Page 1: Biography
Andersen, Gordon Harold (Bill)
This biography, written by Cybèle Locke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Communist and trade unionist Bill Andersen was one of the best-known figures in New Zealand’s radical left in the middle decades of the twentieth century. An influential union leader in the 1950s and 1960s, he championed a variety of causes such as workers’ rights, Māori land rights, pacifism, and an end to all forms of racism. His opposition to Prime Minister Robert Muldoon made him a household name in the 1970s.
Early life and radicalisation
Gordon Harold Andersen was born on 21 January 1924 in Auckland, the youngest child of Minnie Boneham and Hans (Skip) Andersen. Hans left Esbjerg, Denmark to go to sea, jumped ship in Auckland in 1902, and married locally-born Minnie in 1912. Master Mariner Skip was often away at sea, so Bill and his elder siblings were largely raised by Minnie. Andersen had a reasonably carefree, sports-loving childhood, though he did not tolerate authority well; the Panmure School headmaster’s mailbox was blown up in retribution for ‘tyranny’.1 He was in constant trouble at Otahuhu College, and lasted three months in the army in 1940. He found his feet at sea on the tug PS Lyttelton and was elected secretary of the Kauri Timber Company Employees’ Union. This was a sign of things to come.
During the Second World War, aged 17, Andersen joined the crew of the Pamir, a seized Finnish four-masted barque, on its first voyage under the New Zealand flag. He reached San Francisco, and spent the rest of the war on Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and British merchant ships. Shipboard deprivation, imprisonment in Surcouf, Algeria for resisting such maltreatment, witnessing child poverty in Middle Eastern ports and reading works by Marx and Lenin led Andersen to join the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1944. He arrived back in Auckland in April 1946, committed to the class struggle and militant trade unionism, with a hatred for the twin evils of racism and imperialism.
In Auckland Andersen joined the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), in which pragmatic leaders Alex Drennan and Johnny Mitchell became influential. The Police Special Branch (a forerunner of the Security Intelligence Service) began shadowing Andersen in 1947, when he was 23; these agencies were to report on his communist activities for the rest of his life. He joined other militants in strikes to win better wages and conditions for seafarers. Militants were a thorn in the side of New Zealand Seamen’s Union president and Federation of Labour (FOL) vice-president Fintan Patrick Walsh, who led an anti-communist crusade to protect the arbitration system and the Labour government’s postwar stabilisation policies. Communists were ousted from trade union movement positions as the Cold War led to the Korean War. Andersen worked at sea, the Westfield freezing works, in the Auckland Farmers Freezing Company stores and on the Auckland wharves, and was blacklisted from each of these jobs for militant trade unionism. The 151-day lockout of waterside workers in 1951 had a profound impact on Andersen’s life; the lessons he learned shaped his union work for the rest of his life. As a member of the lockout committee of the Auckland Waterside Workers’ Union, his role was to ensure that the union’s illegal publications were printed.
Andersen met Flora Evelyn Cameron in Dunedin during the war and they married in Panmure on 4 August 1948. They had four children: Sharyn, born in 1949 (who died aged 5 months); Karl, born in 1951; and twins Rochelle and Glenn, born in 1954. The Andersens were granted a state rental house in the new Auckland suburb of Glen Innes in 1952. In keeping with the time, Bill Andersen was the breadwinner. He did not talk about his work or politics at home, and Flora kept house and cared for their children. Married couples were common in the CPNZ, and Flora Andersen was unusual in not holding communist beliefs. Bill was passionate about rugby league, coaching Karl’s team for 20 years and serving as president of the City Newton club until 1981. Enabling children to play sport was a form of socialism for Andersen, who bought boots and provided transport for many local youngsters.
Union leadership and left-wing activism
Andersen was one of 2,000 Auckland men, blacklisted from the waterfront, who took their beliefs in union solidarity and democracy, the class struggle, internationalism, and a determination to never again be a militant minority into other Auckland occupations and remade their unions during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite continuing widespread anti-communism, Andersen was elected secretary of the Northern Drivers’ Union in 1956. He won respect for his ability to negotiate wages – and for the fact that he never earned more than the drivers he represented. Mentored by Wellington Drivers’ Union secretary Chip Bailey, Andersen encouraged union participation with workplace delegates, regular elections, on-the-job meetings and delegate education. He remained a paid union official for the rest of his career.
A disciplined CPNZ member, Andersen was appointed chair of the party’s Auckland regional committee in 1954. Learning from the watersiders’ defeat in 1951, chair Sid Scott led the party in a united front strategy, attempting to build the working-class movement – particularly the fledgling peace movement – through trade union and community work. After Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the Soviet military intervention in Hungary in 1956, many intellectuals left the CPNZ, but Bill remained loyal to the Soviet Union. He ignored party directives to be antagonistic towards the Labour Party, and continued the united front strategy despite Scott’s expulsion. The split between the Soviet and Chinese communist movements dominated party discussion in the 1960s and the CPNZ, led by Vic Wilcox, changed its allegiance to Chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. It became more hard-line, and denounced the united-front strategy as collaborationist.
Andersen and other communist trade unionists did not accept this new position and in 1966 left to form the Soviet-aligned Socialist Unity Party (SUP), with which he was involved until 1990. Andersen was on the national committee and the first editor of Tribune, the party paper. Until the 1990s, Bill regarded other communist groups, and later Māori sovereignty activists and militant feminists, as threats to a unified, progressive labour movement. Sectarian squabbles over strategy and tactics plagued the communist left, which steadily declined in numbers from the 1960s.
In 1958 Andersen was elected to the executive of the Auckland Trades Council, the largest district council of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL), the national body representing private-sector trade unions. For Andersen, this was an opportunity to build cross-union solidarity on industrial worksites, utilising stop-work meetings and strikes to improve wages and conditions and to seek social justice on a range of issues. Under Andersen’s leadership, the Northern Drivers was a catalyst for an increasingly activist trade union movement. A large proportion of Northern Drivers members were Māori, and challenging racism in the workplace became union business. Northern Drivers members connected racism at home to apartheid abroad and boycotted South African goods, signed petitions for a southern hemisphere nuclear-free zone and campaigned against the 1960 All Blacks tour of South Africa, unemployment, rising prices, the Vietnam War, the undermining of Māori land rights and the Arbitration Court’s 1968 nil wage order.
This movement was male-dominated, centred on male workforces and their local pubs, with heavy drinking common. Andersen was a regular at the All Golds Club, where those who had been locked out in 1951 had their own table, and from 1980 the Auckland Trade Union Centre bar; vodka was his drink of choice.
In 1974, Andersen became a representative figure for Auckland working-class solidarity; 20,000 workers walked off their job sites in industrial Auckland when they heard he had been jailed for breaking a court injunction imposed on the Northern Drivers and the Seamen’s Union. Minister of Labour Hugh Watt was forced to negotiate to avert a general strike, and Andersen was released from prison. In 1976, he replaced Tom Skinner as president of the Auckland Trades Council; by now he was widely recognised as the doyen of Auckland trade unionism.
Andersen and Muldoon
Andersen rose to national fame in his public opposition to National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, whom he stood against in the Tamaki electorate four times between 1972 and 1981. His resistance to Muldoon’s anti-unionism and treatment of the Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei occupiers of Bastion Point gained him working-class support and notoriety across the country. Andersen promoted Māori leadership in trade unions and argued that Māori land rights were a workers’ issue, and his position on Bastion Point mobilised working-class support for the protests. He was arrested during the occupation and supported Auckland unions to put a Green Ban on any subdivision work on Bastion Point.
Between 1978 and 1980, Andersen played a leadership role in some of the most significant and successful strikes New Zealand had seen in a long time. The 1980 Kinleith paper mill dispute won workers a 20 per cent pay rise and forced Muldoon to revoke the Remuneration Act 1979, a major success for the union movement. In 1979, Jim Knox and communist Ken Douglas were elected president and secretary of the FOL, and Andersen was elected to the national executive in 1981. Together they moved the organisation leftwards.
By 1981, public opposition to trade unions had grown. Thousands of Aucklanders marched under the banner ‘Kiwis Care’, chanting anti-union and anti-communist slogans such as ‘Andersen Out’. Andersen and his family had long been the focus of anti-communist activities, but in the early 1980s he received death threats. In this context, Muldoon introduced a wage and price freeze in 1982 and abolished compulsory union membership in 1983; employers began to seriously advocate dismantling the whole industrial relations system. Andersen favoured a general strike to retaliate against the government’s actions, but did not feel this had the necessary rank-and-file support. He was heavily involved in the FOL’s and Combined State Unions’ (CSU) political campaign to elect a Labour government in 1984.
Despite their support from the unions, the Labour government instituted neoliberal economic policies which made thousands of workers redundant, and stymied union attempts to negotiate policy. Andersen nevertheless gave Labour a ‘fair go’, something he later regretted.2Regaining the right to bargain collectively with employers, compulsory union membership and union education were not much comfort when redundancies depleted union memberships at such a rate. The labour movement and the SUP splintered over how to respond. Ever the strategist, Andersen amalgamated drivers with stores, packers and retail workers into the Northern Distribution Union to increase collective power. He was active in the amalgamation of the FOL and CSU to form the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in 1987 for similar reasons, although some activist blue-collar unions refused to join this organisation. He also supported the CTU’s compact strategy – an attempt to work in partnership with capital and the state.
Bill and Flora Andersen separated during the 1980s. In 1987, Andersen formed a relationship with Jennifer Francis, an SUP member and union administrator.
As conditions for workers worsened in the wake of the Labour Relations and State Sector acts, Andersen lobbied inside the SUP for a new political strategy – a broad left democratic alliance. He aimed to convert anti-Labour government sentiment amongst working-class people into support for a range of progressive policies that afforded them a decent standard of living. Andersen predicted National would win the 1990 election and advocated backing progressive candidates – left-wing Labour, New Labour or Mana Motuhake – on the basis of the specific policies they endorsed. When he failed to persuade his comrades, Andersen resigned from the SUP in June 1990, taking half the Auckland membership with him. As the Soviet Union dissolved, small communist parties in the West went into sharp decline. Andersen formed the Socialist Party of Aotearoa, which pursued a left unity strategy on an array of progressive issues. He was instrumental in building the Workers Institute of Scientific Socialist Education to educate and bring together trans-Tasman unionists and activists. In 1990 he also joined Ngāti Te Ata in their picket of New Zealand Steel at Maioro; they were trying to protect their wāhi tapu from ironsand mining.
Once elected in 1990, the National government sped up neoliberal reform, with massive cuts to welfare spending. The 1991 Employment Contracts Act had a devastating impact on unions in New Zealand, abolishing compulsory arbitration and the national award (collective agreements) system. Employers moved quickly to individualise employment contracts and trade union membership had halved by 1994. To lessen its impact Andersen worked tirelessly to organise and consolidate union membership, bringing clothing workers, wood industries and food and textile workers together to form the National Distribution Union, which disaffiliated from the Labour Party and the CTU in the 1990s; Andersen did not stand for re-election as CTU Auckland District Convenor in 1995. Disillusioned with the CTU, in 1993 a small number of blue-collar unions formed the Trade Union Federation (TUF), with which the NDU had a close association. The NDU and TUF unions reaffiliated to the CTU in 2000.
Andersen never lost his love for the picket line – ‘the workers’ university’ – taking part in hundreds during his union career.3 He maintained his commitment to working people, Māori and the union movement throughout his life; he was arrested for obstructing police at a picket at a drivers’ strike when he was 79, and a year later he took part in the 2004 hīkoi opposing the Foreshore and Seabed Bill. Andersen remained president of the National Distribution Union until his death in Auckland on 19 January 2005, just shy of his 81st birthday. Remembered for his kindness and sense of humour as well as his commitment to workers, he was mourned by the union movement throughout New Zealand. When Andersen died, a memorial service at Bastion Point was attended by workers, cabinet ministers, socialist activists, councillors and mayors.