Story: Skinner, Thomas Edward

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Skinner, Thomas Edward

1909–1991

Plumber, politician, trade unionist

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

Thomas Edward Skinner was born in Mangaweka on 18 April 1909, the eldest son of Alice Chalk and her husband, Thomas Edward Skinner, a tinsmith and plumber. He had two elder sisters and two younger brothers. Skinner’s father was South African and his mother Australian; they had emigrated to New Zealand from Australia in 1904. The family settled in Auckland in 1914 after living in Mangaweka, Ohakune and Pukekohe.

Skinner was educated at Bayfield School in Herne Bay. He left at 14 after passing the school proficiency examination, and worked as a messenger for a drug company for 18 months before becoming an apprentice plumber. He later explained that it was expected that he should follow his father’s trade; there was no thought that any of the children would go on to further education.

An enthusiast for sport and outdoor life, Skinner enjoyed plumbing and established his own business when he finished his apprenticeship. Shortly after this, he broke his leg in a motor-cycle accident and had to give up the trade. For five years he worked as a milk vendor in Freemans Bay, during which he learnt about poverty in working-class families and got his first taste of industrial action as a union member. He then worked as a sales representative and taxi driver before returning to plumbing.

On 3 December 1931, at Auckland, Tom Skinner married Martha May Wangford, with whom he had one son. They were divorced shortly before his second marriage, at Auckland on 17 October 1942, to Mary Ethel Yardley, who was always known as Molly. They had one son and one daughter.

In 1940 Skinner was elected secretary of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Plumbers Union. He also became secretary of a number of other small unions in Auckland, including the musicians, shipwrights, fruit preservers, stonemasons and glass workers. He kept these positions for most of his union career.

At this time almost all private-sector unions were affiliated to the New Zealand Labour Party, and Skinner became actively involved in the party as secretary of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee. An ambitious man, he decided to stand for Parliament, and was selected as Labour candidate for the marginal Tamaki electorate in 1946. He won the seat by 231 votes. Skinner quickly became disillusioned with being a minor cog in a machine that was tightly controlled by the conservative Labour leadership. In 1949 Labour was defeated and he lost his seat. However, his three years as an MP gave him valuable experience, and contacts with future New Zealand National Party cabinet ministers such as Tom Shand and Keith Holyoake.

Skinner had kept most of his union jobs while he was an MP, and he returned to building his career in the trade union movement. In 1954 he turned down an invitation from the Labour Party leadership to stand for the safe seat of Otahuhu. After the defeat of the militant unions in the 1951 waterfront dispute, Skinner emerged as one of the leaders who rebuilt the union movement in Auckland. He became vice president of the Auckland Trades Council in 1952 and was elected president in 1954. This position, which he held for 22 years, gave Skinner his power base in the union movement.

Skinner was involved in several community organisations, including the New Zealand Coastguard Service, the New Zealand Institute for the Blind and the Disabled Servicemen’s Re-establishment League. In the 1950s he was a member of the Mount Wellington Borough Council and the Mount Wellington Road Board, and he helped establish the Mount Wellington Licensing Trust. He was actively involved in rugby league as a referee and administrator, and was manager of the 1960 New Zealand rugby league team to Britain. He was one of the initial trustees of the Todd Foundation and represented the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) on its board for several years. His main interest outside the trade union movement was the St John Ambulance Association; in 1957 he became a member of its Auckland Centre trust board, and he served as deputy chair (1958–73) and chair (1973–89).

In 1959 Skinner defeated four opponents to be elected vice president of the FOL. He was not a supporter of the FOL’s president and strong man, Fintan Patrick Walsh, and was deeply distrusted by Walsh. They eventually established an uneasy working relationship. In May 1963 Walsh died suddenly and Skinner became acting president. He was elected unopposed as president by the FOL’s national council on 20 August 1963. Walsh’s last years as FOL president had been marked by internal disputes, including a series of libel cases, and several unions disaffiliated from the federation. Skinner saw his first task as mending broken bridges and by the late 1960s he had succeeded in persuading most of these unions to reaffiliate. This enhanced his reputation as a conciliatory leader.

Skinner’s election coincided with a growing restlessness among unions about the long-established wage-fixing system based on conciliation and arbitration and general wage orders of the Court of Arbitration. In the main cities and on new industrial sites, unions and employers began to negotiate outside the arbitration system. The pressures for change came to a head in June 1968 when the Court of Arbitration rejected the FOL’s claim and issued a nil wage order. There were strong calls for action by unions and an angry mass demonstration at the opening of Parliament.

Skinner tried to defuse the demands for industrial action by proposing a second application to the court. On the eve of a special FOL conference in July he was outvoted on the FOL executive and the conference voted unanimously that unions use ‘all available channels’ to get a wage rise. Despite the conference decision, Skinner continued to work for a second application. The National government rejected joint proposals by the FOL, the New Zealand Employers’ Federation and the minister of labour, Tom Shand, to change the criteria for general wage order applications. Skinner next approached a number of large employers directly and persuaded them to support a five per cent general wage increase. Having secured employer support, the FOL and the Employers’ Federation agreed to make a joint application for another wage order on the understanding that unions would be urged to scale down industrial action. The Arbitration Court granted a five per cent general wage order, with the union and employer representatives on the court outvoting the judge. Robert Muldoon, the minister of finance, denounced the joint application as ‘an unholy alliance’.

Skinner’s main concern was that widespread direct bargaining would destroy the arbitration system and the protection this gave to weak unions. The crisis illustrated Skinner’s style as FOL president. He used industrial action to build pressure for a settlement and manoeuvred with the government, the employers and the unions themselves to reach an acceptable compromise. Skinner worked to make initial gains and then negotiated improvements on these gains, tactics used in the FOL’s successful campaign to get a third week’s annual holiday for all workers. He recognised the need for unions to adapt to change and to negotiate the introduction of new technologies rather than opposing them.

By the early 1970s Tom Skinner had become the unchallenged leader of the trade union movement. While he controlled the FOL executive, he was not an autocrat. He worked for consensus and was careful to avoid divisions. He had a wide network of contacts and counted several leading industrialists among his friends. He became active in international union forums and served a term as a member of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation.

The Labour Party, led by Norman Kirk, won a sweeping victory at the 1972 general election. While keeping his distance from Labour in public, Skinner worked closely with Kirk behind the scenes. He played an important part in the formation of the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand, and became its deputy chairman. The Labour government passed a new Industrial Relations Act, the provisions of which had largely been negotiated between the FOL and the Employers’ Federation. But there were tensions between the government and unions. In July 1974 Bill Andersen, secretary of the Northern Drivers Union and a leading communist, was gaoled during an industrial dispute. There was apprehension that this would lead to a major crisis, but Skinner was successful in negotiating a face-saving compromise that got Andersen released quickly.

Kirk died suddenly in August 1974. He had pressed Skinner to accept a knighthood. Ever cautious, Skinner tested the water by getting the government to make long-standing FOL executive member Len Hadley the first trade union knight. On 1 January 1976 the FOL president became Sir Thomas Skinner. In 1970 he had been invested as a knight of the Priory in New Zealand of the Order of St John for his services to the St John’s Ambulance Association.

At the 1975 general election the National Party, led by Robert Muldoon, returned to power. Its policies included a strong anti-union platform, and the new government strengthened existing wage controls and imposed a 12-month wage freeze in May 1976. The reaction from unions was as strong as in 1968, and a special FOL conference voted for concerted industrial action. The government also amended the Industrial Relations Act to introduce penalties for illegal strikes, and ballots of workers on compulsory union membership. Skinner negotiated a compromise and the government agreed to amend its wage regulations to allow the Industrial Commission to approve increases where there were exceptional circumstances. However, the Employers’ Federation decided to take a hard line and negotiations broke down. There were widespread strikes: by the end of 1977 the number of working days lost was at its highest since 1951. In September 1977 the Industrial Commission approved wage increases on grounds of exceptional circumstances in two key industries, and this allowed wage increases to flow through the system.

Once again, Skinner had been successful in handling a crisis. During this period, however, he came under criticism for being too moderate. Dubbed the ‘Silent Knight’ by union critics, he faced his first (and only) challenge for the presidency of the FOL at the federation’s 1976 conference. The overwhelming vote he received showed that he retained wide support for his actions. While Skinner and Muldoon were antagonistic publicly, they established a close working relationship in private, often meeting at their homes in the wealthy Auckland suburb of Kohimarama. These were not clandestine contacts, and were accepted by the FOL executive.

In 1979 Tom Skinner retired as president of the Federation of Labour. His successor, Jim Knox, adopted a more militant style. Skinner’s approach fell out of favour and he became isolated from most unions in his retirement. He remained involved in the Shipping Corporation and chaired its board until 1982. He largely withdrew from public life after Molly’s death in 1985 but continued his involvement with the St John Ambulance until 1989. Tom Skinner died in Auckland on 11 November 1991.

Skinner was president of the FOL for 16 years – longer than anyone else. A cautious, conservative man, he did little to seek long-term reforms to the arbitration system or to encourage the many small unions to amalgamate into stronger organisations. Under his leadership, the FOL was badly under-resourced. But his moderate approach to industrial relations led to success in dealing with employers and politicians and won him much public praise for his ability to handle crises.

How to cite this page:

Peter Franks. 'Skinner, Thomas Edward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5s23/skinner-thomas-edward (accessed 22 October 2019)