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Story: Walsh, Fintan Patrick

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Walsh, Fintan Patrick


Seaman, trade unionist, farmer

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

Fintan Patrick Walsh was born Patrick Tuohy at Pātūtahi, Poverty Bay, on 13 August 1894, one of eleven children of farming parents Andrew Tuohy and his wife, Hannah O'Sullivan, both born in Ireland. He was raised a Catholic but discarded his faith as an adult. Little is known of his education or his early life; he was educated at Te Arai School but seems not to have attended secondary school. Tuohy joined the merchant marine in 1915 and by early 1916 was in the United States. Although details are obscure, he spent time in Montana and other western mining states and in New York. He was active in industrial and political organisations and became a member of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in Butte, Montana, a centre of militant union activity. These youthful experiences helped to shape his later attitudes and behaviour.

After visiting Ireland, he returned to the United States in October 1919 under the name Patrick Walsh; he later added the name Fintan, and was commonly known as Jack. He returned to New Zealand in 1920 and worked as a seaman. Despite considerable speculation it is not known why he changed his name, although he once suggested that it was to avoid victimisation in the United States. He used both surnames for different purposes for many years, but from the late 1920s was always publicly known as Fintan Patrick Walsh. He maintained contact with his family and, following his mother's death in 1931, became embroiled in a protracted legal dispute over the disposal of her estate.

Walsh joined the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand (FSU) in 1920 and was a foundation member of the Communist Party of New Zealand the following year. He resigned from the party in 1924, although he remained sympathetic until 1930–31, when he finally severed his links over what he saw as its unrealistic expectations of union militancy during the depression. Although he continued for some time to adhere to a Marxist analysis and to quote from international communist sources, he gradually became more critical of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. By the end of the decade he was identified as a Trotskyist; by the 1940s he was a vigorous anti-communist.

Walsh became prominent in the FSU during the 1922–23 strike against cuts in seamen's wages and conditions. He was one of the leaders of a Marxist faction that called for a negotiated return to work to forestall the destruction of the union. His reputation was further boosted in 1925 when he helped to organise support for striking British seamen in New Zealand ports. The following year he challenged Tom Young's leadership of the FSU. In January 1927, after a bitter struggle, Walsh triumphed; he led his supporters from a stopwork meeting to the union's office and physically ejected the old guard. He was to remain general president of the seamen's union until his death in 1963.

In 1928 Walsh became a member of the executive of the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, an organisation largely made up of industrial unions; in 1935 he was elected its vice president. He was closely associated with another former communist, the miners' leader Angus McLagan, and for much of the 1930s they fought 'Big Jim' Roberts of the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Federation for control of the Alliance. Walsh and McLagan gave greater priority to industrial action than to political reform and advocated direct bargaining with employers rather than reliance on the arbitration system.

However, Walsh soon reversed his position. From 1937 his increasing power rested on his intimate ties with the New Zealand Labour Party and his unwavering support for arbitration. The chief catalysts for this change were the election of the Labour government in 1935 and the formation of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) in 1937. The FOL united the industrial unions with craft unions and the new occupational unions, such as clerical workers, formed after the introduction of compulsory union membership in 1936. Walsh shrewdly secured the backing of the craft and occupational unions, which were numerically large but dependent on the protection of the arbitration system, and was able to control a dominant voting bloc within the FOL.

Walsh played an important role in the formation of the Wellington Clerical Workers' Union. He was its president from 1936 until 1960, and was a powerful figure in the New Zealand Federated Clerical and Office Staff Employees' Association. He was also secretary of small unions representing biscuit factory workers and fishermen. From 1937 until his death he was president of the Wellington Trades Council. He was a member of the executive of the FOL from its inception until 1944 and was elected vice president in 1946. Although he was defeated the following year, he regained the position in 1948.

Walsh had to balance his close ties to the pro-arbitration unions with his presidency of the Federated Seamen's Union, which maintained its traditional scepticism and even hostility to the arbitration system. He was troubled for much of his first decade as FSU president by dissident rank-and-file agitation. From about 1935, however, Walsh enjoyed the support of a majority of seamen, who accepted that industrial militancy damaged the Labour government, and that political action was a more reliable means to improve working conditions.

From the late 1930s Fintan Patrick Walsh gradually became one of the most powerful figures in New Zealand. His strength was based on his position in the trade union movement and his close relationship with Peter Fraser, who was deputy prime minister from 1935 and prime minister from 1940 to 1949. The two men forged a formidable alliance and worked together closely on many occasions, including the expulsion of John A. Lee from the Labour Party in 1940. Walsh's influence was greatly enhanced by his appointment in 1942 as a member of the government's Economic Stabilisation Commission. The commission wielded comprehensive control over the economy until it was disbanded in 1950. The considerable burden Walsh carried during the Second World War may have contributed to the heart problems that hospitalised him in 1944 and 1945. The stabilisation programme, however, was remarkably successful in achieving its objectives: wartime inflation was much lower in New Zealand than in Australia, the United States or Britain, and New Zealand met the cost of the war without adding to its overseas debt.

However, the continuation of the stabilisation programme after the war sparked resistance from some trade unionists, who believed that workers had borne the brunt of the policy. Pressure grew for a relaxation of economic controls. In 1946 Walsh staked his position firmly in support of continued stabilisation in his report to the FOL's national council. Published as The Walsh report, it enraged his opponents. The issue was linked to the future of the arbitration system, because the trade union critics of stabilisation realised that arbitration would limit their capacity to achieve significant wage increases. As tensions mounted, the waterside workers and other militant unionists walked out of the FOL's 1950 conference and formed the rival New Zealand Trade Union Congress.

These pressures came to a head in the dramatic industrial confrontation on the waterfront in 1951. Despite the National government's highly repressive emergency regulations, the deployment of armed forces on the wharves and the use of non-union ('scab') labour, Walsh and the FOL sided with the government against the waterside workers and their allies. Walsh considered that the watersiders' actions threatened the arbitration system and the FOL, and that they had to be defeated whatever the cost. Despite their president's opposition, seamen voted to strike in support of the watersiders. Nevertheless, they continued to re-elect Walsh as the union's president.

The influence of Cold War ideologies played a considerable role in the events of 1951 and subsequent years. Walsh's own anti-communism was at its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The watersiders' leaders and other militants were indiscriminately attacked as communists, and FOL conferences saw annual denunciations of communist infiltration of unions. The 1950s was a time of relative industrial stability, as the militant unions recovered their strength. As president of the FOL from 1953, Walsh's most important role in this period was his submission of applications for general wage orders to the Court of Arbitration. He carried a huge workload in researching and preparing these cases. His remarkable understanding of the New Zealand economy was never more evident than during these hearings, particularly in his cross-examination of expert witnesses.

By this time Walsh had begun to distance himself, and the FOL, from the Labour Party, partly because of his cooler personal relationship with Fraser's successor, Walter Nash. Their relationship worsened when Nash adopted a neutral position during the 1951 dispute, and deteriorated still further after the Labour government's 'black budget' of 1958, which drew forthright criticism from the FOL president. Walsh dealt as easily and almost as effectively with the National governments of the 1950s and early 1960s as he had with Labour. His public opposition to British entry into the European Economic Community also brought him into alliances with senior farming figures.

Walsh had returned to farming himself, having bought a farm near Martinborough, Wairarapa, in August 1941. By the mid 1950s his dairy herd was one of the largest in New Zealand. He sat on various cost adjustment committees, which regulated prices for primary producers, and was a member of the New Zealand Dairy Products Marketing Commission from 1947. In 1949 the government appointed him to represent New Zealand in negotiations with Britain over prices for meat and dairy products.

In the late 1950s Walsh changed direction sharply. Having defeated the militant challenge, he now came under attack from the right wing of the union movement. Many saw Walsh's criticism of the 'black budget' as disloyal and damaging to the Labour government. Increasing discontent with his autocratic control of the Wellington Clerical Workers' Union, and allegations of improper election procedures, sparked a rebellion which saw him toppled as the union's president in 1960. A series of libel actions ensued as Walsh battled the growing volume of dissent from the right. Looking for support, he moved leftwards. A rapprochement with the communists and other militants led Walsh to rediscover the class struggle. When the National government attempted to abolish compulsory unionism in 1961, Walsh claimed it was a betrayal of the principles of arbitration and called on unions to bargain directly with their employers. In his speech to the FOL conference in 1963 Walsh was once again the militant of his youth, preaching class struggle and denouncing the arbitration system.

Walsh's health deteriorated in the early 1960s. His coronary disease from the 1940s persisted for the remainder of his life, and he also suffered from acute bronchitis and emphysema. He died in Wellington on 16 May 1963. He had never married but was survived by a daughter. In accordance with his own instructions there was no burial service. He lies in a simple grave in Karori cemetery in the shadow cast by Peter Fraser's memorial.

Fintan Patrick Walsh was unquestionably the most important figure in the history of the New Zealand labour movement. Although only of medium height and stocky, with dark hair and features – he was dubbed 'The Black Prince' – Walsh was a physically dominating presence, whether in a small room, across the negotiating table or in large meetings where his powerful oratory served him well. He was the intellectual equal of anyone he dealt with and his enormous capacity for work, allied to his instinct for power, ensured that he was rarely matched. He was a ruthless man who dispatched opponents by whatever means were at his disposal. He aroused enmity on a scale unparalleled in New Zealand's labour history, but at the same time he inspired great loyalty, even devotion, among his supporters. The stories put about by his enemies are legion and, although there is little evidence to support them, they persist.

His achievements, however, are undeniable. For more than 30 years Walsh wielded profound influence over the direction and character of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. He made a major contribution to the successful management of the wartime economy and, although it is often overlooked, he continued this role after the war, not only through the Economic Stabilisation Commission but in many other spheres, not least as FOL president. For workers, Walsh's successful wage-order applications, his influence on government policies and his role in resolving industrial disputes were crucial in protecting their living standards. Many accuse him of betraying the working class for his role in the 1951 waterfront dispute. Others argue that then and on other occasions, it was Walsh who held the union movement together and made sure it not only survived, but retained its capacity to fight another day.

How to cite this page:

Pat Walsh. 'Walsh, Fintan Patrick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4w4/walsh-fintan-patrick (accessed 30 May 2024)