Uppercase craftsmen, Don Aimer

Print and Politics: a History of Trade Unions in the New Zealand Printing Industry 1865-1995
Peter Franks
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734158

I once heard a freezing worker talking about his healthy hatred of the boss and another say that workers’ aspirations were unlimited. For these men, unions were more than tools for tinkering with the knobs: they were knobkerries to beat the capitalist employers with, and a strike was a blow for freedom. It was a strand of worker ideology that tended to go with the crew culture – in James Belich’s terminology – of the tough, and often casualised world of mining, seafaring, waterfront and transport work. Images of unionism are still lit by the romantic afterglow of the battle scenarios of 1912 and 1951 when total war broke out between the State and the unions of workers involved. 

Print and Politics is a corrective case study. The afterglow has been bright and part of what makes this book important is the grey light of reality it sheds on the world of most New Zealand workers, where employers are accepted as a fact of life, and conflict is an aspect of resolving bread-and-butter issues.

Peter Franks is assiduous in wheeling his characters on stage, and putting them through their paces, in a patient assertion of democracy. This is what union life is like: you go to meetings, get involved, hold office, take stands and become deeply committed to the people and causes. It is not generally seen as memorable; however, Peter Franks affirms the reality and significance of people who spent much of their own time in efforts for their colleagues.


Despite some heavy going for lay readers, the major themes have great interest, some moments of high drama, walk-on parts for certain charismatic union leaders, and an operatic finale with the demise of the craftsman printer. Printing as an industry has its own special mystique. It has been the technology that enabled knowledge to spread to the peoples of the world over the last 600 years. It has associations with art in its application of elegant and beautiful typography. Inevitably, the story of the trade unions in the New Zealand printing industry has its own flavour.

Late in the 18th century in Britain, printers were among the first to form trade unions and they brought their ideas with them to New Zealand. There was a narrow focus but a tough-minded edge to the unionism of the craftsmen printers – compositors, typographers, and the separate craft of bookbinders – who aimed to keep wages up by controlling the ratio of apprentices to craftsmen and by keeping out women and the unindentured. An efficient skill training system would have taken a fraction of the time of an apprenticeship, which was also a sort of brainwashing, an induction to the world of the craft. Printers were not joking when they called themselves the aristocrats of labour.

In the world of the worker there were two very different concepts of organisation. One preached working-class unity and practised solidarity amongst all workers. The other expressed the exclusivity of the craftsman who wanted only to unite with his colleagues to protect his immediate interests. You got ahead by skill and hard work, and unity was a matter of holding the line amongst yourselves to keep your place in the social pecking order. Printers never did buy into a general solidarity of the working class, and it was only slowly and grudgingly, under the hammer of conflicts with major employers like Whitcombe and Tombs, that they forged a national union. Interestingly, the compositor Ken Baxter (not directly related to James K) – who became national secretary of the union for 10 years and was the most vocal and successful advocate for industrial unionism in the printing industry – was a communist in the 1920s. He later held office as Secretary to the FOL, although by then events in the Soviet Union had turned the fires of socialism to ashes and made him an anti-communist.

One of the things that really struck me as I read the book was how strange and alien the laws now seem which governed unions up to the 1980s. “Command economy” and “Stalinist” are the words that spring to mind. It must have seemed simple to the first Labour Government – make all the workers join unions and give each union a monopoly in an industry. It certainly did help some like the printers because it spread the costs of organisation to all who stood to gain from it, but other unions were simply paper structures and the outcome was a deformed trade unionism. The measures amounted to a tax on workers to pay for the policing of standards. Taxes, in the form of union dues, were farmed out under a sort of feudal system to union secretaries who had virtual rights to permanent office, and who processed minimum standards into the law via the Arbitration Court; while some did cosy deals with employers and fought the real unionists. Peter Franks brings out clearly the growing ambivalence of the Printers Union – and by implication of other skilled unions – to the stifling centralisation of the system. It damaged the margins of their pay above the rates for unskilled workers and led ultimately to a revolt of the skilled through industrial action against the Arbitration system, with printers to the fore.

In some Leftish circles, there was a gut feeling that inherently radical tendencies in the rank and file were stifled by anti-democratic union bureaucrats, a view stemming from the set-up of unions after 1936. On the contrary, in the printers’ unions radical policies were rejected precisely because the unions were democratic. The print unions grew out of the shop floor and remained close to it through the institution of the “chapel”, which Peter Franks describes as an ancient workplace organisation unique to the printing trade, governed by the most senior craftsman who was designated the “chapel father”. The union spoke truly for its members, who did not take stands on progressive social issues. In this they were probably typical of wide swathes of working people and especially of other tradesmen. During the 1951 dispute, not one reference was made to the crisis in the union magazine.


During a century of technological change, printers kept an amazing grip on their trade.  For a long time in the newspaper industry, printers succeeded in having new techniques defined as printing work for which they would be retrained. They were so effective in this that it made many of them complacent as well as dogmatic – until the Götterdämmerung of computerised input from journalists, with subediting and page make-up on the screen, swept down upon them. There was no way round, and over their shoulders was the spectre of Wapping in the UK, which was still grinding hopelessly on. The challenge was how to bring to a close the 600-year-old craft of printing.

One of the really fascinating chapters in the book tells of the negotiation between the Wellington Newspapers chapels and INL over the terms upon which the printers would sell their jobs. The outcome was a deal spectacularly ahead of any redundancy agreement of the time, for which credit goes both to the toughness of the workplace printers and also, it seems, to Mike Robson, the head of INL. He made a far-sighted appraisal that the interests of the company were served by a settlement and that the price could be paid. Furthermore, the deal was made over the metaphorically dead bodies of the union leadership, who were trying to negotiate with the Newspaper Publishers Association. The issues for the industry at a national level were complex, and both employers and union members were divided amongst themselves. That they finally worked their way through the hazards without a disaster could be a case study on its own.

The book brings us up to date with the amalgamation first between the Printing and Journalists Unions and then finally into joint amalgamation with the Engineers Union, which became the New Zealand Amalgamated Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union. This was a rational development and one that Ken Baxter would surely have supported, since he wrote, “trade unionism is a road, it is not a destination. It is a way, not an end.”

This is a thorough and craftsmanlike study. Peter Franks has interviewed the surviving players and studied the records. Beyond that, he positions the union within the wider political and industrial climate of each phase of its existence. He has identified a number of key themes in the history of the union and unfolds his story in the light of the dominant themes. The detail of the narrative permits readers to make their own interpretation and to recast it into a wider body of theory. Historians of industrial relations need a rich stew of case studies and this is a significant one. And good on the union for putting up some money toward it.


Don Aimer is a Wellington writer and reviewer with a trade union background.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category