Room at the top, David Grant

White-collar Radical: Dan Long and the Rise of White-collar Unions       
Mark Derby
Craig Potton, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877517174

Dan Long was an esteemed public servant and political and union activist from the late 1950s until his premature death in 1976, aged 54. The Public Service Association was his metier. A clerk and later a lawyer in the Ministry of Works from 1949, he was elected to the PSA’s national executive in 1956, became president in 1958 and from 1960 until 1976 was its national secretary, the organisation’s senior paid official.

Born to a poor, emigrant, working-class Irish family in 1922, Dan and his two brothers were raised in a succession of cramped railway houses before, from the age of seven, finding a more permanent abode in the bleak, isolated railway settlement of Cross Creek on the sunless Wairarapa side of the Rimutaka ranges where his shunter father Tim found work on trains climbing and descending the steep Fell railway. The Longs were devout Catholics, Dan’s mother Catherine nurturing the children in a pious, loving family environment. Strong-willed and protective, she sheltered the boys from their father’s embarrassing and very public bouts of drunkenness.

Despite the heavy emphasis on military training at St Patrick’s College in Silverstream, Dan and his brothers were more influenced by his mother’s militant pacifist beliefs, gleaned from her deep reading of Gandhi, Tolstoy, Remarque among other apostles of non-violence, as well as her recoiling from her horrid memory of the unabashed violence in the “Troubles” in Ireland where she grew up. In consequence, all three brothers were among that tiny minority of Catholics in New Zealand who took literally to heart the Bible commandment that Christians shall not kill. After war started, all appealed against military service on conscience grounds, unsuccessfully, with Dan spending the next six years as a military defaulter in a succession of austere, guarded camps far from the centres of population.

On release in 1946, and as punishment for his stand, Long was manpowered to work as a labourer at the Petone branch of the Hutt Valley Municipal Gas Board for the following two years. In 1949, as a junior clerk in the Ministry of Works head office, he studied law part-time at Victoria University. In 1952, he qualified and began work in the Ministry’s legal office. Active in the PSA early, and energetic on behalf of a campaign for equal pay for women, he joined his future wife Margaret Brand on the executive in 1956. From there his ascent through the ranks was rapid. He become vice-president a year later, and president the year after that, replacing the retiring Jim Ferguson. It was from there a short step to heading the organisation which he did from 1960 with alacrity, energy and foresight.

There is much to admire within this affectionate biography. Derby writes well, without the affectations sometimes found in academe. His descriptions of Long’s upbringing and time locked away in a camp for conscientious objectors are redolent with atmosphere, and the discussions of the regimented working life within the public service right through to the 1950s make you feel pleased that today’s public service can be promoted on ability and diligence as opposed to personal bias and seniority, as was the norm back then. Derby’s description of the history of the Public Service Association from its earlier conservative, rule-hidebound days to the time when Long’s immediate predecessors, and Long himself, drastically modernised the culture into an informal consensus-making collective, representing the members in battles with the Public Service heads and the government, is comprehensive and clearly drawn. Of fascination are the references, and new revelations, concerning other well-known personalities, friends and colleagues of Dan Long. The lives and work of Gerald Griffin, Conrad Bollinger, Jim Delahunty, Jim Ferguson, Jack Lewin, Jack Batt, Bill Sutch, Roger Hall, Barry Tucker, Rona Bailey, Cath Eichelbaum (later Kelly) and Dan’s wife Margaret among others, illuminate the pages and make for a more interesting and rounded discussion.

Derby has been rigorous in his research. The book is not just a biography of Dan Long within the context of the time but also, bearing in mind his close connection and later marriage to fellow public servant, the bookish and spirited Margaret Brand, a full exposé of the equal pay struggle for public servants in which Brand was a foremost agitator, and which Long wholeheartedly supported. There is also in the book more than a mini-biography of Brand herself before she became Long and many other forays into actions and activities of the equal pay movement, within the public service itself and within the PSA which may or may not have involved Dan Long. This can sometimes lead to a somewhat discordant story, distant from the main focus on Long himself. For example, there is full explanation of the Holmes stolen satchel case in 1949, long before Long was even active in the PSA. So it is a biography only in the broadest sense. On the other hand, a life-and-times study that encompasses a person’s work in a broader context is necessary. While respecting the volume of his research, I feel that Derby could have cut down on some of the extraneous material.

There is much to respect about Dan Long. He was scrupulously honest, altruistic, tolerant, diligent, working very long hours at times – a factor that led to his early death. He possessed integrity in spades, was kind, considerate and unselfish. While he was left-wing and pushed the PSA down more of a trade-union path from the even-handed association it used to be, to call Long a radical is a bridge too far. A radical is an extremist, one who by definition holds extreme or revolutionary views, or who acts in that way. Long was determined to pursue a liberal path. However, he led an organisation which represented many different strands of workers from the 60,000 members the PSA enjoyed in mid-1974: from employees on the most basic of levels of the public service to those who possessed high degrees of managerial responsibility, and a huge range of different types of workers from clerks, to nurses to prison officers. This meant that compromise and consensus-reaching (at which Long excelled) were the most important qualities that he needed to possess. More than once Long had to act as a conduit in disputes between deep-seated rivalries within the organisation.

There are mistakes that grate. Derby states that the Council of Trade Unions was formed through a merger between the Combined State Services Organisation (CSSO) and the Federation of Labour (FOL) in 1993. It was not. The CTU was established in 1987. Neither was it a merger between the CSSO and the FOL, as the former, under the leadership of Ivan Reddish (arguably New Zealand’s most powerful state union secretary of the time) evolved to become the Combined State Unions (CSU) in 1978 to give it a more trade-union focus in its operations. Furthermore, the pop group Ebony’s tribute to Norman Kirk, ‘Big Norm” was not mocking, rather an affectionate compliment. Kirk’s congratulatory telegram to Ebony when the song won the group award at the Recorded Artists Awards in Christchurch on 30 August 1974, was his last public act. He died the following night.

Derby overall, however, has done Dan Long, and the Public Service Association proud. What the country needs now is a complementary biography of an even more important state service trade union leader, Ivan Reddish. Reddish rose from a telegram boy to head of the Post Office to president for a time of the international Post Office Union, to chair of the Combined State Services Organisation from 1967 and the Combined State Unions into which it evolved. He would make an excellent subject.


David Grant is a Wellington historian and reviewer.


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