Labour Day musings

by Don Franks

Labour Day’s just another holiday now, although workers wouldn’t have any paid holidays without the long up and down grind of past union struggles. This Labour Day I thought back to my first union experience.

It was in 1969, one morning in a timber yard. I’d been working there happily enough for a couple of months, stacking, loading railway wagons, folding tarpaulins and fooling around in the sawdust hopper. 

As jobs go, this one was pretty good. We didn’t have to rush, the outdoor timber yard had a nice clean smell and at the end of every Friday afternoon the boss shouted us drinks. 

It wasn’t a big site. There were just two of us young guys labouring there, Wayne and me. The two of us got on good, despite the pay disparity. My wages were a dollar an hour, Wayne got a dollar and ten cents. This was not recognition of long service, we’d started at the place within days of each other.

“ I think they’re paying me more because of all my degrees and that” said Wayne when I asked him. With all due respect to Wayne, he didn’t come across as a heavyweight academic and I wondered what I could do to even up the pay situation. Despite shouting us drinks every Friday and not pushing us very hard between times, the boss looked a bit stern and I felt inadequate to take up my case with him.

Then, one morning this guy suddenly breezed into the yard introducing himself as from the union. Shortish, about thirty, well pressed pants and a smart new windbreaker. He had a faint smell of alcohol about him but maybe it was aftershave.

“Any problems on the job here?” Seizing my opportunity I said yes, I’m getting paid less than my mate here for doing the same work. Wayne nodded in assent. He didn’t mind if I got parity.“That’s no good” said the union guy. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort that out right now” . Without any further ado he shot into the bosses office. Wayne and I continued stacking and I waited in anticipation.

The union guy must have left the site through the boss’s front door, because we never saw him again. Later in the day I was called into the office. “Look Don, Wayne’s getting a bit more than you because he’s got his school cert. On account of that we’re looking to make him the order man at some stage”.

I also had passed school certificate but hadn’t thought to mention it when I started on the job. I thought if I mentioned it now I’d look like I was making it up. I said it didn’t seem right when we were both doing exactly the same work right now and if I couldn’t get the same I was going to jack it in.

“Well, ok, that’s your prerogative Don. If you hang on here, eventually you’ll get increases. Up to you.” In those days there were heaps of jobs going, for those with or without school certificate, even for the illiterate. So I quit the timber yard and moved on. Most of my subsequent union experiences over the years were a bit more positive.

Happy Labour Day.


  1. “Leave it with me” union officials are certainly still around Don!

    As are young precarious workers that could do with support. Almost 40 years of a neo liberal state and 30 of low union density have obviously not helped.

    Unity among fellow workers in any situation–and mutual relations with union organisers, not compliance–is still the way to go. “If we fight we might lose…yes, but if you do not fight you will definitely lose”.

  2. I enjoy your essays, Don, and this one was no exception. Does anyone ever talk in NZ about Labor Day being the right-wing labor holiday?

    And here’s a little union story that might amuse you. I went to work for AFSCME, a public workers union, in their office; it was part-time and involved keeping the books, paying the organizers, etc. I was supposed to get the same pay as the former worker and I had to spend a lot of time straightening out her books, which were a mess. Then the union informed me I was NOT going to get the same pay as the woman who had kept messy books, I was going to be paid less. And I quit immediately. It taught me a lot about how unions work internally, so I am not surprised by the Scottish union that is signing onto transgenderism and leaving women out in the cold.

    Unionism must be grassroots and workers MUST be involved; otherwise, it’s just another old boys club.

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