In the 1970s unemployment began to climb – from 5,000 in 1976 to 48,000 in 1981, particularly affecting workers in construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trades. Most Māori and Pacific Island workers were engaged in these kinds of jobs. In 1981 they made up 10.4% of the workforce, but 31% of the total unemployed.
Māori dominated the workforce at the Whakatū freezing works in Hastings until it was shut down in October 1986. Wayne Ewart, a former delegate at Whakatū, explained: ‘I walked on the top chain and looked down. I don’t know whether any of you have seen a works closed, a giant like Whakatu. I walked on the top chain and I bloody well cried. I cried for the people who lost their jobs. I cried for the families and I cried for the whole meat industry.’1
Registered unemployment increased 146% between 1984 and 1990. By 1992, 26% of the Māori labour force was unemployed. Once unemployed, workers lost their union membership and their bargaining power. Private-sector trade unions lost 40,000 members between 1982 and 1989; public-sector unions lost 30,000 members between 1985 and 1989.
Some unemployed Māori workers returned to their ancestral marae, formed cooperatives or joined unemployed workers’ unions. In 1985 half the members of the national unemployed workers’ movement were Māori.
Redundancy strike action
Strikes were common during the 1980s, mostly to prevent wage cuts or to achieve redundancy payments for laid-off workers. Between 1986 and 1990, half the nation’s freezing workers (around 15,000) lost their jobs. Sheds were closed or downsized without warning, and it took protracted industrial action from the New Zealand Meat Workers’ Union and the Auckland and Tomoana Freezing Workers’ Union to bring about decent redundancy payments for freezing workers.
Supporting land rights
During the 1970s union president Ben Matthews involved workers at Petone’s Gear Meat works in Māori land rights issues. In 1978 the union hired a bus to take workers to Parliament to protest the arrest of 17 Māori who had occupied the Raglan golf course, demanding its return to the Tainui Awhiro people. And when 222 people were arrested a few months later for occupying Bastion Point, the freezing works ground to a halt and staff marched through Wellington in support of Ōrākei Māori.
Māori slaughtermen formed the militant leadership of the union at the Gear Meat works in Petone under the presidency of Ben Matthews, and union meetings were run with a marae-style format. During the off-season of 1981, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Company quietly closed down the Gear works. It took a nine-day national freezing workers’ strike to gain a redundancy agreement for staff.
Employment Contracts Act
In the wake of the Employment Contracts Act 1991, which abolished compulsory trade unionism, the percentage of unionised workers in New Zealand fell from 41.5% in 1991 to 21.7% in December 1995. In 1992, Māori made up 7.1% of the total employed workforce; in 1993 a survey found that they were 8.4% of union members. Māori were well represented as union members but under-represented in national union leadership roles – except in education unions.