“Man for all Seasons” is the title of David Grant’s authorised biography of Ken Douglas ONZ. The choice of title puzzled me – “A Man for all Seasons” is the title of Robert Bolt’s award-winning play about Sir (later Saint) Thomas More, whose refusal to endorse Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon led him inexorably to the scaffold. The original comment about More’s conviviality was made by one of his contemporaries. Both More and Douglas were showered with honours by the rulers of their time, but by contrast with the uxorious More, Grant’s book makes clear that when it came to relationships with women Douglas was no saint. As for constancy of principle, while More always knew his steadfast courage would cost him his life, Grant reports that Employers Federation President Steve Marshall’s summary verdict on Douglas was that “Ken won’t die in a ditch.”
David Grant is at pains to point out that he has aimed for a “warts-and-all” biography. He is a prolific historian, including a recent history of the Titahi Bay Golf Club, where Douglas was long-term President, and this is his first biography. Ken Douglas is an engaging, interesting, powerful and sometimes mesmerising personality, but I think Grant’s book also has a tinge of “warts-and-all” hagiography. For example, on the first page after summarising the complexities of Douglas’ character and the apparent paradoxes of his life, his critics are dismissed as “emotional” without elaboration or explanation. This is ironic as the book subsequently makes clear that Douglas’ crucial decisions and choices were by his own admission based on emotion – from a “kick in the guts” from his unionist grandfather at the start of his career, to his decision to join the communist party because of his opposition to racism in rugby.
The danger with rose-tinted biography is that it can lead to air-brushed history. One is struck by the relative absence of comment or alternative viewpoints from most of Douglas’ union contemporaries, in contrast to the profusion of those from his later time on boards and councils. Some of the key union leaders such as Bill Andersen and Pat Kelly, with whom Douglas clashed, are no longer with us. But there are many others with whom he worked who are still here. I would have liked to have heard more of their views, as they could have made for a more rounded picture. Besides the lack of contemporaries’ comment, the book has many basic errors of fact.
In his summing-up, the author states that Douglas’ reputation is ultimately based on his role as a central leader in the union movement over the last quarter of the twentieth century, and it is on this that he should be remembered. Based on the loss of members and bargaining strength in unions at the time Grant says “many have argued that Douglas was a failure. But this is short-sighted. Many of the key factors were outside his control.” He goes on to give his own verdict. “In evolutionary terms, Douglas was the ideal man for the times – with the ability, perspicacity and thick skin needed to act as the conduit between the old-style ‘factory floor’ unionism of Skinner and Knox and the more complex requirements of his university-educated successors in a more sophisticated technology-based workplace and deregulated labour market.”
Nobody – well almost nobody – in the union movement would ever have wanted Ken Douglas to die in a ditch; but in my view the critical question is to assess how well he fought from the ditch in the interests of working people; or as he would have put it, how well he defended the class interest. In particular, how did he handle the issues that were under his control. The strategic role of unions was the basic issue played out over Douglas’ time at the head of the movement. His ambition was clear and frequently and powerfully articulated – he saw unions and particularly the central union organisation as full partners with government and employers in setting the country’s economic and social direction. Two things however are important to make the connection between ambition and achievement; firstly choices made at critical conjunctures, and secondly leadership style.
It is often the early choices that are the most crucial. One such was Douglas’s decision in the mid-1980’s to remain as Secretary of the Federation of Labour under Jim’s Knox’s presidency, instead of taking up the presidency himself and bringing in Rob Campbell as Secretary. That had been Campbell’s understanding and expectation. I was the Labour Party’s Trade Union liaison officer at the time and was in Campbell’s office in the FoL building the day he was given the news. I can still remember the look on his face, part hurt, mostly anger, when he told me – he clearly felt a promise had been broken.
Looking back I think that Douglas’ decision proved to be a major setback to union influence for the Federation of Labour. Campbell and Alf Kirk, who was working for the FoL, had produced a blueprint for a negotiated approach to wage bargaining in their book “After the Freeze”. In Australia, The ACTU had established an Accord with the Hawke Labor government in 1983, trading moderated wage adjustments for benefits in wider economic and social policy. Arguably it was one of the major reasons why the 1980’s adjustment in Australia was so much more successful than that in New Zealand. There had been some efforts to come to a similar arrangement with New Zealand Labour before the 1984 election, and Grant states that it lapsed because it was opposed by Stan Rodger. Hugh Oliver’s research, reported in Brian Easton’s “Rise of Rogernomics”, showed that this was because Labour M.P.s did not think that the FoL leadership could deliver on an accord. Had Campbell been promoted to work alongside Douglas, his ideas and energy along with others such as Rex Jones of the Engineers, Rick Barker of the Hotel Workers and Peter Harris in the PSA would have produced a powerful leadership cluster that could have laid that criticism to rest.
Douglas’ justification for this decision is that he was opposed to personality leadership along the lines of Muldoonism and Rogernomics; presumably that he saved the Fol and later CTU from “Campbellism”. Whatever the truth of this, the FoL at the time certainly became stalled in its search for influence, and the fight against labour market deregulation was led by the Labour-affiliated unions. The lack of respect for the FoL lasted well into the Fourth Labour government. Grant quotes Denis Welch’s account of Knox’s address to the 1986 Labour Party conference (mistakenly describing it as the FoL’s conference). “Some delegates even heckle him – this man who once commanded the rapt attention of Labour audiences on the strength of his mispronunciations alone. The hecklers include certain MPs and at least two of them decline to stand in the obligatory standing ovation.” Knox did not deserve to go out like this either. Grant concludes his account of this episode, which clearly remains sensitive for his subject, by recording Campbell’s later career as a businessman, the implication being that he was not proper unionist. I think that is unfair; along with Peter Harris of the PSA, Campbell led the early fight against Rogernomics in the Labour Party economic debates. And after all, one of the paradoxes Grant set out to explore was Douglas’ progression from barricade to bargaining table to boardroom – it could be argued that Douglas just took longer.
Another crucial choice involving a Campbell is not recorded in the book. In the late 1980’s George Campbell, then Secretary of the Australian Metals Union, and later Labor Senator, came to New Zealand with the specific intention of trying to persuade Douglas to join the New Zealand Labour Party. The Australians had a strategic trans-Tasman view, and were looking for trans-Tasman labour movement convergence. They also understood the corrosive effect of sectarian left politics; their factional battles were fought inside the Labor Party. He made the pitch at a private dinner in what is now the Duxton Hotel; in the end nothing came of it. Douglas stayed with the SUP. That decision too had some significant consequences. Douglas’ preference for sectarian left politics meant that he did not have the sort of wider political connection at the time that might have made his ambition possible.
For example I don’t think Douglas understood what Lange’s offer of the so-called “compact’, made shortly after the Labour Party conference in 1988, was really about. Ken Douglas thought the unions had finally been given their place at the tripartite table; whereas Lange, who had just given Roger Douglas his dismissal notice, was looking for union support for his stand. Had effort been put into support inside the Labour Party for Lange’s fundamental change of tack rather than into convincing sceptical unions to sign on to the compact its subsequent history might have been very different. After Lange’s later resignation compact negotiations drifted along without any real commitment from government, and with employers sitting on their hands. It’s sole outcome a year or so later of a two percent wage movement in return for moderation of interest rates, suggested by Mike Moore just before Labour’s landslide defeat, was a triumph of hope over expectation and in the end no victory for workers. To his credit, Douglas later admitted he had been too slow to move; and certainly his later support for Helen Clark within the Labour party was highly valued.
The second issue of Douglas’ leadership style is more fundamental. Union leaders are ultimately only as influential as their connection with an organised membership. Douglas gained his spurs and made his reputation in the Drivers’ Union, where mentor Chip Bailey had set up the delegate structures where issues were debated directly with the membership. Over time Douglas’ leadership grew more distant from union members, and was exercised through committee and conference as well as his influence over individual union leaders. In the time I knew him from the mid 1980’s I always thought of him as a top table man; confident in his own opinion, able to manage upwards with considerable skill.
This disjunction from union members became crucial when the National government launched its attack on unions in 1990 with the Employment Contracts Act. As Grant outlines, Douglas was desperate to maintain a relationship with the Jim Bolger and the National government, on the basis of the fragile compact arrangement. But such relationships need member understanding and commitment to be effective. This is where the criticism of Douglas’ response to the Employment Contracts Act is pertinent. Unions such as the Engineers had worked on their strategies to cope with the anticipated attack on unions’ bargaining and organising rights, but for many less well-prepared unions the attack was devastating. A call to arms was important for member morale; but when emotion was needed, Douglas the emotional leader did not take the opportunity.
The internal debate in the union movement about leadership style ran right through the 1990’s. Summarised, it could be described as bottom-up organising versus top-table lobbying. At one extreme, it led to a split with the emergence of the WCL-influenced alternative trade union centre, the Trade Union Federation, which was also sectarian but more inclined to class conflict than collaboration. On the other side, the lobbying approach manifested itself in the CTU’s appeal against the Employment Contracts Act to the world’s last bastion of tripartism, the ILO.
In the end, the unions who favoured an organising approach did their own thing, and took their own initiative without reference to the CTU. They formed a loose alliance across both union centres and ran a fightback campaign against the National Government’s attempt to strengthen the Employment Contracts Act after 1996. The campaign focussed on the National government’s proposition to allow the contracting out of holiday entitlements by cashing them up. The campaign was symbolised by a widely-distributed 1997 Christmas card saying “Max (Bradford) wants to take your holiday.” Nationwide demonstrations supported by skilled lobbying resulted in New Zealand First playing a key parliamentary role along with Labour and the Greens in preventing any further anti-worker legislative change. There is nothing of this story in Grant’s book, which is why in my view it takes an airbrush to the history of the period.
Around this time unions also called for a review of the CTU. They wanted an organising centre, and Douglas was not the man to lead that. He had become increasingly isolated from ordinary members, seeking solace in the sporting clubs where as Grant says he felt safe. He had also turned his attention through the nineties to the wider union world, where he did play a prominent and widely appreciated role. Before he was farewelled from the CTU, Douglas had succeeded in becoming elected to the Porirua City Council. The last part of the book describes his subsequent career as a widely-respected member of a number of boards and Councils. Without exception, the tributes are generous and warm as well as thoroughly well-deserved. It is as though he has finally found his true metier where the insights drawn from his enquiring mind, breadth of vision and vast experience of the world are not hindered by the politics of organisational delivery.
So back to the title – Man for all seasons? The only clue as to why Grant chose the title comes when he refers to Douglas’ chameleon tendencies which means he wasn’t referring to constancy. As for conviviality, Douglas was definitely a clubman for all seasons. Whether it was rugby, cricket, softball or golf; in summer or winter or in between, his contribution was and still is enormous. However I think the best description for him is one he gave to himself. After he had finally joined the Labour Party but missed selection for the Porirua council he stood as Independent Labour. He was always really Labour, and definitely always independent; while he always gave it a go, it wasn’t always easy to put the two together.
I think Grant’s description of Ken Douglas as the bridge between “cloth-cap unionism and the university-educated leaders of the present” takes too big a leap. It elides too much and also does not do justice to the many other people through the period who also came from the shop floor, also came up with ideas, organised and inspired, and in the end won the battles on the ground that ultimately led to the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act by the fifth Labour government and that laid the groundwork for a modern union movement. Grant’s book is a fascinating if challenging read, but in my view it should not be regarded as definitive for the history of the achievements of the union movement throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many other heroes of the period remain unsung, and the full story still untold.