An average day and an impetuous strike 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 second installment Don tells of some of the work, the culture and organising on the job. The first installment is here.

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

Part 2

Don Franks

One thing we haven’t covered would be to go back to like an average day in the job. 

Alright.

So you worked in Plant 2 “the old man home”

I started off on the trim line and I wasn’t very good at it.  I was a bit clumsy at it and I was quite lucky I kept it.  If it hadn’t been an organised place I wouldn’t have survived there a week. I only kept my job because the delegate, Melanie her name was – big tough looking Maori lady – I was stuffing around.

Were you learning the job?  Did you have training?

No, no.  I’d only been there for five minutes and she said to the foreman “that guy can’t keep up, we got to do something.  The guy’s been running all day.”  And the foreman said “well as far as I’m concerned he can run all night”. So then she said “oh well I’ll stop the line”. Not calling a stoppage but just pressing the button, you see.  Anyway they had a discussion about it and I think the foreman was saying “well this guy’s fuckin hopeless”.  And she’s saying “well look you put him somewhere else where he can handle it”. So then I got taken over to Plant 2 and given a job on the truck trimmers.

Was that within about a week of starting?

Around a couple of weeks.

Right.  So on the trim line it’s quite a high pressure thing

Oh yeah, the trim line is. The body shop is not a moving line.  The other ones are but the trim line feels like it’s going faster and you’ve got less control over it. You’re dependent on other people and probably it wasn’t moving as fast as lines move these days but if you’re not used to a moving line it’s hard because you just have to keep going.  So I went over to the truck line, truck trim and we made these Ford truck cabs each day and that was much better.  It was a nice little line. 

There was about a dozen of us there and on a typical day we’d go in and you’ve each got your tray of tools for your, and your little possie somewhere on the line where you kept your stuff. So you’d pick up from where you went on.  Like, there was on the truck trim a guy who would do each of the doors.  It was quite a complicated thing, putting on all the door handles and the door glass. So it’s one guy on each door and the other one would do the pedals which was the accelerator. It was a big sort of thing that was made up on a bench and put in.  And then what I did for quite a few years was the headliner where you’re poking this cloth in and you’re actually pushing it up with a sort of a paint scraper thing and it holds under the shark’s tooth by friction.  There’s a bit of skill in it and you’d put that up and then you’d put the various other bits and pieces round that.

So thats in the cab

Yeah it’s that cloth roof of the cab.

Oh right, yeah.

Then up the front there was a guy who would put in the front windscreens and, and yeah so it head along like that and we’d do all the trim. This painted shell would come along still hot from the oven and  we’d do about four of those in an eight hour day. 

We’d start at 8 o’clock and then at smoko you only just had 10 minutes and this tea would come round, awful urns of pre-sweetened tea. You’d just stop and have that and have a smoke and then at lunchtime you’d go up to the cafeteria. We always used to play euchre at lunchtime so I’d rush over and gobble down my lunch and go back and we’d play euchre for about 20 minutes.

Whereabouts?

Just in the workstation, on one of the benches.  And then we worked until the whistle blew.

It wasn’t a moving line so when I was a delegate I could just leave. I’d just tell the foreman just off on union business and I’d just leave and I’d just wander off.  And for the person who was the plant union convenor, you basically spent all day on union business.

Right. So on the job was there a lot of like joking around and …

Oh yeah, yeag there was …

To make the work interesting …

Well we’d discuss all sorts of things cos the noise in that department wasn’t too loud. It was a bit loud but we’d sort of chatter away about shit.

Almost every payday there’d be a collection for something.  If anyone’s relative had died or they were going to get married or anything like that, you’d take up a collection and then sometimes someone would say “oh the freezing workers have been out for a week”.  We’d take up a collection for them.  Everyone would put in something, basically.  I mean some people are a great deal more reluctant than others and I was never crazy about taking up collections but you learn to know the people who would always put in some. So you go to the most amenable person first and they’d chuck in 20 cents or something and you got your plastic bag and you’re coming round with this collection so once people see that stuff’s going in they just sort of follow suit. You just first get somebody you knew who will not make too much of a fuss about it. 

So we did that, we did that a lot.  Probably at least two paydays out of four there would be some sort of collection.  If it was for an industrial thing then we’d just take it back over to Danny’s work station and tip all these coins out and carefully count it out, write it down and send it to wherever it was supposed to go. That was quite a big part of life in the place.

That’s interesting. 

Did the workers there live in Petone and know other workers there who go to other plants?

There were, and there was a big swag of them who lived in Wainuiomata and they’d come over on two or three buses.  Others lived in Petone.  Most of them lived fairly handy.  One or two came out from Wellington.  One old guy lived up this road where I am now and he commuted out from Holloway Road to Fords every day for about 20 years. 

And there were various sort of pubs that people went to like the Hutt Park Hotel and one I forget the name of it now, at Petone.  There was quite a lot of drinking went on in those days too, not everyone would, but a lot of people would go most days after work and have two or three jugs.

So that sounds like a quite close-knit workplace then, cause people were socialising.

People were conditioned by their jobs.  On the job people were loyal to their own section rather than to anything else.  For people in the body shop, for example, that was their point of reference.  It was almost a rivalry between which would be the more sort of militant.But yeah people socialised together.

Can I compare it to freezing works where you got very different departments like the mutton butchers who were quite militant. And then you got the boning room and all that. Did different departments, like in the freezing works , have different rates of pay, incentive pay and performance pay they call it now? So the mutton butchers would be on quite a lot and then if you’re down in the Fellmongery or something like that you had lower pay.  Did they have that? 

Oh yeah we did, and standardising pay rates was the most unifying union thing. Some of the older guys told me about this in great detail so I know it’s true. The way the place got organised is with the new lot of union leaders. When the Coach Workers Union got a new set of faces in it, the first thing they did was standardised the pay rates. 

They went to the company and they worked out about six tier rates of pay. It must have been a nightmare to work out. There was your basic rate, and then there was additions for skill and experience and that. For example working in the lead booth was much more arduous than some other jobs, and final coach spraying was the most skilled thing of the lot.  Some people would try and learn to do it but they just wouldn’t be able to pick it up.  I never tried to, but that was the highest paid. 

So you got slightly different rates, recognising jobs that demanded more, that were either dirty or a bit harder, or heavier, stuff like that. The rates weren’t terribly far apart but everyone knew what they were going to get. There was also service pay that everyone got, and one thing we won quite early was an extra holiday after three years, an extra week.  That was quite a big deal and you could take that whenever you liked.  Once you’d been there for three years you got an extra week’s holiday every year and you could just tell the boss “oh next week I’m taking my holiday”. We got 10 days sick leave, and you could be away for three days without saying anything and just come back.  I mean you were supposed to ring up but after three days they said you’d abandoned your employment.

Was there quite a bit of absenteeism?

Oh yeah. For several reasons.  One is that we were probably reasonably paid for the time, so if someone just didn’t feel like coming into work sometimes they’d take what would now be called a mental health day. Because the factory was loud and noisy and in summer it was very hot working there took a bit of doing.  So sometimes, you’d think oh fuck it, I don’t feel like coming in today. So people would do that and of course everyone used up their 10 days sick leave. The one or two in the minority who didn’t – people  loyal to the company – every bloody agreement negotiations they would want to have it as a demand in the negotiations that you got paid your unused sick leave. We always knocked that back.  But that was what the goodie two shoes people wanted. 

So you had your week’s holiday after three years and then you had then 10 days sick leave and what would happen also sometimes is that if there was a tangi or an unveiling up the coast, you’d suddenly find that half of a department was gone away for the best part of a week. 

We had this American guy come in, new personnel officer, he was there for a few months.  He couldn’t believe it. He’d say what’s happening in the metal finish department?  Oh there’s a tangi up in Tolaga Bay.  A what!  What, and they’ve all gone?! 

Yeah, so there was that sort of thing.

And that was tolerated by the company apart from this American guy?

Well, they didn’t have much choice because they only just had enough people.  Before I got there it was even fuller employment and what would happen was if a person stayed for a month, they’d get a special extra payment for staying a month.  And if they stayed for six months they’d get an extra payment.  I remember one of the guys used to recruit people.  He’d say “well look here’s the thing, I’ll get you a job if you give me half your your bonus”, so you had that  And then there was the thing with immigrant labour, which is quite an important point. The scheme with the Tongan workers. Because there was a shortage of labour for a while the company started bringing in young Tongan men for six months . They got them out of the bush basically so these fit young guys have the chance to come. They got the same pay as us.

They were especially recruited by the company?

They were especially, well by the company and the government. They came on a six month scheme and they used to stay in these fucking awful huts in the old railway yard.

At Seaview was there a railway station?

No just railway huts in a yard.

Okay.

Sort of tool shed thing, and suddenly they’re plucked from the bush and they’re in the middle of winter in these little huts, walking along duck boards through the mud to their little huts and, and they couldn’t speak any English, most of them, hardly any. But from the company’s point of view they got these young fit guys who can’t talk back, really, cause they don’t know how to talk the language.

I remember one night I was doing overtime, which I didn’t normally do, and I was the senior delegate in charge of the plant. A guy came over from the body shop and said oh look we’ve got this fellow here, he’s hurt himself.  I went over and this young dude he’d had an accident, he’d cut his arm badly.  So he went to the company first aid and they said “oh look we’ll put a thing on, he’ll be alright”.  I said “like hell he’ll be alright.  He’s going to the doctor, he’s not going back on the job”.  And so they argued the point and I said look, he’s going to the doctor and he’s going to go now so I rung up a cab to charge it up to the union later. I said to the guy you come with me and to his credit he didn’t know what was going on but someone, one of his mates, must have said “this guy will fix you up”. So off we went to the doctor and I told the doctor what was happening and the worker got a fortnight off, paid.

He couldn’t speak English?

He couldn’t speak English at all, so I thought oh shit this is not very good so I thought I’d better try and learn the language so I started, I found, there was a lady there, Tongan lady worked there.  She’d been a school teacher back home and she started me teaching me this stuff and, and then a few months later I got some money from a false arrest from the Police – which is another story but anyway – I had this huge sum of $400 which was a lot of money then.  So I spent my two weeks holiday in Tonga trying to learn the language.

Oh okay.

So I went over there and I stayed in this village with people who had connections with the plant. I’ve forgotten nearly all of  my Tongan now but I got so I could hold a simple conversation. It wasn’t long after I got to have some aptitude and then they stopped the scheme!  But the thing was, in terms of the scheme, it was a monstrously unfair sort of deal because after six months employment they had to go back home, and after six months of course they’re starting to find their way around, know which way was up, talk a bit, and not be so easy to control. 

So they went back to Tonga and they would have, if they’d been careful with their money, saved enough to buy a cheap house in Tonga, made of breeze blocks.  Perfectly okay little house.  And so there they were back in Tonga with these raised expectations and no job in their new house. Then they got another fresh lot so it was just like turning a tap on and off getting these workers. We probably should have agitated a bit more about it. Of course they were delighted to be there, but it was the biggest abuse of labour I can think of really that I’ve directly experienced. 

Did the company install interpreters or signs, safety signs in Tongan for example?

No signs in Tongan or much interpretation. We did actually have one foreman who was fluent in Samoan, he was a Pakeha guy and his wife happened to be Samoan. There weren’t many signs of any description really. We did have a big thing about safety but it wasn’t in terms of putting up a sign.  You just made sure that the job was safe so you didn’t need a sign.

Yeah, and that was part of union organisation eh, to organise that. 

The first dawn raids happened in ’74 under the Labour government. Did that happen at the plant?  Did you have immigration officials come in?

I don’t remember anything like that.  I remember the dawn raids but I recall any at the plant.

What about the restructuring?

Yeah that relates to the occupation that we had. This was some time in the 80s. It was before I left but when I was still senior delegate and there was going to be some sort of closure. This is something that Graeme Clarke probably has more of the actual details because I can’t remember the circumstances surrounding it, but there was this threat that the place was going to close either wholly or partially. When that happens you are in a bit of a fix especially if your parts come from overseas. People talk about having work-ins and keeping the place going, but that can be done only if you can source your materials from somewhere . For stock we were sort of totally at the mercy of the company continuing to import stuff.

So we had a meeting. And this was Graeme Clarke’s idea this sort of occupation. He broke off a larger part of the workers, we’d arranged this beforehand, and they were out in the yard. The company didn’t know what was going on, they just knew that we were upset, and worried about this thing. So he headed down to the end of the plant where the new cars were stored and ready to go, cause we had been talking in our Union about bargaining with the employer’s stock – and not only at Ford. We never actually did it but it was something that was seriously considered up at a caravan place in Levin.

Is that Mullins?

I think it was Mullins. So anyway off goes Graeme leading the bulk of the people and of course all the company’s attention was on that. I lead a smaller contingent back through into the personnel office and into a room right down the end where no one’s ever been before where the big boss was.  No one had ever been into that room before so it was a slightly scary thing to do.  And I remember on that morning, there was a Bulgarian guy I used to work with every now and then, he was a leftist. We had this running gag that one of these days we’re going to storm the Winter Palace if we were pissed off with something.

Yeah.

I said Paul, today we are going to go to the Winter Palace. And we did. There were about 15 of us in our dirty boiler suits in this beautiful office.  It was like no other part of the factory, it was like a government minister’s office in Parliament.  And the boss was, I forget his name now, he was very together. He’s sitting there, behind his desk, fully bloody awake. And his two Assistant Personnel Managers, the guys that we dealt with every day, I remember they came running back, they stood framed in the doorway, they just quivered with rage and humiliation. For them it was as if the world had ended, whereas with the big boss it was okay, well this is happening, so I’ll handle it. We got some minor concessions.

Did you talk to the big boss?

Yeah, yeah.  Well he was sitting behind his desk and we’re standing in his office.

He conceded some little thing, he had power to negotiate, he didn’t need to consult anyone so he said you can have this, you can’t have that, and then after a bit of that we left.  Don’t make too much of it because I mean it wasn’t like, we’d sort of nailed ourselves in there or the sort of things that would go on in the movies, but we had actually stepped outside of our comfort zone a bit.

And there weren’t any repercussions?

Well no because I mean we hadn’t really done anything. I suppose what we got out of it was a little bit of satisfaction that we should have a go, which in terms of the plant closing wasn’t that much, but we didn’t feel quite so bad about it. Another thing is that trade unionism is something that plays by the rules basically.  And so there were a few times we maybe bent the rules a little bit. You can go on strike and all the rest of it, but that’s still within the rules. They don’t like it and it’s something that’s less acceptable now but there was a bit more scope for going on strike in those days.

We didn’t really have a sort of revolutionary attitude or strategy when it came down to it. Those of us who were socialists and members of left groups we were more into encouraging militant unionism and sort of thinking that that would somehow transform itself.

But it didnt.

I did have two illegal meetings in other factories.  One was over the road in Federal Springs and the guys there wanted a lead. It was an unorganised Engineer’s Union place.

It was a very heavy filthy job, totally unorganised and  the workers there said could I come over and give them a few pointers.  So I sneaked into the factory one day and we’re in the middle of Federal Springs talking about their issues and their boss saw me and he came charging over and I managed to escape.  I just fled, down the aisle with him chasing me and got out of it.  They knew Ford’s workers were getting some good stuff so they asked us, and they saw us as sort of leaders.

The other place was in the bottling plant and I used to drink at the Hutt Park Hotel and there was a guy there called Bluey who was a bottling plant delegate. He said the Trades Council wanted to have a meeting about a campaign. 

Was it the wage freeze?

Something like that. he said he didn’t know to run a union meeting. He said “can you come run the meeting”.  I said I’m not supposed to. “No Don, you come and run our meeting”. So anyway I sneaked out of Fords and I walked down the road that afternoon into the bottling plant and they were all sitting round.

So which union was this?

It might have been the Food and Beverage or something, Garth Fraser’s union – the guy with the cowboy boots.  Anyway, I go in there and in the bottling plant, in the smoko room, they all sit around drinking beer all the time.  It’s just there and they’re so used to it.  They drink beer all day. I wasn’t used to it. I’m having beer with them, and I can’t remember the rest for the life of me. We had a meeting, Bluey reckoned it was a good meeting.  I can’t remember it.  I remember just stumbling back home after the meeting but I was able to just go into the bottling plant and conduct this, what would have been a completely illegal meeting but no one cared so much then. 

Thats interesting.

Were there many what could be called wild cat strikes within the Ford Seaview plant?

Well you could sort of call them wild cat strikes.  I mean,  there were impetuous strikes -they were all sort of done under the auspices of the Union because the Union had no problem with strikes …

Right, right. So you just authorise it?

Well yeah I mean to the extent that there was probably quite a number of strikes that we had which were looking back probably a bit frivolous.

Like for example?

Oh, well there’s the thing that I got sacked for. We had a thing about training people right and we wanted to be paid for it, for showing someone how to do a thing. I was told to train someone and I refused to without extra pay and stuck to this position. Fords contended I’d been given a legitimate instruction. I knew this was just going to come to a head and so did Danny but if we were going to actually contest the issue, if we were going to carry out a campaign to try and secure payment for teaching people, it wasn’t the right way to go about it. So in terms of a group of workers just deciding to go on strike in effect that’s what happened, but it was done always in the name of the union. 

I’m trying to think of any instance where we counselled against a stoppage. See we had that sort of culture really, if some issue would come up, people are in the habit of discussing it, so they’d be worker’s decisions, but they’d be reasonably considered. 

There’s a story of the tea cups.  We used to have a smoko in the plant and they’d bring these trollies around, these old cleaners. The cleaners were all old guys, they’d wheel this tea round and we’d get out paper cups or polystyrene cups and drink our cup of tea then you’re supposed to put the cup in the bin.  Most people would just throw it on the floor.  And the cleaners got sick of that cause they had to clean up the cups.  They had a point. You’d have a bit of a walk over to the bin, so people would usually just throw their cup on the floor. So the cleaners, there were about a dozen of them, took action against us.  They set out to complain and they said oh we’ll put the tea out without any cups!

How does that work?

Well they just put out the tea and there were no cups on the trollies.  They brought the urns around and said we’re sick of you guys throwing the cups on the floor.  Straight away the majority of people, but not all, just started walking to the cafeteria, cause that’s where we had our meetings.  Something had happened and so we had a meeting about it . That’s what would happen.

Same with a sexual harassment dispute which was quite important.

That will be in the next installment.

One comment

  1. Good stuff Don. How working class life could be in an industry founded on “import substitution” where approx 16,000 people were employed full time for decades in assembly, logistics, admin and manufacturing of tyres, batteries, upholstery, glass and wiring by external companies.

    This was obviously before precarious work, contracting, interns and the union busting ECA. I spent 20 years as a storeworker and delegate in the car industry at Nissan in South Auckland, although a lot of that was union organising rather than assisting the employer!

    We had many similar situations to the ones you describe and made life long friends during our various struggles and strikes. I spoke to George Hickton years later when he was in Tourism and he said people he addressed at Employer seminars just had no idea what it was like in those days when workers took on the international car companies. There was a strike at Ford Wiri in the mid 80s and I attended an early morning negotiation as Northern Storeworkers Union President, one of the Engineers delegates wandered in from his caravan out front wearing a dressing gown and carrying a can of Lion Red! Hickton’s wife had sadly died recently too–what a scene.

    And we had a 10 week strike down the road at Nissan in ’88 as we resisted the Engineers class collaborationist approach–which our combined Union group successfully did. International solidarity with some militant Japanese workers had alerted us to what the “Nissan Way” was about a year before. Although in the long run the industry was closed.

    Look forward to your next instalment.

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