15 Sep 2022

'He was somebody extraordinary' - Tributes flow for union leader Ken Douglas

12:38 pm on 15 September 2022
Trade union leader Ken Douglas ONZ, 1935-2022. Douglas was the inaugural president of the Council of Trade Unions, from 1987 until 1999.

Ken Douglas ONZ was the inaugural president of the Council of Trade Unions. He has died at the age of 86. Photo: Supplied

One of New Zealand's best known union leaders, Ken Douglas, has died aged 86.

Known as Red Ken, Douglas was secretary of the Federation of Labour for eight years, and the inaugural president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) from 1987 until 1999.

He was known for butting heads with former National Party leader Robert Muldoon, and has been described as a towering figure by current CTU president Richard Wagstaff.

"He had a life dedicated to advancing working people and I think everyone who knew him liked to be around him," Wagstaff told Morning Report.

He said Douglas commanded real respect amongst union leaders, union members and working people.

"He was charismatic and very clever and we really miss him now that he's gone."

Douglas began his working life as a truck driver and, by the time he was 24, had become president of the Wellington Drivers' Union - the youngest union president in New Zealand history.

An interview he gave RNZ in 2010 showed that his commitment to the labour movement had never wavered.

"I stand firmly on the side of a respect for the creators of wealth, and that is labour and knowledge," he said.

"Why should we hand over the critical decisions of our job security to private investors?"

Wagstaff said Douglas' influence was key during an "incredibly challenging period for the union movement" which encompassed the Muldoon wage freeze, the fourth Labour government and the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act.

"He really stood up and said, let's think our way through this, let's think outside the box, let's be prepared to be strategic and plan our way out of this because we can't just do what we've always been doing given the new conditions we're in."

Wagstaff said the Trades Hall bombing in March 1984, which killed caretaker Ernie Abbott, shook Douglas and everyone in the union movement deeply.

"It was a really difficult time in New Zealand and thankfully we're past that."

He said Douglas recognised the "collective organisation of workers" was key at a time when unions were under attack.

"[He was very clear that] we need to stick together and we need to strategically advance our interests, which for him was obviously good jobs, a good economy and high-wage, high-skilled labour."

"Ken was absolutely determined to advance working-class interests."

Acting Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Priyanca Radhakrishnan expressed sadness at the death of Douglas.

Radhakrishnan said many advances in worker rights could be traced back to his leadership over 30 years.

She said he also represented the New Zealand union movement in international union organisations, and contributed to the work of committees and boards dealing with training and employment.

In later years, Douglas was a Porirua city councillor and served on several boards, both public and private.

Wagstaff said Douglas was a well-loved figure both in his local community of Titahi Bay and by people further afield.

"He had a great sense of humour, he was fun to be around, but he was incredibly well-read and clever and smart ... he was somebody extraordinary for our people."