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Story: Young, William Thomas

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Young, William Thomas


Seaman, trade unionist

This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

William Thomas (Tom) Young was born in Karori, Wellington, New Zealand, on 27 April 1870, the son of Jessie Dykes and her husband, William Young, a farmer. Tom Young began work when he was 11 and went to sea soon after. His involvement with the union movement can be traced to 1895, when he was a delegate for the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand (FSU) aboard a coastal trader; later he served on the government steamer Hinemoa and the inter-island ferry Penguin. By 1898 he was working ashore at a Wellington restaurant and was a vice president of the local branch of the FSU.

That year a dispute split the seamen's federation. When Wellington branch secretary William Jones and his supporters seceded from the FSU, William Belcher, secretary of the union's Dunedin head office, chose Tom Young to establish a new branch in the capital. Young confidently predicted that 'in three months Jones will not have 20 members with him'; in fact it was only after a four-year struggle that membership of the federated branch surpassed that of its rival.

Over the next decade Belcher, Young and Auckland secretary J. K. (Jack) Kneen built the FSU into one of New Zealand's strongest trade unions. Young established an FSU agency at Lyttelton, and earned a reputation as a skilful advocate in the Court of Arbitration. He also became an influential figure in Wellington's labour movement. He was president of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council in 1904–5 and 1911–12, secretary of the Wellington Tramways Employees' Union from about 1904 until 1909, and in 1908 was appointed deputy workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration. He also made unsuccessful attempts to gain election to the city council, harbour board and Parliament as a labour candidate. On 15 August 1906, in Wellington, he married Margaret Anne Craig.

By 1911 Young rivalled Belcher as the dominant personality in the FSU. Wellington had grown to be a more significant port than Dunedin and had become the home of the union's largest branch. Moreover, changes in the labour movement – particularly growing dissatisfaction with the arbitration system and the Liberal government – helped tilt the balance of power in Young's favour. In 1911, despite Belcher's unease, the FSU transferred its allegiance from the Liberals to the first New Zealand Labour Party and withdrew from the arbitration system. The following year the union's head office was shifted to Wellington and Young succeeded Belcher as national secretary. Although Belcher's health had deteriorated, he continued to be a force in the union and a rival to Young.

Tom Young was a sincere Catholic and a socialist; like many unionists of his generation he was influenced by the American radical theorist Henry George. Young supported strong industrial unions but was committed to reformist politics; he was active in the New Zealand Labour Party (1910–12) and the United Labour Party of New Zealand (1912–13). He had little sympathy for the revolutionary New Zealand Federation of Labour (the 'Red Feds'). In 1912 he opposed the Waihī strike and acted to prevent Red Fed infiltration of the FSU. Yet he acknowledged the militants' criticism of the arbitration system and recognised the need for unity in the labour movement.

Young was prominent at the unity conferences of 1913, and in July was elected president of the United Federation of Labour (UFL), an organisation dominated by the Red Fed watersiders' and miners' unions. As the tide of industrial militancy rose in 1913, Young found himself at the centre of events, 'floating like a cork on the top of a tremendous current'. In August 1913 he attempted to bring seamen into the UFL. However, the Auckland and Dunedin branches feared the consequences of affiliation and the ballot was lost, leaving Young in the curious position of being leader of a national labour organisation to which his own union did not belong.

In October miners and waterside workers began a national strike. Belcher and Kneen demanded that Young resign either as secretary of the FSU or as president of the UFL, but Wellington seamen voted unanimously that he should 'hold both positions to the bitter end'. As strikers and mounted special police clashed on the streets of Wellington, Young reacted with fiery rhetoric: if police used batons, he told an angry crowd at the Basin Reserve, the unionists 'should give it to them back and "make it a double-header" '.

Young had tried to keep seamen out of the dispute, but by 10 November this was no longer possible and the FSU joined the strike. Two days later Young, along with other labour leaders, was arrested for sedition and inciting violence. When he was released on 5 December it was clear that the strikers would be defeated. The UFL opposed a sectional settlement of the dispute, but, faced with the prospect of Auckland and Dunedin seamen returning to work regardless, Young put the unity of the FSU first. Amid recriminations, the seamen's strike ended on 19 December. Young managed to salvage his reputation, but many unionists accused the seamen of betrayal.

Early in 1914 Young served a three-month prison sentence for his part in the strike. Despite lingering resentment between the branches – when Young visited Dunedin in June 1914 Belcher chased him from his office with a ruler, shouting obscenities – the FSU quickly recovered. By late 1917 the union was stronger than ever and Young was in complete control: on 26 July Belcher had resigned amid allegations of financial mismanagement, and a week later Kneen had died in Auckland.

During the First World War Young was increasingly influenced by the ideas of the American syndicalist organisation the Industrial Workers of the World. He supported the labour movement's campaign against military conscription, and in October 1917 was again imprisoned for inciting a 'seditious' strike by Wellington coastal seamen. Over the following decade Young re-established his influence in the general labour movement, serving on the executives of the New Zealand Labour Party, the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, and the board of directors of the labour weekly the New Zealand Worker.

The depression of the early 1920s hit the shipping industry hard, and in October 1922 the Court of Arbitration slashed seamen's wages and conditions. Young counselled caution, but seamen began a national strike. The government suspended legal manning provisions to enable ship owners to replace unionists with unqualified crews, and in early 1923 the union was routed. Young received harsh criticism for his leadership, particularly from an emerging communist faction within the FSU, led by an aggressive young seaman called Fintan Patrick Walsh.

Walsh's reputation was greatly enhanced by his supportive role in the British seamen's dispute of 1925, and he soon challenged Young for the leadership of the union. After a long, bitter struggle, Walsh and his supporters seized control in January 1927, and physically ejected Young from his office. Young still had considerable influence in the labour movement, but within two years Walsh had ousted him from the executives of the New Zealand Labour Party, the Alliance of Labour and the New Zealand Worker. Young angrily turned his back on the Labour Party. In the 1928 general election Margaret Young stood as an independent against Labour's Peter Fraser in Wellington Central, alleging that her husband had been betrayed by 'a miserable crowd of Communists' who now controlled the party. Her campaign attracted great interest, but she polled a distant third.

Tom Young was a vocal anti-communist for the rest of his life. In the 1930s he served as secretary of the Wellington Woollen-mills and Hosiery Factories Employees' Union and the tiny Chief Stewards' Guild of New Zealand. He was briefly president of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council in 1932, but was expelled in November at the insistence of the FSU and its allies. In the 1940s he held clerical jobs in the Defence Department and the Department of Education in Wellington. He died in Wellington on 20 September 1953, survived by Margaret; they had no children.

Quick-witted and combative, Tom Young was an outstanding organiser and a formidable debater; but he could also be surly and abrasive, and made many enemies. He read voraciously and wrote several books on maritime and labour issues, including My shipmate (1918) and Sea rovers and their plunder (1923). Yet he remains an obscure figure. Unlike Peter Fraser, Harry Holland, Michael Joseph Savage, Robert Semple and other contemporaries, he did not become a Labour politician; he has similarly been overshadowed by his successor, Walsh. Nevertheless, during the most turbulent period in this country's labour history, Tom Young was one of New Zealand's foremost unionists.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson. 'Young, William Thomas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3y2/young-william-thomas (accessed 29 September 2023)