MUST READ: Ken Douglas + the CTUs weakest moment – not a single fighting bone in his body when it was needed the most


The death of Ken Douglas brings back tragic memories.

I was a teacher back in 1991 when the National government introduced the Employment Contracts legislation designed to smash the union movement.

The PPTA was one of the leading unions to oppose the new law and along with others voted to support a national strike to fight the changes. But the leadership of the union movement, in particular Council of Trade Unions President Ken Douglas, seemed unprepared. It was as though he was asleep at the wheel. Several unions, including PPTA, voted for a national strike to force the government to backdown (We know since then that Jim Bolger’s government had a softer restructuring ready to go if there was widespread opposition)

Then when unions met in Wellington in early 1991 to vote on a proposal for a national strike, Ken Douglas told delegates they would need at least 80% support for a national strike to succeed and because he didn’t think there was that support he argued for delegates to vote down the proposal!

In a travesty of democracy our PPTA delegates followed his lead and enough other unions followed suite, so the proposal was narrowly lost.

This was the most critical betrayal of workers by a union leader during my lifetime. It’s hard to describe just how shameless Ken Douglas’s behaviour was. He vastly preferred to be the leader of the losing team than play second fiddle in a winning team.

Needless to say the share of wealth going to workers has dramatically declined since 1991 while the share going to wealthy shareholders has dramatically increased.

The failure to fight the Employment Contracts legislation is the single most important reason we have up to 30% of our children living in poverty, we have become a low wage economy and inequality has spiralled out of control.

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But selling out on the workers got him a lifetime government honour. He had performed a vital role for the wealthy by selling out workers and was warmly rewarded with prime and lucrative roles on the boards of various crown enterprises.

There will be some applauding him as a workers’ champion – he wasn’t. When he was needed the most he was cowardly and gutless. He didn’t have a single fighting bone in his body when it was needed the most.

I know there will be some who say we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and try to salvage something positive from his union work. Don’t bother. His betrayal of workers in 1991 was so dramatic and so stark that it eclipses anything else he ever did.


  1. I remembered when Ken Douglas received a New Year/Queen’s Birthday honours for services to the Union Movement — and thinking why?? Kiwi workers were destroyed under his watch

  2. The formation of the NZCTU was one of the most significant class errors of the late 20th century. A leader does not stand placidly by and bemoan the support level, they get out there and organise and fight and build it. The natzos WERE expecting national action and could not believe their luck when it did not happen and the NZ working class has suffered from that first union busting ECA ever since. I was not all down to Douglas though–there were plenty of other lily livered tops in the state sector unions and more right wing private sector unions that backed him, despite their members marching against the ECA as John says.

    I was on those marches my self and at the special affiliates meeting in Wellington where the sell out was narrowly endorsed my Union Secretaries. The vote should have been taken at mass meetings of members.

    I had the great pleasure at Jim Knox’s memorial service in Auckland, to see ’51 Waterfront Lockout leader Jock Barnes lambast Douglas in the most excoriating way for his class collaborationist behaviour. A number of the Labour people in the media today praising Ken Douglas, could not handle Jock’s honesty on that day.

    The NZCTU under Douglas, Foulkes, and the rest pursued Tri Partism–i.e. partnership with employers–positive engagement with the very people that wanted to destroy unionism was never going to happen!

    Agree with John Minto that whatever good Ken might have done in earlier days in the Wellington Drivers Union was negated by his turning from marxism to Blairism basically, which he never had the courtesy to inform his SUP colleagues of. The oldest question of people in politics–“did they go bad or were they always bad?”.

    NZ workers need a class left fighting central labour organisation like the old FOL a place that will encourage todays new gen workers start to get organised and take on the employing class. Srikes all around Auckland packaging, a 6 week lockout of pulp and paper workers, pickets at Sky City and Union legal action against Uber on driver status show the employing class never sleeps so neither can the working class.

    • It seemed that unionists allowed their sharp minds to be blunted – revisionism became the order of the day. Critical opinion should have been encouraged at special yearly meetings and tested by following through an idea to its likely conclusion, testing it also against what values the unions wanted to uphold for themselves, the country and the world.

      Unions would sing the Internationale so world matters were important and retaining balance also. Sticking to the knitting would have meant saying NO we must seek a better way. And the democratic power should have been extended to the members being able to overturn the wrong decision of the leader. You were caught in a trap of your own making. The Charge of the Light-Headed Brigade. It’s true isn’t it; admit it after your first and second spurt of anger.

      2016 They sang The Internationale as a street choir.
      Billy Bragg is closely connected with presenting this anthem.

      And Fanfare for the Common Man (watching and listening makes you feel proud to be common)

  3. I agree John. I was a national delegate in the PSA at the time. Even the most conservative members were geared and ready to strike. We were appalled at the decision to capitulate. It wrecked membership trust in unions for decades.

    I feel for his family’s grief, but find no warmth for him at all. His legacy was our tepid unionism that is only just beginning to rise again.

  4. In 1991 the workers lost out completely but they have themselves to blame as the general public were tired of the constant disruption to their lives. Rail strikes and ferry strikes always at school holidays freezing workers on strike when farmers wanted to get stock slaughtered dockers constantly stopping vial overseas stock from being landed. Following on from the 1984 Labour government changes the National government had the opportunity to break the unions and they took it . This has lead to 30 years of a low wage economy supported by both Labour and National governments. I see signs of that situation slowly changing as we restart the economy after covid .
    The party that can help,that situation needs to win in 2023 for wrkers to improve their lot .

    • Note that prior to the ECA, there was no child poverty, and no homelessness. Every single worker got a decent pay rise every single year, and no workers were treated like dirt by their bosses like they do now. In hospitality, especially, you didnt have sweatshop conditions. In addtion, workers got loaded up with perks and allowances. You dont get that now. Workers get bugger all really. And it is people like you that voted to get all that taken away, because some rich pricks pleaded poverty.

      I bet you withheld payrises for your workers so you could afford a Ford Ranger.

      • All my staff got over the union advised pay rate and a bonus at Xmas in return I expected hard work and good time keeping. When I managed a KFC branch with 32 staff only 1 left in 9 months as they enjoyed working with a boss that respected them .
        I worked hard for what I had . Can you say the same or are you just a bitter person full of envy

        • Oh please with envy argument. It’s so shallow personal attack and all it does is demonstrate your utter disregard to up lift the poor, or anything but contempt for those who are not greedy.

            • Is it only jobs we need to create to up lift the poor? I think not, breaking the chains which keep them in poverty is one. Offering them the ability and skills to keep out of the trap of poverty is another. How many have I helped here, far far more than you have by your creation of jobs.

              Such a narrow focus from you Trevor.

              As for your strawman about Millsy, never said it was OK for Millsy to attack you personally. So that whole poor me shtick, is a bit much. Don’t you think?

        • why do I not find trev the kfc manager a surprise…if your telling the truth and do treat your workers well, good one…BUT 99.99percent of NZ employers don’t come up to those standards.. so sorry but your anecdotal musings are apropros of nothing in the union debate

    • trev ‘withdrawal of labour’ means disruption, the hope being the general populous will bring pressure to bear on pollies and employers to come to the table

        • tell mick lynch that bob the last…when the populous know from their own lives how shit things are sympathy in the public tends to the recent wellie bus strikes…no public calls to send the commies back to russia was there…no, and you know why? everybody in wellie knows the drivers were being pissed on from a great height.

  5. Might be off topic but years back Ken was hugely over weight. He was sitting on a bus next to me and was talking about an upcoming new fangled stomach surgery for weight loss. It obviously worked for him and gave him years. That may not please all on this column but I’d like to think that all those who need this can get it.

    • Let me assure you that you either pay for stomach surgery about $30,000 I think or you lie on the waiting list which is quite long. I worked at the ADHB and remember seeing the short list of likely candidates, their weights and their other conditions. It was a lottery there are not that many carried out in a year.

  6. The debate over whether a national strike should have been called in ’91 usually glosses over the most relevant factor. And that was that the working class had abandoned the Labour Party at that time, and by association, were not overwhelmingly trusting of organised labour.

    It is know commonly accepted that National may have watered down the ECA if there were strong protests. However, what no one knows is what would have happened if there were protests and they failed. A far worse ECA was possible.

    Ken’s cautious position had majority support in the wider union leaderships. It was democratic decision, not the whim of one man.

    Personally, I liked Ken and found him to be honest, smart and supportive. Not an angel, by any means, but not the sole reason unions have been doing it tough from the 80’s on, either.

  7. ” Ken’s cautious position had majority support in the wider union leaderships ”

    I remember 1991 and I expected a strong response to the anti union measures which if Richardson and Birch could have got away with it would have made union membership illegal which is basically what they imposed like spreading a slow release poison that attacks the root then kills the living entity and in turn subjugating the then workforce and more importantly the generations after with no rights or protection against the evils of neo liberal policies masquerading as the key to productivity , growth and repaying debt that would only help the most disadvantaged by ensuring life long poverty with subsistent wages , no allowances that had been hard fought for but not appreciated until they were signed away and the Hobbits started to realise that Bolger and co had lied in 1990 when they said that people would be more free to negotiate their own employment conditions ..LOL without those pesky militant unions. Of course that would have required an employment lawyer but in times of recession and high unemployment if you wanted the job YOU SIGNED and union influence was no longer needed and discouraged. The perfect ” coup de Tat ”

    I waited for a strong union response but sadly back then the union movement was enemy number one after all the strikes , disruptions and bad publicity they had effectively cut the throats of the people that would need them when they actually were in danger of losing everything. They were a symptom of the neo liberal free market enemy that at the time sold the whole idea that if we could just de unionise it would mean a path to prosperity but only to increase the wealth of the elite , banks and corporate entities.

    If it doesn’t make a profit its not worth supporting and that approach in New Zealand still applies today. You only have to look to Australia with its high wage economy that VALUES and see’s wages and salary as an INVESTMENT NOT A COST like in the Shire.

    The Australian neo libs would have never tried the ECA on the Australian public they and their unions would never have tolerated it for a minute.

  8. Quite a statement. The implication of which is our resident communist was also our Ramsay McDonald.

    Oz unions didn’t fold. At the time I took it something was different about us. Oz certainly got out of the freemarket ‘revolution’ better than biddable us. Their Irish anti-ness saw them through. The Scots influence on this side of the Tasman, used to a smooth run, couldn’t stand up automatically negative when surprised. Though my old Biology teacher, Don Beuth, always said no first to every request.

    I saw him on the Porirua Council as a thirty-something student reporter — a nice fellow to me. I was too shy to ask him about my socialist g.grandfather who he would have known about a bit, both being in Wellington. Later saw him in the stark Porirua hills, me a market research interviewer, him looking after his family after his stomach stapling. Didna say a thing. Summary: whatever he did I don’t think he did it for personal profit.

    • and capitalist systems don’t tom
      ….I could type a list but it’d be as long and tedious for me as it would for the reader.

      • I don’t expect you to get it but the difference is that the influence of stupid mistakes made by crap leaders is limited in the private sector simply because there are many players in most industries.

        Sure, get a monopoly, which is what Google basically is in the Internet search space – or even an oligopoly (like the Big Three automakers) then crap leadership does have wider consequences. It’s as I said the other day; subsidiarity vs ever-increasing centralisation and it just so happens that the private sector has more of the former than the State does, or wants.

        But you guys here don’t believe that, hence your constant demands for more central government power in every sphere of life possible – and hence the ever-greater impacts of poor leaders and decision-makers.

        • That’s not quite true. Governments can reflect democracy so they can reflect the wisdom of a huge group. (It often doesn’t for many reasons but it still can). Companies never can represent widely. And as you point out capitalism has a tendency towards monopoly and concentration of power. We certainly are at that point. So you argument about private enterprise being better is not strong. However, I wrote an article on tax changes that would inherently work against the accumulation and centralisation of wealth and power (it wouldn’t stop it but it would make it harder). I think many smaller businesses is a very good thing.

      • I see he’s bought himself a helicopter just a small one mind you.
        So he could be a communist given Putin’s got one.
        Great man Sir John.

    • Actually Boris Yeltsin not Gorbachev. Glasnost and perestroika were wonderful concepts. Yeltsin was a cynical opportunist who is responsible for the incumbent megalomaniac coming to power.

  9. I marched prior to the bill – I went on strike for 7 weeks in 92 to retain a national collective – this strike was seen as a challenge to the new legislation (ERA) – but again the will of the members and delegates was not enough to stop the sell out union leadership of Alan Weir & Rex Jones comrades in arms with Douglas and Faulkes and when Douglas became involved with our struggle I new we were fucked.
    Some did stand up like the great Bill Andersen but sadly most leaders lacked the fortitude or guts to join the fight.
    We are now left with what scraps this right wing govt throws at us like the FPA and the diabolical new tax on workers – social insurance scheme and still the leadrship is lacking in the bosses CTU.
    As for Douglas, I will sheed no tear on his passing. Spot on John Minto.

  10. Of course i ask my boss for a pay rise every new financial year at the inflation rate rate, and of course get laughed at, or basic these days f— off.
    How in the beginning of the formation of the Union Movement, did the Movement progress its fair claims for its members, was with one basic right, the right to withdraw its labour, or other forms of industrial action, that is how many just claims were won and hard won by many hardship on the members. As mentioned, since the 90!s workers right!s and wages have progressed minimal.
    By the by John, i was a organizer for a Union, who defied the then new C.T.U. AND REFUSED TO BE AFFILIATED. As for Ken, he was of the opinion that forming the new C.T.U. THEY WOULD NOT BE INDUSTRIALLY STRONG ENOUGH for a protracted national action.

  11. As much as I hate communists and unionists (farmers son and 27 yrs in miltary) I worked out Ken saw the writing on the war when the filth unionists got smashed in Britain.
    We had that chick leading a hate the unions march up Queen street every decent person saw that the unions were a total goat fuck.
    Red Ken adapted with the times and NZ was better off for it. The embittered staunch unionists were finally beaten after causing stagnation for over a hundred years.

    • Talking about ‘filth’, you. Farmer and soldier isn’t a good case for being right from the start. Make a case, don’t sink your case.

  12. Dreadfully disappointing how the Left show no sympathy or respect for someone who has died but rather take the opportunity to be bitter.
    Mind you it’s a hallmark of the left to be full of bitterness.

  13. There is no legitimate Right anymore — National is behind the times — but the ‘Left’ isn’t willing to point it out. Instead any intellectually rational person has to put up with bad faith tosh crap for the rich as so it’s an argument. Focus group ‘Left’ can’t answer that. God, come back Norm Kirk.

  14. We didn’t have fight, John. Afraid to say. We didn’t have the combative streak of the anti-authoritarian Ozzies. Also by which we didn’t have their corruption. We pakehas had profited straightforwardly here in NZ. So not used to opposition like our Irish cousins over the Tasman.

  15. Quite strnge I ws just bout lone in being outrged by the description of Mike Moore s ‘working clss hero’ at his death. Yet there is no blowback about our slicing and dicing of Douglas’s legacy immeditely on his demise.

    Dats politics.

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