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Written By: - Date published: 3:37 pm, September 15th, 2022 - 47 comments
Categories: Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

Ken Douglas was a big man, in every sense of the word, and a great man, deeply involved in his community right through his life, from the Drivers’ Union to the Porirua City Council.

He was a thinker, a reader and a leader, fully engaged in some of the most important turning issues of our time. Strong support for Labour’s Fair Play legislation now is the best way to remember Ken.

In recent years he regularly attended the Fabian Society, always with a suggestion, a proposition, or an amusing anecdote. We will miss him.

47 comments on “RIP KGD ONZ ”

  1. Anne 2

    He warranted only a tiny item tucked in the top right hand corner of one of the middle pages of today's Herald. After all, he only championed the rights and needs of ordinary working people. Nothing to see there. (sarc)

    • James Thrace 2.1

      Correct me if I’m wrong but I understood that Douglas was a sell out at the time of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 in that he decided that the past of least resistance was the best choice, and that led to the destruction of working conditions. Much later, Bolger confirmed that if there was widespread pushback there was a softer version of the ECA ready to go. As far as I’m concerned, Douglas was a sellout and helped foster in the relative death of the union movement and the low wage economy.
      So no, I’m not sad to see Douglas gone.

      • Visubversa 2.1.1

        Is there a citation for that assertion James?

      • KJT 2.1.2

        I don't know if it was him, but the Trade Union leaders, which he was one at the time, pushed back strongly against the motions from the floor at many meetings, for a general strike against the ECA.

        Saying "Wait until it is in".

        I was at one, as were many people I know.

        After it was in, of course, the right to strike for matters outside of individual Union conditions at one employer, was gone. Too late!

        Always wondered if they were bought?

        • Craig H

          I know from discussions with others about that time that one of the real concerns was that the government would just outlaw unions entirely, and possible deregister all of them and seize their assets (something Muldoon used to threaten for individual unions that annoyed him).

          • KJT

            That was more of a concern after the ECA, with provisions to sue personally, Union Organisers and organisers of strikes. Anyone advocating a general strike could be prosecuted.

            Which meant waiting until after the ECA was made law, was too late for concerted action. A very poor decision, if not a betrayal. At the meeting was at, those advocating for a general strike, which were most of the floor, were threatened and shouted down, by the Union bosses in the top table.

            After the ECA, for example, the person who organised our industrial action against Brierley stealing our company super, was threatened with personal prosecution, fines and siezure of his personal property..

            By the way, I will also never forgive some Unions and their members, who gave the Union movement a bad name, and the opponents of Unions, way too much ammunition.

            Muldoon, if memory serves me correctly, did deregister the Boilermakers, if not others.

  2. McFlock 3

    I don't know much about him, and never met him.

    But he was about the first non-parliamentary NZ political type whose name I heard and remembered as I grew up. He always seemed to have something reasonable to say, and was usually on the morally-good side of any obvious line that was drawn on an issue.

    And people I knew (better people than me, politically and intellectually) would pause and have a think when they were reminded of his position on a matter. Regardless of whether they aligned with him afterwards, they'd have to have a think.

    He leaves big shoes to fill.

  3. Ad 4

    I've only been to one full-on union funeral and it was utterly epic.

    Hope Ken gets an epic sendoff.

  4. Johnr 5

    I have always thought that the difference tween nz and au wages and conditions is because au still has a functioning union movement.

    I would really like to know the real reason why Douglas sold the union movement out. It was certainly the beginning of the end for working people. Does the name Douglas have any relevance.

    In my eyes he was an utter disgrace to the wellbeing of working people and his passing should not be honored in any way.

    • Stuart Munro 5.1

      I have often wondered whether Douglas was a Trojan horse, crooked from the off, or merely obliged to reconsider by the collapse of the despotic soviet regime, to which he might have given far too much credit for philosophical leadership. It does seem that Labour went astray pretty much as the soviet empire crumbled.

      • Tiger Mountain 5.1.1

        The venerable political enquiry–“do they go bad or were they always bad…”

        The formation of the NZCTU was one of the most significant class errors of the late 20th century. The NZCTU under Douglas, Foulkes, and the rest pursued Tri Partism, i.e. partnership with employers–“positive engagement” with the very people that wanted to destroy unionism–was never going to happen!

        As a site delegate and union exec member at the time I was a fence sitter–it felt wrong, but sounded good, uniting the private and public sector unions. A union organiser mate of mine was always against on the basis of “unity at all costs…costs the working class”.

        And so it has turned out.

        The natzos were expecting national industrial action and could not believe their luck when it did not happen. The NZ working class has suffered from that first flush of the union busting ECA ever since. Membership plummeted in months as employers put the pressure on and organisers were denied access to members. Productivity and wages seriously parted company from 1991 if you look at Treasury graphs.

        It was not all down to Douglas though–there were plenty of other vacillating tops in the state sector unions and more right wing private sector unions that backed him, despite their members marching against the ECA. Mr Douglas apparently said 80% of member support was required for national action in 1991. A leader does not stand placidly by and bemoan the support level, they get out there and organise and fight and build it.

        I was on 1990/91 “Kill the Bill–ECB” marches and rallies and at the special affiliates meeting in Wellington where the sell out was narrowly endorsed by Union Secretaries. Mike Jackson and Bill Andersen from my then Union, the NDU, voted for a national stoppage. The vote should have been taken at mass meetings of members.

        I had the pleasure at Jim Knox’s memorial service in Auckland, to see ’51 Waterfront Lockout leader Jock Barnes lambast Douglas in the most excoriating manner for his class collaborationist behaviour. Some of the NZ Labour people praising Ken Douglas yesterday, could not handle Jock’s honesty on that day.

        Whatever good Ken might have done in earlier days in the Wellington Drivers Union and so on, was negated by his turning from marxism to Blairism basically, which he never had the courtesy to inform his SUP colleagues of. If he made a quiet contribution on his local Council good on him, but he was on a number of commercial Boards too.

        NZ workers need a class left fighting central labour organisation like the old FOL, a place that will encourage todays new gen workers to continue getting organised and robustly take on the employing class. Srikes in Auckland packaging the last several weeks, a nasty 6 week lockout of pulp and paper workers, pickets at Sky City and Union legal action against Uber on driver status show the boss never sleeps, so neither can the working class.

        • Stuart Munro

          Interesting – I had a little union involvement myself, through the Dunedin Deepwater Fisherman's Association. Unions had been explicitly banned in the fishing industry under Muldoon's wretched piece of urgency legislation, the fishing Industry Union Coverage ACT (1979) which they passed in response to the dispute over unloading the German research vessel Wesermunde in Bluff. That act goes a long way to explain the poor wages and conditions in the industry over the years – at least until the QMS decimated it.

        • yes Thanks Tiger Mountain.

        • PsyclingLeft.Always

          Ok Tiger Mountain. I read your comments (on other things too) with Interest. Always good to get a perspective from someone who was there !

          On similar…do you have any thoughts on Rob Campbell? TBH…I could never understand this :

          From picket line anarchist in the 1970s to chair of SkyCity today


          If can thanks..allgood if not.

          • Tiger Mountain

            Rob was a charming, charismatic chap when I knew him in the late 70s to mid 80s. He was an academic that became a Researcher for the Wellington Drivers union for a bit and got attracted to the excitement of the working class cause–when Muldoon was at his peak (pique).

            He was part of the progressive “team” back then, commos and all, and was instrumental in the Distribution Workers Federation, an early attempt to unite logistics and retail workers nationally. A significant march or rally usually had Rob up in the front row in his leather jacket.

            Always remember attending a performance of Renee’s play on the ’51 Waterfront Lockout called “Pass it on” with Rob and Bill Andersen. At half time in the bar Rob said “I think they should go back to work” and I always thought he half meant it.

            He gave years of service to the union movement including negotiating key agreements etc. He did get frustrated with provincial unionists that were not into modern issues apart from battling the boss, but I really think it was his nasty run in with cancer that caused a personal reassessment of his life priorities. He chose to leave and enter the business world. He was seen around Devonport in an old Valiant and a bulging bank balance no doubt.

            Middle class people and Academics are well known in the working class movement for vacillating when the heat goes on, but Rob was just doing his own thing in my estimation. He has tried to make a comeback as various media pieces outline.

      • Tiger Mountain 5.1.2

        KGD was a big supporter of the ANZAC Frigate plan in 1988, which basically drove a great big old wedge into existing regional splits in the NZ Socialist Unity Party and hastened its demise.

        When the NZSUP was formally wound up there was a few grand ($40,000) left over which according to my two sources–a party member and a Wellington academic–was donated to NZ Labour.

        Does not answer your point Stuart conclusively but…

  5. Hmmm, John Minto says, Not a single fighting bone in his body when it was needed the most

    I know there will be some who say we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and try to salvage something positive from his union work. Don’t bother. His betrayal of workers in 1991 was so dramatic and so stark that it eclipses anything else he ever did.

    Seems a bit harsh.

  6. He and Bill Birch did huge harm to Worker's hard fought for Rights.

    • Mike Smith 7.1

      It is a real pity that Ken Douglas’ life and contribution is reduced by some to a one-day caricature.

      Workers’ rights in New Zealand have always depended on the favour of the law, dating back to the 1894 arbitration and conciliation legislation. Ken Douglas was very aware of the fragility of unions in terms of being able to provide the widespread industrial and political organisation and action that would be needed for a general strike.

      I was working for the Engineers Union and a member of the Clerical Union when it went on strike in the 1980s, and the only people who took action were the union officials! The employers refused to bargain and Douglas and Rex Jones had to bail them out.

      He worked tirelessly in the 1980s to prepare unions for what he and others saw coming with a change in government. But he did not believe in pyrrhic victories, hence his call for 80% support in 1992 as referenced by others above. It wasn’t there.

      He wasn’t perfect but he packed a huge amount into a life working for the betterment of others, taking on some massive challenges along the way.

      • Visubversa 7.1.1

        You are quite right Mike. I was in the room at that CTU meeting – not representing a union but with another hat. There was not the widespread support needed for a general strike. Nobody "sold out" – everybody in that room wanted to do the best for the working people they represented – and that is what they tried hard to do. They had all been out canvassing their membership and they reported back what they found.

      • Tiger Mountain 7.1.2

        Your views are rather naive Mike. For example in South Auckland in the 70s and 80s strike action was a regular thing and many worksites, Engineers, Storeworkers and various other union members had a virtually permanent collection and donation regime going. Working class solidarity. Union strength delivered millions to families over many years via achieving and enforcing good agreements and conditions.

        Everyone has their personal favourites, those they hit it off with and those they do not, and fair enough, but lets be honest, most of KGD’s fans were South of the Waikato. I observed Ken close up at SUP party schools, internal meetings and in social settings and in repose, and in big meetings. He was a loud and blunt guy in style.

        Yes, he came up with plans for consolidating hundreds of small unions into 20 or so industry unions etc. which is still not a bad idea. Two would be good actually–Public and Private sectors. But promoting Tripartism in the peak neo lib 90s was a disastrous strategy, NZ employers wanted nothing less than the total de-recognition of unions which the ECA provided. We had to get the bloody ILO over here to do a special report on how bad it was.

        Be honest–he went from public communist to right social democrat, without informing the membership at large of the Socialist Unity Party while he was still in the party.

        • Mike Smith

          @ Tiger Mountain 7.1.2

          Naive am I? Possibly, but those strikes you mention in the 1970s and 1980s were only possible because the law allowed them. I was invited by Canadian Labour Council officials in the early 1990s to visit precisely to warn them of what happens when the law is changed so that employers are not required by law to negotiate. Unions then need strong powerful and widespread organisation, something not all recognised or realised.

      • swordfish 7.1.3

        yes Well said.

        Just to repeat my comment a day or two ago:

        Ken spent a great deal of his life fighting for the interests of working people in New Zealand, he was a leading figure in New Zealand industrial politics of the 70s & 80s … at the local level, he lived his politics by playing a central role in building the Titahi Bay community in which I grew up … in particular, a key figure in local rugby, golf, surf-lifesaving & rowing … and, of course, a local city councillor for several terms in later life.

        May well attend Ken’s funeral on Monday.

        • Tiger Mountain

          Good for you swordfish. It is fine to point out the good and ordinary stuff that well known people do. Ken’s colleague Bill Andersen, a friend, was similarly involved with Auck. City Newton Rugby League Club and many other community organisations.

      • Darien Fenton 7.1.4

        Totally agree Mike. This idea that a few days of action would have stopped the ECA and Bolger had a softer version ready to go is just nonsense. We would have to shut the country down for weeks to have any effect, and I don’t recall that being considered. National was the government. Bill Birch and the Employers Fed had the ECA ready to go when they were elected in 1990. There was a huge promise from National to their boss masters. Even if there was a "softer" version do people seriously think it would have been acceptable? The ideology of moving from compulsory unionism and national awards to individual contracts would not have changed because of the promise to the bosses and the National's election win. Blaming Ken Douglas for there not being a strike gets so tiresome. The CTU is made up of unions with their own rules and independence. Ken could never order a strike. My union supported a strike ; many other unions' leaders didn't because of the question around legal consequences (for one thing). I marched and I protested. And of course every worker paid the price for the ECA, but blaming Ken Douglas for a political hit job from Jim Bolger's government is shallow. The other question that is hardly ever considered is how the strength of the then union movement was based on compulsory unionism and state based awards. Both of these would have gone in any "softer version". We forgot how to organise and we've had to relearn that.

  7. Corey Humm 8

    He seemed like a nice enough guy

    However he and his peers cannot be forgiven for refusing to push back on the annihilation of workers rights and unionization in NZ by the Bolger government. It's utterly shameful. The one time the unions NEEDED to fight they didn't.

    They are directly responsible for the drop in living standards and wages and workers rights.

    Australias living standards are so much higher due to the unions of Australia, who are still powerful and fight like hell.

    Nz unions are as meek as mice and too often side with employers.

    This man and his peers are directly responsible for gen x, gen y and gen z having lower living standards than previous generations.

    I'm sure he was a great man, I'm sure most of the union leaders of the time were great people, but great people screw up and boy did they screw up.

    • Tiger Mountain 8.1

      What hat was that may we ask? I have been up front about my involvement as a supporter of a National Strike when an NDU Executive Member.

      Thousands of union members and supporters were on the streets in 1990/91 opposing the Employment Contracts Bill. Including Engineers Union, PSA and other State Sector unions and associations. Decisive positive leadership is what was lacking to defeat the Bill.

    • Craig H 8.2

      Muldoon used to threaten to outlaw unions that annoyed him, and one concern of the time was that the government would just outlaw unions entirely, and potentially seize their assets while they were at it.

      • PsyclingLeft.Always 8.2.1

        I have sometimes thought,reading about…and comments here on the Standard… was Muldoon the closest we got to a fascist leader ?

        • Stuart Munro

          He's a curious fellow, certainly he had the style of a dictator, but he had a better understanding of economics that any Gnat since. Moreover, he genuinely wanted NZ to uplift or develop – too many of his successors only want to sell off the pieces.

          • PsyclingLeft.Always

            Stuart Munro, yep Muldoon….Ive read a bit about him..and a strangely conflicted character for sure.
            (Drove him to drink….if not madness)

            Went to Italy WW2, fought against Musso….and came back thinking HE could get the trains running on time. All he had to do was….a LOT of bad things. But the trains !

        • hetzer

          Hmm well he had the folksy community, common man, socialist views of the Fascist, but not the green and nationalism and race views of the Fascist.

          • PsyclingLeft.Always

            lol..wtf are you on… about?

            • hetzer

              You posed the question about Muldoon possibly being our first Fascist leader. I replied with some thoughts on what he shared that philosophy and what he did not. Comprehension an issue?

              • PsyclingLeft.Always

                AH.."green", "socialist" =fascist.. I comprehend. You're a troll.

                Fuck. Off.

                • CrimzonGhost


                  =Nationalist Socialist

                  Green "Blood & Soil" …Vegetarianism/Veganism …many leaders were.

                  Italian Fascists & Fellow traveler Falangists in Spain, France, Lebanon etc weren't necessarily racist as for example in Spain they included Moroccans and Algerians and even Jews had a Falangist/Fascist organisation. Mssolini believed that it didn't matter whether Jew, Greek, Albanian in Italy etc as long as you served the collective Nation loyally.

                  Hetzer's not a troll, you're just a bit dumb.

                  • hetzer

                    Thank you Crimzon. I was going to reply to him, but its not my interest to teach him history, or that the abomination that was 30's Fascism was also the greenest of political philosophies.

  8. swordfish 9


    Several media outlets over recent days have referred to Ken Douglas as 'Red Ken' … as if that were his widely-used nickname … but, like Karl du Fresne, I can't ever remember anyone in the media or elsewhere (even Muldoon) calling him that in the 70s or 80s.

    Could be wrong … it was a long time ago … but …

    Have journos managed to get the man mixed up with former London Mayor 'Red' Ken Livingstone ?

  9. Sanctuary 10

    The bottom line is we'll never know how a fight with Bolger's government would have panned out. Maybe it would have resulted an unlikely victory to rank with the Russia’s defeat at Kyiv. Or a defeat as abject as Scargill's miners. But the thing is "Red" Ken, and all his bombastic SUP mates who strutted around those days loudly calling each other comrade turned out to be stuffed shirts and defeatists who took counsel of their fears. History will record they were rewarded for taking the King's shilling with comfy sinecures and gongs.

    I am reading a lot of excuse making for Douglas here. Recollections of doubt, post facto self-justication manifested as scorn by insiders – the savvy "realists" in this drama – and people who only ever talk of their weaknesses. It seems to me to amount to a meta of a complete failure of leadership when it counted. An airline pilot can fly his aeroplane for thirty plus years with a stellar record of consciencious flying in service of his employer, but his career will only be assessed on the airmanship displayed during that fifty minutes he landed his damaged aircraft and saved 350 lives.

    Ken Douglas was the guy at the controls when the crisis struck, and he displayed awful airmanship and he crashed the aircraft. The rest counts for nothing.

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