Militant days at the Ford car plant in the 1970s

Don Franks was interviewed by Dr Toby Boraman in December 2013 about his time working in the militant Ford car plant in the 1970s. In this first installment Don tells of some of the early organising that had been done before it became a site of significant industrial strength.

(The interview has been lightly edited. For citations please acknowledge the interviewer and interviewee).

So tell me about your background – were you political, from a political family?

No, not at all.  I didn’t have much interest in political things.  I was mostly just interested in playing my guitar when I was a young guy and I just mucked around. I came from a comfortable sort of middle class home where there wasn’t wasn’t any pressure to go out there and earn money so I went to university and mucked around. 

I didn’t like that and then I found myself up in Jerusalem commune sitting round there and playing my guitar and mucking around. Up there I kept in touch with  my brother and his friends and  they were all getting interested in the anti-war movement, this is 1971. So when I came back to town I went along to a couple of marches and a couple of meetings and, like a lot of people in my generation, became radicalised by the anti-war movement.

In Wellington there was a small group of communists not in the party, in a breakaway branch, and they seemed to talk the most sense at the meetings. They had an idea of where to go and their arguments seemed to stack up, so I sought them out a bit and listened to what they had to say. I got a bit more interested in socialist things beyond the anti-war movement and read a couple of Marxist books and they made quite an impression on me because I’d just been drifting round with no direction. Marxism suddenly seemed to tie a lot of things together and it was an exciting view of the world. 

And also exciting times.

Well that’s right. 

Was that break-away branch the  so called Manson/Bailey group?

That’s what they called it in the Peoples Voice. Actually Jack Manson didn’t have much to do with it.  It was mostly a guy called Terry Auld who was a younger person. Terry Auld and also George Goddard and Rona Bailey and Ron Smith. Pat Kelly was associated with them early on but he went off on his own. 

And so, what was  your first job?

I had mucked around with different jobs but the first serious job was at Fords. Before that I’d been working on Salient [Victoria University’s student magazine].

As an editor?

No, I did the court reports. I initiated Salient’s ‘From the Courts’ column. We discovered when we went down to the Courts there was a lot of drama and also a lot of injustice and stuff that we could see. We were looking for cases of class oppression and there it was, very readily available. You could see these young guys who’d been had up for this and that and they’re getting thumped by the law. They went in there and they didn’t even try and defend themselves.  They knew they were stuffed.  So I was doing that and I was also drawing some cartoons for the paper. Anyway, I was talking to one of these older communist guys – I forget who it was – and he said “oh if you’re serious about socialism you should go and work in industry you know, that’s what you should be doing.” One or two other guys said that to me too.  They weren’t preachy about it.  They just sort of said it.

So I went out to Fords in 1973 and started there. I went out there deliberately to try and do socialist agitation among the working class and I stayed there for 11 years. It was an interesting place.

Did you go in there with a group of friends?

No, I just went and I got myself a job there, to my  good fortune in terms of learning about stuff. The place was already particularly well organised, when I went in there. Shall I tell you how that got started ?

How the Coachworkers became militant you mean?

Yeah, well how they became organised.

I guess that’s one of my questions.

I don’t know the whole story because it was before my time but piecing it together there were two main unions in the place.  One was the Engineers Union which was you know a bit conservative and traditionally Catholic, anti-communist union but reasonably together as a union.  The other one was called the Coach and Motor Body Workers which was even less active than the Engineers Union.

Was this the sixties, fifties?

This was the late ’60s.

And what happened was that the plant kept ticking over and under compulsory unionism, all the workers there were a member of this or that union, they paid fees but it didn’t have much bearing on their lives basically.  It meant they got paid the award rate which was pretty low.  The awards we had then were about the same as and did the same job as what the Holidays Act and the Minimum Wage does now basically.  So it was a low bottom. That’s what Awards were and the finer points of them weren’t easily kept to. Anyhow, there were a couple of British guys who were working there.

Is that Danny Nichols

Danny Nichols and another guy George Thomson who you would have read some of his stuff in the Coachworkers Journal. George was editor and he did a huge amount of stuff behind the scenes.  But anyway they raised points and would say “well this is not right, that’s not right”.  They weren’t that fussed because compared to Britain they thought it was great.  Everything was nicer you see but they couldn’t help but practice their previous union habits.

So what was nice?

Well, New Zealand was better.  The climate was nicer and decent housing was more available and the little Ford factory at Seaview, it was only about 500 people compared to a great big plant in the UK where everything’s roaring away. It was more laid back.  It was things like nicer food. New Zealand then was in this funny little bubble where there were high wool prices and it was the kind of thing the Alliance looks back to and thinks can be rebuilt again.

But despite that, in the factory these British guys saw various injustices being inflicted on people, because there was no organisation on the floor. There were very unfair things and safety issues – all the kind of shit that happens in an unorganised factory of any kind.  And, and the other thing was the wages – and this was a big thing – the wage rates were totally arbitrary. 

Don’t forget there was over full employment then.  Bosses were actually screaming out to get people. What would happen was you’d start, on your award rate, but the way that workers went about getting a wage rise before the place was organised was this: the ones who were a bit savvy, who’d been there for a few months would try this trick, So what happened is some guy’s working away at his machine and he says to the foreman “oh look I’ve had enough.  I think I’ll finish up next week”.  The foreman wanted to keep this guy who’s reliable so he’d say “oh no, no John, don’t do it, don’t do that.  Look as long as you don’t tell anyone  I’ll get you another five cents an hour, okay?” So John goes “oh alright”.  So  that’s what would happen. See so no one knew what the wage rates were and so the more ambitious, the more savvy workers, they would do that sort of trick. You had to be a reasonably good operator to do that but that’s what happened. 

By a combination of circumstances these British guys thought well lots of things are better here than in the UK but there’s lots of stuff worse than the UK, certainly in terms of workers’ dignity basically. So they went into the Union office and they appealed to the Coachworker’s Union and, so the story went, there were these two or three hopeless old bastards in there who didn’t know anything about what was going on in the factories and didn’t care.

Were they Arbitrationists in other words?

They were apparently just incompetent. So, these British guys talked to people like Ken Douglas and Pat Kelly, and of course Kelly and Douglas, and people like that, when they saw there were some people wanting to organise, of course they were very interested. Here was a great big chunk of the working class in the Hutt Valley. So they encouraged them. Ken Douglas  apparently wanted them to all go into the Engineer’s Union and I suppose there was a case to be made for that but I think Kelly said no, just take over the existing Union. So basically that’s what they did. They ran an election campaign and they won and these old guys, the previously incumbents in the Union, obviously really weren’t interested because they didn’t put up much of a fight.

So there wasn’t a fight from those guys?

No not much.  There hadn’t been a contested union election campaign before. It didn’t seem to take much because there wasn’t much to push out of the way.  So that’s what happened and they installed a guy called John Williams as the Secretary.  He was a pleasant, slow, dreamy sort of a guy, a nice chap from General Motors.  He suddenly found himself as Secretary of the Union.

A full time Secretary? And was he a socialist?

He was a bit left. I think The Socialist Unity Party sent him to Chile. He got there, and he came back in one piece before the coup. He was courted by the SUP but I think they were wasting their time.

So there were those tussles going on all the time.  Little factional political things were a constant backdrop.  George Thompson had left Fords and was in the union office at that stage.  He was the research officer and editor of the Coachworkers Journal and did all the office work very efficiently. So they left Danny in the factory. He thought, well okay seeing as we’re going to do this we’re going to do it right.  So he set about electing shop stewards.  His previous experience had been with the shop stewards movement in the UK .  He may have been in the Communist Party of Great Britain.  I don’t know. 

Was he experienced militantly?

Oh shit yeah he was.

So anyway he got delegates organised and the main people who first responded were almost all Maori.  They readily responded, so most of the delegates were Maori.

So whats the proportion of Maori in the factory in those days?.

It was a very high proportion and there were also a lot of other nationalities.  There were Pacific Islanders, quite a few. The Equal Pay Act had come in in 1972, and Fords became a better job for women to go to, so there were quite a lot of women. They were union delegates, maybe not quite in proportion to their numbers but getting on that way in terms of representation.  Maybe one or two guys might grumble once in a while but by and large there was no problem with a group of men being represented by a woman in their area as a delegate. 

The other, significant ethnic groups were the Greeks and the East Europeans. There were quite a lot of them and they had a slightly different view.  A lot of the East Europeans had come from socialist countries which they didn’t like and so, not all but some of them, would respond negatively to union things.  And to some extent the other people from Europe, they took a bit more of an individual sort of attitude.  But by and large, when there was any big issue we’d all have a meeting together and we’d argue it out and everyone would go along with it.  We didn’t really have many problem with people scabbing. Just once or twice.

Did you have to build that sort of collective thing up over time from a kind of non-organised, weak site into a stronger one?  You know perhaps in a weaker union site some people would scab ?

The bit that was less organised was the plant I finished up in, Plant Two.

The old mans plant you said.

Yeah, the old man’s home the workers called it. There were no moving lines there, and the pace of work there was slower. But that department became organised. I started to speak up a bit at meetings and became a delegate, probably a bit earlier than I should have. That’s basically how delegates appear at these things.If they need a delegate in a department, people will look to the person who seems to be speaking up to be representative.  So I got elected delegate and when Danny saw that I was a bit interested he started deliberately sort of grooming me because he was looking towards a successor.

So how did he do that? 

Oh well, several ways.  He suggested that I stood for the Management Committee of the Union, which I did.  He also arranged for me to be a delegate to the Federation of Labour Conference. I think the first one I went to was 1974.  It was only a year after I was at Fords.  And that was very interesting. 

Was that the time of the Auckland ferry dispute when Bill Andersen was arrested?

Oh that came a bit later. 

 Here I was suddenly, completely inexperienced but right in the middle of all this bloody thing and, and soon after being elected Danny went away to the UK for a holiday and I had to take over everything. The responsibility was pretty scary.  Cause you’d come in in the morning, you’re pulling on your overalls and someone comes up to you and it’s only just five to eight  and says there’s a guy being sacked in the paint shop.  You’d know that you would have to do something so you go over there.  Go to the paint shop and then, first of all you get information, try and find out what has actually factually happened.  Write it down and then talk to the people. More often than not, if someone was sacked they would get pretty much unconditional support, but not always. Sometimes they’d say, “look we don’t support this guy”.  So anyway then, then you’ve got to decide what recommendation you want to put in terms of a dispute. 

So we’d have a meeting at smoko time and get together and if, if it was an issue that people cared about when the whistle went the meeting would just continue.  There was no “let’s get back to work “. So we’d discuss what to do and then I’d go with the delegate from the paint shop and we’d go into the personnel offices. “Can we see you for a minute” and of course they knew already what was happening.  We’d say to the boss “so and so has been sacked and okay yeah he wasn’t entirely in the right but I mean sacking’s far, far too harsh a punishment so we want him back on the job”.  And the boss goes: “Oh no look, he’s gone a bit too far this time this bloke and we’ve had enough of him”. We’d say: ” Oh, well, we don’t think he should be sacked you know.  Perhaps a written warning maybe?” They’d then maybe  say okay, okay Donald well we’ll have a look at it.  Come back at 10 o’clock” or something.  So you go back there and he says “no, look sorry Donald  we’ve had enough of this bloke okay. So you do what you’re going to do.  We suggest you take up a personal grievance.  That’s what we suggest”. Well, there’s a sort of gamble going on here you see cause they’re gambling that we don’t have the support for a stoppage and you don’t really know either. Neither side really quite knows if either one of us has got unknown cards in our hands. 

So then you go back to the paint shop and tell them, what happened and they still want the guy reinstated and I say well, well we’re going to support this joker so, hang on, we just got to, just have a senior delegates meeting and you get together with all the delegates out of the departments and say look there’s going to be a stoppage in the paint shop. Because the custom we had was it was their call.

The paint shop workers you mean?

Yes,  whoever, whichever department and so okay this thing’s going to happen and it will affect the other departments, usually the senior delegates would say oh yeah okay well you keep us posted.  You know, they wouldn’t really give too much of a stuff.  And so we’d have our meeting in the paint shop and they would just usually just go home.  In those days we didn’t picket outside or anything.  If you had a strike you went home and that was that.

If one department went on strike would that mean the end of production for the rest?

 Eventually what is what happened. For about an hour or so there would be stuff that would keep going through the plant, and there’d be other stuff that would pile up in the paint shop and then you go back. In those days what would actually quite often happen is that you’d ring up the mediation service and say you wanted to have a personal grievance and actually tell them that this stoppage was either imminent or going to happen.  And they’d say sometimes “oh well hang on look we’ll get someone”, and they’d get someone out there like in half an hour in their car. They’d drive out to the plant and so sometimes it would save the company’s face by the mediator deciding that the person should have their job back. It was always in those days always about getting the reinstatement.  It was never, ever about financial compensation.  So we either won it or lost it.  They either got their job back or they didn’t get their job back.  These days it seems to be a little bit more about money, if you take a personal grievance.

That just didn’t happen. The other thing about the mediation was that, because sometimes if people just didn’t have the energy or if there’d been a lot of disputes they wanted the guy back but they just weren’t prepared to go on strike then we would have a personal grievance. We’d usually go one way or the other.  There was one old mediation guy, he used to, every time he came out to the factory, he’d alternate.  He’d made the decision for the union and next he’d make for the company, seemingly irrespective of the merits of a case.

It was almost as regular as that, and I remember George Hickton in the personal office one time saying well okay Don take a personal grievance if you like but you know it’s our turn. So that was how a lot of strikes actually happened.

A lot of them were about dismissals.

In the next installment Don talks about what it was like on an average day in the job.

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