Karl du Fresne, Dec 07 2019
David John (Dave) Morgan, trade unionist; b Adelaide, South Australia, May 29, 1940; d Masterton, November 5, 2019
Dave Morgan was one of the last of a generation of New Zealand trade union leaders who were once household names.
His death at the age of 79 recalled a time when industrial disputes were constantly in the headlines and union leaders such as Morgan, Pat Kelly, Bill Andersen, Ken Douglas, Blue Kennedy and Con Devitt were publicly branded as wreckers and agitators.
Of that coterie of formidable unionists, only Douglas – now 84 – survives.
For 30 years, the Australian-born Morgan led a union that was synonymous in the public mind – not always fairly – with disruption to shipping, most notoriously on the Cook Strait ferries.
As president of the Seamen’s Union, which became the Seafarers’ Union after a 1989 merger with the smaller but equally stroppy Cooks and Stewards Union, he was a newsworthy figure.
He was also, by trade union standards, an unusually flamboyant one, noted for his collection of stylish hats and colourful ties. Known in union circles as The Hat, he had a sense of style that set him apart in a line of work not normally associated with sartorial elegance.
Asked about his celebrated collection of headwear, he once said his motive was purely pragmatic. “I would have thought it was pretty self-evident – I’m as bald as a badger.”
Public attitudes to the Seamen’s Union were summed up in a North and South article in 1990 by David McLoughlin, who wrote: “They’re widely seen as the mob which stops the Cook Strait ferries in the middle of seemingly every holiday … enormously powerful, featherbedded, working only half the year if they’re unlucky, overpaid, flown to their jobs from wherever in the country they choose to live”.
It was certainly true that the two major maritime unions, the seamen and the watersiders, wielded unusual power in an economy almost wholly dependent on shipborne trade. That power was magnified by the seamen’s ability to shut down commerce between the North and South islands.
It was also true that the shipping industry had a history of harsh working conditions, anachronistic employment practices and combative relationships with shipping companies dating back to the 19th century. All this contributed to a tough and uncompromisingly militant union culture.
Yet shipping employers who dealt with Morgan respected him as an honest negotiator and liked him personally. That was evident from heartfelt and moving tributes paid to him privately after his death from cancer.
He was easy to like: amiable and quietly spoken (although a stirring orator when the occasion required it), with a distinctive raspy voice and a bone-dry sense of humour. But you knew there was a steely core there somewhere. There had to be, to maintain control over a union whose fractious members could be just as challenging to deal with as the bosses.
In a newspaper story marking Morgan’s retirement 16 years ago, Pacifica Transport chief executive Rod Grout said Morgan would fight tooth and nail for his members, but added that “you knew where you stood with him”. And he gave Morgan much of the credit for promoting shipping industry reforms that helped end the disruption of Cook Strait ferry sailings.
Morgan was admired internationally. Following his death, messages of sympathy flowed in from around the world – evidence of his involvement in causes such as the campaign against apartheid, and of his assistance to unionists in Third World countries where he would have clandestine meetings with local activists forced to live like fugitives under authoritarian regimes.
Much of the disruption caused by the Seamen’s Union was political rather than industrial. Morgan was instrumental in initiating a long-standing trade ban against Chile after the 1973 military coup that overthrew the elected socialist leader Salvador Allende, and he was proud of the union’s role in opposing a visit to New Zealand by the nuclear-powered warship the USS Truxtun.
It was clear from Morgan’s funeral in Masterton’s Copthorne Solway Park Hotel that respect for him spanned ideological lines across the Left. Former Labour Party deputy leader and Cabinet minister Annette King, an old friend, flew from Canberra, where she is now New Zealand’s high commissioner, to deliver a eulogy. Justice Minister Andrew Little – himself a former union leader, though of a more moderate persuasion than Morgan – also attended.
The 260 mourners were treated to a verbal tour-de-force by the Australian unionist Paddy Crumlin, president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who delivered a spirited and often humorous 20-minute off-the-cuff oration, barely pausing for breath, on socialist values and the virtues of working-class solidarity.
Born in Adelaide, Morgan was one of three siblings in a Catholic family. He was taught by nuns of the Sacred Heart order, whom he recalled with some fondness, and later by the Marist Brothers, whose brutal discipline engendered less affection.
It was said at his funeral that he once considered entering the priesthood, but after going to sea at 16 as a deckhand on the BHP-owned Iron Monarch, Morgan discovered another belief system that resonated more powerfully with him. By the age of 18 he was a member of the Australian Communist Party. He remained a committed socialist until the end, although in later life he disavowed any party alignment.
In a 1998 radio interview with Brian Edwards, Morgan recalled being radicalised during late-night debates in the ship’s mess-room. The Iron Monarch had a crew of 24, of whom five or six were communists.
Morgan was captivated by the ideological dynamics of his working environment. Communism, he explained to Edwards, held out the hope of a better life. That was a widely held view among his union peers in the 1950s and 60s, and it persisted despite evidence of appalling repression under communist regimes.
Morgan told Edwards that, while he was no apologist for the denial of human rights, he refused to condemn communism because of mistakes or excesses by leaders such as Joseph Stalin.
In 1963, by then an able seaman, Morgan moved to New Zealand to join the Union Steamship Company and promptly made the acquaintance of kindred spirit Pat Kelly, a feisty fellow Marxist, and his wife Cath.
The Kellys’ son Max recalled at Morgan’s funeral that the two men met for the first time in the public bar of a Wellington hotel; he wasn’t sure whether it was the Terminus or the Post Office (both long gone). Between drinks, Pat Kelly would sell copies of the New Zealand Communist Party paper the People’s Voice.
The two became firm friends, confidantes and drinking mates, although Morgan, an enthusiastic boozer in his younger days, would renounce alcohol and cigarettes after a life-changing car accident at Paekākāriki in the early 1980s.
The two men’s families also bonded closely, sharing holidays in the Kellys’ bach, an old Railways house, at Ohakune. Max Kelly recalled that the man the public knew as the leader of angry protest marches would play the clown at the Kelly children’s birthday parties. He was a mentor to Kelly’s sister Helen, who became president of the Council of Trade Unions before succumbing to cancer in 2016.
After Pat Kelly’s death in 2004, Morgan placed an In Memoriam notice in The Dominion Post on his anniversary every year, in which he paid tribute to his former comrade and commented wryly on his deficiencies as a racing tipster. Both liked a punt on the horses.
In 1970, Morgan met Margaret “Maggie” Lee, a school dental nurse, while on an anti-Vietnam protest march in Auckland. By that time he had come ashore to take up an appointment as the union’s Lyttelton branch secretary. The two were married the following year and would later adopt a daughter, Jenny Katene.
In the words of Annette King, Dave and Maggie Morgan made a formidable team, “fearless and committed”. For years they lived in a union-owned house in Austin St, Mt Victoria, which served as a social gathering place for the Left, and for which they paid $26 a week in rent – a fact exposed in 1989 by an angry chief Labour Court judge, Tom Goddard.
In a withering judgment provoked by the union’s refusal to comply with an injunction ordering ferry crews back to work during an illegal strike, Goddard ordered sequestrators to seize the union’s assets – and for good measure, opened its finances to public scrutiny.
Goddard calculated that a true market rent for the Austin St house, which by accident or design was painted pink, would be at least $200 a week. But as McLoughlin pointed out in North and South, it was hardly a luxurious property – and this was long before Mt Victoria was gentrified.
The family later moved to Masterton – ironically, almost as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in New Zealand – where Morgan lived a quiet life as the devoted patriarch of his whānau.
He retired as national secretary of the union in 2003, three decades after stepping into shoes previously occupied by Bill “Pincher” Martin and, before Martin, the feared union strong man Fintan Patrick Walsh. In his last weeks, he joked that he wanted to be buried next to Walsh in Karori Cemetery, but with a taller headstone.
Under Morgan’s leadership, the seamen were part of a hard core of Left-wing blue-collar unions – along with others representing meat workers, boilermakers, watersiders and truck drivers – that regarded themselves as upholding traditions of militancy, solidarity and class consciousness.
But with the economic upheavals of the 1980s, some old union alliances began to unravel. Morgan found himself at odds with his former friend and fellow communist Ken Douglas as the movement bitterly split over how best to maintain union strength and cohesion in the face of deregulation, globalisation, job losses and legislative changes that were seen as tilting the industrial playing field in favour of employers.
By the time he retired, Morgan had observed not only a drastic decline in union power, but also the disintegration of the Soviet-led communist bloc from which he and many of his peers had drawn ideological inspiration.
But the socialist flame burned brightly to the end. His death notice finished with the union slogan “Solidarity Forever” – and at his funeral, mourners sang The Internationale, the anthem of the socialist Left.
He left instructions for his ashes to be scattered at sea off Wellington Heads.
Sources: Stuff archives, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision, North and South, Maggie Morgan, Max Kelly, Annette King, Chris Eichbaum.