WALSH [Tuohy], Fintan Patrick
Trade union leader.
A new biography of Walsh, Fintan Patrick appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Fintan Patrick Tuohy was born at Patutahi, near Gisborne, on 11 August 1896, the son of Michael Tuohy. After primary education at the Te Arai school and work on his father's farm, he went to sea in 1916. His early work was apparently in British ships, for he became a member of the British National Seamen's Union, but by the end of the First World War he was employed on the “Gulf oilers” working out of San Francisco. Here he came under the influence of the doctrines of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), a syndicalist industrial organisation which was strong on the west coast of the United States. In 1920 he returned to New Zealand, joined the New Zealand Seamen's Union, and changed his name to Walsh. Shortly afterwards he became a member of the newly formed New Zealand Communist Party but resigned in 1924. The experience left him with a lasting antagonism towards communism, both domestic and international.
Walsh's influential career in the industrial labour movement may really be dated from 1927, when he was elected president of the New Zealand Seamen's Union, a post which he retained until his death. At a series of conferences from 1928 into the early 1930s, in which the flabby industrial movement painfully adjusted itself to the realities of economic bargaining power on the falling market of the Great Depression, Walsh and the president of the miners' union, Angus McLagan, consistently led a more aggressive and uncompromising minority. Walsh later became the leader of the more militant wing of the Alliance of Labour, the national trade union organisation which was split into two factions in the mid-1930s. When the present Federation of Labour was formed in 1937 he was elected to its executive. He was its vice-president from 1946 to 1953 and president from 1953 until his death in Wellington on 16 May 1963.
From 1937, with the formation of the new national union organisation and with the accession to power of the first Labour Government, Walsh's influence broadened beyond the confines of trade union politics. He was one of the powerful union leaders whose backing helped the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Government to resist the challenge of a younger left-wing group. Peter Fraser's accession to the Prime Ministership in 1940 reinforced this trend. Walsh, now an intimate of the Prime Minister, was appointed a member of the commission which agreed upon the policy of stabilisation of wages and prices for the duration of the war; subsequently, he was appointed to the Economic Stabilisation Commission, the body established to administer this policy, from its formation in 1942 until its abolition in 1950. His work on the Commission not only permitted him considerable influence in national decision-making but also assisted him to gain a grasp of the fundamentals of New Zealand's economy, which was equalled by few men in public life.
Although he did not become president of the Federation of Labour until 1953, he was in reality its dominating personality from the time of the war. The direction of the post-war leadership of the Federation, which channelled through Walsh and McLagan (now in the Cabinet) to Fraser in support of the declining Labour Government, caused mounting dissatisfaction among the more militant trade unions and contributed, in 1950, to the formation of a breakaway organisation, the Trade Union Congress. There followed the great 1951 waterfront strike in which the militant group of unions was smashed by the National Government in a manner reminiscent of 1912–13. The Government's success was aided by the attitude of Walsh, who held the rump of the industrial movement in the Federation in a position of hostility towards the strikers. Their defeat left Walsh's group in undisputed control of the industrial movement.
The abandonment of the policy of economic stabilisation in 1950 involved a return to direct bargaining between trade unions and employers. But negotiations for individual awards in the fifties became completely overshadowed by applications for general wage orders, inspired by the Federation as the central organisation and presented to the Arbitration Court by Walsh. It was these occasions which made Walsh's name a household word as he held sway in the Court in widely publicised exchanges, hectoring opposing or unhelpful witnesses and marshalling formidable and often successful arguments. More and more, the Federation took on the appearance of a one-man band. In the process, however, some unions began to drift away. As he aged and as his empire began to erode, Walsh's temperament too often got the better of his judgment. But even towards the end, when he had to turn occasionally to unexpected quarters for support, he remained unchallenged.
What of the man? Even to his closest colleagues, “Jack” Walsh remained something of a mystery. To his enemies, and they were many, the “Black Prince” was a malevolent figure. Of his ability there can be no doubt. Walsh possessed an intellectual capacity and a sheer force of personality sufficient to command a much larger and more unruly crew than that afforded him by New Zealand trade unionism. He combined an ability for adept manoeuvring with a splendid sense of timing in public statements. In his earlier career he may have preferred to work much behind the scenes, for that was his habit, but one suspects that in later years the taste of nation-wide publicity proved more and more to his liking. Although he came to possess both the appearance and the reality of power, although, too, he attained a considerable degree of private affluence – he owned a large and prosperous dairy farm which was his favourite retreat – Walsh remained in his personal relations and attitudes an “outsider”. He had no patience with the conventional trappings of social and political success. While quite capable of tactical opportunism, he remained fiercely loyal to basic beliefs formed during early years of struggle, not so much in the sense of intellectual convictions as of social attitudes. He made no attempt to conceal his dislike or contempt for particular persons, practices, or institutions; likewise he was quick to recognise merit and loyalty in those with whom he worked and to accord them a lasting respect. Combative, dominating, sometimes menacing in the course of a dispute, capable of violent likes and dislikes, Walsh was yet a sensitive and essentially a lonely man.
by Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.
- The Rise of New Zealand Labour, Brown, B. M. (1962)
- Dominion, 17 May, 18 May 1963 (Obits)
- Press (Christchurch), 17 May 1963 (Obit).