there were always those who were activists within a school. In my experience they were often the worst teachers-people who that but for the union they would be out of a job and so made sure the union stayed strong by being active within it. I also taught in Ontario where the teacher unions were strongest and struck at the drop of a hat-no wonder the salaries were the highest in all of North America -no I was on a NZ based salary some 1/3 of the Ontario salary. No wonder their superannuation fund could afford to lose millions on our yellow pages!
You reminded how lacking in media training were these old unions like Con - they just snarled at the camera.

Karl du Fresne said...

I suspect that Chris (Trotter) is, at heart, a hopeless romantic and nostalgiarist who pines for the days when heroic trade unionists were trampled under the hooves of Massey's Cossacks.

Jigsaw said...

I think that the fact that Chris Trotter (born 1958) calls himself 'an old New Zealander' pretty well typifies that nostalgia and romantic craving for the 'good old days' that I (born 1941) lived through but of course know didn't actually exist. it's bit like the people who say about those times that people could leave their doors unlocked without fear-yeah right! Times have moved on, its a different world and Labour seem loathe to adapt and yet as you point out the trade union movement have at least tried to adapt.

Anonymous said...

It's a little ironic to see this post as the health workers have just voted to strike!

( This post, a few days beforehand, could not have foreseen that though. )

Anyway - IMO the unions still have *far* too much power and influence. I'm thinking of the education unions in particular.
Hopefully the introduction of charter schools will steadily chip away at their power. If the government gets back in this year (and in 2017) then even if Labour were elected in 2020 they would be *fools* to close them down (for what would be purely ideological reasons).

The Maritime Union (MUNZ) could also do with hammering. Given that fully automated container ports are starting to be introduced in Australia, I suspect that it won't be many years until they arrive here. MUNZs power will then be hugely reduced and their jobs will be replaced by button-pushers in an office by the wharf.

Hammer and Anvil said...

Obviously none of the above commentators knew or had Any Connections with Con Devitt. He had the courage and strength of his convictions to stand up and speak his mind.He believed workers, all workers no matter what there station in life, were entitled to their fair share of the common wealth. History will prove him to be more popular than Muldoon and many other vacant politicians