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Story: Grant, Archibald Brewster

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Grant, Archibald Brewster


Railway worker, trade unionist

This biography, written by Jim McAloon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Archibald Brewster Grant was born in Millerton, Buller, on 24 July 1904, the son of Ferguson Hamilton Grant, a miner and railway worker, and his wife, Jane (Jeannie) Brewster. From his parents Archie inherited a passionate commitment to self-education and socialism. For a time he studied at the Westport School of Mines, but left at 14 to become a post office message boy and then a railway worker. On 29 October 1927, while working in Hanmer Springs as a hospital porter, he married Marjorie Betty Davis at the Registrar’s Office, Waiau. They were to have a daughter and a son. By 1931 the couple were living in Christchurch, where Archie worked on the railway and became involved in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

In the 1940s Grant became a leading figure in the Christchurch labour movement. Deeply committed both to the industrial and to the political wings of the movement, he was secretary of the Canterbury Trades Council and the North Canterbury Labour Representation Committee. For most of the 1940s and 1950s he was also secretary of the local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand, the Christchurch Biscuit and Confectionery Manufacturing Employees’ Union, and the Christchurch Rubber Workers’ Union. Later Grant claimed that he retained his railway employment alongside these offices in order to maintain his independence, but the various honoraria added to his railway wages probably made a comfortable income. He and Marjorie divorced in November 1945, and on 19 December he married Elsie May Cheals at Christchurch.

After the Second World War the Labour government’s austerity policies – and its increasingly pro-American foreign policy – proved unpopular with many of the more militant workers. Grant took a leading role in the left of the New Zealand Labour Party criticising aspects of these policies, although he always sought to maintain unity. He believed that vigorous debate was essential to Labour’s strength and had no patience with those who suppressed it. He emerged as a critic of the government’s industrial policy, and his pamphlet Labour in leg-irons? was a trenchant criticism of stabilisation and compulsory arbitration. His arguments, while reflecting the experience of workers like the watersiders, had less relevance for those, such as clerks and shop assistants, who did not have the protection of a vital place in the export economy.

When the militant unions’ leaders walked out of the April 1950 New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) conference to form the New Zealand Trade Union Congress (TUC), Grant did not follow immediately. He still hoped for unity, and criticised the FOL executive for abusing dissidents as ‘agents of Stalin’, and the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union for pigheadedness. In the end, however, Grant’s rubber workers and biscuit workers joined the TUC and he went with them. His departure was motivated by objection to Fintan Patrick Walsh’s dictatorial rule: ‘Regimentation and robot-like obedience of instructions will defeat democracy; and those who engage in the frenzy of Red-baiting, witch-hunting, and abuse of radical opinions are active participants in assisting the employing class to bring about the completely servile State’.

The months following the formation of the TUC were tense. S. G. Holland’s National government alienated many working people as it allowed the cost of living to rise. Grant advocated strike action and rolling stop-work meetings as a vehicle of protest. His estrangement from the FOL meant he was not renominated for the Canterbury Trades Council secretaryship, but in August 1950 he was elected the inaugural secretary of the TUC. He wrote another pamphlet, in which he attacked the FOL’s centralised structure and subservience to the parliamentary Labour Party, and the party’s authoritarianism.

In February 1951 the watersiders were locked out, triggering a dispute that crippled New Zealand’s ports. Grant was active mostly behind the scenes. As secretary of the TUC he attempted to avert the conflict by appealing to Holland to drop the emergency regulations. He also tried to persuade Walter Nash to explicitly support the watersiders. In both attempts he was unsuccessful.

The TUC folded after the watersiders’ defeat, and Grant continued his work as a Canterbury union secretary. Local disputes, such as a five-week strike at the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company’s Christchurch factory, saw Grant apply both militant and moderate union methods. The American senior management at Firestone was regarded as being opposed to New Zealand trade unions, and disputes were common. Dirt money for unloading lamp-black, for example, was disputed in July 1955 and the union ordered its members not to unload several trucks until the issue was resolved. The company brought men in to unload it. Two job delegates who told the outside workers to stop were dismissed for interfering with work, and the Firestone workers walked off the job. The union, guided by Grant, agreed to a return to work when a disputes committee hearing on the dismissals was arranged; this committee ruled the dismissals technically justified but suggested the two workers be reinstated in the interests of industrial harmony.

Grant was elected workers’ representative on the Court of Arbitration in 1960 when Walsh sought allies among his old left-wing enemies to counter opposition from right-wing Catholic unionists. While working on the Arbitration Court he spent the working week in Wellington, living at the Salvation Army’s People’s Palace in Cuba Street, flying back to Christchurch each weekend. Grant had reservations about the Arbitration Court, but he earned considerable respect for his pragmatic approach. In 1962, for instance, although he hoped for a considerable general wage order he reluctantly agreed to an increase of only 2.5 per cent ‘in the immediate interests of the working people’.

Grant issued few dissenting opinions, but expressed himself forcefully and eloquently when he did. On one occasion he referred to the arbitration system as a ‘socio-economic contraceptive which frustrates the full play between the worker and his employer’, while on other occasions he quoted Milton, Bishop Wilberforce, St Paul, St Luke, Karl Kautsky, Cicero, John Kenneth Galbraith or – his particular favourite – Dickens. He used dissents to call for equal pay for women, but warned that ‘political, social and economic freedom for women’ would come only through industrial action by working women, not by gift of the court. In 1966 he urged the court to set the pace on equal pay. He also cautioned some craft unions, such as the printers, that they needed to grasp new technology instead of defending outdated skills.

In 1968, when the court announced a nil wage order, Grant dissented strongly, noting that his colleagues had accepted that low-paid workers were disproportionately affected by the downturn and by retrenchment. He warned that falling spending power threatened to deepen the recession. Two months later, in a deal worked out by the minister of labour, Tom Shand, Grant and the employers’ representative voted to grant a wage order of five per cent.

In 1956 Grant’s second marriage had been dissolved and later that year, on 29 October, he married Judith Spence Scollay (née Ormerod) at Christchurch. He lived a passionate if not always temperate life. As well as radical socialism, he had a great love of literature, and also of painting, photography, antiques, film and drama. He was a keen breeder of Samoyed and Chihuahua dogs. Owning a dozen of the latter, he was known as the Chihuahua Kid. He admitted also to a great fondness for whisky, and as he aged his slight figure became corpulent.

Archie Grant remained workers’ representative on the Arbitration Court until his death in Wellington on 6 June 1970, of complications from an ulcer. He was survived by his wife, and children from his first marriage. A radical socialist to the end, he requested that the communist anthem, the ‘Internationale’, be sung at his funeral.

How to cite this page:

Jim McAloon. 'Grant, Archibald Brewster', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5g17/grant-archibald-brewster (accessed 26 June 2024)