David Patrick Fisher was born in Dublin, Ireland, probably between 1849 and 1852. He was the son of Elizabeth McLeod and her husband, James Fisher, the government printer, both Scottish. About 1859 his parents moved to Melbourne, Australia, where David spent much of his youth. His father helped to found the Age, and David served his printing apprenticeship with the Herald and later worked for Punch.
The date of Fisher's arrival in New Zealand and his subsequent movements are obscure. He is said to have moved to Wellington to join his brother, George, who had been there since 1869. David Fisher worked for the New Zealand Times, and as a compositor at the Government Printing Office. On 23 November 1878 he married Christina Heldt at Wellington. By 1886 he was in Auckland, where he helped to organise the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Typographical Association, increasing its membership from eight to more than 100 and helping it to secure improved wages and conditions for its members. He had returned to Wellington by late 1888 and at once organised the city's various unions under the umbrella of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council; he became its president. Fisher participated in the formation of unions for a number of trades including the wharf labourers, carriers, Wellington tailoresses and the woollen mills employees. All this was in addition to his work as a compositor and printer.
Fisher was at the centre of the expansion of trade unionism in New Zealand in a period when union membership rose (according to some claims) from 3,000 to 63,000 in just two years; the number of unions rose to some 200. He was closely involved in the 1890 Petone woollen mills strike, when a number of men were dismissed after forming a union, and was appointed to conduct the strikers' case when it went to arbitration. Pressure of work meant he had not prepared his case properly, and was unable to prove the crucial point that the mill workers had formed a union prior to their dismissal. He withdrew the claim, but with the assistance of John Millar and the Maritime Council an agreement was reached with the mill owners.
The New Zealand labour movement had a critical year in 1890: the maritime strike was defeated, turning unionists' thoughts to political action, and the report of the royal commission on sweating showed the necessity for government action to remove abuses in the labour market. Fisher was involved in both events. He was a member of the sweating commission, and as president of the Maritime Council was intimately involved in the strike. The refusal of Sir Harry Atkinson's government to intervene in the strike strengthened the hand of the employers. A conference chaired by Fisher failed to settle the dispute and the strike collapsed in November.
Fisher now moved to support the Liberals in the pending general election; along with some union-supported labour candidates they were successful in putting an end to a long period of almost uninterrupted conservative government. The new premier, John Ballance, saw the need for reform in the labour area. One of the major pieces of legislation enacted was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 which established boards to settle worker–employer disputes. David Fisher was elected to the first conciliation board set up in Wellington in 1896.
In this period of busy activity Fisher served, from 1889 to 1892, on the Petone Borough Council. His attempt to force the council to pay a living wage to its contract workers was defeated on the mayor's casting vote. He is credited, too, with persuading the government to make Labour Day a holiday for public servants. He worked closely with Ballance in the initial stages of drafting some of the labour legislation, and actively promoted the erection of a public memorial to Ballance following his death in 1893. Throughout the 1890s he appears to have worked as a compositor and printer.
Fisher suffered a bad year in 1903. He was declared bankrupt in April, and in December was accused by the New Zealand Socialist Party of using a temporary clerk's position he had gained in the colonial secretary's office for party political purposes. He vigorously denied the charges. However, a few weeks later the government announced that Fisher had indeed committed a breach of the regulations. He was dismissed from his position, and indignantly refused the offer of employment as a bath attendant at Te Aroha. Fisher returned to Australia, but by 1907 he was back in Auckland, where he died on 5 April 1912. He was survived by his wife, Christina, five daughters and two sons.
David Fisher was an important and influential unionist. He was credited with founding 'more trade union organisations than any man in New Zealand'. His close connection with the government in the 1890s was a tribute to his ability, although his brother's political contacts may also have proved useful: George Fisher had been a member of the Wellington City Council as early as 1877, served five times as mayor, and was a member of the House of Representatives and a minister in Atkinson's government from 1887 to 1889. Unlike his colleagues – John Millar, who became minister of labour, and John Lomas, who went on from unionism to head the Department of Labour – David Fisher became a forgotten man. The real contribution he made in the vital years of the first growth of New Zealand trade unionism has been undeservedly overlooked.