People, protests and politics 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 installment Don talks about speedup, antiapartheid protests, the Maori land march and different views on Norm Kirk

(The interview has been lightly edited. For citations please acknowledge the interviewer and interviewee The first installment is here, the second installment here and the third here.)

I can’t remember speed-up being an issue because all the time I  was there it was an organised place you know.  It was organised before I got there and, and it was organised in the time I was there so people were pretty alert to complain quickly. 

People grumble behind the scenes. Workplaces today that seems to happen a lot.

In terms of speed-up , have you read that thing that Peter Lusk wrote about?  It was quite a famous account he wrote when he went back into industry as an older worker. The guy was om the communist party for a while.  He went back to work about 40 years old.  Fisher and Paykel I think. He had a terrible time because the culture of the line he was on was moving very fast and the other worker’s reaction was to be sort of macho about it and be cross with people who couldn’t keep up.

Was that in the late 80s or something?

Yeah it was but, no I don’t remember speed up being a big issue because it was hot especially in the summer and the place is full of big paint ovens to dry the cars.

I guess they’re in boots and heavy gear?

Oh yeah and all the welders have got this headgear on and so that was a constant issue.  Sometimes, once in a while, people just went home when it was too hot.

Like the freezing works.  Yeah.  And fumes and noise

Oh yeah, fumes and noise.  Well we weren’t that fussy about the noise.  Not probably as fussy as we should have been but, even where I worked which was quieter it was still noisy because when I first got to the truck trim there was John and Ron and Tom, and I was always called Donald instead of Don there because our names they all sounded the same so anyone I meet from Fords it’s always Donald you know.

Shall we talk a bit about the big strike over the end of new year in ’79 coming to ’80?  It was a four week strike.  I think it was all up about 4 weeks and it was over a guy. Was it Brian Te Huia who got sacked and there was a dispute about it? I think you guys had banned overtime? Some workers got coned into it and they produced some parts?

Oh is that what it was?  I’d forgotten what it was.  He was the least of it because I mean okay there was that, that’s what started it.  He hadn’t been there all that long and after we got his job back I think he left about two or three weeks later.

After you’d gone on four week’s strike for the guy?

Or maybe two or three months later.  He left not long after but the strike wasn’t about him.


It wasn’t, no disrespect to him but his sacking started it and it became sort of a test of strength really. At that stage there’d been various disputes and things like that and I think we’d, you know, we’d sort of lost a few things and, and people were pissed off with the company right and then this thing got going and it took on this bloody life of its own and I think quite honestly if you’d asked quite a few of them what it was about, they wouldn’t have …

They wouldnt know, yeah.

Yeah, until you told me I, you know I’d completely forgotten what the hell it was about.

I also did read in the paper though, in the Coach Workers Journal that it was also about an attempt by Fords to try and have a go at the Union.

Oh it was.  It was a test of strength. It was quite interesting because it went on for quite a while and we didn’t picket outside but we did a lot of other things.  We did a lot of organisating to distribute food and stuff.  Every area in the district had a food depot.

Was that at somebodys house?

Yeah things like that.  I remember I was in my flat next to the Hutt Park Hotel and my main memory of that strike is my ear getting hot and changing the phone to the other one, I was on the phone, all day, organising.  That’s mostly how I did it. I’m basically on the phone all day so we had depots where we went out and got food from all sorts of places and then we made up parcels and distributed it.  We, did that in a serious way and it did provide some food but it also was a bit of a morale boosting thing.  I remember one guy, we’re driving round on a truck distributing things and here’s this guy who had been on strike for a fortnight and I remember him saying happily “there’s not enough hours in the day are there”. He was enjoying doing this sort of role. We were in charge of our destiny to a certain extent.  People felt that. I  mean there was also a lot of negative shit with the dispute, a lot of which I wouldn’t have seen, like family arguments …

Money troubles.

Yes, kids bloody denied things because there wasn’t any money and you know there’s a lot of shit that you don’t see. But there definitely was among quite a few workers a feeling of being in charge.

Doing stuff together?

Yeah and like the company, cause you go into a factory and even if you’re a well organised place you go in there and you’ve got to do what you’re told all day. So they weren’t doing what they were told.  They were doing all day what they’d decided to do.

I read also people contributed by doing their own kind of food gathering expeditions to the beach and that type of stuff.

Oh yeah people did that.  People went fishing and, some people would have missed out a bit more than others but we did make a conscious effort to sustain people and, I mean, and it was four weeks all up.

18 days, working days.

Yeah, didn’t seem terribly long to us but I suppose these days it sort of is.

Yeah these days you go whoa, 18 day strike.  Yeah.  I was going to ask you, around that time, well kind of my view is that there’s a big upsurge in the class struggle cause you’ve got Kawerau in 1978 a big strike there, and they defeat suspensions and they have a welfare centre, I think that’s the first one. Then you’ve got ’79 general strike and all that, quite a few other strikes but then, then you got your dispute and at the same time your dispute’s going when you got Kinleith happening and you’ve got, you know which is kind of a, kind of, a major victory if you like and they had a drop in centre there as well.  Were you influenced by that mood?

Oh yeah, there was to some extent a consciousness of being a little bit pleased, not among all of us but among the more class-conscious people, when you heard of some big thing happening.  There was also a more political and internationalist element too. 

When the Springbok Tour come along that really divided people a lot.  Maybe roughly in half and we weren’t united on it but a lot of workers became active to some extent.  We had one meeting with some black South African Trade Unionist out the front of the factory and it was mainly, because it was such a divisive thing that was made voluntary, to come to the meeting.  And we got a fair crowd, you know probably about I don’t know about half of them actually came.  Pat Kelly made a very good speech to our union around that time defending the anti-apartheid position. When activists were blocking off roads and that in the Hutt Valley, I mean when we blocked off this bridge and we’re arrested for it, most of the people blocking off  that bridge in Petone were motor workers, who’d come from Fords or Austins.

 We’d been agitating away and there was a lot of work put in and it paid off.  And when the SIS Amendment Bill came, we we bused in two or three busloads of workers to the demonstration. We put on a free bus.  We had a meeting, voted on it and, so people either went home or they went in on the bus to the demonstration. 

They all went on strike but they didn’t all go to the demonstration.  But they got on a bus that the Union had paid for.  Went into Wellington and, and marched in the demonstration.

Wasn’t there a group at Fords Seaview that was against the Tour?  Like some factories out in the Hutt?


No, okay.

No I mean the Coach Workers consistently put stuff out, we put our own leaflets and things out and, and stuff like that.  We didn’t have any particular group.

Did you have a vote on opposing at all?

I can’t remember.I think we may have because I remember a meeting. All I can clearly remember is Pat Kelly standing up there and making quite a courageous sort speech.

He tended to be very hardline before he got quite so mixed up in the Labour Party.  He tended to be a lot more principled on political things than a lot of these people.  I mean theSocialist Unity Party in particular sort of ran away from that issue, cause they didn’t want to face the possibility of defeat.  They didn’t take any union stand , because it was very divisive. 

There’s a bit of a myth that blue collar workers were all for the Tour, which is not true.  A lot of them were but a lot of them weren’t.  But it was always a risky thing. We consistently put stuff out from the Coach Workers, and not just in 81, as long as I was there.  I mean George Thomson would, in his purple prose, write stuff in the journal, that florid sort of …

Yeah I was reading that I thought whoa, who’s this guy from, yeah

Norm Kirk

The best article that George wrote never, never went into the Coach Workers journal unfortunately.  He used to write most of the journal and print it himself on this printing machine. Just before Norman Kirk died, like Kirk had been pretty bloody anti-union in various ways, George was putting his magazine together and he wrote this editorial ripping up Norman Kirk for shit paper, saying what a low sort of da de da snake in the grass he was da de da and then the news comes over the radio Norman Kirk’s died. So George tore up his copy and wrote a completely different editorial saying what a great friend to the working class  Kirk had been.  If only the news had come through an hour later we would have had a nice piece in our magazine.

Yeah its interesting.

Yeah so one thing I remember, I think you wrote in Redline once but I couldn’t find it, about how, for my generation who have not been through many strikes and people younger than me probably haven’t been on strike ever, they actually don’t know what it’s like, but did you find that strikes changed people?

Oh yeah.

On a cleaning job where I was there once was a strong instance of people changing. It was a very oppressive little job up there if you don’t mind me just digressing but talking about people changed by strikes. The overseer was a bit of  a bastard.  He was pretty tough on people and, anyhow, I was the delegate and we ran out of sugar in the smoko room and the guys said oh Don we’ve run out of sugar and, get us some more sugar.  I said oh yeah yeah, okay and forgot about it.  I didn’t take sugar in my tea so the next day it was “well where’s the sugar?”  Oh sorry, I forgot.  Yeah okay, so I went straight to the boss and said “can we have more sugar?” He said “no, no all those fuckin coconuts they’re bloody eating all that sugar.  They’re all going to get diabetes, they’ve eaten it all up.  They take too much sugar.  Fuck them.  They can just wait for a couple of weeks okay.” 

Anyway I came back and I said okay this is what the guy said in response to your request. And they’re a bit indignant and this is just at the end of smoko time and we’re all sitting round and I said well he’s not going to give it to us just for the asking so we need to discuss this a bit more and at that stage the boss came over and he said “hey get back to work, get back to work, your smoko’s finished.  You’re all on an illegal strike”. For some reason they were focused on the sugar and didn’t move. Then one of the women who never said boo to anyone before she said “let’s have our meeting out in the yard”.  She led us out into the yard which was a very sensible thing to do because we were out of his face. Of course we’re all there in our uniforms in the yard, so then we had this meeting and I said “look I tell you what”, remembering there’d just been been a whole lot of student occupations, I said “why don’t we go to the Vice-Chancellor’s office and tell them we want some sugar.  Why don’t we all go to his office?”

All but one guy said they thought it was a good idea.  One said oh no no, don’t want to. To keep unity I said okay shall we give him a day.  And yeah we’ll give him a day and then we’ll go to the Vice-Chancellor’s office. So they all went back with their heads up, and these were people who’d just been you know quite cowed before, heads up cause they’d done something.  In the meantime the rumour rips around Victoria University in two seconds, the cleaners are going to occupy the Vice-Chancellor’s office. The cleaning company panicked and we got the sugar back and a couple of weeks later they even wrote coffee into the award which hadn’t been there before.

But the thing I always remember was this woman leading us out there and also once we’re out there just in a few minutes, really, they’re sort of transformed, cause they’d literally crossed the line you know and they were in foreign territory and so they, and people, I think people, once they’re there they will find their way pretty quickly.

I mean it’s only a little case but it’s a case where okay I’m sort of an experienced guy and I’m able to help guide it a little bit but it wasn’t me who gave the lead. I remember that a bit more clearly than maybe some Ford things cause it’s a bit more recent.

Yeah for sure.  Cool.  Shall we talk a bit about Maori involvement because I want to have a chat on Maori and strikes and what not because I think it’s an important topic. This is a big question but do you reckon that Maori tended to be a bit more rebellious than other people in the plant?

Yes I do and it’s a bit hard to say exactly why. The body shop senior delegate was a Maori guy.  He was a fluent Maori speaker.  I spent quite a lot of time with him.  Interesting guy.

Joe …

Rahi, Joe Rahi.  He’s dead now.  Quite a long time ago.  And the metal finish delegate was Maori, Dave Puia.  There were more Samoan people in the paint shop and the main paint shop delegate was a Samoan guy.  Fundamentalist Christian.  Very religious guy.  Very militant too.

Thats interesting.

Yeah he was always trying to convert me from communism to Christianity.  We were standing outside the paint oven one time and he says, Don he says “go in there”.  I said “I can’t fuckin go in there Jacob  it’s an oven.”  He said “if you don’t take the Lord Jesus Christ into your life when you die you’ll be like in that oven forever.”

Hell fire.

Oh yeah, I know he wasn’t a bad guy old Jacob but, anyhow but, and on the trim, trim line for quite a while the delegate was a Maori woman and …

Did you say Melanie?  What that her?

 Melanie, I forgot her, yeah, and a lot of the sub delegates were Maori.  I don’t know, they just, they just did seem to be a bit more into it.  I can’t quite say why.  I mean there were quite a few Pakeha people who were, who were pretty staunch you know. After Joe moved on the guy who then became the senior delegate in the body shop apparently had something to do with one of the gangs.  I can’t recall which one. The company always swore that the body shop was you know just controlled by a gang.  I was never conscious of that being any you know impediment to social progress or …

Yeah, yeah.  Thats interesting.  Were the Maori from one particular area?

Oh I don’t know much about that.  I mean like they were from all over, this is a bit before the cultural revival. 

When the Maori Land March came quite a lot of part in it.  Ford workers went up and prepared food in at the Marae in Porirua, stuff like that.  A lot of us went from Fords, but  I don’t remember any sort of in depth discussions about the politics of the thing.  Because it was a Maori thing we went to it.

So the Coach Workers officially support it or just helped out?

The union would have.  Yeah if you look in the journal at the time if there’s any reference if there was anything it would be supportive. I don’t think we ever took a vote officially but a lot of people went from the plant and I remember we’re sitting round in the, at one of these places in Porirua and Joe Rahi says “Don can you stand up and say so and so” – I forget what.  I said “why can’t you get up and say it Joe?” He said “all my elders are here so I can’t speak”.  This is interesting cause I mean Joe is a guy who was in terms of in the plant he was about as elder as you could get.

Another thing was I went to a couple of unveilings up the coast in a bus.  I remember one and, cause that was the sort of thing that happened, people I worked with they’d say oh you’re coming to our unveiling.  Oh alright so you get on this bus and they bless the bus and you’re sitting there drinking bloody rum and stuff all the way up to Ruatoria. 

How do you reckon Maori influenced this kind of job culture of the plant?

Well I suppose you could say there’s a collective sort of culture, but I can’t really put it much more specifically than that.

Did they treat each other kind of like a loose family? 

Well the whole place was a bit like a family affair. I was there for a long time and heaps of people went through.  They just stayed for a few months and years later quite often I’d be walking down the road and someone would say oh hi, hi Donald or hi Frank or whatever they remember me as, and I’d just say hi.  I don’t know who the hell they were but I’d figure they were probably at Fords at one stage. That went on for years and occasionally still does.

because I think there was a certain consciousness and this went above, across all sort of races of, that we had we had a sort of a thing going you know.  I remember talking to a bus driver the other day, hadn’t seen him for years and he, he used to work there and I, I, you know shook hands with him da de da and I said oh how you’re going.  How’s the bus he says oh it’s alright.  It’s alright it’s just a job.  It’s sort of it’s not like what we had at Fords. Yeah once in a while you’d sort of bump into someone and there was a little bit of oh hey remember what we had.  You know because there was this sort of feeling and this guy was, he had, he was a Samoan guy this guy actually I think but I mean you know there was this sort of feeling that we, we had a little bit of sort of control over our sort of destiny and we could hold our heads up .

We could only be pushed so far and also we made a few initiatives like we won a few things in terms of pay and conditions.  Cause what we had round all the car plants was a thing called the Hutt Valley Porirua Basin collective agreement.  And that was a very important thing.  We’d negotiate that I think once a year, it was because the Award was so feeble and we would negotiate all the unions except the Engineers and we’d go to the companies and we’d get this agreement over and above the Award.  After we’d done it the Engineers would walk in and sign the same document and …

So theyre freeloading.  But you ……………….

Well it sort of was and it was, I think it’s a pity that we didn’t make more effort to seek more unity because we, to some extent all of us sort of saw the Engineer’s rank and file as well as their officials as being sort of part of the problem you know.   And you can see how that come about I suppose because what had happened, we’d be negotiating our collective agreement and we’d be all walking off the job to go over and have our meeting and sometimes one or other of them would say well you guys should be with us, you know come with us and sort of, oh no well we’ll get this, we’ll get the same as what you got, you see.  So after a while they, they got used to that role and we got used to our role and it was, looking back it was pretty divisive cause we were all just factory workers …

Yeah exactly.

…together but at the time we didn’t feel like that.

So that was, so you know if I had my time again I’d sort of, you know try and do more about, I don’t know what I’d do but you know be more conscious of that stupidity of that division  …

Did you have a site committee? Was that committee controlled or something cause you said that each union had one vote?

Oh yeah yeah well what happened, what happened was that old Danny always wanted to have a joint works committee which is what they have in the UK and stuff like that but in our factory it, it didn’t work very well because you had two big unions and then you had one carpenter …

Had one vote?

Yeah carpenter one vote, two painters one vote, several hundred Coachworkes one vote …and of course the company, they made full use of this set up you see and so, once in a while workers would say oh we should all have one big union.  They’d never had any IWW agitation or anything.. it just made sense, you know.

Yeah, yeah.  Yeah that’s a practical thing.  Just to clear some things up, just back to the Maori thing did, did anybody apart from Joe have explicit links with the kind of, I don’t know, the land march movement and the, and the Maori sovereignty movement that picked up particularly in the 80s?

One of the guys got a bit more into it I think but I don’t know anything about, I don’t know anything about that.  I mean my main sort of interest was in these people as militant unionists. Whenever I could I went to Maori dos and that. Unveilings and tangi and all the rest of it but that was sort of cause we were sort of working together sort of thing.

Yeah yeah of course.

There was like no Maori TV then nothing remotely resembling that you know.  That sort of big cultural thing hadn’t sort of really sort of taken off.  I spent quite a lot of time hanging around just yarning with Joe about his upbringing. Hee used to get strapped for speaking English at school and, speaking Maori at school.

He was quite fluent and he had a pretty tough upbringing in the country.  When he was a kid his dad gave him a gun and two bullets.  A 22 rifle and two bullets and he said he had to bring home two dead things, otherwise he’d get a hiding.  So that’s how he learnt to shoot straight. 

So you know he used to talk, and he would, once in a while he’d translate stuff into Maori and we did a little bit of translation in the Coach Workers Journal into Samoan and Maori and I remember him saying well he wasn’t quite sure how to do it because if he wrote it this way it would piss some of the Maori’s off and wrote it another way, you know.  He made it clear to me there wasn’t just one reo, you know there was different things and he was  very aware of these.  He didn’t know quite which one to pick.

Right, right.  According to where youre from.


Cause I was a little bit more focused on the Pacific Island people see cause they couldn’t speak English at all.  So that’s why I was trying to learn a Pacific language.  There wasn’t the same sort of need that I could see to try and learn Te reo and it would have been confusing.  I mean it was hard enough job trying to learn Tongan you know.

Yeah for sure.  So, so shall we talk about Pacific Islanders?  Like can you tell me roughly how many were there, and what different Pacific Islands?

Oh yeah well, well, though I couldn’t tell you what proportion.  They tended to be more in the paint shop. 

I mean people from different nationalities were all through the plant right but if you had to roughly categorise it you’d say well Maori people in the body shop, Maori and Pacific Island on the metal finish line, mostly Polynesian in the paint shop, greater proportion of Pakehas on the, on the trim line, something, roughly like that and most of the Greeks and East Europeans over in the finishing department, but, well there was, there was Samoan and Tongan, and Rarotongan.  I wasn’t particularly aware of any Tokelau or Niuean.  Tongans sort of stuck out cause they were the ones who had no English.

Samoans had some?

Yeah although they were a bit limited.  I remember Jacob – he was this fundamentalist guy and we became quite good mates actually – he was quite a big figure in their community I suspect. How he came to be the delegate he jumped up at a meeting at the paint shop and he wasn’t happy, he wasn’t the delegate and he said I want you to speak for my people and da de da de da and he, you know, he sort of carried on and sort of put himself forward as a spokesperson and became the delegate. He tended to be a bit of a independent minded. I mean just because Danny said something you know he would weigh it rather than just put his hand up. 

Cool.  So one thing thats in the literature, theres very little written about the Samoans or Tongans in the workplace but what is in there actually says that Samoans and Tongans were reluctantly in unions because they hadnt had much experience of them in their home country and, and they were kind of passive in unions.

No I didn’t find that at all I must say.  I didn’t find that at all.  I mean the Tongan people who came really right out of the villages you know they seemed to me to get the union idea quite quick and I, don’t recall any hassles of a Pacific Island person being sort of anti-union.  I can recall stuff with some of the people from Europe, partly because of sort of anti-communist conceptions and also quite a few of the Greek people. They tended to be very hard working, ambitious people and they’d do all the overtime they could and they were trying to, some of them they were trying to get a little business.  And they’re in there and they’d just work their fucking arse off you know and blind to everything else.  It wasn’t that they were sort of anti-union they just didn’t want anything to get in the way of earning as much as they could and get a little business going. So there was that, but I don’t recall any problem ever with Pacific people.  In fact at General Motors we recruited a couple of Pacific guys off the floor into the WCL.  Robert Reid recruited a couple of these people.

Thats right cause you had a back page in Samoan.

Oh yeah and we sold a fair few papers too to Samoan people. Jacob was very religious but it was never any impediment to militant unionism.

That’s interesting.  Can we say that’s kind of Samoans and Tongans have got and all these other Pacific Islanders have got that kind of collective culture you know?

Oh yeah I think so.  I mean yeah I think that was in a similar way to which Maori people have.  It’s just that Maori people have just of course a lot more connection with various western sort of systems and stuff and so a bit more, you know industrial suss, you know.  But …

Pacific Islanders learned that quickly I guess, on the job though.


They, they sussed things out too, yeah.

Oh yeah.  well I mean they could see that if they had a problem this union was something that would help people.  That was quite readily apparent because we did try very hard to satisfy any sort of grievance.  That culture sort of took on a life of its own and it was apparent to people.

Yeah yeah for sure.  How many Pacific Island delegates were there? You talked about Jacob.

He was the main one and, trying to think, there would have been another couple in the paint shop probably, and some delegates they sort of came and went a bit.  Yeah there were some I think in the metal line.

In fact the only people who weren’t delegates were the Greeks or the Bulgarians or …

So was a guy called Mike Sinai.  Was he Maori or Pacific Islander?

Mike Sinai.  Yeah, yeah was he at Fords?

I think so.

I think he was at GMs.

Oh yeah yeah.  I think he was a, was he a lead delegate or senior delegate or something.

Yeah.  Nice guy.  I can’t, I can’t remember any details about him.  I remember he came to one or two WCL functions I think.

Yeah it’s hard to pick things.  Just read about it.  Cool, so which Eastern Europeans were there?  So you said Bulgarians.

Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia.  There was one young woman who was quite interesting.  She was a loudly professed socialist from Yugoslavia. We used to argue about Yugoslavia a lot.  She was a great big fan of Tito. She was there for a while.  Forget her name now.  She was on the truck line so I had quite a lot to do with her.

And in general all these cultures got on ?

And there was an Albanian, there was one Albanian guy.  I don’t think we had any Germans.  No.


Yeah one Polish and a couple of Russians.

How did all these cultures get on?

Oh alright because I mean, see a lot of those East European people had come soon after the war and like the Pommy people you know they’d come from what they thought was a nicer place, a nicer, peaceful sort of country with, with a number of advantages in it and, and they could all speak English alright.  And, got along alright I mean you know, yeah.

Were there a few Poms and Scots and Irish people there?

There were. I remember one older Pommy guy talking bitterly about Winston Churchill.  I’d never previously known what a bastard Churchill was. I’d only had a vague idea of him as some sort of a war hero or something and he sort of had a view of him as a British working class kid.

Yeah so it was quite interesting cause see we’d have lots of discussions. I’d have quite a lot of pointless arguments with these East European people about socialism and because I’m selling one or two communist papers on the job, papers stuffed down in my overalls and I’m, making attempts to spread socialist ideas and of course they were very down on this sort of stuff.

And because we had a bit of time, especially in plant two, if people came from another country we’d talk to each other about that, it was interesting. There also were one or two people from Africa. People from all over the world. One of our delegates was from Scotland, he was very interesting.  He’d been a bedroom steward on a boat and he told me all about you know all the ins and outs of that. 

So he was a seaman?

Yes. Because we made a bit of space for ourselves we had a bit of time to exchange ideas.