13 Jun 2019

Bill Andersen's lifelong fight for workers rights

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:30 pm on 13 June 2019

Auckland trade unionist and communist Bill Andersen (1924 - 2005) is remembered in a new biography by Dr Cybèle Locke.

Andersen was at the heart of the 1951 waterfront dispute (during which New Zealand briefly became a police state) and found fame as an outspoken Robert Muldoon opponent in the 1970s.

Bill Andersen (1994 - 2005) was one of New Zealand’s most visible and influential trade union leaders.

 Bill Andersen Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library / Reference: PAColl-7327-1-155

Bill Andersen became a communist during his time as a World War II seaman when he witnessed people living in appalling conditions, Locke says.

“When he came into ports, such as Aden – British colonial ports – he was utterly horrified by the poverty he witnessed there amongst the dock workers, who to him looked like young children.

"When he found out how little they were earning for the work that we're doing and saw some of the poverty around the port where he was staying, he was so angered by the system he could see.”

Andersen made use of the army ship’s library to acquaint himself with the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin, she says.

“He started to educate himself on some of the answers and why perhaps building a class struggle would be the way forward to do something about this capitalist system.”

At the end of the war, Andersen returned to Auckland and threw himself into unionism.

“Bill fell in with New Zealand communists, particularly seafarers, who were among the workers who wanted to gain some of the rewards from this war that they've put so much effort towards – to get better wages and better conditions for the work that they were doing.

“He joined the Communist Party in Auckland and met Communist Party leaders. Alec Drennan and Johnny Mitchell were particularly influential.”

Although Drennan and Mitchell were from the radical left, both men believed in a gradual transition to socialism in New Zealand, Locke says.

“These very pragmatic men believed in the kind of communism that you gradually build, a united front by starting with where workers are at – what are of the issues that they have in their lives – and working with them to build solidarity through their trade unions.”

Bill Andersen is arrested at Bastion Point

Bill Andersen is arrested at Bastion Point Photo: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

The Communist Party of NZ wanted to create a socialist Aotearoa, she says.

“Whilst it was really important to keep building solidarity to push for a bigger slice of the cake for workers, it was also important to one day think about how you could build workers to reclaim the whole kitchen and to bring about a socialist New Zealand but in very, very peaceful ways.”

Pacifism was at the heart of Andersen’s own belief system, Locke says.

“The experience of World War II for someone like Bill meant he was incredibly opposed to violence. Because you're on ships in the middle of the ocean, these are huge convoys, there are blackouts, you never know when your ship is going to be blown out from under you.

“That kind of incredible violence of the war left a lasting impression and meant that Bill was an incredibly committed communist, but he always believed in trying to bring about a peaceful, socialist New Zealand.”

The Auckland waterfront dispute of 1951 taught him a valuable lesson, Locke says.

At the time, the watersiders union was in a dispute over pay. Rather than negotiate with the workers, their employer locked them out, then the National Party government stepped in and deregistered the union.

Eventually, the waterside workers voted to go back to work, but about 2000, including Andersen, were blacklisted from the waterfront forever.

“The lessons that Bill learned from that time was never, ever to become a militant minority in the trade union movement. That was where he learned his lessons that you always build slowly, your organisation, and that you can use 'stop work' meetings and strikes to push for better wages and conditions and to push for certain things but, but never to go beyond the strength of your organisation and always to carry all your members with you.”

Andersen later joined the Northern Drivers Union, which had a large Māori membership and was then at the forefront of anti-racism.

“[The Northern Drivers Union] brought particular ways of working together and solidarity and so they did a lot of anti-racism work. They were very clear that there was a colour bar occurring in New Zealand in the '50s and they had an anti-racism policy about that. So union organisers would be going in and challenging racism by employers against Māori workers.”

After leaving the Communist Party of NZ, Andersen formed the Socialist Unity Party in 1966.

In the 1970s, he ran against Robert Muldoon for the seat of Tamaki. In the 1970s, Bill Andersen became a household name as an outspoken opponent of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.

“He's was very well known during this time from televised debates with Muldoon. Bill was very softly spoken, very, very calm, a kind of rational speaker, and for some reason that drove Muldoon crazy.

“Bill won lots of respect from working-class people because he stood up to Muldoon’s anti-unionism and anti-communism and was deeply supportive of what Ngāti Whātua were doing at Bastion Point, as well.”

Robert Muldoon

Robert Muldoon Photo: Wikicommons

Mischievous airline staff often seated Andersen and Muldoon together on planes, Locke says.

“Air New Zealand staff used to put them on the plane next to each other to see what would happen. So Muldoon would reach across and say, ‘Now Bill, you didn't get very many votes standing against me in Tamaki, did you now?’ Bill would quietly smile and look at Muldoon and say ‘Well, if you come and stand for Secretary of the Northern Drivers Union, shall we see how many votes you get there?’”

By the late 1970s, Andersen and the union movement were at the peak of their power and influence, Locke says.

“They managed to build up enough cross-union solidarity to force, first of all, New Zealand's first ever national general strike in 1979 and also to push to change the law, the Remuneration Act, that had been used to really clamp down on the wage rises that working-class people were beginning to gain during that period.”

But the free market ethos that would dominate New Zealand over the next decades was just around the corner.

This knocked the stuffing out of the trade union movement, which was also weakened by flagging membership rates due to unemployment.

“Muldoon put in place the wage freeze which meant that trade unions could no longer negotiate any wage rises, and also abolished compulsory unionism which has been a way of really safeguarding the membership of private sector trade unions up until this period."

Between 1984 and 1990, the fourth Labour Party government brought sweeping economic change to New Zealand.

“I think he was deeply shocked. One of his big regrets that he talks a bit about later was how much of a fair go he gave the Labour Party.”

Andersen supported Labour’s social agenda but was deeply opposed to its economic policies, Locke says.

"During this time there was anti-nuclear stuff around, the Treaty of Waitangi rights for Māori, all sorts of greats social policies that were happening at the same time.”

Andersen hoped the Labour Party would change course towards the left economically, but it wasn’t to be.

“[Andersen wanted] to try and get them to change away from this kind of economic agenda that's hurting us so badly but didn't have any success there.

“What happened was, as you had protections lifted and the domestic economy starting to crash, you had closures, you had increasing numbers of redundancies, the whittling away of thousands of private sector workers and then there is the State Sector Act and privatisation – state-owned enterprises coming in – and loads of white-collar jobs going, as well.

“You have this economic incredibly tough time and of course, all the while losing your labour power through these redundancies and growing unemployment.”

Andersen remained an active unionist, striving to amalgamate the Northern Drivers Union with unions in other sectors, until his death in 2005,

“[He wanted to] shore up and keep this collective voice for workers and keep this struggle-based approach to trade unionism alive.”

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