United they stood, Don Aimer

Black Prince: the biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh
Graeme Hunt
Penguin, $45.00,
ISBN 014301935X

The Big Blue: Snapshots of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout
ed David Grant
Canterbury University Press in association with The Trade Union History Project, $29.99,
ISBN 1877257281

When Fintan Patrick Walsh was president of the Federation of Labour (FOL) through the 1950s his name was on all lips, but he is pretty well forgotten now, and I guess that is why the marketing lure for this book is Walsh’s rumoured involvement in violence and murder. There was certainly something of the night about Walsh, but Graeme Hunt makes detailed rebuttals of the more lurid myths. Walsh wasn’t the only domineering figure in the union movement, because one didn’t get to keep top positions without knowing how to shout and out-manoeuvre others. Managing trade unions was a tough job. The mode of discourse was harsh: if you were not a rat, a scab or a traitor, you were a commo, a wrecker and an infiltrator. A thirst for combat was a job requirement. Walsh was simply better at it, and it is therefore one of the more banal aspects of a life which has other fascinations.

Nevertheless the rockiness of the road is clearly written in the face – from that on the cover of the book, the strongly handsome young man with the penetrating gaze, to the angry hard-bitten expression of the FOL president. Peter Butler, a trade union colleague when they were young, told how Walsh “had black compelling eyes which bored you from top to toe, obviously summing you up. He would look at you and look away into the distance, come back again and go through the whole procedure again.” It was the ferocious intelligence behind this gaze which empowered him to grasp the strategy and tactics of winning at all costs and to become a master of the economy, footing it in argument with Reserve Bank governors or economists, and a relentless advocate in the Arbitration Court.

Young Walsh worked his way across the United States, was apprenticed in the struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World, and came home advocating revolution. His experience in the Seamen’s Union of the hammering seamen took in a strike soon told him that utopian ideologies could be a recipe for failure. By the time Labour came to office, Walsh had transformed himself into the living embodiment of arbitration and compulsory unionism. His vision for working people was combined with a sharp eye for the main chance, because he got hold of a clutch of new unions with a good-sized and docile membership as a voting base in the FOL.

Little is remembered of Walsh’s pivotal role with the government during and after WWII when he was perhaps Peter Fraser’s closest confidante. He kept the unions on side in achieving a wage and price stability which held inflation below that of most countries. At one point he was sent to London to renegotiate dairy prices. This is buried in the text of both the Bassett/King biography of Peter Fraser and in Keith Sinclair’s Walter Nash. Graeme Hunt resurrects it – although the episode deserves a more detailed analysis than he gives it. One also forgets that Walsh not only had a farm in the Wairarapa, but that, according to Hunt, it was the biggest dairy farm in the southern hemisphere at the time. The radicals sneered at it, but Walsh was genuinely a boy from the land and loved his farm. He was unique in successfully crossing the boundary between the diverse worlds of urban industrial unionism and pastoral farming, respected by farming leaders and able to negotiate for each sector.

One keeps wondering what sort of person Walsh really was. Hunt muffs his lines when he calls Walsh a “tortured soul” and a “lost soul”. He didn’t do friendship, but there is no sign that he was in conflict with himself. We do get an impression of him, but the bits on his personal life are scattered throughout the book, and it might have been good to have brought them all into one chapter where some assessment would have had more weight. We certainly should have had more about his relationship with Minnie Walton, which is dismissed in a few lines. Hunt says that Walsh lived with her for years, and seems to contradict that by saying that she was a lover rather than a life companion. In any event she seems to have been important in his life, and there must be people still living who could have helped fill in the gaps about her.

Overall, Black Prince is useful and valuable in rescuing him from obscurity, and sustains the conclusion that Walsh “deserves a place in the panoply of outstanding New Zealanders”. The book will be appreciated by those in the field of industrial relations.

Having said that, there are deficiencies which keep it below the front-rank of New Zealand biographies. Hunt explains that he wrote Black Prince because the literature on 1951 was from a Left viewpoint and the role of Walsh and the FOL had been sidelined. There is some truth in this. Hunt wants to confirm Walsh as the stalwart who brought New Zealand unions to their senses in 1951, but to do it he needed to shed light on whether Walsh helped save democracy or contributed to a destructive conflict by pigheaded adherence to an outmoded corporate state or whether it was something else or something in between. We do not get this. It needs more than the sketchy reiteration which Hunt provides, and he fails to achieve his objective.

In 1951 members of the Seamen’s Union struck to support  the watersiders. Walsh was president of the Seamen’s Union, while at the same time he was the most dynamic opponent of the watersiders within the FOL, of which he was vice-president. How Walsh survived this fascinating contradiction would have been a story in itself, but it gets only brief mention. Finally, although Walsh became more flexible and less wedded to arbitration from the late 50s, a fact which is remarkable and needs to be placed in context, there is no detailed analysis of his change of direction. It is a pity that Hunt didn’t set the bar higher for himself.

The Big Blue is a set of 21 lively essays largely focusing on the traumatic social experience of the 1951 dispute – people telling their war stories – plus some stimulating analysis of the aftermath. Most of these were presented at a seminar to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the lockout, the same event which Graeme Hunt says inspired him to put pen to paper about Walsh.

It was an offence to publicise the workers’ side in the dispute. Rona Bailey tells the spine-tingling story of the clandestine operation in which scurrilous leaflets were typed on a portable typewriter hidden in an attic, while the Gestetner to copy them was lumped from site to site every night to outwit frequent police raids. It was like an underground resistance in an occupied country. Bill “Pincher” Martin recalls the experiences of a young seaman. There are contributions from senior trade union figures Bill Andersen and Ken Douglas. One of particular interest is by Melanie Nolan, who looks at the impact on women and on families. It was all very well for the males to write up the dispute as a sort of industrial charge of the Light Brigade, an act of courageous defiance against intolerable odds in the face of fascist oppressors, but it caused a great deal of family disruption (interesting to contemplate were the values which required young people to give up their studies to earn money so that their fathers could remain staunch), marriage splits and hardship which continued for years in some cases. As a by-product it also took women into the workforce when this would not have otherwise happened in the socially conservative milieu of the waterfront.

Three contributions look beyond a celebration of the events. Dr Anna Green writes of the intransigent nature of the British shipping lines which effectively ruled the New Zealand waterfronts, and which had little interest in the well-being of the workers there. The work was dangerous and dirty, and it would be surprising if a strong union had not arisen. Professor Pat Walsh – not related to Fintan Patrick – analyses the legacy of 1951, arguing that although the forces of arbitration won on the day, within 10 years the system was in tatters, overwhelmed by the growing complexity of industrial development.

Jock Phillips sees the event as a sort of last hurrah for the socialist dawn with both the government and the watersiders appealing to images of a domestic man with a wife, kids and garden. Phillips says that when you adopt the language of your opponents, you end by adopting their values. The utopia which the watersiders espoused in public was the same as the one which the Holland government was building. The book is a memento to a strange moment in New Zealand history when a subculture of New Zealanders lost touch with the attitudes of their fellow citizens.


Don Aimer is a Wellington reviewer.


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