‘The New Zealand Northern Drivers’ Union: Trade Union Anti-Racism Work, 1960-1980’


In 1946, 22-year-old seafarer Bill Andersen returned from war a committed communist with a hatred for racism. Andersen’s anti-racism arose from witnessing the treatment of colonised Arab dockworkers in ports like Aden. In Auckland, Andersen was nurtured by strong friendships with older maritime trade union communist leaders who set an example of united front communism – building democratic, industrially militant cultures inside the New Zealand Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers’ Union. 

However, militant trade unionism became increasingly difficult in the Cold War. Communists were removed from trade union office and Waterside Workers’ Unions were disestablished altogether after a massive dispute in 1951. Andersen was blacklisted from seafaring, freezing work and then waterfront work. He and 200 other ex-waterside workers became truck, bus, ambulance, taxi, or construction vehicle drivers. They joined the Northern Drivers’ Union, representing workers in Northland, Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. With their support, Andersen was elected a union organiser in 1954 and secretary in 1956. True to his communist philosophy, he set about democratising the Union and spreading anti-racism. ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ was extended to injuries caused by the injustices of racism and Māori land alienation. 

The number of Drivers’ Union delegates grew across the 1950s and Māori drivers were active amongst them. As Māori moved from rural tribal homelands to cities in post-war New Zealand, they not only remade urban workplaces, they remade trade unions as well. They clustered together on particular worksites where collective ways of ‘being Māori…informed the practices and values’ of the workplace. For example, a tribal elder would become the delegate and help younger Māori drivers ‘organise their social lives as well as their working lives.’ In this way, Māori increasingly became involved in union affairs. 

Māori drivers made their predominantly Pākehā union officials aware of incidents of racial discrimination in the workforce and officials organised to gain their reinstatement. Drivers also supported the Citizens All Black Tour Association ‘No Māoris, No Tour’ campaign, signing the petition opposing racial discrimination in the selection of an All Blacks rugby team to tour South Africa in 1960. That year press reports of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville being shot by South African police sparked anti-apartheid protests around the world. In the Drivers’ Union newspaper Wheels, Andersen reported: ‘shootings, beatings and mass punishments of coloured South African workers have motivated a strong protest from this union.’ He went on to say: ‘The Northern Drivers’ Union is firmly opposed to the colour bar’ and he connected this to local issues. ‘We recognise that New Zealand is not completely free of guilt.’ The Union urged the Government to oppose apartheid. The FoL called on the government to cancel the 1960 tour, and the Seamen’s Union stopped work for 24 hours to protest the massacre. Despite unusually large demonstrations for the time, the tour went ahead. 

At the 1960 Drivers’ Delegate Convention in Auckland, delegates unanimously agreed to the Union executive’s proposed ‘stand against racial discrimination wherever it may raise its ugly head.’ Andersen reported: ‘racial discrimination has the effect of dividing the working people and … we should be united, irrespective of colour, religion or political beliefs.’ Northern Drivers’ Union members recognised that a colour bar existed ‘to some extent in New Zealand and it must be vigorously stamped out, root and branch.’ This policy made the Northern Drivers an explicitly anti-racist union.

The Northern Drivers also supported the work of Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality (CARE), formed in 1964 to focus on race relations in South Africa and racism experienced by Māori and Pacific Island migrants to Auckland city. In the face of widespread opposition, the planned 1967 All Blacks tour of South Africa was cancelled. However, the South African Prime Minister John Vorster adapted the rules so Māori and Pacific Island players could be included in the All Blacks touring team as ‘honorary whites’ in 1970. In response, CARE hosted Dennis Brutus, president of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, who argued the tour would demonstrate New Zealand’s approval of apartheid laws. 

Northern Drivers executive member Wally Foster, a Māori South Auckland Council driver, found Brutus a persuasive speaker, and said they should oppose the tour. The Union’s policy had always condemned racial discrimination and prejudice ‘for the reason that Pakehas, Maoris, Islanders and others work side by side, engage at times in conflict with employers side by side, and go home at night to live in their communities side by side.’ Foster emphasised their common experiences. Every worker faced similar problems of ‘housing, making the wage packet spin out, feeding the family and sending children to school’ which would not be solved if they allowed arguments over race or religion to cause divisions between them.

However, there was also support for the 1970 tour amongst the drivers. Some argued against dragging politics into sport; or said the All Blacks mixed-race team could set South Africans a good example; and others pointed out Māori sometimes played separately from Pākehā internationally, also a form of discrimination. Others asked ‘why should we care?’ as rugby league supporters. The Northern Drivers executive did not gain support for their policy of opposition and the 1970 Tour went ahead with one Samoan and two Māori players selected for the All Blacks team as ‘honorary whites’. 

Two years later the Northern Drivers executive took further action when they sponsored the visit of John Gaetsewe, Representative of the South African Congress of Trade Unions. He spoke at union stopwork meetings about how the apartheid system impacted South African workers designated ‘black’ or ‘coloured’. As the 1973 proposed Springbok tour was discussed, again members remained divided in their views. This time, the Labour government cancelled the Tour. 

The Northern Drivers’ Union had more success when they invited Ngā Tamatoa leader Hana Jackson to address an Auckland stopwork meeting. Māori protest group Ngā Tamatoa had emerged in inner-city Auckland in 1970, influenced by local racism and transnational Black Power movements. She explained to union members Ngā Tamatoa efforts to save the Māori language and publicise the broken promises of the Treaty of Waitangi. After a lively debate, the meeting resolved to donate funds to assist Ngā Tamatoa with their work. Articles about Ngā Tamatoa campaigns were published in the Northern Drivers’ newspaper and support was generated from drivers for the Māori land march, protesting Māori land alienation in 1975. 

In 1976, the new National government, led by Robert Muldoon, announced that 24 hectares at Bastion Point, on the Auckland waterfront would be subdivided, sold off, and ‘redeveloped as a pricey retirement village’. This land was part of a block declared inalienable by Ngāti Whātua chief Apihai Te Kawau in 1840, but the Crown and consecutive governments had acquired it piecemeal by dubious practices anyway, until by 1950 only the village was left for tangata whenua to live. ‘Things came to a head in 1951 when, on the pretext of protecting their health, the Crown evicted the remaining families and relocated them to homes on nearby streets’. Ngāti Whātua homes and meeting house were burned to the ground. 

Eruini (Eddie) Hawke was a Ngāti Whātua wharfie who had stood loyal to the Waterside Workers’ Union during the 1951 dispute; that year he lost his job, his union, and his marae. His son Joe was the spokesperson of the Ōrākei Māori Committee Action Group who decided to occupy Bastion Point in early January 1977. The Hawkes knew Andersen, by then president of the Auckland Trades Council, from wharf work and his assistance in forming a Ngāti Whātua rugby league team. Before the occupation, an Ōrākei Māori Action Committee delegation went to the Auckland Trades Council and won a motion of support for a Green Ban on Bastion Point. The Council committed to a policy that no subdivision or redevelopment work would be carried out at the Point by trade union members. Truck driver Syd Keepa, remembered ‘Muldoon wanted to build rich people’s houses on there’ which was why he and others ‘who were a bit iffy on Māori rights’ got involved. The Auckland Trades Council sold it to the membership as a class issue, about poor people against rich people, not a land rights issue and consequently had success in getting the Green Ban imposed.

This changed during the occupation. Conversations inside trade unions became focused on Māori land rights and the history of colonisation. For example, Andersen explained to members: ‘The Pakehas who have stolen (legally on some occasions) Māori land were not drivers, storemen, labourers or carpenters. It was …the rich Pakehas or their agents. Many of our Union members and other Union members are amongst those who have been or are being robbed.’ He described ‘The great Māori Land March and the Bastion Point struggle’ as being ‘the first real roll back in this long and infamous period of injustice against the Māori peoples.’ 

The Bastion Point occupation lasted seventeen months. On 25 May 1978, ‘seven hundred police and army personnel invaded Bastion Point. The military cordoned the land by human ring of police officers. They removed two hundred and twenty-two people and charged them with wilful trespass.’ But the Green Ban stayed in place and a successful treaty claim would see Bastion Point restored to Ngāti Whātua in 1991.

Northern Drivers’ Union race relations policy reflected shifting attitudes to the Māori land rights movement. In 1977 members agreed to ‘opposition to all forms of racial discrimination at home and abroad.’ By 1978, policy was expanded to: ‘(a) equality of all races and harmonious relations between all workers for mutual progress (b) Greater involvement of Polynesian members in various positions in the Union (c) Full support for justice for the Maori people for land rights (d) Opposition to all forms of apartheid in any area.’ 

Cybèle Locke is a labour and oral historian in the History Programme at Victorian University of Wellington. This piece is drawn from Cybèle’s article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 21-23.