Friday, August 1, 2014

Con Devitt and the decline of union militancy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 30.)
 
Cornelius Devitt died in Wellington a couple of weeks ago. That name would mean nothing to younger New Zealanders, but to those of a certain age, Con Devitt was once a household name. In fact you could almost say he was public enemy number one.
Devitt was a trade union official. To be precise, he was secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union.

That may not sound significant, but the Boilermakers’ Union included the workers who did the welding on construction jobs involving structural steel.
It was a small union, but it wielded power far beyond its size because it effectively controlled some of the country’s biggest construction jobs. And in the 1970s, under Devitt’s leadership, the Boilermakers’ Union was synonymous with militancy and disruption.

Most notoriously, the union was blamed for endless delays in the building of Wellington’s showpiece BNZ Centre. Begun in 1973 and intended for completion in 1977, the 31-storey building wasn’t finished until 1984. The final cost was four times greater than the original estimate.
The BNZ site wasn’t the only one where the boilermakers made their presence felt. They were also involved in long-running disputes at Mangere Bridge, Marsden Point oil refinery and the Kawerau pulp and paper mill.

But the BNZ job caused the greatest outrage. It was in the heart of Wellington and thus smack-bang in the public eye. And because the BNZ in those days was still state-owned, the taxpayer had a direct stake in it. One consequence of the BNZ fiasco was that New Zealand architects stopped designing buildings that depended on structural steelwork.
I interviewed Devitt in 1995 and he insisted the union was made a scapegoat for other problems on the BNZ job. I’m sure there was an element of truth in that, but there was no doubt that the boilermakers were a bloody-minded lot who seized any excuse they could for downing tools. On one memorable occasion they went on strike because a union delegate didn’t like his company-issue boots.

Rob Muldoon was prime minister then, and he was in the habit of referring to “Clydeside militants” – a shorthand term for left-wing unionists from Britain who attained positions of influence in New Zealand unions. That was a direct reference to Devitt, whose early days were spent in Glasgow’s Clydeside area, then a hive of heavy industry. Devitt proudly told me it was known as “Red Clydeside” on account of its tradition of union militancy.
Devitt, who was 86 when he died, was one of the last of a generation of union leaders whose faces were very familiar to New Zealanders in the 1970s and early 80s. They included Bill Andersen (Drivers’ Union), Pat Kelly (Cleaners and Caretakers), Blue Kennedy and Frank McNulty (Meat Workers), Don Goodfellow (Railwaymen) and Jim Knox (Federation of Labour president).

Some were Marxists, though not always openly so. Factionalism ran deep within the union movement, not only between militants and conservatives (of whom the Irish Catholic Tony Neary, of the Electrical Workers’ Union, was the figurehead) but also within the left – most notably between Moscow-aligned communists and those who took their ideological cue from Beijing.
It was a time when militant unions wreaked economic havoc in key industries. Freezing works, the wharves, car assembly plants, transport (especially the Cook Strait ferries, which were seen as especially vulnerable) and the pulp and paper industry were often targeted.

It was ironic that Muldoon, despite his much-vaunted tough-guy image, never got on top of the union problem. Unions went on strike with almost complete impunity throughout his nine years in power, and no doubt contributed to the woefully sick economy that Labour inherited in 1984.
Only a handful of union survivors from that era remain. They include Ken Douglas, who went on to head the Council of Trade Unions, and former Seafarers’ Union president Dave Morgan, though neither remains active in union affairs. Douglas tried to hold the movement together when it began to break apart in the late 1980s and was savagely attacked for supposedly betraying the workers – another irony, given his socialist and militant credentials.

It all seems a lifetime ago, which I suppose it was. Yet that period of strong-arm unionism left an enduring legacy.
Many New Zealanders retain sharp memories of the damage done by industrial turmoil. That goes a long way toward explaining why the union movement today is a shadow of what it once was.

Economic upheaval, deregulation and globalisation wiped out the old centres of union power, such as the big freezing works and car assembly plants. Politicians did the rest, passing new employment laws that tipped the scales in favour of employers.
The abolition of compulsory trade union membership in 1991 was a turning point. Some militant blue-collar unions never wanted it in the first place, believing the movement was weakened by numerically large unions, such as those covering retail and clerical workers, whose members were not strongly committed to union principles and were reluctant to take industrial action.

Today, less than 17 percent of the labour force is unionised and some once-formidable unions no longer exist. Others have shrunk or have been absorbed by others. Power has shifted to white-collar unions, such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations.
There’s a new generation of union leaders – typically much better-educated than their predecessors, more media-savvy and less locked into old, class-warfare mindsets. And because unionism is no longer compulsory, unions have to work a lot harder to attract and retain members, which they do.

I believe that in some ways, the balance of power in industrial relations has swung too far in favour of employers. Workers need strong, effective representation to protect themselves against abuse and exploitation.
But if today’s union leaders want to understand why politicians have nobbled them, they need only look back at the rampant abuse of power by militant unions in the era of Con Devitt.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A tribute to John Hayes


I just got around to watching last week’s valedictory speech by my local MP, John Hayes. It brought home to me (not that I was really in any doubt) that the Wairarapa is losing an exemplary parliamentary representative.
Hayes has been in Parliament for three terms and increased his majority each time. He has been a ferociously hard-working MP, putting in long hours and travelling vast distances in one of the country’s bigger rural electorates.

He has fought hard for local causes. Masterton’s Makoura College would have closed in 2008 without Hayes’ dogged resistance. Now its roll has doubled and despite being a decile 2 school serving a predominantly low-income area, it’s achieving NZCEA results that exceed the national average.  
Hayes has also lobbied tirelessly for local irrigation schemes and was the key player in negotiations to re-establish a Masterton-Auckland air link – still not confirmed – after Air New Zealand abandoned its service.

Those are all reasons to respect him, but his valedictory speech reminded me of another one. Hayes has always spoken his mind, possibly to the detriment of his political career.
His departing comments were characteristically blunt, although delivered without rancour. While praising his colleagues across all parties for their hard work behind the scenes, he was critical of Parliament’s toxic atmosphere. He recalled visiting the Swedish and Danish parliaments, where MPs debate issues respectfully, and wondered why we couldn’t do the same here.

He gave the media a serve, too, and asked why anyone would consider a life in politics when they risked being publicly pilloried for every minor slip-up.
A former diplomat who played a crucial role in the negotiations that ended the disastrous Bougainville civil war of the 1980s, Hayes also talked about a parliamentary visit to Israel that led him to conclude that most Israeli politicians weren’t remotely interested in settling things with the Palestinians. He didn’t refer directly to the current conflict in Gaza but said: “To Israelis, I simply ask you: have you no humanity?”

Whether you agree with him or not, these are not sentiments one expects to hear from a National Party backbencher – not even in his last days in the House. But it was a typical example of Hayes speaking his mind, and it helps explain why he was never greatly favoured by the party hierarchy.
People who speak their mind in politics are often considered a liability by their leaders, even if voters respect them for it. National rewarded Hayes’ honesty with a consistently low place on the party list, well below seat-warmers and useless blowhards like Tau Henare.

Hayes will be missed. It remains to be seen whether the candidate National is putting up to replace him, winery owner and former international banker Alistair Scott, is made of the same stuff.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What I could do with a machine gun


(First published in The Dominion Post, July 25.)
I AM AWARE that what I am about to write will result in me being branded a cantankerous misanthrope, and possibly even a bit mad. What the heck.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed myself developing a visceral aversion to noise. Not all noise; just certain noises.

Some sudden, intrusive sounds provoke what I can only describe as an involuntary, irrational rage.
I swear, for example, that if I had a machine gun, no boy racer would be safe. In my wilder flights of fancy I picture myself lying in wait to ambush them. I would shoot first and worry about the consequences later.

In my mind I replay the famous scene at the end of Bonnie and Clyde in which the outlaw couple’s Ford is left so riddled with bullet holes that it looks like a colander.
The practical problem I have to overcome is that boy racers don’t provide adequate warning of their approach. I might hear them doing drifts or donuts in my street at 2am, but by the time I got to the gate with my Uzi they’d be away and gone. But boy, I think about it.

Steady, droning-type noises, as opposed to loud, abrupt ones that come out of nowhere, don’t seem to bother me so much. At weekends, planes come and go constantly from the local aerodrome, but I never feel tempted to launch a surface-to-air missile from behind the potting shed.
Motor mowers are acceptable too. All New Zealanders are genetically programmed to have a high tolerance of lawn mowers, otherwise we’d all go mad.

Chainsaws are more challenging. I live in what must be the chainsaw capital of the world. In other towns, kids get skateboards and X-boxes for their birthdays. In Masterton they get a Stihl or a Husqvarna. And I mean girls as well as boys.
Chainsaws are part of the aural furniture here. There’s always one revving somewhere in the middle-distance. I accept this is one of the prices you pay for living in a rural town where everyone knows the price of a cord of macrocarpa, but I sometimes struggle to contain my irritation.

Constantly yapping dogs? They’re almost up there with boy racers on the vexation scale. The same goes for motorbikes, whether they’re Harley-Davidsons – which are engineered to announce their presence to everyone within a 2km-radius – or trail bikes, which are the 250cc equivalent of an infernal mosquito buzzing in your ear.
Even the blackbirds in my garden drive me mad with their raucous alarm calls every time I go near them. That may sound a bit extreme, but the squawking of a startled blackbird is a sound calculated to rattle the nerves.

Tuis, on the other hand, are winningly euphonious, demonstrating that it’s not noise in itself that’s offensive, but the type of noise.
I’m on a roll now. What else?

● People eating in movie theatres – and not just their noisy munching, which is bad enough, but the infuriating rustle of the bags containing whatever rubbish they’re consuming. Rustling bags are another of those sounds that induce homicidal impulses. The Uzi solution might be a bit extreme in this instance, and there’s always the risk that you might hit the wrong person in the dark, but a Taser might do it.
● All-night parties, especially ones where all you hear is the tuneless thump of bass and drums. The politician who promises to throw all-night partiers into prison without the time-wasting formality of a court appearance is assured of my vote.

● The unnecessary use of car horns. The horn is a device to be used in situations where human life is in imminent danger, and then only sparingly. (In other words, there should be a lightning-quick assessment as to whether the life at risk is worth saving.) All other applications are a crime against humanity – and there are no exemptions for morons who get an infantile thrill from tooting in the Mt Victoria Tunnel. 
● Cellphones with idiotic ring tones. Phones that sound like phones are acceptable at a pinch, provided the volume is kept down. Phones that play Greensleeves or the theme from Beverly Hills Cop are beyond the pale.

Am I being flippant? Well, perhaps with regard to shooting people – but otherwise, not entirely. Most intrusive noise is avoidable. The people who cause it show a lack of consideration for others and a disregard for their privacy. We should all be far less tolerant of it.


 

 

 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The American paradox

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 16.)

I have to smile when I think of my one visit to New York City.

My wife and I arrived late on a Saturday night in October 2002. I remember it well because on the drive in from Kennedy Airport our cab driver told us of the terrorist bombings that had just killed 202 people in Bali.
But that’s incidental. What amuses me is the recollection of how apprehensive I was – quite unnecessarily, as it turned out – when we ventured out into the city the following morning.

It being early on a Sunday, the streets around our Greenwich Village hotel were virtually deserted. I’m not a timid person but I admit feeling uneasy as we descended the steps of the nearest subway station to catch a train to Battery Park, from where we intended to take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.
I’m not sure what I expected, but for the previous few decades I had been conditioned by Hollywood movies to believe that New York – and the subway especially – was infested with armed muggers and crazed drug addicts.

Of course we didn’t encounter any; not even a beggar, though they’re usually everywhere in urban America. As the day progressed and we roamed the city, we gradually relaxed. There were no drive-by shootings, no car chases, no police with loudhailers telling holed-up serial killers to come out with their hands up. I was almost disappointed.
By the time we left New York several days later, we felt entirely at ease moving around. And contrary to legend, we found New Yorkers friendly and approachable.

Since then we’ve been back to America several times. We’ve driven through 20 states, including some that most Americans admit they wouldn’t dream of visiting. We’ve stayed in big, glamorous cities and forgotten towns in the middle in nowhere. And we’ve grown to like the country so much that we almost suffer withdrawal symptoms if we stay away too long.
Almost everywhere we’ve been, people have been gracious, welcoming and interested in where we come from and what we’re doing. And although we’ve seen countless movies about terrible things happening to people on lonely American highways or in sinister small towns, at no time have we felt remotely at risk.

All this makes it doubly hard to comprehend the hideous events that regularly cause America to convulse.
Hardly a week seems to pass without a report of someone running amok with a gun. Some of these incidents happen in incongruously pleasant settings, such as the affluent, laid-back Californian town of Isla Vista, where young Elliott Rodger recently recorded a chilling video before coolly killing six people because he was resentful at not being able to get a girlfriend.

More recently there was an even more quintessentially American killing spree in Las Vegas by a strange young couple who shot dead two policemen before turning their guns on themselves. It seemed they had a grudge against the government – a recurring theme in such crimes.
How does one account for such bizarre acts? It’s not enough to say that a country of more than 300 million people is bound to produce extremes of good and bad. While that’s certainly true, there’s more to it than that.

Some of America’s weirdness is built in; hard-wired, as it were. There seems to be a rogue gene in the country’s DNA that periodically manifests itself in outbursts of homicidal craziness on a scale that New Zealanders can’t comprehend.
Among a tiny, cranky minority of Americans there’s a seething, irrational, inarticulate rage that, when combined with the availability of guns, can have lethal consequences. Religious fundamentalism, right-wing extremism, anti-government paranoia and the constitutional right to bear firearms (which some Americans regard as if it were ordained by God) make a toxic brew.

All countries have their own weirdness, some more than others. Japan and India impress me as being wonderfully weird, albeit in different ways. But on the international weirdness scale, it’s hard to imagine any country topping the USA.
It’s hard to explain, for example, how a country that’s so overtly Christian – a country where the biggest and most opulent buildings in many poor rural towns are churches – can also be the Western world’s most enthusiastic executioner. It doesn’t seem to occur to many Americans that putting people to death, often in the most cold-blooded way, might be contrary to God’s will.

But there remains that perplexing paradox. On the one hand there’s the friendly, charming America that my wife and I experience in our travels; on the other, a society where grotesquely strange and evil things happen.
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I wonder what he made of America, which seems a far more bewildering mess of contradictions.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The ruthless logic that drives Hamas


There is a ruthless, cynical logic in what Hamas is doing in the Gaza Strip.
The constant rocket attacks on Israel are largely futile in the sense that they do minimal damage. But Hamas knows that as long as the attacks continue, Israel is bound to retaliate. It can hardly allow its territory and people to remain under constant threat.

Hamas’s trump card here is the Western news media. The terrorists know that the casualties of Israeli retaliation – children especially – attract international media sympathy. They make sure TV crews get footage of the funerals and have access to the hospital wards where maimed children are being treated.
They know that their most potent weapon against Israel is not rockets but international opinion. And they know that as long as the media present the conflict as one that is massively one-sided – one that is reported every day in terms of the gross imbalance in the casualty figures, almost as if it were some grotesque sporting encounter – then international opinion will regard Hamas as the wronged party.

They also know that the moment they stop firing rockets at Israel, the retaliatory attacks will also cease. Children will stop dying and life will return to some semblance of normality (or whatever passes for normality in Gaza). But they choose to continue.
On the face of it, the only conclusion is that they are either stupid or mad – or both – to continue with a policy that causes little damage to the enemy. But that’s where the cynical logic comes in.

Continuing the attacks guarantees that Israel will keep on defending itself, and that the media will keep reporting the terrible harm that results. International opinion will be aroused and that will translate into diplomatic pressure on Israel to moderate its position, to the benefit of Hamas.
A few hundred innocent Palestinians may die in the meantime, but that’s obviously a price the Hamas fanatics are prepared to pay.

 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The scariest scenario of all


(First published in the Dominion Post, July 11.)
 
FOR ALMOST as long as I can remember, experts have been warning us to brace ourselves for catastrophe.

For decades it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear obliteration that threatened us. In the 1970s we shuddered at the prospect of a nuclear winter, in which soot and smoke from nuclear warfare would condemn the planet to decades of frigid semi-darkness.

And who can forget the alarm generated by predictions that acid rain would denude vast areas of forest, kill marine life and even cause buildings to collapse?

Other recurring doomsday predictions revolved around over-population and famine. As it turns out, the world now has more obese people than malnourished – a fact that has given the experts something new to harangue us about. 

There have been other scares, too, including Aids and the Millennium Bug. It was seriously predicted that the latter would create universal chaos the moment the clocks ticked past December 31, 1999.

We’re still waiting for the grotesque mutations foreseen by opponents of genetic modification. And then there was peak oil, though the dismalists seem to have gone quiet on that too.

There are always experts loudly predicting the worst. But none of the above prophecies came to pass, either because they were scientifically unsound or greatly exaggerated to start with, or because human ingenuity and good sense intervened.

Even when terrible things have happened – such as Chernobyl and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the eventual outcome has almost invariably been less apocalyptic than the prophets of doom foresaw.

In the circumstances, is it any surprise that people tune out when they hear the shrill cries of the global warming alarmists? The words “boy” and “wolf” come to mind.

The most worrying thing about global warming proponents is that many want to silence the other side – always a danger sign. They argue that because scientists who believe in climate change outnumber those who don’t, newspapers shouldn’t give space to sceptics.

The science is settled, the warmists cry. But back comes a quietly insistent reply: science is never settled.

Scientists have got it wrong before. There was a time when the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion was that the sun revolved around the earth. You challenged that consensus at your peril, as Galileo learned.

For decades, physicists believed the expansion of the universe was slowing down. Now they have concluded that it’s actually accelerating.

So we need to leave open the possibility that experts can get things wrong, and we need sceptics to challenge established wisdom. The more we are panicked into believing we are at imminent risk from some existential threat, the more willing we are to allow “experts” and zealots to save us. And that’s the scariest scenario of all.

* * *

IN MY LOCAL medical centre recently I saw a sign in the men’s toilet reminding people to wash their hands. That makes perfect sense, except for one thing – it was in Maori.

Does this imply that only Maori need to wash their hands, or perhaps that only Maori need to be reminded to wash their hands? In either case, Maori would be entitled to take offence.

If neither of those explanations applies, then what’s the purpose? According to recent figures, only nine percent of Maori speak the language fluently. The rest wouldn’t have a clue what the notice says, were it not for an accompanying picture.

Virtually everyone, on the other hand, can read English. So wouldn’t it make more sense to have a notice in the language that everyone understands?

My medical centre shouldn’t be blamed for this patronising, expensive tokenism.  My guess is that the signs were issued by some useless but well-meaning government agency. It’s reassuring to know our taxes are being put to such good use.

* * *

A NOSTALGIC article in this paper recently reminded readers of how Rongotai Airport was built in the 1950s.

It involved flattening a substantial hill, moving 160 houses and bulldozing three million cubic metres of fill into the sea. Look at a photo of Evans Bay in the pre-airport era and it’s almost unrecognisable. It was a massive undertaking that completely reshaped the landscape.

I wonder how far the promoters of a project like that would get today. Not far, judging by the interminable delays faced by projects such as Transmission Gully, the Kapiti Expressway and the Basin Reserve overpass.

Few people would argue for a return to the development practices of the 1950s, when the Ministry of Works was all-powerful. But you have to wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way, to the point where public interest considerations routinely get swamped by the cries of objectors.

 

 

 

 

Friday, July 4, 2014

An era of glorious innocence


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 2.)
For people of a certain age, last week was a week of nostalgia.
June 21 marked 50 years since a Lockheed Electra carrying the Beatles touched down at Wellington Airport. It was a significant moment, and not just musically. Sociologically, it signalled the emergence of a youth culture that was determined to assert itself in the face of stodgy, adult-imposed conformity and conservatism.

Small wonder that ageing baby boomers spent last week wallowing in fond reminiscence as radio stations dusted off their Beatles records and newspapers reprinted photos of press conferences at which awestruck reporters asked banal questions of the famous visitors, such as whether they liked New Zealand mutton and butter – all of which were answered with patience and good humour.
To anyone who grew up post-1970, it must be hard to imagine the impact the group made here. New Zealand was na├»ve and insular. The rest of the world seemed impossibly distant and exotic. Jet travel hadn’t yet made it this far; Britain was still six weeks away by ship. The Beatles might have been visitors from another planet.

Beatlemania, with its hordes of fans prepared to do almost anything to get close to their heroes, mystified and unsettled local authorities accustomed to young people behaving with compliant decorum. The official response to the phenomenon ranged from overkill – such as at the Wellington Town Hall, where the Beatles were unnerved by the sight of unsmiling police constables occupying the front rows at their concerts – to woeful ill-preparedness.
In Dunedin, only four policemen were on hand to ensure the Beatles got into their hotel safely through the hundreds of eager fans. When it was suggested that security was inadequate, the response was that the police had coped with a visit by Vera Lynn a few weeks earlier, so what could possibly go wrong?

Technologically too, New Zealand was found wanting. After the first of their Wellington concerts, John Lennon threatened not to go on again because the sound system was so hopeless. The sound technician was terrified the speakers would blow up.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in cultural as well as musical terms, the Beatles were a seismic event. Rock and roll wasn’t new, of course; in the previous decade we’d had Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. But in those days New Zealand took its cultural cues from Britain rather than America.

The American-led rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, as significant as it was, was limited in its impact in New Zealand compared with the British beat boom led by the Beatles. I would argue that it was only post-Beatles that a true mass youth culture began to emerge in buttoned-down, monochrome New Zealand.
Though not a consciously subversive band, the Beatles unleashed a heady sense of liberation and a willingness to defy adult conventions. They did this through the sheer joy and exuberance of their music, which gave expression to youthful passions that had been previously been kept tightly controlled.

Musically speaking, they tilted the world’s axis.  The American music industry was completely blindsided by the so-called British invasion, of which the Beatles formed the advance guard.
By that time the first raw, exhilarating wave of American rock and roll – as embodied by Presley – had subsided, to be replaced by the sanitised pop of Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Vee, much of it emanating from New York City’s famous pop factory, the Brill Building. America was ready for something new and the Beatles provided it: in April 1964 they had 14 singles simultaneously in the Billboard Hot 100.

It took years for America to recover from the shock and reclaim its mantle as the wellhead of pop music. And of course the great irony is that the music that inspired the Beatles and the other British bands that followed in their wake – the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Manfred Mann, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who – was all American. What the British bands did was repackage and re-energise American rock and roll and send it back to its home country, where it was in danger of being forgotten.
After the Beatles, nothing was the same again. At its heavier end, pop music soon morphed into something the pompous music critics called “rock”, which was supposedly to be taken more seriously. “Rock” music was freighted with sociological and political meaning.

The Stones, who deliberately cultivated a scowling, anti-establishment image, were a “rock” band, whereas the Beatles – despite their astonishing musicality – found themselves being dismissed as simply a very clever pop band.
Bob Dylan came along too – the first pop (sorry, rock) star whose records were bought for their lyrics rather than the tunes. Pop music split into ideological camps, and so it has remained ever since.

But all that was yet to happen when the Beatles touched down in Wellington in 1964. Looking back, what’s most striking about that era is its glorious innocence.