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Trade (dis) unionist

Ken Douglas wanted a warts-and-all biography and historian David Grant has delivered one.

Ken Douglas was one of the first names to come to mind when talk turned to trade unions in the 1970s and 80s and it would have been hard then to find anyone prepared to consider the possibility the burly proponent of scientific socialism would come to be as reviled by sections of the left as he used to be by the right.

The rugby-playing, golf-loving Wellington College old boy was raised in a staunch union family, David Grant tells us in Man for All Seasons: The Life and Times of Ken Douglas, and did not take long to make his mark in the movement, where he would find he was not the only target of those whose lips curl when they say "trade union".

His family copped it, too, but despite abuse and threats, the Douglas phone number remained - and remains - public, which I appreciated as the Dominion's industrial reporter when news organisations covered unions and Federation of Labour (FOL) conferences extensively.

The coverage was not always appreciated, given the Prime Minister's regular attacks on unions in general and Douglas and the Socialist Unity Party in particular, so when Douglas took over as FOL secretary in 1979, I called Rob Muldoon to seek his reaction. He had nothing to say, and when asked why, considering his criticism of communist influence in unions, he laughed: "Well, that's life, isn't it?"

A few years later, a Trades Hall neighbour of Douglas copped another brush-off, this time at an FOL conference, when the new Prime Minister was asked if it was true the Bank of New Zealand was for sale. David Lange replied, "Dame Rumour is a lying jade", telling Pat Kelly the line was Shakespeare's, not his, and sounding at best as if he was taking unions for granted and at worst as if he regarded them as irrelevant.

There was no doubting the next Government's views, though, with its 1991 Employment Contracts Act referring only to bargaining agents. Douglas is still criticised for not leading a national strike to try to force changes.

However, with unemployment rising as restructuring of the economy continued and tariffs fell, he is unlikely to have been the only union leader who doubted unions' ability to call the bosses' bluff, let alone the Government's.

So biographer Grant presents no mea culpa from Douglas, who thought a strike would achieve nothing and that the bill would be passed but then have to be changed because it was unworkable.

It was also, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), inconsistent with internationally accepted principles of freedom of association.

But it was consistent with Treasury advice to the incoming Government on the need to lower "unit labour costs", so the ILO was ignored, along with warnings that the absence of a good-faith bargaining provision would enable some employers to make "take it or leave it" contract demands, cutting conditions and pay.

Douglas, Grant says, wanted a warts-and-all biography and the Wellington historian has delivered one, with no glossing over the big man's affairs, indifference to domestic duties and attitude to women unionists, some of whom saw him as paternalistic and patronising.

Then there is his surgically resolved battle with obesity, and his unresolved battles with former colleagues over his inaction when the Employment Contracts Act was being formulated. Grant calls it the union movement's biggest schism since the 1953 waterfront lockout (the subject of his book The Big Blue ).

Critics have called Douglas a class collaborator, among other shorter, nastier words, but although he remains a Marxist, his stints on various boards have produced kinder labels from an interesting selection of other people, among them former National cabinet minister Philip Burdon, former NZ Post CEO John Allen and the NZ Rugby Union CEO Steve Tew.

A Man for All Seasons is a timely contribution to our recent history, with extension of the 90-day trial period and other changes to employment laws pending.

The early chapters, though, which Grant says are "unapologetically wide ranging and critical to understanding Douglas's working class roots", could have been condensed.