Page 1: Biography
Monteith, Alexander Lamont
Storeman, trade unionist, politician, industrial arbitrator
This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Born on 15 December 1886 at Woodville, southern Hawke's Bay, Alexander Lamont Monteith was the son of Sarah Ann Carter and her husband, Charles Forrester Monteith, a draper from a prominent local family. After his father's death in 1901, he moved with his mother to Newtown, Wellington, where she ran a drapery and he attended Newtown School. The following year she married William Murdoch and, with her two children, settled in Shannon, Manawatu. There Alec worked as a carrier and flaxmiller, and was secretary of the local cricket club. On 22 February 1905, in Shannon, he married Eva May Hills; they were to have six sons and four daughters.
Returning to Wellington around 1913, Monteith worked as a labourer and storeman, and became active in the city's lively trade union movement. He was secretary of the Wellington United Storemen's Union from 1915 to 1920, and also served as secretary – and then president – of the national storemen's federation. Described as 'a fighter with a punch, keen, determined, logical, and outspoken', 'Monty' quickly made his mark as a formidable advocate in the Court of Arbitration, impressing observers with his debating skills and command of industrial law. He was a popular secretary of the Wellington Tramways Employees' Union from 1920 to 1923, and also served for a time as secretary of the New Zealand Federated Tramway Employees' Association.
A strong supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, Alec Monteith contested the Wellington East seat in 1919 but lost to the popular Liberal MP A. K. Newman. Three years later, Newman having retired, Monteith was successful. A forceful if somewhat verbose speaker, he served on the party's national executive in 1922–23 and in April 1923 was elected to the Wellington City Council.
Monteith was defeated in the 1925 general election. In December that year, at the urging of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council and a number of unions, he agreed to stand for the position of workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration. Endorsed by the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, he defeated the unpopular incumbent, Hiram Hunter, and took up the position in March 1926; he resigned from the city council in June.
The workers' representative played a key role in assisting union advocates to present their cases and in examining employers' evidence. Monteith, however, considered that the most important work took place during the court's committee stage, when 'logic, determination and outspoken advocacy of what are the real interests of the workers are most required'.
In the late 1920s the arbitration system came under widespread attack. When the court raised freezing workers' wages in 1927 it faced a storm of protest from farmers' groups; Monteith thought the increase was too small. As economic conditions deteriorated the pressure mounted. Although he was vigorous in his opposition, Monteith was unable to prevent the court from ordering a general 10 per cent wage cut in 1931. The following year the coalition government acceded to employers' demands by abolishing compulsory arbitration; nevertheless, the arbitration system survived the depression relatively intact.
Labour's victory in 1935 heralded sweeping changes to New Zealand's industrial relations system, including the restoration of compulsory arbitration and the introduction of mandatory union membership, a 40-hour working week, and a basic minimum wage. The court's workload increased dramatically as large numbers of rural, clerical and women workers were brought under its jurisdiction. When it fixed minimum wage rates in 1936, however, Monteith complained that they were too low, particularly the rate for female workers, which was less than half the male rate.
On the outbreak of the Second World War the Court of Arbitration was empowered to issue general orders amending all award wages. A five per cent increase was granted in 1940, but in December 1941, despite spiralling prices and mounting industrial unrest, the court controversially rejected the unions' application for a further increase. Monteith strongly dissented, arguing that workers had borne the brunt of the domestic war effort. A renewed application in early 1942 was successful, and later that year the government introduced a comprehensive economic stabilisation programme.
After a record 21 years as a member of the court, Monteith retired in July 1947. By then the arbitration system was facing another challenge, this time from militant unionists who favoured direct bargaining. Monteith himself was somewhat ambivalent about the court's role, claiming that it had 'never awarded an increase in wages until and unless such increase was first won by militant Unions on the industrial field'.
In retirement the Monteiths moved to Mount Eden, Auckland. Alec retained an interest in union and community affairs, serving as secretary of the Auckland Fire Brigades Employees' Union and as chairman of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board from 1954 to 1956. Eva Monteith died in 1962, and Alec on 24 November 1972, in Auckland; he was survived by five sons and two daughters. Although never a prominent public figure, Alec Monteith occupied a key position in New Zealand's distinctive state arbitration system for two decades. During these years his dedicated advocacy helped to protect the standard of living of many New Zealand workers.