Unions in Common Cause edited by Peter Franks and Melanie Nolan review

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
The second Federation of Labour, which at its height represented more than half a million workers, is given its historical due.
Whenever New Zealand historians gather, there is inevitable discussion of various glaring gaps in this country’s historiography – essential areas of study that scholars have allegedly spurned in favour of more fashionable fields.

If labour history is seldom counted in this category, it is largely thanks to the tireless work of the late Bert Roth; conferences and publications sponsored by the industrious Trade Union History Project (TUHP – now the Labour History Project); and outstanding contributions by some of the contributors to Unions in Common Cause, most notably Erik Olssen.

Even so, this country’s labour historians have tended to be drawn to the stories of the big militant unions (wharfies, seafarers, miners), big personalities (Labour Party leaders and arch-villain Fintan Patrick Walsh) and big industrial confrontations (particularly 1913 and 1951). The exploits of New Zealand’s first Federation of Labour (FOL), the radical “Red Feds” who flared and failed between 1908 and 1913, have received much more attention than its far more enduring and successful namesake, the second FOL.

This “peak” (or umbrella) union organisation dominated New Zealand unionism from the late 1930s to the 1980s and, at its height, represented more than half a million workers – about half of this country’s wage-and-salary earners. For five decades, the FOL’s brawny, hammer-wielding arm logo, which adorns the cover of this collection, was an instantly recognisable symbol of labour solidarity; FOL leaders like Walsh, “Big Jim” Roberts, Tom Skinner and Jim Knox were powerful national figures, sharing equal billing with politicians and business barons.

This welcome edited collection, drawn from a 2007 conference organised by the TUHP and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), seeks to rescue the FOL from what editors Franks and Nolan call the “condescension of history”. Five essays by leading labour historians and an edited panel discussion between veteran activists trace the origins and formation of the organisation, its achievements on behalf of working New Zealanders in the decades after World War II (when income inequalities were reduced to the narrowest ever recorded), and the troubled times of the Muldoon and Rogernomics eras, leading to the FOL’s 1987 amalgamation with state-sector unions to form a new peak organisation, the CTU.

Although the authors have sought to deflect attention from biographies and strikes onto the wider social and economic trends that shaped 20th-century New Zealand society, the colourful personalities of figures like Walsh, Skinner and Knox loom large over these essays. But as Peter Franks explains in his chapter on the FOL’s 1937 formation, the bitter personality feuds and fierce debates that often characterised labour-movement politics did not derail unionists’ determination to collaborate and compromise to create an effective national organisation.

Melanie Nolan’s chapter on the so-called “Walsh years” (1937-63) is perhaps the most successful at setting the FOL in the broader context, skilfully exploring its “masculinist” commitment to a male-breadwinner wage and slowness to support equal pay at a time when women were entering the paid workforce in ever-larger numbers.

Unions in Common Cause benefits from Steele Roberts’s handsome production, which sets it apart from similar collections. It is also well illustrated for a book of this kind: while the numerous political cartoons vary in quality, the text is complemented by a series of superb photographs of labour gatherings and marches ranging from 1913 to the 1980s, some reproduced across two full pages. Images of an 80,000-strong, banner-bedecked union rally in the Auckland Domain the week before the 1938 election, Tom Skinner addressing 20,000 unionists at Carlaw Park in 1967 and various 1980s protest marches convey a powerful sense of working-class solidarity and purpose, while tracing the changing face – and fashions – of the New Zealand workforce over the FOL’s five-decade history. Together with the thoughtful essays, such scenes also highlight the more recent corrosion of the collectivism, consensus and conformity that helped shape New Zealand society in the FOL era.

UNIONS IN COMMON CAUSE: THE NEW ZEALAND FEDERATION OF LABOUR 1937-88, edited by Peter Franks and Melanie Nolan (Steele Roberts, $39.99).

Neill Atkinson is Chief Historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
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