Story: Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement

Page 3. Māori women and unions

All images & media in this story

Māori women also found work in the urban economy. By 1966 Māori women were 38% of New Zealand’s production workers (mainly clothing and textile workers), 21% of white-collar workers and 27% of service workers. They joined the appropriate unions. In 1969, women were well represented in trade unions, particularly in occupations that they dominated – clothing and laundry workers, dental technicians, biscuit and confectionary workers, tobacco manufacturing, shop assistants and hotel and restaurant employees. In 1969 women were 29% (103,891) of total union membership; one-third belonged to the clerical workers’ unions. However, few union leaders were women, and fewer still were Māori women.

Strike while the iron’s hot


Unionist Joyce Hawe recalled that she and other female clothing workers became union-minded after they went on strike over wages: ‘We were starting to talk unionism every hour in the day ... We knew that all we had to do [to get what we wanted] was withdraw our labour. That was the only power that we had.’1 Despite having families and working 8–10-hour shifts, female employees began attending local union meetings in large numbers after the successful strike.


Clothing workers’ unions

Joyce Hawe of Te Arawa, a machinist at Progress Manufacturing in Porirua, climbed the ranks of the Wellington Clothing Workers’ Union. She organised a successful factory strike for higher pay which launched her union career in the 1960s. In 1970 she became the vice-president of the Wellington Clothing Workers’ Union, and in 1976 a full-time organiser. She was the first Māori woman to become a national executive member of the Federation of Labour in 1981.

Clerical workers’ unions

By the 1980s, 22% of Māori women were full-time clerical workers, and they began to make their presence known in the unions. In 1985 Helena Schenkel was elected president of the Canterbury Clerical Workers’ Union, its first female president in 47 years. Schenkel had joined the union while working as an administrator at Wattie’s canneries. She became a member of the Māori advisory committee to the Federation of Labour, campaigned with the Bruce Bay Trust to stop the removal of gold from Māori land on the West Coast, and was president of Rakau Te Kura, a branch of the Maori Women’s Welfare League.

Stopping sexual harassment


Helena Schenkel of the Clerical Workers’ Union campaigned about sexual harassment or ‘touch promotion’, saying that young workers often did not recognise it for what it was. The ‘good morning sweetie, how are you love’ from an employer often led to more, she said. Women were forced to ignore such remarks, leave their jobs or complain to the police – but they should be protected under their award.


In response to Māori members, the Central Clerical Workers’ Union committed itself in 1987 to anti-racism education, support for Māori structures inside the union, a campaign for tangihanga (funeral) leave in the national award and hiring a Māori organiser.

Hotel, hospital and restaurant workers’ unions

In the mid-1980s increasing numbers of Māori women became active in the hotel, hospital and restaurant workers’ unions. They had been radicalised by a series of strikes and pickets, and by positive action programmes which recruited more Māori and women as union delegates.

The Hotel Workers’ Union sent 20 delegates to the Hui a Ngā Kaimahi Māori (Māori workers’ meeting) in 1986. All three speakers chosen to represent the union were women – Wikitoria Paaka, Celia Akapita and Sonja Harmer. Marie Normile, secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Hotel Workers’ Union, also attended the hui, at which more than 400 Māori delegates discussed – and rejected – a recommendation to set up a separate Māori union movement. The delegates determined to ensure that Māori concerns were recognised within existing union structures.

  1. Joyce Hawe, interview by Shaun Ryan, 14 and 16 September 1999. Trade union oral history project, Oral History and Sound collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Back
How to cite this page:

Cybèle Locke, 'Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement - Māori women and unions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 June 2023)

Story by Cybèle Locke, published 11 Mar 2010