Ken Douglas, trade unionist, 1935 - 2022

Ken Douglas was a towering figure in New Zealand politics in the late 70s and through to the 1990s.

Yet he lived a life full of paradoxes.

He was a Communist, but he was never a hard-line militant unionist.

First, in the Wellington Drivers’ Union, then as Secretary of the Federation of Labour and then President of the Council of Trade Unions, he displayed real pragmatism and moderation.

But his career was defined by having to work with difficult people; the erratic FOL President, Jim Knox; the bullying Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon; the inflexible Labour Finance Minister, Roger Douglas and then the Bolger Cabinet with its Roundtable-inspired Employment Contracts Act.

The end result is that his former colleagues are left with not only massive admiration for him; for his intuitive ability to relate to working-class people and his intellectual rigour and discipline but also with a series of questions about what might have been had he been able to work in a more sympathetic environment.

Why didn’t he mobilise the union movement to stop Roger Douglas?

Why didn’t he support a general strike to oppose the Employment Contracts Act?

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger was Minister of Labour from 1979 to 1984 when Douglas was Secretary of the Federation of Labour and believed that Douglas was ultimately a pragmatist.

“He was aself-declared Russian-aligned communist at that stage; no question about that,” he said.


“But he was also very intelligent and had the smarts to know that disputes had to be resolved.

“So you’re dealing with someone who knew we had to find a solution, and if he was involved, knew we would find a resolution.”

Douglas had been a wool classer, a wharfie and then a truck driver before becoming involved in the Wellington Drivers Union.

There was never any doubting his working-class credentials.

Anglea Foulkes was appointed Secretary of the Council of Trade Unions in 1991 when Douglas was President.

“He was a man of his time,” she told POLITIK.

“He was quite fiscally conservative; he was idiosyncratic; he was appalling to work with because he had no sense of time. He ran on a clock all of his own.

”But could you walk down Lambton Quay Lambon key with him, and he would be able to recognise and talk to everyone, from the occasional chief executive to a bloke who worked for the city council.

“I think the important thing about him was that he realised that working people’s work was important.

“He used to tell the story about how proud truck drivers were of their work and that they made do make a big fuss about backing into small spaces so that people would notice them.

“He knew how working people thought, and he respected them.”

NewstalkZB Political Editor, Barry Soper,  was TVNZ’s Industrial Reporter in the early 80s and had a close relationship with Douglas.

“He always claimed just to be a truck driver when his negotiating opponents always knew he was much more than that,” said Soper.

“He was always at pains to point out, though, truck drivers could foot it with the best of them.”

Through the 1970s and early 80s, Douglas was persistently attacked by then-Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon because of his membership of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party.

In 1980 Muldoon triumphantly expelled the Soviet Ambassador after he was caught passing funds to a SUP member in Auckland.

But Douglas told  Muldoon’s biographer, Barry Gustafson, that even when Muldoon had been drinking, his meetings with the trade unionist were civil.

“The mutual respect between Muldoon and Douglas was noted by employers’ representatives, who recalled that Douglas, and the FOL economist Alf Kirk, were always well-prepared, which impressed Muldoon, had a sophisticated approach, ‘took no nonsense from the Prime Minister, and could deliver on agreements which the ‘fractured and indecisive’ employers seemed unable to do,” said Gustafson.

Working with a young University economics graduate from the Drivers’ Union, Rob Campbell and Alf Kirk, Douglas tried to put together a proposal that would have seen the 1984 Labour Government adopt a tri-partite Government-Unions-Employers agreement on economic policy.

It would be the FOL’s proposal to get New Zealand out of Muldoon’s wage-price freeze and would be focussed on limiting wage increases as part of a deal with Government who in turn would limit inflation.

Douglas faced resistance from FOL President Jim Knox.

Moore had been impressed with the Australian Labour Government’s development of an “Accord” with the Australian Council of Trade Unions which accomplished the same objectives as were being proposed in New Zealand.

But the Australian version had been hammered out between Labour and the ACTU while Labor were in Opposition.

Moore had not managed to get his Parliamentary colleagues on board.

Indeed, Labour Minister Stan Rodger wanted The Government out of industrial negotiations altogether.

In her memoirs, published last year, the Labour Party President at the time, Margaret Wilson, said Douglas was crucial to any discussion of the relationship between the Labour Government and the unions over this period.

“He tried to forge a new relationship between the two wings of the labour movement,” she said.

“Ken was one of the few trade unionists who understood the threats the government’s policy posed to the trade union movement.

“He understood the vulnerability of trade union members to a government that was determined to abandon the notion of tripartism (between workers, employers and the state) which had governed New Zealand industrial relations since 1894.”

But Ken Douglas could not beat the Roger Douglas-led free market Labour juggernaut.

There are several theories as to why he failed.

Maybe he relied too much on Mike Moore and over-estimated his clout in the caucus.

Some unionists from that time believe that while Jim Knox was President of the FOL, many unions had allowed the quality of their officials and their representations and research to slip in favour of bluster and noisy strikes and protests.

But for whatever reason, when Ken Douglas turned around for support, it wasn’t there.

Rob Campbell, who went on to a Corporate career, has kept in touch with Ken Douglas and calls him a great New Zealander “who has continued to have a big influence on my life.”

He worked with Douglas when they lost the battle for a tripartite industrial relations policy.

“I think it’s a great shame that we kind of ended up on that collision course with Roger Douglas because so much more could have been achieved with the direction Ken was leading the union movement to,” he told POLITIK.

“Despite his sentiment in favour of the working class, he had a very realistic attitude about how to advance class interests that was a very balanced one.

“I was just writing a note to Jane Douglas commenting on his almost physical passion for fairness.

“But it was balanced by a mind that recognised what had to be done.”

 Jim Knox died in 1991, and Douglas became the President of the new Council of Trade Unions, which had been formed in 1987 and which merged the private sector and state sector unions.

By then, the union movement faced a much more dangerous foe; the National Party and the Employment Contracts Act.

In 1991 there were widespread calls from unions affiliated to the CTU for a general strike to oppose the legislation.

But Douglas understood there was little public support for the union’s position.

“There has to be an answer other than just leading a protest parade,” he said at the time.

He said that the CTU did not have the power to call a strike and instead was looking at ways of changing public attitudes to the legislation.”

There are still many union officials from that era who believe he was wrong.

But the question should be whether the union movement could have stopped the legislation.

It was central to National’s economic agenda, and standing behind the party was a large segment of the business community.

Having broken a number of his election campaign promise over issues like the superannuation surtax, Prime Minister Jim Bolger, would have found it very difficult to break another one on employment relations.

Bolger is reluctant to talk about this period of his Government, offering only that as far as Douglas and the legislation went, “I presume he was opposed.”

In retirement, Douglas went on to serve on the boards of Air New Zealand, the Rugby Union and under the chairmanship of Bolger at NZ Post.

But his life was much bigger than that, much of it centred on his long-time home at Titahi Bay and his involvement in rugby and golf and, for a long period, the local Council.

Tributes to him were pouring in last night.

Richard Wagstaff, the current President of the CTU, said NZCTU President Richard Wagstaff said Ken Douglas was a giant of the union movement.

“Ken was a towering figure, who commanded enormous respect for his commitment to the trade union movement and the principle of worker solidarity,” he said.

And the former Secretary of what is now E Tu Andrew Little, said Douglas was  a towering influence on him when he started his union work in the early 1990s and “a source of much wisdom and support when I was a union secretary.”

“I found a man with an extraordinary knowledge of his country, its place in the world, its working people and the holders of power and wealth within it,” he said.