Story: Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement

Page 2. Māori and industrial unions

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Māori were manpowered into defence industries during the Second World War. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s workers migrated into urban areas of their own accord in search of work.

Politics and poetry


Moving to Auckland from the far north, Hone Tuwhare – later an important poet – began his boilermaking apprenticeship at the Ōtāhuhu railway workshops in 1939, aged 17. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1942. Through his involvement in the communist party, Tuwhare met the poet R. A. K. Mason, secretary of the Labourers’ Union, who encouraged Tuwhare to write poetry. In the early 1950s, Tuwhare and his wife moved to Mangakino, where he continued to work as a boilermaker and became an executive member of the Ātiamuri branch of the New Zealand Workers’ Union.


By 1966 70% of Māori men worked in production, transport-equipment operation and labouring, away from the rural economy. Concentrated in freezing works, sawmilling, road maintenance, transport, building trades and certain types of factory work, they joined the unions of freezing workers, labourers, waterfront workers and drivers in increasing numbers.

Trade unions did not keep records of their Māori members, but the Auckland Labourers’ Union estimated that it had 1,000 Māori members in 1963 – a quarter of the total membership.

Māori watersiders

Māori watersiders made their presence known in the Waterside Workers’ Union at a local level, especially at places on the East Coast like Whakatāne, Ōpōtiki, Waikōkopu and Tokomaru Bay. Recruitment was difficult because of the union’s reluctance to publish materials in Māori.

Frozen out


Terry Wesley became a butchers’ union delegate at the Burnside freezing works in Dunedin after the Second World War. Wesley succeeded in gaining better conditions and penalty rates for the entire works, and eventually became union branch secretary. He was so successful that in 1960 the New Zealand Refrigeration Company sent him and his friends and relatives down the line. They were blacklisted from every works in New Zealand.


Nonetheless, enough Māori joined the union in Auckland for a Māori Watersiders’ Union Association to be formed in the 1940s. Steve Wātene – a former captain of the New Zealand rugby league team – was chair and F. Chapman was secretary. In the 1940s Wātene was involved in assisting Māori who had recently migrated to urban areas. He travelled to different tribal districts during the 1951 waterfront lockout to discourage Māori from working as strike-breakers.

Freezing workers’ unions

By the 1920s Māori were a major force in the freezing workers’ unions, particularly on the East Coast of the North Island; for example, they made up 70% of the Tokomaru Bay Freezing Workers’ Union. That branch was very successful because it held bilingual meetings and had strong backing from the local Māori community and the Tokomaru Waterside Workers’ Union.

Rugby, carving and unions


Rangi Paenga of Ngāti Porou, who was involved in the Kaiti Freezing Workers’ Union in Gisborne, was the first Māori elected to the city council in 1969. He was active in the Kaiti works social club, shed rugby games and the Māori carving school, where Mone Taumaunu taught both Māori and Pākehā how to carve in their lunch hour. Paenga helped establish the East Coast branch of the Meat Workers’ Union in 1971 and became president of the New Zealand Meat Workers’ Union in 1976.


By the 1970s Māori were the majority of shed hands in some North Island works. New arrivals from the Pacific Islands also took up jobs in the meat industry, particularly in Auckland and at Ocean Beach in Southland. Ocean Beach filled labour shortages in the 1960s and early 1970s with migrant Māori workers from the Hokianga in Northland and Māhia Peninsula on the East Coast, and with immigrants from Mangaia in the Cook Islands.

Some Māori freezing workers became delegates to local trades councils, particularly the Gisborne Trades Council, where Wai Hamon and Rangi Paenga worked on the council’s management committee from the mid-1960s.

How to cite this page:

Cybèle Locke, 'Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement - Māori and industrial unions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 July 2022)

Story by Cybèle Locke, published 11 Mar 2010