The last of the Ford car plant series

Don Franks was interviewed by Dr Toby Boraman in December 2013 about his time working in the militant Ford car plant in the 1970s. This is the fifth and final installment of that interview.

The first installment is here, the second installment here, the third here and fourth installment here.

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


It was really interesting when you said in an email that the Storemen and Packers, right at the start of the plant, they formed their own union.

Are you aware of the Storemen’s rank and file movement?

Was that John Ryall?

John Ryall and Harold Merriman, and a few others.  At Fords there was this old guy Henry Biggs who was a Storeman, nice guy.  He put all his effort into the union. He was an older guy and storeworkers were dissatisfied with their official union, which wasn’t a terrific union by any stretch of the imagination. So they just made their own in the plant.  I mean they’re still getting their union fees taken out of their pay but they ran a raffle every week.  So you run a raffle off a hundred dollars, and the first prize is 50, second prize is 20, what’s that 70, and then the next prize is 10 so you got 20 bucks left for the fundraiser. So you get a prize. Just go round at pay time.  And they ran this raffle every week and they built up their own funds and, so they just acted like that really. 

Right.  So how did they work? How did they not get stomped on by the company?

Well they weren’t, they doing anything outlandish.  Instead of consulting the union if anything happened they just sorted stuff out themselves, or they came and asked us, and we helped them out. Good guy Henry, I don’t really know what his background was but he talked about Marx once in a while. I don’t know whether he belonged to anything but he’d read a bit.

Were they involved in the rank and file movement?

A bit.  I mean they weren’t driven the way that Harold was. I used to flat with Harold.  He worked at Austins with John Ryall.  And, yeah they supported it. 

But they were more focussed on the job I guess?

Yeah, oh yeah totally, they were totally focussed on the job.

So about, about the Coach Workers and WCL workplace strategy? Did this change over time and were the two different for a start?

What happened was that about a dozen of us – we were all student sort of backgrounds – we went to worked in industry. Tobacco factory, the shoe factory and the car plants. We had this idea of going and working in industry, which I’m always pleased I did. So after a while we finished up without really planning anything much. We had half a dozen people in car factories. We had a motor workers branch but we didn’t have any sort of grand strategy really. We were trying to promote socialist ideas and promoting militant unionism and workers’ activity. 

The Labour Party was quite active. That’s one place we made a bit of a difference because there were constant union office moves every now and then to affiliate to the Labour Party and we always managed to knock that down.  Took a bit of doing, but Danny wanted to affiliate, and as time got on and he got a bit more bitter about not getting his way there he got more and more into making us affiliated. I think it was probably because we didn’t like it, because he was never active in the Labour Party.  Neither were most of these people who wanted to affiliate really.

So what did we do? It was the WCL that made the difference between getting motor workers to anti-apartheid meetings and anti-SIS things and stuff like that. We had some effect and I do think it made a difference that I was in the factory when that sexual harassment thing came in. It did make some difference so we were sort of bringing political ideas, not in a terribly systematic way, into this militant union environment.  But when it came redundancies and that we were really at a bit of a loss. We had that little rather half-cocked occupation which is better than nothing, maybe, but we didn’t have a revolutionary sort of strategy.

A place like Fords, existing on imported parts, you can’t run it as a worker’s co-op.  You can’t do that because of obviously logistical reasons.  What I think you can do though is you probably get a better redundancy settlement if you actually have a serious occupation, you know serious. Have you read the Great Flint Sit-down?

No I havent.

You must read that.  That’s the sort of car workers’ story to beat all. So that’s sort of what we did but we were finding our own way a lot. We’d study various Marxist books and that but there wasn’t always a lot of connection between that and what we went out and did the next day.

You know you’d have your study and then you’d go and just do your union thing and so in fact it didn’t very often connect up.

That’s interesting.  Do you think if it was a larger country or you had a tradition of different types of Marxism you could have hooked into generations of dissent?

Well there would be that but what I have thought for a long long time was that the split in the Wellington Communist Party, the expulsion of Wellington Branch had a very profound effect on left politics in New Zealand actually.  Much more than people would think because when that Wellington Branch was expelled these older expelled people who my generation sort of worked with and looked, we just accepted their opinion that they’re just crazy buggers up there in the official party in Auckland , crazy ultra-left.

In later years when I got a bit to do with them and joined up when they became Socialist Worker I found out that was certainly not entirely the case.  But what happened is the expulsion and resulting bad feeling split the revolutionary left I think in a significant way. It was like you got just part of the collective wisdom, not all of it. Energy was wasted in the sort of subsequent antagonisms.

So, what we had for a model was two or three people who remained active and with their strengths and weaknesses and didn’t connect to the full revolutionary experience that there was.  Not that there was a hell of a lot but there was quite a bit. 

It’s really interesting., cause I talked to some ex-Communist Party people, particularly in Auckland …

Oh who?

 I havent talked to Bill Lee but Jim Gladwin and that and who else.

Barry knows a hell of a lot.

Barry knows a lot, hell of a lot and whats his name, the old Irish guy.

Oh right.

Jimmy ODea. 

Yeah.  Oh yeah.  I never met Jimmy. 

And they learnt a lot on the job as well you know, at the same time as you guys were learning and they did do a lot of stuff on the ground as well. 

Oh yeah, oh for sure.  Yeah for sure.

But I get the feeling they were always trying to do stuff on their own.  They were trying to initiate something rather than trying to work within things, you know what I mean?

Yeah that’s right. See, we had that part of the tradition but the weakness of it was you finished up just working for the union. You see what I mean so that’s what we got.  We missed that sort of more independent thing. So it felt like if there hadn’t been that split you would have got that mix of outlook really.  Yeah and as more time goes by the more I think the split had a very unfortunate effect.

What, you said in the email quite interesting thing about the militant union still had constraints on them.  They’re still part of capitalism.  So what constraints did you find?

The union begins and ends really with workers in a certain physical space – a town or industry or something and they’re trying to protect and where possible advance their wages and conditions and that’s basically a point of unity. Within that you can get a huge lot of political opinions which can accommodate anything from revolutionaries to almost ACT type outlook people. So it doesn’t matter how left an individual is, if your job is to be a secretary of a union, you’ve got to do what you’re employed to do.  That’s your mission. And then people have got to have work right so, to what extent do you support capital? In a capitalist country the only place you can work is in capitalist enterprises so there are times that come up when you know you need to sort of support these purely to be able to work this sort of stuff.

Then all these bloody things like, do you support import controls all the rest of it? And then of course the far more prickly question of migrant workers and accusations of people taking our jobs, all that sort of cry and all that. So it doesn’t matter what ideas you’ve got in your head, union leaders are in a certain sort of situation, and certain material conditions, and plus there’s the laws that surround these. So it’s not just a matter of getting some great militant person into a leading union position. If you want to try and change things you actually need to have a strategy that’s based on the reality that you’re in.  You going to make an analysis of it and then try and put it into practice, and that’s a lot easier said than done.

Oh yeah.

A hell of a lot of time was, is I think, not only unions but in leftist things has been wasted with like, well it’s essentially personality politics.  You know oh so and so’s a fucking arsehole you know we really need so and so in there instead  You know and that comes, that comes up sort of so often and it’s so fucking limited you know, yeah.

Yeah, yeah that’s true. What’s it like reflecting back on it, like lessons from the time ……good bits?

Well I think we saw unions as being inherently sort of revolutionary really, which they aren’t.  I mean they’re absolutely necessary but I don’t think they’re revolutionary organisations and in some respects they can be constraints on revolutionary developments and have been. We haven’t really gone into this but I think the proliferation of little sort of factional groups wasted a lot of time. How to rise above that I don’t think anyone’s cracked that.

Another thing too is to see some of these things won’t be repeated because it’s relatively easy to organise people who are literally under one roof.  You go round and talk to them, and also if people are doing physical work together it does sort of engender a certain sort of solidarity. I think that people apart from one another doing mental work don’t get that experience.  If you’re passing shit back and forth to each other you know …

And so what I guess I’m saying is that it’s pointless to try to recreate what’s happened, you can’t. I think we’ve got to see that the same relationship remains between labour and capital.

Talking about lessons I think along the way I’ve mentioned things, conclusions looking back you that would seem now to be evident but which weren’t at the time. 

Yeah, yeah.  Cool.  Thank you Don