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Story: Anderson, Thomas Frederick

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Anderson, Thomas Frederick


Seaman, trade unionist

This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Thomas Frederick Anderson was born at Kirkdale, Liverpool, England, on 30 December 1888, the son of Monica Kelly and her husband, Thomas Weldon Anderson, an actor and comedian. After leaving school Tom joined the merchant marine. By 1911 he was in New Zealand, and in November that year he joined the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand (FSU). He crewed on the Squall and other coastal steamers, and after taking part in the 1913 waterfront strike, served on the Union Steam Ship Company's Pacific islands steamer Navua. On 30 October 1915, at Auckland, he married Mabel Eleanor Douglas; they were to have three daughters and a son.

Tom Anderson became active in the Auckland branch of the FSU, then led by the moderate Jack Kneen, and in early 1916 was elected assistant secretary; after Kneen's death in August 1917 he became secretary. The branch grew rapidly during and after the First World War. Previously a centre of small-scale coastal trade, Auckland now supplanted Wellington as New Zealand's leading international port. Anderson also attempted, with some success, to unionise the seamen who worked on Auckland's trawlers and tugs, vessels operating on the Kaipara Harbour and Waikato River, and the numerous schooners and scows of the coastal 'mosquito' fleet.

During the depression of the early 1920s, however, the shipping industry foundered. By mid 1922 600 seamen throughout New Zealand were unemployed; one man offered Anderson £30 for a job. When the Court of Arbitration slashed seamen's wages and conditions in October, Anderson reported that local members were 'frothing at the injustice'. Tom Young, secretary of the FSU's head office in Wellington, urged restraint, but Auckland seamen began a strike that soon spread to other ports. The Union Steam Ship Company's general manager, David Aiken, identified Anderson as the ringleader, although his role in the dispute is obscure. The strike was crushed in early 1923. Anderson received some blame, but most was directed at Young, whose most able critic was an ambitious and ruthless young seaman, Fintan Patrick Walsh.

Anderson had clashed with the irascible Young, and he supported Walsh's leadership coup in Wellington in January 1927. Anderson and Walsh worked together closely during the difficult years of the early 1930s. A 10 per cent wage cut was imposed on seamen in 1932 but the FSU staunchly resisted further reductions in 1933. Anderson also backed Walsh's attempts to purge communists and other militants from the union, including those who led an unauthorised strike at West Coast ports in 1934.

This ideological struggle resurfaced in Auckland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Communist delegates had controlled the Auckland Trades Council since 1945, but in April 1948, in a climate of Cold War suspicion, Tom Anderson and other anti-communist candidates won a sweeping victory in elections for the council's executive. A week later, Walter Ashton, the council's defeated secretary and a prominent communist, disappeared; it was presumed that he had drowned himself. The subsequent discovery that he had misappropriated some £2,000 of council funds was exploited by Anderson and others in an aggressive campaign against communist influence in trade unions.

In April 1949 the moderates tightened their grip on the Auckland Trades Council. Anderson defeated the communist watersiders' leader, Alec Drennan, for the presidency and a seat on the national council of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). The labour movement was deeply divided, however, and Anderson's executive came under frequent attack from delegates. He was considered a poor chairman and council meetings were often uproarious.

Tensions heightened during the 1951 waterfront dispute. The FOL, dominated by Walsh, bitterly opposed the watersiders' leaders. Anderson struggled to retain control of the trades council and keep seamen at work. When the government imposed emergency regulations and deployed servicemen on the wharves, seamen went on strike. Walsh and Anderson managed to limit the FSU's official involvement; militants complained of treachery, but the union emerged from defeat relatively unscathed.

The effort took its toll, however, and Anderson resigned as president of the trades council in 1954. By then he had acquired solid experience in local as well as labour affairs. He had been a member of an FOL delegation that investigated labour unrest in the Cook Islands in 1948, and was a trustee of the Auckland Savings Bank from that year until 1961. He served on the Auckland Harbour Board from 1949 to 1951. He remained secretary of the FSU's Auckland branch, and when Walsh died in May 1963, he became acting general president of the union for several months.

In mid 1964 Anderson's assistant secretary, J. A. Scott, was imprisoned for defrauding the seamen's union of £263. An audit of the branch's finances revealed as much as £8,000 more unaccounted for. Anderson's health had deteriorated by this time, and shortly before his death he confessed to stunned officials that he had misappropriated union funds for several decades. He died at his Takapuna home on 22 September 1964, survived by Mabel Anderson and three daughters.

Lanky, bespectacled and balding, Anderson was popularly known as 'Long Tom'. While he never achieved national prominence, he was an influential figure in the Auckland labour movement for more than 40 years. The startling revelations of the last days of his life, however, all but eclipsed a lifetime of service to trade unionism.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson. 'Anderson, Thomas Frederick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4a14/anderson-thomas-frederick (accessed 23 September 2023)