Thursday, September 15, 2022

Ken Douglas: one of the last of the old school

Tributes are being paid to Ken Douglas, who died on Wednesday* aged 86.

I can’t claim to have known Douglas well, but I had a bit to do with him over the years.

I first encountered him when I was a young (19) and very green industrial reporter for The Dominion and Douglas was secretary of the Wellington Drivers’ Union. I was an occasional visitor to the union office on the second floor of the Trades Hall. Pat Kelly was then assistant secretary.

Douglas and Kelly were a bit of an odd couple. Douglas, himself a former truck driver, was a Moscow-aligned communist and a leading light in the Socialist Unity Party, whereas Kelly – father of the late Helen Kelly, who followed him into the union movement – was a Marxist who took his ideological cues from Beijing (or Peking, as we still called it then). But the relationship seemed to work.

Not all union officials were favourably disposed toward the Tory press, regarding the media as tools of the ruling class. Some were surly and hostile, but Douglas was always personable (as was Kelly).

It was only many years later that the two parted company – acrimoniously, in Kelly’s case. By that time (this was the late 1980s) Douglas was president of the newly formed Council of Trade Unions, which several key blue-collar unions refused to join. They were suspicious of the new umbrella organisation because it was dominated by white-collar, middle-class unions such as the Public Service Association.

Douglas tried to hold the movement together and eventually found himself bitterly at odds with bolshie former comrades who thought the CTU should organise strike action against the National government’s Employment Contracts Act, which aimed to strip the unions of their power (one thing David Lange's reformist Labour government had never attempted).

Douglas was in the unfamiliar position of urging moderation. Kelly, always more of a firebrand, was one of those who accused him of betraying the workers. It can’t have been an easy time.

The rancour lingered. I remember writing something about the union split for the Evening Post years later and phoning Kelly to get his view on Douglas’s role in the upheaval, thinking that by then the wounds might have healed. They hadn’t. “You wouldn’t want to print anything I’d say about Douglas,” was his response.

Douglas was a community stalwart in Titahi Bay, where I lived for several years. He was active in local sports clubs and served for several terms on the Porirua City Council and the Capital and Coast District Health Board.

He also sat on some high-powered corporate boards, including those of Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post and New Zealand Rugby. Some people wondered how he reconciled these well-paid gigs with his proletarian sympathies, but I guess he justified them because they involved publicly owned organisations, albeit operating in a capitalist environment.  

Douglas’s politics were anathema to me but I couldn’t help liking him. He had a bluff personality and a sharp intelligence that was uncontaminated by higher learning. 

TVNZ’s One News was drawing a long bow when it described him as “perhaps the most famous unionist in New Zealand history” (presumably the reporter had never heard of Fintan Patrick Walsh, or thinks history began sometime in the 1980s), but he was certainly one of the last of the old school.  

Footnote: I note that several media outlets are referring to Douglas as "Red Ken", but I don't recall ever hearing that nickname in his union days. The only "Red Ken" of that era was the socialist mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (or Ken Leninspart, as Private Eye magazine delighted in calling him).  

*The original version of this post incorrectly said Tuesday.





George T said...

I too don't remember the "Red Ken" tag being applied to the impressive Ken Douglas, with whom I had many dealings during his career.

Don Franks said...

Yes,"Red Ken" is a recent invention I think. Big issues during the Douglas years were the government/union “Compact” – which restricted wage growth; the Labour Relations Act, which restricted the ability to strike; Workplace Reform; and the National Party’s imposition of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA). In all those struggles, and in others, Douglas consistently compromised right up to the point of capitulation. Whether a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act would have been able to kill the bill, we’’ll never know, because Douglas successfully talked other union leaders out of taking action. What we do know, only too well, is the role Douglas played in creating the ECA’s replacement. His first attempt was the infamous Workplace Relations Bill, which retained the anti strike laws of the National Party’s ECA.

At the time I wrote to Douglas arguing: “It’s incomprehensible to me how an experienced union leadership can put up a proposal to a future government which allows workers to be jailed, sued and fined, and yet that’s what the ERB unambiguously calls for. It’s bewildering to read a proposal for a labour law restricting the right to strike, when that proposal is put up by the union side.” Douglas replied, describing his WRB as “alternative legislation that builds on the core conventions of the ILO” and simply ignored all my points about the right to strike. Todaythe same anti-strike restrictions remain law in the Labour Party’s Employment Relations Act, which Douglas also supported.

This sell-out style of CTU leadership provoked increasing union discontent. In 1998 the Service Workers Union complained: “The CTU has continued to seek to influence policy in government forums rather than adopt an active campaigning role with a diverting of resources towards this. There is a perceived reluctance on the part of the CTU to participate in large scale campaigns which could change the climate, be catalytic events and lead to the downfall of the government.”

In response to this and other criticism, CTU leaders commissioned a ‘review” by professor Nigel Haworth, which found the CTU to posses “a powerful and respected public presence… the work by its officers attracts high regard from across the political spectrum and from external organisations”. Beneath the Review's umbrella, CTU leaders then pushed divisive contestable funding through the CTU. All its 14 district councils were dissolved, along with their rights to retain a proportion of capitation fees. All CTU money was now controlled by a finance committee of 6. Outlying districts that required funding for any campaigned now relied entirely on approval by the new central committee. The district councils were by no means perfect but they had provided some union office accountability to rank and file dues paying members. In my view New Zealand unions are less effective and less democratic because of Ken Douglas's effect on them.

Karl du Fresne said...

Don, would that be the same Professor Nigel Haworth who became president of the Labour Party?

Don Franks said...

Yes. I remember him once telling an ATU meeting that "The Labour party and the CTU are like strawberries and cream together"

Kiwiwit said...

My father was head of a family-owned trucking business and of an employers body that had to negotiate with the drivers union, and therefore Ken Douglas was his business and political adversary. I remember he used to curse Douglas during wage negotiations, but I also remember him in latter years expressing his admiration for Ken. He told me that Douglas never had to drive or take public transport anywhere - he could cross the city, the Wellington region or the country in the cabs of trucks, one driver calling ahead to arrange another ride for him until he got to his destination. A mark of their mutual respect was that Ken turned up to my father’s funeral and had some very nice words to say about his former adversary. Like my father, I am on the opposite side of the philosophical fence to communists like Douglas and Pat Kelly, but I find I have more in common with people like them, who hold strong principles, than with the passionless weathervanes who dominate our political and economic discourse today.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree.