Māori began doing sheep-shearing work from the 1850s, usually in family-based work gangs. They joined the shearers’ union, especially after the rules and regulations were translated into Māori.
After 1894 employers had to bargain over pay and working conditions with registered unions. If they could not agree, an arbitration court made the decision. But the law didn’t cover shearers, freezing workers and farm labourers. Rural Māori joined union campaigns to be included.
In the 1950s and 1960s many Māori moved into towns. Working in freezing works, sawmills, transport, building and factories, they joined unions. Māori became important in the unions of waterside workers and freezing workers.
Māori women and unions
Māori women also became part of the urban workforce. Many joined unions – but not many union leaders were women, and fewer still were Māori women.
Joyce Hawe of Te Arawa was an organiser for the Wellington Clothing Workers’ Union, and the first Māori woman on the national executive of the Federation of Labour. Māori women were also important in the unions of clerical, hotel, hospital and restaurant workers.
From the 1970s unemployment increased, especially in fields like building, manufacturing and retail – areas where large numbers of Māori worked. Many freezing works closed down. In 1992, more than a quarter of the Māori workforce was unemployed. Many Māori joined unemployed workers’ unions.
Strikes were common in the 1980s – mostly to try and prevent wage cuts, or to get redundancy payments for workers who had lost their jobs.
National union politics
In 1937 unions set up the Federation of Labour (FoL) to represent them nationally. Bob Tūtaki of the shearers’ union was the only Māori delegate at its first conference. In the 1980s, a Māori committee was set up for the FoL.
Some Māori unionists were unhappy at not being well represented in unions. They wanted to set up separate Māori unions – but in the end decided against this, and demanded a better deal in the existing movement.
In the 1970s Māori protest movements began, over issues such as land rights and saving the Māori language. People also pushed for more Māori representation in unions. Syd Jackson was a strong unionist and activist who encouraged Māori to get involved in unions, and helped educate Pākehā unionists about Māori issues.