Peter Michael Butler was born in Whiteabbey, County Antrim, Ireland, on 31 May 1901, the youngest of nine children of Jane Gormley, a dressmaker, and her husband, John Butler, a flax-dresser. Before Peter was two years old his father died, plunging the family into poverty. Although she had received little schooling, Jane Butler was an avid reader, a great singer and a staunch Catholic, who had a strong influence on her youngest son: literature, music and Catholicism were to be important throughout his life. He left school at 13 after completing standard six. Three of his brothers fought in the British army during the First World War: one died at Gallipoli, another in Belgium. At the age of 16 Peter joined the Mercantile Marine reserve, serving mostly in the North Sea.
The bleak prospects at home kept Butler at sea after the war and in 1919 he arrived in Wellington, New Zealand. He did not intend to stay but was arrested with two drunk shipmates and gaoled. A teetotaller at the time, Butler always resented the injustice. After his release he joined the Federated Seamen’s Union of New Zealand at a tumultuous time in its history. In 1922 the Court of Arbitration reduced seamen’s wages, provoking a bitter strike which ended with union members being replaced by ‘scab’ labour. At the time Butler was serving on the Waikawa en route to Sydney. The crew refused to accept the wage cuts, and on arrival they were arrested for disobeying orders and gaoled for 14 days. He spent several months unemployed in Australia before managing to return to New Zealand.
Along with another young seaman, Fintan Patrick Walsh, Butler became one of the leaders of a militant faction in the seamen’s union. He renounced Catholicism and joined the Communist Party of New Zealand; from late 1923 to July 1925 he was a key member of the party in Wellington. (In later life, while acknowledging that he came under the influence of communist ideology, he denied his party membership.) In 1925, after leaving the Communist Party, Walsh and Butler were prominent in organising support for striking British seamen in New Zealand ports.
The militants then began a campaign to oust Tom Young, the union’s national secretary, and in January 1927 he was physically ejected from the union office. Walsh was elected president, but shortly afterwards he and Butler fell out. In 1928 Butler stood against Walsh for president, but was defeated by 1,444 votes to 279. In July that year a special union meeting voted overwhelmingly to suspend him as a national councillor for allegedly leaking a confidential document to the Dominion ; he was subsequently expelled from the union. Butler hotly denied the charge and always maintained he was framed by Walsh. Although the two later worked together in the trade union movement, they maintained a mutual hatred for the rest of their lives.
Butler left the sea and found work as a labourer. In late 1928 he organised Bob Semple’s successful election campaign in Wellington East for the New Zealand Labour Party. Soon after, he succeeded Semple as secretary of the Wellington Builders’ and General Labourers’ Union. With the onset of the depression Butler organised a relief workers’ section of the union, which attempted to improve conditions and prevent the eviction of families from their homes.
On 18 December 1930 Peter Butler married Doris Annie Sevina Cooper at St Paul’s Cathedral Church in Wellington. His Anglican wedding seemed to seal his breach with the faith of his childhood, but when it came to deciding on a Sunday school for his eldest child, he returned to Catholicism. On 28 April 1938 he and Doris reaffirmed their marriage vows in the Catholic church in Johnsonville. From then on he was a committed Catholic.
In the 1930s Butler became active in the Labour Party. He was a member of its national executive, helped draft its 1935 manifesto, and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament twice: in Masterton (1931) and Wellington Suburbs (1935). He was elected to the Wellington City Council in 1933 and remained a member until 1941. Trade unions were battered during the depression but their fortunes improved after the election of the first Labour government, which restored the arbitration system and introduced compulsory union membership. Working closely with Walsh, Butler played a leading role in establishing new unions of workers who had not previously been organised, such as the clerical workers. Within two years union membership almost trebled.
Now fiercely anti-communist, Butler became one of the leaders of the industrial labour movement. In 1937 he helped to form the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL), the first unified central organisation of unions. He was a member of its national council (1941–47) and of its national executive (1948–59). In 1949 he became secretary of the Wellington Local Bodies’ Officers’ Union. When the union movement was convulsed by conflict between the National government and the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union in 1951, Butler and FOL president Alec Croskery made an unsuccessful effort to negotiate a last-minute compromise. While he supported the FOL executive’s opposition to the watersiders’ union, Butler ensured that the labourers’ union gave practical help to locked-out workers, in defiance of the government’s emergency regulations.
In the late 1950s Butler and Walsh were the leading protagonists in a bitter public dispute which dominated union politics for several years. When Walsh denounced the Labour government’s 1958 budget as anti-worker he was admonished by Butler, who adhered to the traditional union policy of not publicly attacking Labour. The divisions quickly deepened. Walsh alleged that Butler, his close friend Tony Neary (secretary of the North Island Electrical Trades Union) and others were part of a Catholic Action group which was trying to take over the union movement. Butler and his supporters vigorously denied this and in turn attacked Walsh for his intolerance and dictatorial methods.
Both sides were strongly anti-communist, but as Walsh’s rift with the right wing deepened, he began to court and receive support from left-wing unions. The main battleground was the Wellington Trades Council. Claims of rigged elections and leaks to the press were followed by a series of successful libel actions by Neary, Butler and others against Walsh and his supporters. However, they had little success in weakening his power in the unions. Although Walsh and his supporters were ousted from the executive of the moribund Wellington Clerical Workers’ Union, Neary and Butler lost their positions on the trades council executive, Butler was defeated as an FOL executive member, and in 1962 the labourers’ union was suspended from the FOL.
In 1972 Butler retired from his union positions. He proudly boasted that from the precarious state of the labourers’ union when he became secretary it now had over 30 awards and agreements, nearly 4,000 members, and assets of more than $70,000. Doris Butler died in 1985 and Peter spent his last years in a home in Johnsonville. He was a regular at the local RSA and sang in its choir until his death, on 24 September 1995, at the age of 94. He was survived by three daughters and a son.
A short, stocky, argumentative man, Peter Butler was one of the architects of the industrial labour movement that was created after the depression. Largely self-educated, he was a good speaker, writer and organiser. He was, however, dogged by his militant past and the enmity of Walsh, and he never won the complete trust of the leaders of the labour movement. Always a controversial figure, to his friends and admirers he was ‘Battling Butler’, the workers’ champion; to his enemies he was ‘Pious Pete’, the divisive renegade.